Kintsugi has been booming over the last few years and it has slowly broken Japanese borders to become part of a global pop culture. If the Kintsugi aesthetics regularly inspires major brands and designers, few people are aware that there are actually two main methods used in kintsugi repair: traditional kintsugi and modern kintsugi.
In this article, we will go over all the differences between these two methods and highlight the advantages and disadvantages of each kintsugi repair technique.
After reading this article, you will have all the necessary information to make your own choice before getting started with kintsugi.
What Does "Kintsugi" Mean ?
It’s generally thought that kintsugi started in the Muromachi era (around the 14th century). Kintsugi is a Japanese compound word that literally means "gold joinery." At the time, kintsugi solely referred to the repair of damaged ceramic pieces using urushi (the sap of the lacquer tree) and gold.
For centuries, when you talked about kintsugi, it automatically implied the use of urushi lacquer. There was no questioning. However, the meaning of the word "kintsugi" has changed over time.
Urushi lacquer is the sap of the lacquer tree. It is a natural ingredient that is very durable and food safe. However, working with urushi comes with a lot of constraints. A few decades ago, in the name of convenience, some people slowly started using synthetic resins instead of urushi lacquer to repair broken ceramics. This new repair technique spread and became known as "modern kintsugi."
From this point, the understanding of the word "kintsugi" started to change. It slowly became an umbrella word that covered both modern kintsugi and the original technique using urushi, which is nowadays called "traditional kintsugi."
Two Techniques, Two different Philosophies
When you think of kintsugi, you usually also think of zen or wabisabi. It relates to a certain school of thought where individuals are an integral part of nature and surrender to its power and its imperfect beauty.
It will thus not come as a surprise that traditional kintsugi puts a strong emphasis on the use of natural ingredients. All materials used are naturally sourced and, should they end up lost in nature due to unforeseen circumstances (such as an earthquake or a tsunami, which are not unheard of in Japan), they will decompose over time without causing harm to the environment.
Originally, the primary goal of kintsugi was to enable people to reuse objects in the same way they used to before breakage happened. Since urushi is completely food safe, objects repaired with traditional kintsugi can be used to serve food and drinks. If there is no doubt that kintsugi gives a new glow to ceramic pieces, it does not automatically turn them into objects that are just beautiful to look at.
Traditional kintsugi is a slow process. One of the main reasons for that is that the main ingredient used, urushi, requires a long time to harden. Urushi is very strong and durable once it has hardened. However, the way to get there is long... Urushi does not harden within a day... It can sometimes take weeks ! In addition, it requires specific conditions to harden properly. For example, it will not harden in a dry environment. For each repair, multiple layers of urushi are necessary and, as a result, it often takes several months to repair a broken pottery with the traditional method.
Due to the constraints of urushi, its use requires a little bit of preparation and practice. For a very long time, traditional kintsugi was mostly performed by artisans specialized in urushi lacquer work. Nowadays, due to the boom of kintsugi, the number of available classes has sharply increased and it is much easier for people to get started with traditional kintsugi from zero. However, one thing never changes: working with urushi takes time. Speed is not the objective. The process is as important as the final result.
With modern kintsugi, the focus is on convenience and time-gain. It was created in response to a demand for quicker ways to fix ceramics. With synthetic glue, you just have to apply the glue and put everything together like a big puzzle. Quality and durability of the repair comes second.
A major difference with traditional kintsugi is that modern kintsugi is based on the use of synthetic glues. These chemical glues are very convenient to use because they dry fast, which allows you to complete repairs much more quickly. The emphasis is on having a quick fix that looks relatively good.
However, since synthetic glues are not food grade, objects repaired with them can only be used as ornamentation. They should never be used to serve food or drinks. In other words, if you repair a porcelain tea cup with a glue such as epoxy, you will never be able to use it for tea time. It will become an object of decoration with a gold glow, nothing more.
Moreover, as the name indicates, synthetic glues are not natural. If they end up in nature, they can cause harm to the environment.
Advantage/Disadvantage of Traditional and Modern Kintsugi
Let's now have a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each technique so that you can choose for yourself what suits the most your project and your own goals.
Advantages of Traditional Kintsugi
1. Food safe
Traditional kintsugi is the only kintsugi method that is fully food-safe. It relies on the use of usushi (the sap of the lacquer tree) and other natural ingredients such as flour, wood powder, and genuine gold powder. There is no chemical or synthetic glue.materials used here.
2. Technique used for centuries
Broken ceramics have been repaired with urushi for centuries in Japan. It is a method with a long history that has been proved to deliver excellent and durable results.
3. Meditative activity
Traditional kintsugi requires patience. It requires you to make time for your repair project, but also for yourself. When you do traditional kintsugi, you need to focus entirely on the object you are repairing. This intense focus forces you to forget about everything else, which can have relaxing effects on the mind.
