By Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
creating chests to showcase the beauty of paulownia wood
During the Edo period (1615-1868) in Japan, contemporarily produced chest of drawers became popular. The Wakayama area was historically associated with timber production, and with mention in historical documents and extant examples, it is confirmed that the area also produced chest of drawers from the late-Edo period. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), it became the primary production source of chests for the Osaka market, and after the opening of the Nankai Railway in 1901 (Meiji 34) the production quickly expanded. After the war, the production of chest of drawers shifted to using Paulownia wood, which has continued to the present today.
traits of Kishū chest of drawers (1)
The most celebrated type of Japanese-style chest of drawers are those constructed with Paulownia wood. In addition to the rich, beautiful wood grain, the porous nature of the wood and its ability to hold moisture is highly suitable for keeping textiles in Japan’s climate. Paulownia-wood chests come in a variety of versions including the “three-sided” version using Paulownia wood on the front, top, and sides, the “front-sided” version where the Paulownia is only used on the front, and as is the case with Kishū chest of drawers a deluxe version called “sōgiri” built entirely with Paulownia wood.
Featured traits of chest of drawers (2)
Kishū chests are finished using a mixture of specialized abrasive powder that smooths the surface of the wood to enhance the appearance of the rich wood grain. Futhermore, the carefully sized drawers form an air tight fit, protecting the contents like textiles from insects and moisture. The chest of drawers are carefully handcrafted one by one by artisans who adhere to a strict training regimine of at least three years, with masters training for more than ten years.
Wood is cut into pieces and soaked in water. The wood is then removed from the water and put in the sun to dry for six months to a year. Once the drying is complete, the boards are trimmed to the required dimensions.
Wood warped through the drying process is passed though a machine press that applies heat to correct distortions.
Wood is inspected and carefully selected for the beauty of its color tone and grain. Being careful to match the wood grain patterns, several pieces are glued together. The purpose is to create thicker, stronger boards. Depending on the area for which the board will be used such as a door or drawer bottom, varying widths and sizes of boards are created.
Depending on the size and shape of the chest of drawers, the boards are cut and sanded down to size. The direction of cutting is dependent on the direction of the wood grain.
The chest and drawers are assembled. Specialized carpentry is used in the joinery that utilizes tongue and groove construction. The tongue is cut slightly larger then the size of the groove, and then pounded into place. Once the joint is created the wood expands to its original size securing a tight fit with the tongue unable to be easily removed from the groove.
A special feature of Kishū chest of drawers is that in place of metal nails, wooden nails are used in their construction. To prepare the wood nails, rice-bran is mixed with the nails and heated. This is done to remove excess moisture, and transfer oil from the rice-bran to the nails. The mixture is stirred and carefully watched, since they can easily burn and discolor.
Building drawers and trays
Joinery that secures the bottoms and sides of drawers and trays (shallow boxes used mainly for textile storage) are secured by hammering wooden nails into place.
Rather then pounding the nails in perpendicularly, they are inserted at a slight angle to strengthen the joint. After time, vertically straight nails can more easily come out. It requires great skill to hammer the wooden nails in diagonally.
The surface of the chest of drawers is sanded with a special tool made of the dried root of Karukaya grass tied together with hemp string. The tool sands the wood to reveal the beauty of the natural wood grain. Kishū chest of drawers are known for their special tonoko finish, which is achieved by continually polishing the surface with the use of a mixture of abressive powder, water, and “Yamato liquid” (made of boiled Yashabushi tree that contains tannins to color and seal the wood).
Sanding, Kishū chest of drawers (2017) by Shiga, Inc.Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Finally, ornamental door hinges and metal fittings such as pull handles are applied.
Information provided by:
Wakayama Prefecture Corporate Promotions Division, Kishu paulownia chest association
Text written by:
Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University
English translation by:
Laura J Mueller
Exhibition created by:
Ueyama Emiko, Kyoto Women's University
Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University