Iwayado Chest | Japanese outstandingly elaborate traditional chest


Iwayado chest

Iwayado chest (Iwayado chest of drawers) is a woodwork made in Esashi Ward, Oshu City, and Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture. In addition to wardrobe chests and chest, modern Iwayado chest are also made as tea chests, bookshelves, and zataku (a Japanese low table). In the past, in addition to chests, interesting chest were made such as staircase chests that could be used for stairs, and wheel chests (kuruma chest) with wheels that could be moved in case of fire or other accidents.

Iwayado chest are characterized by their large presence and beautiful decorative metal fittings on the chests. There are two types of metal fittings: “hand-hammered carving” and “Nambu ironware metal fittings.” Each chest is decorated with 60 to 100 beautifully embossed metal fittings with picturesque patterns, creating a prestigious piece of furniture. Iwayado chest are lacquered, and there are two types: “wuki-urushi” lacquering, in which the lacquering and polishing processes are repeated, and “mokji-roko” lacquering, in which the grain of the wood is beautiful and the more it is used, the deeper the texture develops.

The production of “Iwayado Chest” involves a division of labor among craftsmen with specialized skills in each process, such as identifying high-quality wood, cutting it to the size of the product, grafting and assembling the boards together, lacquering, and metal fittings.

Origin of Iwayado Chest

The origin of the Iwayado chest is not known, but it is said to have been introduced from Kyoto around the time of Fujiwara no Kiyohira’s residence in Hiraizumi. In the early days, it was more like a large box than a chest, and later a long-handled chest. Later, in the mid-Edo period of the 1770s. When the people of the Tohoku region were threatened with starvation during the Tenmei famine of the 1770s, chests, nagatachi, and other box-like objects began to be made as a measure to promote industry in order to break away from an economy dependent on rice.

It was not until the mid-Edo period that chests became what they are today. These robust chests, made of wood, paint, and metal fittings, were conceived as a substitute for a safe. In the beginning, cedar and zelkova were used as materials for chest, but in recent years, when chests were made of kiri (paulownia wood) from Iwate, the metal fittings were also often decorated with paulownia patterns.

Manufacturing Processes for Iwayado chest

wood grain

First, the logs are sawn. The lumber is then “kokareraged” (naturally dried for a number of years with a cleat placed between each piece of lumber to allow good air circulation) to prevent it from going haywire (going haywire). From these dried materials that have not gone out of alignment, we then select materials according to their intended use without wasting any materials. This process is called “mokkiri,” and it requires a highly skilled craftsman. The process of making an iron kettle begins with the design of the kettle and continues through numerous processes, as described below, until the tetsubin is completed by attaching the hyun (a string).

manufacturing process of the chest
Source: Kiritansu no Hanzawa

Lacquer Coating

Iwate Prefecture has long been one of Japan’s leading lacquer production centers, and the lacquer coating techniques that so brilliantly decorated the Hiraizumi culture are still alive today in Iwayado chests. The two most common types of lacquer coating are wiping lacquer and transparent wood-ground wax coating, in which the process of painting, wiping, and polishing is repeated over and over.

manufacturing process of Iwatanido chest
Source: Kiritansu no Hanzawa

The process of applying wood-rock lacquer is as follows

  1. The crafted piece of wood is dipped in water and polished with a whetstone.
  2. The polished wood is coated with a mixture of lacquer and polishing powder using a spatula and allowed to dry before polishing (basecoat).
  3. Next, apply only raw lacquer with a spatula.
  4. Allow to dry, and then carefully sharpen again (base holding).
  5. Repeat several times with brush and sharpen (middle coat)
  6. Apply fine quality wood wax lacquer with a brush and polish further (top coat).
  7. Finally, the lacquer is suri-urushi applied several times. Polishing is done each time.
Iwatanido chest
Source: Kiritansu no Hanzawa

Hand-hammered metal fittings

Paint arabesques, arabesque lions, dragons, etc. These designs have been handed down for many years. This sketch is then applied to an iron plate. This iron plate is then hammered out from the back using a hammer and a chisel made by the craftsman himself, and line engraving is done from the front to bring the design vividly to life. Turn the chisel over to make it bulge out further, and finally file it. The finished chisel is then finished by applying rust-proofing and color finishing.

Iwatanido chest manufacturing process
Source: Kiritansu no Hanzawa


After the painted wood is finished, pulls, square metal fittings, hinges, lock fittings, etc. are attached to complete the process.

Key points for Iwayado chest

This craft is one of the most expensive of all traditional Japanese crafts. To begin with, chests of drawers are pricey pieces of furniture, but they are handmade by craftsmen one by one and at every step of the process. However, these chests of drawers are basically manufactured on the assumption that they will be used for a lifetime. If it becomes damaged or scratched, the craftsman will repair it, and if the attached hardware rusts or breaks, the craftsman will replace it as well. In this way, they are used for a lifetime and passed down from generation to generation. In terms of price, it would be much more cost-effective than chests of drawers that are replaced like today’s consumer goods.

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