Disadvantages of Traditional Kintsugi
1. Slow Process
Urushi lacquer, which is the main ingredient used in traditional kintsugi, requires very particular conditions to harden (70-85% of humidity and 20-30°C) and the hardening process overall takes a lot of time. In addition, urushi requires a minimum of preparation and training in order to obtain a good result and avoid rashes.
2. Allergy to Urushi
Urushi is known for being a natural material that can cause strong allergic rashes when it comes into direct contact with the skin (the rashes are similar to those caused by poison ivy). The intensity and persistence of rashes highly vary depending on each individual. That is why urushi should always be handled with care and kept away from children.
When doing traditional kintsugi, it is very important to cover your skin as much as possible to avoid any direct contact with urushi lacquer. Gloves should always be used while handling raw urushi when doing traditional kintsugi. Wearing sleeves is also highly recommended.
Advantages of Modern Kintsugi
1. Fast and cheap repair
With modern kintsugi, you can complete a project within a day if it is a simple one. The repair process is very straightforward and requires minimal preparation. Moreover, necessary ingredients are very affordable.
2. No risk of rash
Synthetic glues usually do not cause skin irritation. They are suitable for activities involving children (with adult supervision).
Disadvantages of Modern Kintsugi
1. Not food safe
The synthetic glues used in modern kintsugi, such as epoxy, are not certified food safe, which means that they should not be used to repair objects you intend to use for serving food or drinks. These glues usually contain chemicals (Bisphenol A, Bisphenol F...) that have been found to have adverse effects on the human body in case of prolonged exposure. That is why objects repaired with synthetic glues should never be used to serve food or drinks.
Modern kintsugi should therefore be used for decorative objects only. If the object repaired is a piece of tableware, it should not be used as such anymore.
2. Not environmentally-friendly or durable
Since modern kintsugi relies entirely on the use of chemicals that do not decompose easily over time, it is not environmentally-friendly. In addition, due to the relative newness of modern kintsugi, it is difficult to assess how long repairs done with modern kintsugi can hold and how good they will look over time.
3. A strong chemical smell
Synthetic glues usually have a distinctive and strong smell. It is very likely that your object will smell like chemicals even after glue has hardened.
Learn Traditional Kintsugi with Tsugu Tsugu
Our motivation at Tsugu Tsugu is to connect people with traditional craft, and particularly traditional kintsugi.
Nowadays, kintsugi regularly serves as an inspiration for famous designers and international brands. It has slowly invaded the public space and the pages of interior design magazines. However, available representations of kintsugi usually fail to look into the process of kintsugi repair. The most prevalent impression is that kintsugi is just about putting broken pieces together with a gold glue, which exclusively relates to modern kintsugi. However, as you have read in this article, this is not what one may call "authentic kintsugi."
Modern kintsugi has its use, particularly when working with children. However, it is very different from traditional kintsugi. Once you have seen what traditional repair looks like, you can clearly tell the difference in result. Moreover, traditional kintsugi takes time and effort, but the sense of accomplishment you get upon completion is exquisitely rewarding. That is a fantastic feeling we wish to share with as many people as possible.
Through our workshops, repair services and products, we wish to share our love for traditional kintsugi, the authentic kintsugi technique, and help people use the objects they hold dear for as long as possible. In a context where it has become increasingly obvious that we should shift away from mass-consumption and mass-disposal of goods, we believe that kintsugi is an amazing path to build a more sustainable lifestyle and society.
TSUGUKIT – Get Started with Kintsugi from the Comfort of Your Home
Starting to learn kintsugi can seem like a challenging enterprise, but we are convinced that, with the right tools and the right guidance, everyone can learn how to repair broken ceramics with traditional kintsugi.
With the idea in mind, we have created a kintsugi kit designed for beginners: the TSUGUKIT ! This kintsugi kit is the result of a collaboration between Tsugu Tsugu and Katsuya Shibata, an experienced lacquer master with over 30 years of experience with kintsugi.
In the kit, you will find all the ingredients you need to get started with kintsugi. It also includes an instruction manual in Japanese AND English.
As of October 2022, over 10,000 people have started their kintsugi journey with the TSUGUKIT. It is our wish to keep sharing the beauty of kintsugi worldwide and enabling an ever growing number of people to embark on their own kintsugi journey.
The TSUGUKIT in a nutshell:
- Kit to learn traditional kintsugi repair
- Food-safe and natural ingredients only
- Repair process broken down into 5 easy steps
- Made in Japan
- Instruction manual available in English
As a complement to the instruction manual, we have created free tutorials on YouTube. Please subscribe to our channel to discover more tips about kintsugi repair !
Where can you purchase your own kit?
Our online store : https://tsugu-tsugu.shop-kintsugi.com/
Our Etsy shop: https://www.etsy.com/jp/shop/KintsugiJapan
We ship worldwide !