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Photoset: Restoring a Japanese Tansu

Restoring a Japanese Tansu

In 2014, we bought this Japanese Tansu for a few reasons: it was completely intact structurally, had aged beautifully, and had a handsome face. It was very much like discovering a 1969 Corvette Stingray in a dusty barn out in the country; it’s filthy, but under that thick layer of grit you know the chrome and Monza red paint is waiting to shine.

We approached it as we do all our refinishing projects; first we assess how much restoration the piece actually needs. Though it sounds obvious, doing as little as possible to the piece is usually the best option. Sometimes only light cleaning and a good waxing are required, which is where we started on our Tansu. We didn’t want to lose any character it had acquired—minor scratches and ware from the gentle effects of aging. However, a dull layer of grimy residue kept our wax from working. It remained dull. A chalky soot had permeated the pores of the wood and reduced the refraction of light to a minimum.

To maintain both the history and integrity of our Tansu, the layer should not be entirely removed. Instead, with delicate care we very gently rubbed some of it off with perused and softened ultra-fine sandpaper. Sheets (that in any other instance would have been discarded) were applied with delicate pressure and brushed over the surface, leaving soot only in the crevices. It took 16 hours of labor and more than 60 sheets of heavily worn 120-180 grit sandpaper to bring the natural glow back into the wood. Once honed, we added the faintest hit of blush using a soft gold-toned stain that matched the red tint of the original. The surface of the Tansu began to meld perfectly with the patina we had preserved. When the stain had set, masks were donned and thin coats of nitrocellulose-based lacquer were applied. Though a more modern lacquer, it best simulates those of the past and has none of the yellow or plastic-y thickness of polyurethane. More coats were applied with sanding and steel wool burnishing between each, followed by a final coat of beeswax.

Unlike gutting a history home, we inverted the refinishing process, only rehabilitating the Tansu’s façade. Interiors of Japanese storage cabinets were always left unfinished, so ours also remains traditional and true to form—gouges included. There are differences of opinion as far as restoration is concerned and we are not doctrinaire. The preservation of original surfaces has to be balance with the pleasure of the owner. We advocate a middle ground that respects the intrinsic rarity and takes modern needs into account. Some we don’t touch—others we restore.


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