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Urushi Basics


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24 replies to this topic

#1 SJM1123

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Posted 24 July 2009 - 20:03

I've been getting quite a few PMs about the basics Japanese lacquer, so I decided that instead of rewriting the same information over and over again, I'm starting this topic for reference.

First, and foremost. This is not meant to deter you from using the material, but as a warning to take care when you do use it. Pure urushi is the sap from the tree known by the scientific name, Toxicodendron vernicifluum. As the genus name suggests (lit. Toxic Tree) the lacquer tree is considered poisonous and in fact, it is of the same genus as Poison Oak, Poison Ivy and Poison Sumac. One of the prime components of urushi is urushiol, and this component is necessary for the lacquer to cure. However it is this very chemical that causes the well known rashes and blisters when one comes in contact with Poison ivy, oak or sumac. This contact dermatitis, for me, has been very minor with no more than minor itching and a minor reddening of the contact area. However Having never experienced the other plants that cause this dermatitis, I cannot say whether urushi lacquer causes a stronger or weaker reaction. I can say however, that people have differing reactions to the toxin, and some are effected more strongly than others with the extremes being unbearable and painful rashes and blisters or complete, permanent or temporary, immunity to the substance. Urushi may possibly pose another problem that is usually not encountered with living plants of the toxicodendron species. Urushi has fumes. The scent is distinct but not strong at all, however theoretically, for those that are more sensitive to urushiol, the fumes may cause irritation and inflamation of the mucosal linings of the respiratory tract, possibly leading to various conditions akin to allergies or acute or chronic sinusitis. In extrordinary circumstances it could theoretically cause the inflammation of the mucosal tissues in the nose and lungs causing a minor version of the problems associated with the inhalation of smoke from burning poison ivy. Again, this is not meant to deter you from using lacquer as it is certainly a beautiful and versatile material.

It is recommended to ALWAYS use urethane (non-latex) gloves and never reuse them, carefully inverting them when removing. A respirator or mask is not necessary in my experience, however, use lacquer in a well ventilated area. In the case of accidental contact, I have been able to prevent rashes by IMMEDIATELY and THOROUGHLY wiping the contact area with pure odorless mineral spirits followed by a thorough wiping with pure or denatured ethyl alcohol. Any rags or surfaces that have come in contact with the lacquer have the potential to cause a reaction unless thoroughly cleaned. Even lacquer that is dry to the touch has the potential to cause a reaction in more sensitive people, and it is recommended to cure a lacquer piece for months or even a year before a thorough but gentle wipe-down with mineral spirits and a thorough washing with water and detergent.

That said, because writing out a complete introduction would probably not be the easiest thing to do, Here are a few things that you should probably read first, if you have not done so already.

FPN Topic: Urushi Lacquer
FPN Topic: Painting Pens/Maki-e/Lacquer Work
Urushi Kobo: Process
Youtube Video: Urushi Curry Spoons

These are wonderful sources for learning the basics of undecorated lacquering (i.e. without embellishments such as maki-e, raden, other decorative techniques)

One thing I have not seen in the online sources is a great deal of information about curing lacquer. Lacquer is cured in a "drying" cabinet called an urushi-furo that is actually not literally drying the piece but curing it. Urushi "dries" best in a warm, humid environment, because of the catalytic processes that occur to create a hard surface. The temperature and humidity is ideally kept stable, and particular adjustments can alter not only the speed of curing, but also the glossiness, hardness, surface texture, transparency and color. If humidity and temperature is too high, it can cure too fast, causing wrinkles in the surface and other problems. If the temperature and humidity is too low, it will cure too slowly or not at all.

Here's a basic list that I would suggest is required for starters:

Urushi - There are many types of lacquer, each processed in different ways. Generally though they are split into Black, Colored and Transparent. However, there is a different type of black or transparent urushi typically used for undercoats than is used for finishing layers, and there are typically glossy and semi-matte versions of each. I would start out with glossy black, glossy transparent and whatever colored urushi you would like to try. Using the glossy versions will probably allow you to skip the final polishing steps. A good source is Namikawa Heibei in Japan or Dick in Germany. It is recommended to filter urushi with yoshino-gami as seen in the youtube videos.

