How It’s Made: Art Forged by Traditional Japanese Metalworkers

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

Each of Kisendo’s tea kettles and incense burners is handmade over the course of months by at least five master artisans in Japan. They use techniques that are thousands of years old, and the designs are rooted in an ancient Japanese principle that cherishes the “aesthetic imperfection” of nature, known as wabi-sabi.

These masters spend decades perfecting their one skill, to ensure that their part in creating the final product is flawless.

Kisendo incense burners. (Photos courtesy of Kisendo)
Kisendo incense burners. (Photos courtesy of Kisendo)
A kettle by Kisendo. (Photos courtesy of Kisendo)
A kettle by Kisendo. (Photos courtesy of Kisendo)

“When you hand your work to the next artisan, if your work is not complete or is not perfect, then it will affect the person who will work on the product after you,” says Susumu Yotsukawa, a third-generation owner of Kisendo. “So the artisans will make sure that their work is absolutely perfect.”

Magnifissance took a peek into the workshops of these master craftsmen to uncover how such beautiful pieces are created.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

First, a kettle or incense burner is designed by sculpting or carving it out of clay or wood. Creating this master model is the most important step in determining the look of the finished product.

The master craftsman painstakingly fine-tunes each flower petal, animal, or pattern to ensure they are clear in the final piece.

Once the model is complete, it is covered in silicone, which creates the first of several different moulds needed throughout the creation process. Plaster is then spread over the silicone mould and left to dry, so the soft silicone mould is supported by the hard plaster.

Both moulds are usually cut down the middle, dividing them into two halves. But in very complex designs, they are sometimes broken down further into several pieces.

Next, liquid wax is poured inside. The video above starts with the artisan pouring wax into the moulds. After the wax hardens, it is removed, producing a copy of the original model.

Liquid wax pours into the silicone mould, which is surrounded by plaster. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
Liquid wax pours into the silicone mould, which is surrounded by plaster. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
An artisan heats his tool in the flame seen to the left of the photo, then uses the hot tool to refine the wax model. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
An artisan heats his tool in the flame seen to the left of the photo, then uses the hot tool to refine the wax model. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

An artisan uses a heated precision tool to make any needed refinements to the wax copy. Then he attaches to it long pieces of wax, shaped like drinking straws, called spruing.

The wax copy is dipped repeatedly into a fine sandy slurry (something like cement) that is heat-resistant.

A slurry into which the wax model is dipped. This slurry hardens around the model. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
A slurry into which the wax model is dipped. This slurry hardens around the model. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

This slurry hardens into a shell around the wax copy. The next step gives this ancient technique its name, “lost-wax casting.”

The method dates from around 3,000 B.C. and has been used by cultures all over the world. It hasn’t changed much to this day. It is used not only by artisans, but also in industry to create propellers and other mechanical parts that require great precision.

The sandy shell is fired, which melts the wax (the wax is thus “lost”).

The sandy shell is fired and the wax inside melts away. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
The sandy shell is fired and the wax inside melts away. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

The drinking-straw-shaped pieces of wax attached to the wax model stick out of the sandy shell. When melted away, these provide conduits for the wax to pour out and for molten metal to be poured in.

A metalworker then pours in copper or iron that has been heated to 600°F. It hardens as it cools overnight into the shape of the wax model.

The artisans break away the sandy shell with a hammer and fill in blemishes left by the “straws.”

Molten metal pours into the sandy shells, which are now empty after the wax has melted out. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
Molten metal pours into the sandy shells, which are now empty after the wax has melted out. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

A master metal artisan refines the minute patterns with chisels and finishing tools. This requires immense patience, but allows the artisan to highlight his or her skill level.

(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
(Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

Some ornamental parts such as tiny animals, people, or objects, are made separately and welded onto the piece. The work of art may then be painted — the colours are created with natural minerals — and polished.

The final results of Kisendo’s hard work have been favoured by the Japanese imperial family, which often commissions Kisendo to produce kettles and incense burners to be given to its esteemed guests.

Kisendo's Tamagatakujaku koro incense burner. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)
Kisendo’s Tamagatakujaku koro incense burner. (Photo courtesy of Kisendo)

At the Luxury Home & Design Show — hosted by our sister media, Taste of Life, June 21–24 in Vancouver, BC — Kisendo will display its products in Canada for the first time. Included in the pieces presented will be the Tamagatakujaku koro incense burner, rich in symbolism, which was designed by Yotsukawa’s father for the imperial family. Kisendo’s kettles and incense burners will be available for purchase.

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