Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

Mastering ancient art of kintsugi on mug collection

For many years I’ve wandered through artisan markets, seeking out potters and picking up mugs in an attempt to find a perfect mug for my mother.

Over the years, my siblings and I have found some great mugs to gift her. Over the years many ended up broken — as ceramics do.

Earlier this year I noticed pieces of a few beloved mugs in my mother’s kitchen. One she’d had for less than a year before it hit the floor. She saved the pieces to use in a mosaic or some other project.

In preparation for Christmas, I nabbed the broken pieces for a project of my own: to mend them using Japanese kintsugi. This art form celebrates cracks and breaks as documentation of the history of a ceramic piece, making them into a beautiful feature by a covering of gold, silver or platinum.

I ordered a kit. The kit came with urushi lacquer (a resin from a native Japanese tree), and wood, polish and powders of red, black, gold and silver. It included a small piece of plexiglass to use as a palette, sand paper, narrow masking tape and some tools for mixing and applying the products.

I read the instructions — including the warning to wear gloves and long sleeves because some people have an allergic reaction to the urushi.

The first step is mixing the urushi with cake flour, applying some to both edges of the broken pottery (after sanding off any sharp edges) and sticking the edges together tightly. To stabilize the bond, I applied the masking tape.

The piece has to sit in a humid environment for a week. To create the ideal drying conditions, I lined a cardboard box with plastic and put my pieces in along with a damp towel. Then I put the whole box into another plastic bag, which I could close up fully if it seemed like the towel was drying too fast, or open a little to let some humidity out.

Next, I had to fill in large chips in the breakage. I used some of the powders mixed with urushi to build up the chipped sections.

After that, I filled the smaller cracks with more mixture, then painted over the entire glued lines with urushi mixed with the black powder. If I’d done a couple coats of the black, I could have left it as the final color.

Black didn’t match any of the pieces I was mending. I carefully sanded the black to make it matte and over it applied the red powder mixed with urushi. I left the red as the final layer for one and a half of the mugs I mended.

To make the gold seams that are so recognizably typical of this art form, I dusted gold powder onto the red layer before it dried. Once the red was covered, I polished the gold with silk fibers.

I need more practice in this art form, but am excited for the mugs to finish drying so they can be added back into the cupboard for use. When the urushi dries, it becomes food and heat safe.

Kintsugi added some un-looked for drama to my holidays and I learned why the instructions warned to wear gloves, as well as acquiring some botanical knowledge about the tree that urushi is made from. Tune in next week for more on that aspect of this art form.