The tools of the trade include brushes for applying the lacquer, such as special brushes used for gold or silver lacquer, and charcoal blocks that are essential for polishing. Japanese paper is also used, such as yoshinogami, to remove dust and other impurities. We who are involved in creating lacquered objects are sustained by special craftsmen, beginning with sap gatherers, who enable us to carry out our work.
For excellent quality, the hair used for lacquer brushes is long, firm women’s hair, which seems to be the only juicy part of my story as a male involved in this work. Lacquer brushes are made like pencils, and when they wear down and are no longer appropriate for applying lacquer, the brush can be trimmed as needed. To create the medals for the Nagano Olympic Games, I specially ordered a 1.8 cm-wide brush from lacquer brush master Seikichi Izumi, and I am filled with gratitude toward him. Indeed, lacquer brushes come in many different sizes to suit the size of the objects being coated in lacquer.
Unworn hair from the backs of mice is regarded as the ultimate hair for brushes used in applying gold or silver lacquer, which involves drawing extremely fine lines. The uniformity of the mizuge (around 10% of the length of the hair) at the tip of the brush—known as inochige (“life hair”)—determines the quality of the brush. As I am not a gold/silver lacquer master, I do not have brushes using hair from the backs of mice, but it is not difficult to imagine that the art involves dauntingly fine work that is repeated over and over.
Charcoal blocks are essential for polishing gold-silver lacquer and cannot be substituted with sandpaper, which is a modern convenience. Only by using charcoal blocks can makie be accomplished: a lacquering technique of polishing gold/silver flakes in the lacquer coating by polishing the extremely thin surface (approximately 0.03 mm). Around 20 years ago, I visited Taro Azuma in Natasho Village, Fukui Prefecture, where he produces charcoal blocks. This process involves more than simply making charcoal—the Aburakiri (Japanese tung oil tree) wood used is carefully selected and thoroughly dried before burning. This special job requires technical knowhow.
There are still many other lacquer tools. Deeply grateful to the craftsmen who support lacquer work from the shadows, I am keenly aware that I need to devote myself to creating lacquered objects with an attitude of humility to preserve the work of lacquering for the future.