Kintsugi: An Explanation

Kintsugi (金継ぎ), or Kintsuguri, is an ancient Japanese craft, indeed an art, used to repair broken pottery by means of silver or gold seams. It probably started as a way to repair valuable tea bowls and make them useable again. The purpose of Kintsugi is not only to repair and make useable again, but to incorporate a break as part of the history of the object.

By highlighting the break and repair, the integrity of the object is preserved and its beauty is enhanced. Thus Kintsugi has the motto “More beautiful for having been broken.”

Though the theory seems simple, in practice, it is anything but simple. The fragments of a broken vessel are put back together with some kind of paste, either in a traditional formula or in a more modern concoction. They are then held together by some means such as rubber bands, until the seams are well dried. The repairs are then cleaned, smoothed, and sealed with lacquer and powdered metal.

The traditional paste is made up of regular flour, water, and perhaps tanaka, a powdered clay. I use a mixture of flour, water, and a bit of white glue called Modge Podge. A bit of tanaka can also be added, but it makes shaping any patches extremely difficult. After the seams have been repaired and hardened, cleaned and smoothed, the seams are sealed.

The traditional way of sealing the seams is to paint them with urushi and then dust with finely ground silver or gold. For practice, I use powdered brass and aluminum. Urushi, the sap of a Japanese sumac tree, is exactly the same thing chemically as poison ivy juice. Pure traditionalist practitioners seem willing to live with the resulting rashes. I am not. I have found that non-toxic synthetic lacquer works just fine.

After experimenting with various techniques for applying the metal, I find it works best for me to mix the powdered metal into the lacquer and apply it with a small artist’s brush.

If small pieces of the broken object are missing, a patch can be created with multiple applications of the flour mixture, carved and sanded to shape. Sometimes for a larger patch, a contrasting bit of pottery from another broken pot can be used effectively. I have also used ground-up turquoise to fill larger gaps.

Since I am practicing a modern interpretation of the traditional techniques, I feel free to adapt and interpret, as long as the work remains in the spirit of the original craft. While I use non-toxic materials, the repaired vessels are not intended for food or water, since prolonged exposure to moisture may weaken the repair.

Kintsugi has not been well known in the West. It is akin to the tea ceremony, but less well known. Examples of repair of valuable Japanese bowls, using real silver and gold and accomplished by masters of the craft, are true objects of art and have breathtaking beauty. So far as I know, there are no books published in English about the technique. Kintsugi is also an obvious metaphor for life, with many theological meanings. The only book I have found in English, called Kintsugi, is actually a conservative Christian use of that metaphor.

I am sometimes asked if I break pieces on purpose. Ordinarily, I think that does not seem to be in the spirit of the craft. However, if pieces have been abandoned because they are cracked or chipped, but not completely broken apart, I may break them down further. But my preference is to find pieces already broken. I find this technique is compatible with other arts I have pursued in the past, especially mosaics and collage of found materials.

It is by nature a slow and meditative process, which I am usually drawn to. In all of these media, I find that the use of castaway materials that are considered worthless to create something of beauty is a deeply satisfying project.

I think that the spirit of Kintsugi is caught beautifully in this song by Peter Mayer.

Japanese Bowl


Peter Mayer

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls

that was made long ago

I have some cracks in me

They have been filled with gold

That’s what they used back then

When they had a bowl to mend

It did not hide the cracks

It made them shine instead

So now every old scar shows

from every time I broke

and anyone’s eyes can see

I’m not what I used to be

But in a collector’s mind

All of these jagged lines

make me more beautiful

and worth a much higher price

I’m like one of those Japanese bowls

I was made long ago

I have some cracks you can see

See how they shine of gold.

From his album Heaven Below, also on You Tube.

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