Urushi brushes - The best traditional brushes are made of asian women's hair. The naturally straight, long relatively thick strands make for good lacquer brushes apparently. These are expensive and hard to find, and i've had good results with certain types of synthetic oil color brushes, here, you'll probably have to go and check out the art stores. Dick.biz, mentioned above, has traditional brushes, although ones made from animal hair. Urushi kills brushes fast. I would suggest cheaper brushes as long as the hairs don't tend to fall out, which is possibly one of the biggest pains in the *ahem* aside from natural dust when working with urushi. Traditional brushes are very distinctly shaped. I *think* that some of them have a full length of hair inside them and you can chisel away the wood to come up with pristine bristles. I'm not sure about this, but I've seen evidence to suggest that it may be the case.

Cleaners - Odorless Mineral Spirits and Ethyl Alcohol (denatured is fine). I make sure i wash my brushes first in mineral spirits then in alcohol to clean them thoroughly. The alcohol however kills natural hair brushes so this is the reason I use it with synthetics. If you purchase traditional brushes, I'd use mineral spirits and whatever cleaner that the supplier offers specifically for urushi--probably pure de-gummed turpentine. You probably cannot purchase these from the international supplies, being considered hazmat and all. But you'll be able to find these at home depot or lowes. I would suggest you THOROUGHLY clean brushes as best you can, otherwise you'll end up killing the brushes at a rate faster than the urushi already does. Do not thin urushi with these cleaners.

Thinners - Oil of Camphor, Pure De-Gummed Turpentine. Traditionally, camphor oil (not solid camphor) is the thinner of choice for urushi. However, it is not easy to find, and being highly flammable, it is considered a hazmat by many shipping companies. Pure de-gummed Turpentine is a suitable substitute and can be found in any well stocked fine art stores. Please do not use Turpenoid or other turpentine substitutes. Only true turpentine will do. When thinning urushi, it is not recommended add more than 30% thinner to the lacquer

Abrasives - I would suggest trying out various abrasives. Traditionally as the prime solid abrasive magnolia charcoal is used, and i've found out that various types of charcoals purchased from an art store (should look like burnt wood, not compressed pastel sticks) works. Varying species and hardnesses can be used as different "abrasive grits" In Japan they also use "whetstones" that gradually disintegrate as you rub them. These are harder to find, but one of the online suppliers carries them. Alternatively, you could use modern abrasives such as sandpaper, steel wool, scotch-brite and micromesh. Try what you like best, but some of the modern abrasives can be too harsh. Powdered abrasives are also used in the finishing stages of lacquerwork. Traditional powders are charcoal powder, whetstone powder, tonoko, jinoko and tsunoko. Tonoko and jinoko are types of mineral earth mined from specific locations in japan. One use for these is to create a initial smooth finish in preparation for the final polishing stages. Whetstone powder in different levels of coarseness can be used much in the same way as tonoko and jinoko, but is most often made of alumina. Using tonoko, or jinoko for the initial polish is called douzuri. Tsunoko is the finesh polishing powder traditionally used for lacquerwork, and it or its equivalent is necessary for roiro-migaki. Tsunoko is a powder made from the ash created by burning deer antlers. This is mixed with a non drying oil, water, or my favorite, saliva (sounds gross but it works well) to create a very high polish. I use a modern equivalent since tsunoko is ridiculously expensive compared to what I use, and it being synthetically produced to have far finer and uniform in particle size, it arguably has the potential to create even a higher polish than tsunoko. One substitute for tsunoko that I've tried before was Jeweler's rouge. Its essentially a fine particulate form of iron oxide. It works really well in creating a shine, however it is RIDICULOUSLY messy to use, and tends to stain the lacquer somewhat. Actually, it kinda stains pretty much everything.

