Something to Get off my Chest

Traditional Japanese Chests is Kazuko Koizumi’s follow up to her most excellent work Japanese Furniture. See the ‘worth a read’ sidebar to link to either of these two books on Amazon. Her first book pretty much stands alone in its class, there being very few other works of note on Japanese furniture, especially in the English language (or any other language besides Japanese for that matter). One good one on Japanese Chests is the book Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry, by Ty Heiniken (also linked in the sidebar).

Ko-izumi’s (I hyphenate the name in this instance so as to clarify how it is pronounced) new book is quite a fine work, covering the history and development of tansu and containing many superb color plates. Some of the pieces were quite novel, to my eyes at least. Here’s a detail from one ‘handy-chest’ (temoto dansu) dating from 1902:

The use of a ‘see through’ to the drawers in behind is pretty cool if you ask me. Another chest in the book stores a small writing desk within.

Looking through the 150 pages of this book, it struck me afresh how tansu, which are really quite unremarkable in terms of their construction, are really all about the metal work in most cases. If not the metal, then the lacquer. In many tansu, the metal work covers 75% of the surface area and does more, by far, to define the look of the pieces than does the wood. It seems to me that if a person were to get right into making tansu, that a period of intensive metal-smithing study and application would be part and parcel of that – or, failing that, working in collaboration with a metal artist.

As an aside, there are commercially available pieces of metal hardware available, from Lee Valley or Chiseler for instance, but these are a pale and cheesy shadows of the handmade pieces you see on the finer examples. Why would you want to put stamped out and mass-produced hardware on a tansu that you spent weeks lovingly crafting? And tansu without the intricate hardware, for the most part, are less interesting, at least to my eyes. Without the hardware, in many cases, all you are left to look at is a finger-jointed box with pegged drawers and a flimsy back. Like I said, traditional tansu are not often all that well crafted, though the exposed surfaces are invariably finished to a high standard and the drawers and doors are well-fitted.

The book is not without its shortcomings, and these appear to lie, I suspect, more in the English translation work or proofreading than anything else. There are minor grammatical errors here and there, which one can set aside I suppose (especially as I am guilty of the very same thing here on my blog!), however, this following one caused me to burst out laughing:

I do believe what they meant to write there was sweetmeats, which are a type of preserved or candied fruit, crystallized heavily with sugar. The term ‘sweatmeats’ hardly conjures up visions of tasty delicacies, now does it? An unfortunate gaffe really, on one that should have been caught by the translator Gavin Frew, or another proofreader later in the production process. Hopefully that will be corrected in any subsequent editions that come along.

At the end of the book there is an interesting section on the history and development of tansu, which brings to light information not previously available in English. Curiously, in that entire section no mention is made of Korean chests which are, at the very least, quite similar in respect to the Japanese ones in their use of applied metal decoration, is not mentioned. I tend to think there is likely a connection.

The section of the book on step tansu and kitchen chests is a bit short I thought, only depicting three examples of kaidan dansu and 4 examples of the kitchen pieces. As those two types are, it seems to me, among the most spectacular varieties of Japanese furniture, and I would have therefore thought the section could have been a bit more extensive.

Woodworkers hoping to find detailed construction plans of tansu, and details of the joinery will be disappointed. The section on woods used for making tansu was interesting, and I noted that the wood described as being Shi-tan, which is the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese ‘Zitan’ (and written with the same characters, ‘紫檀’), is dalbergia cochinensis. Chinese furniture scholarship, a far more extensive and developed field of study than than that of Japanese furniture, suggests that several woods may have been termed Zitan over the centuries, however the most likely tree species would have been pterocarpus santalina or pterocarpus indicus (relatives of Padauk), and no mention is made of any dalberiga species. So that leaves me a little uncertain in the assertion made in the book that Shitan is a dalbergia.

It would have been most helpful, I think, to have added material to this book detailing, say, the steps in forging a piece of tansu hardware or in applying lacquer, or in constructing the boxes. That’s useful background information and would have certainly benefited this book I think.

All in all though, Koizumi has added a nice work to a field not exactly littered with books. I think readers with an interest in tansu will want to add this work to their collection. I’m glad it is in mine.

