Most frequent questions asked me, both on Youtube and Instagram is – how to start? And more: what do I need, where to buy it, can I lacquer wood etc. So below I describe with what I started both in terms of tools and materials, and techniques I tried.
Ki-urushi (or seshime-urushi)
You can start experimenting and even making urushi pieces with just one type of urushi – ki-urushi or seshime-urushi. It is a low quality, raw lacquer, without any oils added, so it is more universal. What you can do with just ki-urushi, a basic brush, lint-free wipes, and DIY furo made of a plastic airtight box with wet rag or sponge inside:
- Try fuki-urushi. Apply raw lacquer on clean, smooth wood (just basic board for practice), and wipe it off just after applying. The cure for 24-48 hours, sand with 400-600 sandpaper and repeat, and sand with a higher grit.
- Experiment with same as above but with 5-10% of vegetable oil added to urushi (linseed oil, boiled linseed oil etc). Observe how differently it behaves
- Practice applying thin layers, with different brushes. Learn how to clean brush with urushi.
- Learn (by practice) how various humidity levels affect urushi. Not only time in which it cures, but also looks and structure of similar layers in different humidity, or same humidity but different types of urushi or thickness of layers.
- Practice sanding layers with different abrasives.
- Practice base layers on ebonite – brush urushi in ebonite and then wipe it off and cure, sand just to get rid of any impurities, and repeat 2 times more. then sand smooth. It is not necessary, but in my opinion makes applying middle layers easier. Cure in high humidity
Nakanuri is raw lacquer too, but higher quality then ki or seshime. It is used in middle layers, both pure and mixed with pigments. When lacquering ebonite you can skip the base layers, and start with nakanuri. Nakanuri layers should be cured in slightly lower humidity, and I usually use lower humidity with last two of middle layers. On fountain pen, when no base layer is applied, 5-6 middle layers are reasonable, but for some techniques just two are enough.
When mixing pigments do not use more than 40% (weight) of pigment total. Start with making thick paste (more pigment then urushi0 and add more urushi gradually only when the mix is uniform and smooth. It is good practice to leave such mix before adding winal portion of urushi to sit for an hour, covered, to let urushi soak into pigment well, and then mix very well and add rest of lacquer.
Kijoro and roiro (kuro-roiro) urushi
High-quality urushi, processed to be more transparent, used for final layers. Kijiro is uncoloured and can be mixed with pigments. Kuro-roiro is black, but still slightly transparent. Pure kijiro (or shuai) applied in thin layers on underlying colour layers is used to achieve tamenuri finish.
Kijomi or isehaya usuhi
High quality raw urushi lacquer for finishing sequence – uwazuri. You apply it and wipe it off. Cure it and repeat. Initially thinned with turpentine or camphor oil, but finally pure. For learning (kijomi is expensive) you can use good quality even ki-urushi in this step mixed with a bit of turpentine.
Do not start with buying 100$ hake. They are great tools, but with a steep learning curve, and you need to get to know the basics. Buy several different artists brushes, flat, with soft but springy, thin synthetic fibers, 6 do 14 in width. Different types, different makers, and experiment. Any artists shop offers a wide array of such brushes, and they will cost from 3 do 10$. Much easier to clean (turpentine, followed by alcohol/isopropanol), much easier to prepare for work. And much cheaper when you begin.
A proper hake starts at 30-40$ for 5bu (15mm) basic brush if bought in Japan. Realy good ones are 100$ and more. Once you learn how to prepare and use them – they are fantastic tools. They are expensive but once you have such brush (or several) they would last for much longer. The magic is in the structure of such brush – long human (or mixed human and horse hair) are embeded in wood. Once visible part of the hair is no longer useful, you cut it at an angle to form a tip of a brush and shorten the wooden enclosure 3-4 mm, and you have a fresh tool. In cheaper brushes (1/3) you can repeat this up to 10 times. In best, full length ones – ut to 30 times. So for the hobbyist it will last a lifetime. Making it a great investment.
