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The Secret Japanese Art of Kintsugi Brings Beauty to Breakage

by David Pike (09/13/13).

This small vase was repaired using kintsugi, the ancient Japanese method of using powdered metal and lacquer to bond broken items together.

Break a favorite antique? Instead of throwing it out or gluing it together, there is an alternative.

Kintsugi, a traditional Japanese method of repairing ceramic, glass and other materials, means “gold repair” or “gold joinery.”

Kintsugi originated around the 15th century as a replacement for metal staples, the usual repair method of the time. Staples were destructive since they require drilling holes in the body of the piece. However, in kintsugi, lacquer and gold powder are used as an adhesive and finish to put the broken work back together, often times improving the piece’s look—so much so that there have been instances of Japanese tea practitioners being accused of purposely breaking their bowls in order to have them fixed.

Also known as kintsukuroi, kintsugi is experiencing something of a boom these days. With an ecology-minded public looking for more sustainable ways of living, the tradition fits the bill well. And, as a bonus, repaired piece will often be worth more than before and will certainly be more esthetically pleasing.

There are many processes called kintsugi that are nothing more than gluing and sprinkling gold-colored dust over the glue. Real kintsugi uses lacquer, mediums that are mixed with the lacquer liquid and a variety of metal powders. Gold, silver, copper, brass and other powdered metals are used.

Powdered gold or other metal is combined with lacquer, leaving artful veins of gold through the repaired piece.

Ceramic isn’t the only material that can be mended using kintsugi. Glass, bamboo, wood and other materials can also be repaired this way. 

The basis for kintsugi is lacquer. Lacquer comes from the tree Toxicodendron vernicfluum, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree. Note the word “toxic” in the Latin name. The tree belongs to the same genus as poison oak and other plants that are skin irritants. It is a deciduous tree that’s indigenous to Japan, Korea, China and Southeast Asia and grows eight to 20 meters in height. The sap of the lacquer tree is gathered through a tap method and can be processed into lacquer. A single tree will produce about one cup of sap in six months. This low yield is one of the reasons the raw materials are so expensive.

Ninety-eight percent of the lacquer used today in Japan comes from Chinese sources. Japanese lacquer makes up only two percent of the use in Japan, but it is about four times more expensive.

The origin of the lacquer isn’t the only difference between the two. The contrast in the amount active ingredient in Japanese and Chinese lacquer is large. The composition of lacquer includes lacquer oil, water, gum and various sugars. Japanese lacquer contains about 60 to 70 percent active oil, whereas Chinese products contain only about 5 to 10 percent. The lacquer oil is what causes reaction in skin. Chinese lacquer will cause a poison-oak-type reaction that can last only a couple of days. Japanese lacquer, with six to seven times the amount of refined oil, will cause a much more severe reaction.

Large chips can be filled by kintsugi. The repair process can take months to dry, but the results add beauty and can add value.

Lacquer is completely different from paint in the way it dries and cures. In lacquer, there is an enzyme that facilitates the reaction needed to drive off the water in the composition. The enzyme will only be active in an environment with more than 80 percent humidity and temperatures above 28 degrees Celsius, or 83 degrees Fahrenheit. These conditions have to be maintained for at least two weeks for the enzyme to drive off enough water to where the piece can be considered “dry.” In fact, the lacquer will continue to cure for longer periods—three years in some cases.

Getting repair work done in kintsugi is not cheap. It usually costs in the range of $200 to $400. Elaborate jobs, where restoration work is needed, are usually at the top end of that range. Most repairs done using traditional kintsugi—not one of the kits sold that are filled with glue—take one to three months to complete.

The first step in getting something repaired using kintsugi is to find someone who knows how to do it. A simple search on the Internet will turn up no one in North America that does kintsugi repairs. Part of the reason is that the method has largely been a secret technique. Even in Japan, trying to get someone to teach the methods isn’t easy. 

Japanse tea practitioners have been accused of purposely breaking bowls so that they may be repaired with kintsugi.

Another barrier is that, until recently, the only type of lacquer available has been real lacquer made from the lacquer tree. The past 20 years or so have seen the development of synthetic lacquer and lacquer derived from cashew nuts. Synthetic lacquer causes almost no reaction in the skin, while cashew-based lacquer causes very little.

The cost of kintsugi is enough to make learning it on your own an option. In Japan, there are workshops that meet once a month and run about $100 to $200, excluding materials. In North America and Europe, workshops are almost nonexistent.

I will be holding a workshop in Berkeley, Calif., on October 5. It is almost sold out but there are a few seats left. For more information, visit this kintsugi website.


David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.

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