Urushi-Furo - This is an absolute must, however, you'll probably have to construct one yourself. the absolute basics consists of an airtight wooden box with a tray or bowl with a damp towel. I would also suggest purchasing a basic thermometer/hygrometer used for cigar humidors. The best method I could suggest in making a furo is to find a humidor cabinet and install it with an electric cigar humidifier. These typically keep the humidity levels at precise levels. However I'm not sure if they work up to the high humidity levels needed for urushi. Another thing i would say is needed for pens is some method of rotating the lacquered pieces as they cure. This is to maintain a even coat around the entire piece....maybe build something with a motor and some pieces of wood....dunno....

And finally,

Some pens to lacquer....obviously its best if any clips and trims disassemble easily, or can be put on after lacquering.

All of this information was for simple, unadorned lacquerwork. There are quite literally hundreds of different methods of adorning lacquerware beyond this, including but certainly not limited to several dozens of maki-e techniques, several different raden techniques, rankaku, tsugaru-nuri, urushi-e, haku-e, heidaitsu, ishime-nuri, tamenuri, saishitsu, chinkin, chinkin-zougan, tsuikin, bokashi-nuri, nami-nuri, sumiko-nuri....i don't think i have the time or space to mention every technique that i've encountered so far, never mind those that I've only heard about or yet to see.

Okay. I think that's all I can tell you at the moment, without a specific question to go on. I'll be happy to answer the questions that you'll most likely come up with.

Whew. So, anyway, good luck on your endeavors!

Ern.

Edited by SJM1123, 25 July 2009 - 08:31.

Check out the new Edison/Hakumin Collaboration: The Urushi Mina Project
To see more projects, or to inquire about a custom urushi pen, visit: www.hakuminurushi.com

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#2 ZeissIkon

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Posted 24 July 2009 - 20:10

Urushi gives a whole new meaning to the term "poison pen", doesn't it? roflmho.gif
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#3 fountainbel

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Posted 24 July 2009 - 20:55

Very interesting, thanks for shearing Ern !
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#4 Classics

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Posted 26 July 2009 - 19:05

Great info and resources. Thank you!
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#5 wykpenguin

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Posted 30 July 2009 - 14:03

Thank you.

#6 me2cyclops

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 00:07

any suppliers that you could recomend that will ship to the US ?
also have you used kashew laquer and could you comment on the difference in the final finish compared to urushi?

#7 SJM1123

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Posted 31 July 2009 - 00:37

QUOTE (me2cyclops @ Jul 30 2009, 08:07 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
any suppliers that you could recomend that will ship to the US ?
also have you used kashew laquer and could you comment on the difference in the final finish compared to urushi?



If you look under the Urushi section of the list of supplies, there should be two links. One is namikawa heibei and the other is dick.biz.


I have not used cashew lacquer to a great extent, but I do know that it is the closest that you can get to urushi if you don't want to use the real stuff. Many suppliers insist that genuine urushi has a better appearance when completed, but that part I believe to be more related to the prejudices in favor of tradition.

Cashew is different in various aspects. The most attractive difference for most people is that it does not cause a rash for most people unlike urushi, which gives the majority of people an itchy rash. Cashew can also dry faster than urushi. It has a wider range of available colors because the transparent version is much lighter and clearer than hon urushi. However it does have a much stronger chemical odor to it which does not dissipate very quickly even once the piece has fully cured. The last major difference is that from most sources, it is much cheaper than genuine urushi.

Edited by SJM1123, 31 July 2009 - 00:38.

Check out the new Edison/Hakumin Collaboration: The Urushi Mina Project
To see more projects, or to inquire about a custom urushi pen, visit: www.hakuminurushi.com

#8 borik.jk

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Posted 25 July 2012 - 17:43

Great article. Best source of information about lacquering for beginners I was able to find so far.

A few questions about abrasives.
So far I was able to find Vine and Willow charcoals at various arts stores. How do they compare to magnolia charcoal in their abrasive qualities? Primarily use is for painting, but I guess could also be used as an abrasive, am I right? Here's an example: "Grumbacher Vine Charcoal Jumbo Sticks".

You metioned that you were using some substitutes for tsunoko for final polishing. One of them was jeweler's rouge, but what are the other alternatives that you have tried and how do they compare to jeweler's rouge?