After several experiments I found that there is no other reasonable choice than glass. A glass plate, at least 30x20cm is perfect. Flat, smooth, easy to clean. Pace it on some rubber sheet to prevent it from moving when mixing urushi, and clean with alcohol and you are ready to go. Make sure edges are rounded, to prevent cuts.
Oils, turpentine and alcohol
Oils – for mixing with urushi (linseed or perilla), for cleaning brushes (cooking oil), for cleaning skin fast in case it gets in contact with urushi (olive oil)
Turpentine (white) – for thining urushi, cleaning brushes and surfaces, and containers
Alcohol – for cleaning. Everything. And some crazy techniques like seirei-nuri
One stiffer wooden od plastic artists spatula for mixing, and another one or two slightly flexible for cleaning surface and tools, transfering urushi.
For start – sandpapers. Find high quality sandpapers, grits from 320 to 2000/3000, and micromesh from 1800 to 12000. Such set plus tononko clay, and maybe some polishing fluid (water based) is perfectly enough for beginner. For perfect finishing layers, you will need migaki powder, but you can try to substitute is with jewellers rouge.
How to practice
Start with practice boards. With fountain pens you will not need any knowledge on preparationof surface (applying reinforcing cloth, numerous layers of tonoko and other clays mixed with urushi), to don’t usewood, but some laminated boards, with smooth surface. Cut into small pieces (10-x5cm , to 7x15cm) and apply urushi on them with different brushes, cure, sand, analyse, apply more layers. Thin, thick, high and low humidity etc.
Boards are flat and fountain pens are round. This changes a lot mostly in area of sanding. So find something to practice in same shape. And the practice on fountain pens. I used most of my collection of Parker Frontier to practice
Tools and metrials described above should be sufficient to make a tamenuri finish on a pen. It is just a sample method – each artist adapts and develops his or her own techniques. It assumes surface is primed or dose not need priming (smooth ebonite)
- base layers – 2-3 wiped off ki-urushi layers. Optionaly 2 more ki-urushi thin layers, sanded flat after curing. Curing in 85%-90% humidity
- nakanuri – 1-4 layers of nakanuri, sanded flat and smooth (but no need for perfect finish yet) 80% humidity. If followed by next step marked as optional, 2 layers are OK.
- optional – nakanuri mixed with pigment – colour of your base, 2 layers, sanded flat, smooth, 75% humidity
- kijiro with pigment, same color. 4-5 layers. sanded lightly but smooth, up to 2500 grit, with last layer really smooth (5000 grit, check under loupe for micro scratches, use polishing paste). After this step colour must be uniform, surface smooth and perfect. Curing humidity – 60-70%, longer times (48h) to preserve colour (otherwise it will get much darker and hue will move into a more brownish spectrum, so nice blue will become muddy green)
- koijiro clear (or other transparent urushi) – very thin layers. From 1 to 3 depending on your skills and design of pen. Each cured at 60%-65%, but adjust to achieve best translucency. Low humidity will extend curing time (48-72h) but it will benefit translucency. Each sanded slightly but start with a higher grit and be very, VERY gentle. Tamenuri is not difference in sanding – the effect is created but pooling of urushi on surface. It is easy to sand through a layer esspecialy on edges, and destroy the work. Last layer must be perfect, polished with tonoko with oil. Inspect with a magnifying glass.
- Uwazuri (polishing) – apply kijomi diluted with turpentine – initialy high dilution (30-40%) but lower with each layer – and wipe off. It must just soak into pores, infuse previous layers, smooth any micro-scratches. Cure each layer (80%) and apply next one (no sanding !), 4-5 times. then polish with migaki mixed with oil, clean and again apply 2-3 layers of kijiomi. then inspect, polish with just migaki, inspect. End or repeat, last step (polishing, and 1-2 layers of kijiomi).
- Final layer of kijiomi should be left for curing for longer. 48-72h before polishing with pure migaki powder. Can be longer, even 1-2 weeks. I generaly leave finished pens in furo for longer times, to fully cure urushi, and be sure it will not cause any problems to a user (read about urushi rash)