Kintsugi lacquer repair – when broken is better than new

Kintsugi lacquer repair

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending pots. Not mending them in the way you’d imagine – so you can’t see they were ever broken. No, it’s mending them in a way that makes a feature of their brokenness, celebrates and enhances it, so that the broken and mended piece becomes more beautiful and valuable than before. It turns our ideas about the meaning of damage and imperfection on their heads. I’ve just been to see a kintsugi artist in action.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

In kintsugi, urushi lacquer is used to join the broken pieces – it forms a solid bond which holds the broken fragments together. Then more layers of urushi are applied to the repaired area, allowed to harden and cut back with charcoal or polishing powder to re-instate the original surface of the damaged piece. Finally gold, silver or other metallic powder is applied to the final layer of urushi to make the lines of the repair glitter, adding extra allure to the work. The techniques are the same as those used in maki-e lacquerwork, which I wrote about here.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

The kintsugi demonstration I went to see was held at Tokyo Bike, a combined bike and ceramics shop in Shoreditch, just past Old St roundabout. When I arrived the kintsugi artist, Muneaki Shimode, was hard at work, surrounded by a rapt crowd of onlookers.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

He was working on this little dish.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

The tools of his trade were laid out on the counter in front of him.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Along with the little jars of metallic powder.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

The nearly-finished article – it just needs polishing to remove excess powder.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

One problem with working with urushi is that contains a irritant similar to poison ivy, so kintsugi artists often get an allergic reaction to it, though apparently they can develop an immunity over time. Hence the protective gloves shown in this video of the technique.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Tokyo Bike invited customers and members of the local community to bring in their own broken ceramics to be repaired for a modest charge, and there was a huge response – so much so that they were turning people away.

Here are some of the finished repairs.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

On the day Tokyo Bike were also selling a kit containing the tools, lacquer and metallic powders needed, with printed instructions and a downloadable video. I’m not sure if it’s still available – contact Tokyo Bike for information. (Not me as I’m afraid I can’t help).

You can also get a kit online from Humade.

Kintsugi at Tokyo Bike

Muneaki Shimode is from the Maki-e Baisen studio in Kyoto. If you’re visiting the city, you’ll find the studio in front of the Nijo castle, where you can buy lacquerware or take part in a one-day workshop.

I’ve written about Tokyo Bike before. It’s the London branch of a small, independent bike maker from Yanaka in Tokyo. Besides selling and repairing their own range of bikes and holding maintenance classes for customers, they have an interesting range of Japanese ceramics and other artefacts for the home, including my favourite Mashiko Pottery.

They’re open Tuesday-Friday 11-7, Saturday and Sunday 11-5.

34 thoughts on “Kintsugi lacquer repair – when broken is better than new

  1. i found out recently that a farmer buddy of mine (who is about 60 years old) used to apprentice with a guy who did kintsugi for a living. he learned the trade and ended up getting really good at it, even though he decided to do something completely different with his life in the end.

    he’s fixed a few plates of mine out on his farm. the process itself is super impressive, and the result is absolutely beautiful.

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  2. Why can’t we import this aesthetic into our culture here in the UK? I know we have a craze for ‘up-cycling’ stuff and ending up with dubious shabby chic furniture, but have you come across any westerners working with this kind of skill and precision to produce such beautiful pieces like your photos above? Or, perhaps we are not temperamentally suited to this style of conservation. Very interesting post.

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  3. My mother had some of her valued china repaired like this. It was common when I was growing up (both in Japan & Iran. Now I live in the SF Bay Area). At that time, the crafts-persons were like the blacksmiths for china-wear, and now, they are finally recognized as artists. I’m so glad! Fae.

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  4. Love this! Perfect in its imperfection. I saw something similar in a store in Amsterdam (they used gold paint in a tube, and glue in a tube) and sold it as a kit – break a plate and fix it to create a new creation. I have been kicking myself for not buying that kit (or remembering the name of the store!!). Much easier for clutzy me than mixing powder. I didn’t realise it was part of a Japanese art form.

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    • Yes, they’ve been doing it since the sixteenth century.

      I doubt that gold paint would work very well – it would be hard to get it just on the repair, whereas with powder you spread it on with a cloth, it sticks to the lacquer and then you wipe off what isn’t needed.

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  5. I love this concept. It’s quite philosophical, too, to take something broken and see how it’s imperfections make it into something unique and beautiful.

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  6. Pingback: What is kintsugi? - WeDoJapan

  7. Pingback: 金継ぎ(きんつぎ)って? - WeDoJapan

  8. It’s amazing, I’m a Brazilian porcelain painter and everything about porcelain art I’m interested in.
    Tokyo Bike is in London, right? If you could send me the adress it would be cool, so I could go there when I be in London.
    Sorry my English. ….
    Faride

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