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?

#9 raging.dragon

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 08:40

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?


I assume the whetstones would be Japanese water stones?

#10 borik.jk

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 17:22

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?


I assume the whetstones would be Japanese water stones?


That's what I assumed, too. Probably uchigumori or similar. But where does one get them in such small sizes? All I could find was rather large blocks, and expensive too! Should probably be cheaper in smaller size. Just can't find where to buy.

#11 raging.dragon

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 18:20

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?


I assume the whetstones would be Japanese water stones?


That's what I assumed, too. Probably uchigumori or similar. But where does one get them in such small sizes? All I could find was rather large blocks, and expensive too! Should probably be cheaper in smaller size. Just can't find where to buy.


Look for stores selling high quality hand tools for word working. Small water stones are used for sharpening gouges and other wood carving tools, here's one source:

http://www.leevalley...071&cat=1,43072

I'm pretty sure these are made from modern cermic powders embedded in soft resin. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if the Japanese masters also use modern abrasives.

#12 borik.jk

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 18:49

Look for stores selling high quality hand tools for word working. Small water stones are used for sharpening gouges and other wood carving tools, here's one source:

http://www.leevalley...071&cat=1,43072

I'm pretty sure these are made from modern cermic powders embedded in soft resin. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if the Japanese masters also use modern abrasives.


Found something nearby: http://www.japanwood...8&dept_id=13118
Do yo think that will do the job?

#13 raging.dragon

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Posted 27 July 2012 - 02:50


Look for stores selling high quality hand tools for word working. Small water stones are used for sharpening gouges and other wood carving tools, here's one source:

http://www.leevalley...071&cat=1,43072

I'm pretty sure these are made from modern cermic powders embedded in soft resin. On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if the Japanese masters also use modern abrasives.


Found something nearby: http://www.japanwood...8&dept_id=13118
Do yo think that will do the job?


They're not intended for sharpening blades but rather for flatting and creating a slurry on water stones (with the slury consisting of the water stone's abrasive). For more details, I found this blog:

http://www.toolsforw....html&BlogID=91

However, the Nagura stone is still an abrasive and Urushi is softer than blade steel. So I have no idea how well Nagura stones would work for polishing Urushi.

#14 borik.jk

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Posted 27 July 2012 - 05:12

They're not intended for sharpening blades but rather for flatting and creating a slurry on water stones (with the slury consisting of the water stone's abrasive). For more details, I found this blog:

http://www.toolsforw....html&BlogID=91

However, the Nagura stone is still an abrasive and Urushi is softer than blade steel. So I have no idea how well Nagura stones would work for polishing Urushi.


Interesting, the author basically declared nagura stones obsolete.

OK... My immediate goal is to polish the wood to prepare it for lacquering. Did some further reading (material included a book about Japanese sword making, chapter about scabbards, and some articles on the web). The conclusion was that the method of using tokusa over a layer of ibota powder produces very nice polished surface on the wood. This was further confirmed by this research paper: http://ci.nii.ac.jp/...=1343365375&cp= (Most of this paper is in Japanese, but the conclusions of the research are in the beginning of it in English).

#15 ajk251

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Posted 27 July 2012 - 07:10

Comprehensive info! Thanks for sharing!

#16 SJM1123

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Posted 29 July 2012 - 03:56

Great article. Best source of information about lacquering for beginners I was able to find so far.

A few questions about abrasives.
So far I was able to find Vine and Willow charcoals at various arts stores. How do they compare to magnolia charcoal in their abrasive qualities? Primarily use is for painting, but I guess could also be used as an abrasive, am I right? Here's an example: "Grumbacher Vine Charcoal Jumbo Sticks".

You metioned that you were using some substitutes for tsunoko for final polishing. One of them was jeweler's rouge, but what are the other alternatives that you have tried and how do they compare to jeweler's rouge?

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?


