Kara-nuri: Making the base pattern

After completing the foundation and applying the first coat of urushi, it is time to make the base pattern that will be the high points in the final finish. In order to do this, the urushi needs to be thicked so that it will retain good definition instead of self-leveling and destroying all of the detail. I personally prefer a pattern with detailed definition, so this is a particularly important step.

There are several ways of thickening urushi, but in this case, egg whites are used. The proteins in the egg interact with the urushi and cause it to become very thick and sticky. It does not take very much egg to thicken the urushi, so it is added little by little while mixing until the the urushi reaches the right consistency. Adding a lot of egg to the urushi can weaken its strength, so it is best to add just enough. As you can see in the picture below, the final urushi is smooth yet stretches almost like pulled taffy. 



Once the urushi is ready, it is necessary to transfer it to the piece while creating the desired pattern. This can be done in any number of ways, such as using fibers from a hechima gourd. I have used this way in the past. It works quite well, but I have found that it can create too fine of a pattern. This time, I decided to use a wooden spatula prepared in the way they do in Aomori Prefecture. 

The spatula has irregular holes burned through it. When transferrin the urushi to the piece, the holes are what generally create the pattern as they are the places where no urushi is transferred. 


One of the hardest parts when creating the pattern is trying to keep the thickness of the urushi film as even as possible. If it is too thick, the urushi can dry improperly, making the rest of the steps much more difficult or even impossible. To prevent this, the urushi must be dried very slowly over a number of days to promote even drying, or in other words, to dry it from the inside out rather then the outside in.

Because urushi can take months to years to fully dry and reach peak strength, there is no need to hurry, and often the longer the urushi is allowed to dry, the better. Once it is dry enough, I will start filling in the low spots with colored lacquer. This highlights the pattern created today while creating the unique coloring that is revealed when the finish is ultimately sanded flat. I am planning on applying 8-10 coats, so if all goes well, these sake cups will be done around the end of February. Urushi and this finish in particular is very time and labor intensive, but I feel the final result is more than worth the effort.

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