It is harder than it looks

I have posted some photos of the kintsugi projects that I have recently completed and it has gotten a lot of interest. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repair of ceramic objects with gold lacquer. Like anything Japanese, it looks easy, but really it is harder and takes longer than people expect. Unfortunately, you cannot learn kintsugi in an afternoon workshop, just as you cannot learn chado in one easy lesson. Or learn a language, play a musical instrument, or get in shape.

I have been attempting to practice this art for many years. Since I have no teacher, I am self-taught and am taking the long way. At first I was obsessed with it and collected as many photographs as I could get. I also went on YouTube to view all the videos I could, read some very academic papers and museum conservation treatises.

Then I purchased a kit online and tried it. It had a cheap epoxy based glue with a pearlized type of gold powder that you mixed with the glue and stuck the pieces together. The result was less than I wanted. The gold looked fake, and the epoxy was not food safe and left a large ridge where the pieces were stuck together.

Next I tried a synthetic lacquer kit with some gold colored metallic powder. The synthetic lacquer did not have to cure, only dry and could be handled within 24-48 hours. It looked better, but my technique was sloppy and still did not look very good. It was less toxic than traditional lacquer, but the metallic powder was not food safe.

 

I ordered a cashew lacquer from Japan, (very hard to find) that was supposed to be more authentic, but yipes, I am deathly allergic to cashews (I mean epipen and emergency here) so I could not use this material even though I used gloves and long sleeves and was very careful not get it on my skin.

I was able to convince someone from Japan to send me some authentic urushi lacquer that is traditionally used in kintsugi, and some 22kt gold powder. Boy that is expensive! (1 gram approx. $200).  Urushi has to cure in a warm, humid environment, so I built a humidity box. However, working with urushi is highly toxic. When fully cured, 22 karat gold urushi is food safe. I used instructions found on the internet and YouTube. So for more than 8 years, I have been practicing my technique. Even though I have sent photos to the craftsman,  I have never heard back from him.

My basic techniques are:
1. Fitting the broken pieces back together again. You have to look at each project to see how it fits together, what pieces are missing, where you have holes, and what order you are going to re-assemble the pieces.
2. Mixing a lacquer “glue,” usually with something like flour to make it sticky and hold together. It mustn’t be too thick or you get gaps between the pieces nor too thin or they won’t hold together.
3. Gluing the pieces together. Sometimes you can only do one side, let that cure and then assemble the other side. Sometimes you need to build forms to hold the piece while it is curing, sometimes you can use tape to temporarily hold it, sometimes rubber bands. Then it goes into the box to cure.
4. Filling gaps. Next you mix lacquer with something called tonoko. Basically it is powdered ceramic. This is what you use fill gaps and make make up for missing pieces. It then goes into the box to cure. Then you have to clean up the mixture where is has over filled or where you don’t want it, using a combination of sand paper and water. Be careful here or you may scratch the glaze. This process may take 2, 3 or more layers as you build up missing pieces or deep cracks. Each time it goes into the box to cure and then clean up.
5. Because the tonoko mixture is porous, I paint lacquer over the repairs I have made. Sometimes it takes 2, 3, or more layers to completely cover up the repair. Each time, it goes into the box to cure, and then clean up.
6. Finally when the seams are completely filled and lacquered over and cleaned up, you can paint over the repairs with lacquer and dust it with the powder. Then into box to cure. Then final washing away of the powder. Because the gold is so expensive, I try to be sparing in using it. When I wash the powder away, I try to save as much as I can.

So here is a project I have been working on for more than a year.  I received some tea cups from Japan, but they were not packed very well and they arrived broken. I used these cups to refine my techniques. This is how they arrived:

Intermediate stage where I was filling gaps left by pieces too small to glue, basically dust.

Finally gold added:

So yes, it is not a simple or easy process. You need a steady hand, patience to wait while it is curing, and be careful and meticulous about safety throughout. Get a good brush, it is painstaking detail work. Urushi is highly toxic. It causes rashes like poison ivy. I always use long sleeves, gloves, a respirator, work in a well ventilated area, and keep my workspace exceptionally clean. Still, I did get rashes and it seems like the more I do it, the more reaction I get. So I am not sure how long I can do it.

Finally, here is a piece done professionally.  Click on the photos to see the detail.  One day I hope I can get to this level.

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