Hi there---

vine and willow charcoals works okay but not particularly great. This is because the charcoal used for polishing and grinding is much harder and denser than those used for drawing. However, in a pinch they'll work, though you'll probably be better off using sandpaper instead :)

As for final polishing, try something that's intended for high gloss polishing. You don't need anything incredibly hard or fast cutting since urushi isn't as hard as some things those polishing compounds are used for. A good quality plastic polish would be good for early experimentation. Try a few things here and there and find what you like. The most important thing is to be careful not to polish through the layers.

As for the whetstones, you'll have to get them from japan. I haven't find a source elsewhere, and I get most of my materials from japan anyway.

For sanding and polishing wood in prep for urushi work, you don't really have to use the whole traditional shebang--- just finish the wood using progressively finer grades of sandpaper until you're satisfied with the finish. If you're using a very open grained wood like oak or zelkova or something like that, you won't be able to get a perfect surface because of the vascular structure in the wood. At that point you'll need to use grain filler or apply the urushi in a way that would function as a grain filler. Of course this is if you don't want to do the traditional layered prep work. If you're doing all that layering, I don't think the smoothness of the wood is all that important.

Overall, don't be so completely adhered to the idea that you need to do everything in the perfect traditional way. Experiment and find what works best for you.

I hope that helps!

Edited by SJM1123, 29 July 2012 - 05:59.

Check out the new Edison/Hakumin Collaboration: The Urushi Mina Project
To see more projects, or to inquire about a custom urushi pen, visit: www.hakuminurushi.com

#17 borik.jk

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Posted 29 July 2012 - 15:08

I hope that helps!


It certainly does! Thank you.

#18 SJM1123

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Posted 30 July 2012 - 15:35

One of the videos is showing the master using small whetstones for polishing one of the lacquer coats. Any idea where can those be purchased? Or would a charcoal stick produce the same effect?


I assume the whetstones would be Japanese water stones?


That's what I assumed, too. Probably uchigumori or similar. But where does one get them in such small sizes? All I could find was rather large blocks, and expensive too! Should probably be cheaper in smaller size. Just can't find where to buy.



I somehow missed this before. The whetstones used for urushi are not the same as those used for sharpening knives. I have a number of waterstones since I sharpen my own kitchen knives and from what I've personally experienced, waterstones are much denser, coarser, and harder than what you need. I suppose you could get them to work decently with some experimentation but overall because waterstones are significantly more expensive and come in huge blocks, it's not really worth it. Whetstones used for urushi have a much softer binder holding the abrasive grit together and wears down much faster than synthetic waterstone. They also come in blocks that are about 2x3x5 cm. The small whetstones used for sword polishing are also much too hard for use with urushi--plus at 50 or so dollars for a tiny piece smaller than 1 cubic centimer for some of them, definitely not worth it.

Edited by SJM1123, 30 July 2012 - 15:39.

Check out the new Edison/Hakumin Collaboration: The Urushi Mina Project
To see more projects, or to inquire about a custom urushi pen, visit: www.hakuminurushi.com

#19 borik.jk

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Posted 17 April 2013 - 23:30

SJM,

What techniques do you use to apply urushi? Do you rub it in and then wipe? Or do you use brushes to apply it? If you're using brushes, how do you prevent micro bubbles from forming on the surface. I tries using different brushes, even some traditional Japanese, but now matter how careful I am those bubbles still appear. They harden after drying in the furo. It seems that it's not the brush that creates those, even when I am able to create smooth layer without bubbles, after a few seconds they just appear. Seems like some reaction to air... don't know. Do I need to prepare urushi before application? I am using glossy kind, with some oil already mixed in. So overall it requires a lot of polishing effort to get rid of bubbles, and hard not to get though the top layer. On the other hand, maybe that's how it's supposed to be? After all urushi application is not an easy process. Just wanted to understand am I doing something wrong?

BTW, if you do rub urushi, what kind of tissue (cloth) do you use?

Thanks

#20 watch_art

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Posted 22 April 2013 - 05:30

when I was using urushi on some of my pens - I used a Kim wipe, lint free napkin, to wipe on the urushi in very thin thin layers. wipe it on, rub it in, wipe it off. let it cure for a while. repeat. then I would buff with a soft buff on the lathe using a diamond honing compound. it was white. that worked pretty good.

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