Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kintsugi - the art of repairing teaware

Satsuma ware tea bowl, Japan, 17th c, Edo period
It happens eventually.  You drop your favorite yixing teapot, or you chip that gorgeous little antique cup you love to drink out of.  What to do?  There's super glue, there's the trash can, or there's the beautiful art of kintsugi -- essentially, repairing broken teaware with veins of gold.

Kintsugi is said to have originated in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke a favorite tea bowl and sent it back to China to be fixed.  But the repair job, which was done with metal staples (being the standard for repair at that time), detracted from the beauty of the bowl, so the shogun enlisted Japanese craftsmen to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing solution.  Kintsugi, which means "golden joinery," was born.
Japan, early 18th c, Edo period
Although kintsugi repair makes it appear as though the original piece was mended with gold, the process is essentially a form of lacquer art.  Broken pieces are glued back together using urushi lacquer, derived from the sap of the Chinese lacquer tree (Latin name, Toxicodendron vernicifluum), with the final layer of urushi covered with fine gold powder.  The "toxic" part comes from the urushiol oil which is found in very high amounts in the tree's sap, and which also happens to be the ingredient that's responsible for forming the dense and highly durable lacquer once dried.  You might have come into contact with urushiol yourself if you ever had a tangle with some poison oak or ivy, which are also of the Toxicodendron family of plants.  Fortunately, once the urushi dries and hardens the toxic effects of the urushiol oil are essentially nullified, making the lacquer ware safe to handle and even to use in contact with food, or tea.  
Kintsugi repair done in silver
Today, thanks to modern chemistry, lacquer ware (including kintsugi) can be accomplished with acrylic polymers that don't pose any danger for nasty skin or respiratory irritations.  There are even fake gold powders that can be used in lieu of very pricey real gold... that is, if you don't mind the too-bright, too-yellow, too-fake look of imitation gold.  Personally, I'm a fan of tradition.  Nothing compares to the depth and patina of the real thing.
Mid-15th c. Punch'ong bowl (Korea) with maki-e repair
But gold isn't the only color of kintsugi repair.  Other powdered metals can be used as well, including silver (sometimes referred to as gintsugi), copper or brass.  Even the gold itself comes in different colors and hues, and can be any variation of matte or shiny.  Neither do the repairs have to be finished with metal powders.  Sometimes the urushi is simply colored to complement the piece, or can even be colored in such a way that it blends almost invisibly with the original piece.
Repair made with colored urushi -- no metal powder
In addition to the most well known "veins of gold" look, there are a few other variations of repair.  If the broken piece is missing a large chunk it can be repaired with a technique known as makienaoshi, or maki-e.  This is where the gold lacquered area is additionally covered with a picture or design, often executed in various types of gold.  Yet another type of related repair is called yobitsugi where broken parts from different, unrelated pieces are glued together to form one piece.  

Yobitsugi repair
Thankfully, I haven't yet broken any of my favorite teaware.  But if you have there are people who can do this type of repair, some of whom can be found with a search of the TeaChat forums.  There's also a kintsugi kit you can buy now which comes with a two-part acrylic resin and a supply of imitation gold powder, although the examples I've seen of repairs done with this kit have not impressed me, either with the gawdy fake gold or the blobby raised ridge of glue-resin that results.  Kintsugi repair should complement and add beauty to a piece, blending in with the spirit and function of it.  Following is a very good video showing a traditional kintsugi artist at work, and below that more beautiful images of kintsugi work.  Enjoy :)













.
.
.
.

14 comments:

  1. Fantastic, thanks for sharing.
    Is the "Mid-15th c. Punch'ong bowl (Korea) with maki-e repair" for sale ?
    ^^

    ReplyDelete
  2. haha! A comedian ;) Thank you, Sebastien. Your blog is also very beautiful, as well. Nice to have you stop by.

    ReplyDelete
  3. These are all very beautiful. I have a few broken and chipped tea cups I'd like to repair, can you suggest a good adhesive that also mixes well with gold or silver.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I know some use a two-part epoxy for this kind of repair (found at any hardware store). I'm not sure that mixing the metal powder in with the epoxy would give satisfactory results though. I think it would likely dull the sheen of the metal. Better to sprinkle or sift on the metal powder while the epoxy is still tacky (after gluing pieces together). But if you want to try mixing it in I'm sure any epoxy would mix well with metal powder.

    ReplyDelete
  5. So many of these pieces are more beautiful for having been broken. There is actually a company in the UK that sells a repair kit that uses this technique

    http://www.droog.com/store/accessories/kintsugi-repair-kit/

    I've had it bookmarked for a few years in case I need it one day :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello! We thought perhaps you would want to know that we (Lakeside Pottery Ceramic School and Studio) offers Kintsugi repairs here in the US and it is mainly done as a metaphor gift to mend relationship.

    http://lakesidepottery.com/Pages/kintsugi-repairing-ceramic-with-gold-and-lacquer-better-than-new.htm

    Kindly, Patty and Morty
    www.renewceramic.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Can you please tell me where you are located in the US? I am interested in this process and wonder if you offer workshops and/or sell the repair kits?

      Thanks!

      Delete
    2. Marissa -- You'll probably have better luck contacting them through the website they linked. You'll see a "Contact" option along the top menu bar.

      Delete
  7. Hi Patty and Morty,
    Thanks for the information. I sometimes have people ask me where to have this done in the US. I'll be sure to give them your information.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hey. Where can I find a kit to do this myself? All I can find are etsy kits with the tacky imitation gold. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You'll find many options if you do a google search for "kintsugi kits." Also, I found an Etsy shop based in Japan that sells all the authentic supplies, including real gold powder -- http://www.etsy.com/shop/KintsugiSupplies.

      Delete
  9. I think the repairs are more beautiful in some cases. Makes me think of wabi sabi. Seems to fit perfectly!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hello.

    Very interesting.
    Do you know where I can find in Europe ( Italy) the original components to try.
    I agree, that the fake-kit is not so nice looking ..

    Thanks.
    J

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi J,
    The best resource I know of is this online Etsy shop -- https://www.etsy.com/shop/KintsugiSupplies They're based in Japan but deliver worldwide.

    ReplyDelete