10 thoughts on “Something to Get off my Chest

  1. Hi Chris,
    With regard to your comment: “from Lee Valley of Chiseler for instance,”, I assume you meant to say from Lee Valley or Chiseler for instance. In that case, you are wrong to state that Chiseler's work is cheesy, mass-produced, etc. He uses cast bronze for all of his pulls. The casts were derived from edo and meiji era tansu hardware he borrowed from a dealer in Portland. I am proud to use his hardware on my pieces.
    Craig Klucina
    Plane-Spoken Furniture

  2. Hi Craig,

    yes, I did mean “or Chiseler”, and will edit the post accordingly. Thanks so much for bringing that to my attention. I often make little typos like that, and am continually finding them when I re-read my work.

    Interesting that your impression of Chiseler is so at variance with mine. I had their catalog a few years back and the finish on the pieces generally looked poor to my eyes. Cast iron does not look the same as wrought.

    But more to the point: authentic quality kanamono for tansu are and were FORGED, not cast. Casting of hand-wrought objects to produce look-alikes is a false representation of material.

    There are reasons why the terms 'cookie-cutter', knock-offs' and 'cheap imitation' are so commonplace in this culture. Ruskin made a similar case about cast iron work and other forms of imitation materials in his “Lamp of truth” volume. Not that casting, per se, is inherently wrong – so long as the cast item is honest about what it is, or that casting is chosen because it is the best way to make a thing (like a large bell for example).

    However, when the cast item is doing its best to resemble the work of the blacksmith, down to those little hammer marks, it amounts to little more than a sham. Anything formed in a mold and meant to look like it wasn't is an absurdity and an impostor. Every piece from the blacksmith's hand is subtly different, while every piece from the mold is identical. One is the product of the craftsman's hand, the other the product of the machine. One can tell the difference at a glance.

    I imagine that the original blacksmiths who forged the hardware that Chiseler copied would not be altogether thrilled to see their work prostituted in that manner. What craftsperson who makes things by hand could admire a cheap copy of their pieces?

    Craig, how would you feel if some company started knocking off your work with a cheap look-alike, ? something entirely machine made, and cranked out without integrity? How does that sit with you?

    If the craftsman's work is to be the product of his own heart hand and mind, and not merely imitative, than that applies as far as possible down to the details, like the hardware. Consider how a reproduction of, say, a Townsend or Goddard Newport Secretary would suffer by the addition of cheap brass cast hardware from the local Ace Hardware outlet.

    So, no, I certainly don't feel I was wrong to state that Chiseler hardware is cheesy. From my point of view, for some of the reasons listed above, it is. You are, on the other hand, proud to use that stuff. Fair enough, I suppose, though I think you could do better by bringing the hardware you use up to the quality and careful approach manifest in your wood work.


  3. Hi Chris,
    It comes down to what we like. I like Dan Chisler's work. The stuff made by A. David looks, well, a bit cheesy, especially the lockplates. As an aside, I have been buying old tansu hardware from other sources to use on my pieces when appropriate. Finally, I enjoy reading your blog. I get alot of out it and I can see how much work you put into it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  4. Craig,

    yes, I agree that Avigal's 'lockplate', or escutcheon as I would call it, at least the one shown on her site, is not her best piece. However, it must be said that she makes the pieces herself, of her own design, and is a dedicated artisan. That counts for a lot with me.

    Oh, and she did try to set me up with her sister once! That was amusing.

    I think if I were to make a classic sort of tansu, I would want to make the hardware myself, and I know there would be a steep learning curve.


  5. Hi,
    Just to add, the idea of castings of originally forged hardware struck me from the beginning as odd and so after looking the Chisler catalogue over the first time I set it aside. A lot of the iron work on tansu does not involve forging at all but as far as I can see, cutting with tin snips, hammering, filling – see the Heineken book – and I've had good success in making and matching parts gone missing even down to strap hinges, using old iron hauled out the trash container. Those little forged nails do hang things up for me, though also provide, I think, a good starting place to begin gaining some skill at forging. I've got that old forge, in parts, out there in the barn I'll be reassembling sometime.


    Don Wagstaff

  6. Hi Don,

    nice to hear from you. I suspect that in the days before rolled mild steel was available, the plates and corners, escutcheons, etc, would have also been forged, hammered down into sheets, and folded, etc.. That's how I am thinking of doing it when the day comes to make another tansu. It will be a while until I'm at that point, but it is percolating away in the back of my mind.

    Those little forged nails will be tricky to make, no doubt!


Anything to add?