How to...Kintsugi

Just broke your favourite cup? Before throwing it in the dustbin, consider it a golden moment to make your first kintsugi piece. Kintsugi is the Japanese craft of gold repairing by meticulously mending the broken fragments and tracing golden flakes along the fractures.
Kintsugi workshop tools -- Photo by Athena Lam
The community centre called Unaginonedoko runs weekly workshops for this traditional craft, which only has a handful of masters left in Kyoto. At the community centre, one instructor helps each participant with the pieces they want to fix. Many attendees are regulars who already know the routine and only ask for help when they need suggestions or want to confirm the consistency of the glue or paste they've made.

0. Give yourself plenty of time

As I sat waiting for the instructor to get to me after working with all the other attendees, I learned the most important things about kintsugi: there's no rushing processes. After every step of gluing, filling and adding gold layers, one needs to wait at least 24-hours before moving on to the next step.
While I was waiting, I looked at the tools our instructor had unpacked from her bag. All of them with the exception of the chisel were manual.
Kintsugi workshop tools -- Photo by Athena Lam
Materials Used
  • Chisels (or modern equivalent)
  • Scrapers
  • Exacto knife (or a similar type of blade)
  • Sander
  • Lacquer
  • Other types of sap
  • Powder
  • Gold dust
  • Various brushes, for dusting and also for "painting"
  • Cue tips
  • Oil, for cleaning
  • Ligroin (リグロイン), for cleaning

1. Break something

Broken teapot to be fixed over several classes -- Photo by Athena Lam
For my first kintsugi workshop, the instructor asked us to bring something we wanted to fix. Unlike package workshops, this kintsugi class is more like a studio space with an instructor as a guide. Participants like me bring a pottery piece that's chipped, missing a piece or broken. Ceramic materials ranging from clay to porcelain can be used.

2. Break some more to mend it.

Kintsugi workshop tools to carve out space for fillings to show -- Photo by Athena Lam
If a piece is cleanly broken in two, like the teapot lid, the first thing to do is create additional space for the filling. A piece that perfectly fits back together won't show the golden line of imperfection that is the signature of kintsugi. In this photo, I'm using a chisel to create additional ridges and gaps. After, the lacquer and gold will have enough space to slip in and seal the pieces back together and show on the surface.

3. Filling in the gaps

Kintsugi workshop tools -- Photo by Athena Lam
Some pieces may be missing a piece or have a chip. In such a case, a special lacquer paste is prepared to recreate a new surface.
Rather than using pre-made glue, kintsugi uses natural materials that are a mixture of ground charcoal / ash, water, and lacquer (which is sap from the sumac tree). Water is added in single drops and the lacquer is squeezed out in small bits at a time. The paste must be mixed quickly before the sap dries. A teacher is constantly consulted to determine the correct consistency.

4. Putting the pieces together.

Creating natural glue to bind broken pieces -- Photo by Athena Lam
Various types of glue and pastes are created in kintsugi depending on the material and purpose. To bind pieces, lacquer, a binding agent, and a powder such as rice flour are used. Once mixed, the glue is applied with metal spatula to the pieces and then pressed together. The excess glue is wiped off with a cue tip.
A second cue tip is used to wipe off the extra glue as spots left over will create an uneven surface and stain. -- Photo by Athena Lam

5. Waiting and Drying

Kintsugi powder and sap -- Photo by Athena Lam
After finishing the binding, there is nothing to do but wait. This will likely be the end of your first session, as it takes about 24 hours to fully dry. Kintsugi moves at a relaxed pace, so feel free to watch your other classmates or listen in to your instructor's recommendations for other pieces. Or, move on to another important task: cleaning.

6. Cleaning

Oil is used to clean some of the brushes -- Photo by Athena Lam
Cleaning takes time too! The two most common cleaning agents are oil and ligroin (in Japanese リグロイン), which is usually used in lab solutions. A small amount of oil is added to a plastic surface, and the paint brush is pressed with a plastic stick. This step is repeated several times until the brush is clean. Ligroin helps remove the sap by breaking down the material. If you join the workshop, make sure you ask the instructor what to clean with first!

7. Chipping and Sanding

Chipping off excess lacquer -- Photo by Athena Lam
At the next session, we were to chip off the excess material. Using a small scalpel, we scraped away the flaky material. The goal with chipping and sanding is to get the filling to be entirely parallel to the original surfaces. When done properly, the surface of your fixed pottery is perfectly smooth.
It's easy to accidentally chip off more than you intended. I did this twice, so I had to repeat the process twice.

8. Adding a Gold Layer

Adding gold dust and gently brushing it off -- Photo by Athena Lam
Once you have sanded down the surface, you use another type of black liquid that will glue the gold flakes. Make sure you trace a solid black line over the filling so that the final gold line looks elegant (rather than wobbly).
After the line is traced, use a small spatula to scoop up a minimal amount of gold dust. Repeat the process a few times until the line is mostly covered. Take a light brush and gently dust off the excess back into a container.

9. More waiting

Unaginonedoko is a renovated community space with a tea ceremony room -- Photo by Athena Lam
Since Unaginonedoko is a community space, we keep our works-in-progress on a shelf at the back of the building, which is a renovated house. The old house was refashioned as a community space by the Japanese architect Hiroko Tanabe.
Our pieces are labelled by name, the next workshop task and the scheduled date someone will come in to continue.

10. Second gold layer and final coating

The gold dust creates a shimmery surface, but a second layer is needed to make the gold line solid and consistent. Repeat step number 8 and 9, and you're done!
All in all, the process of fixing a simple piece usually takes six sessions. However, many regulars inadvertently find more and more pieces to fix, and the workshops become a weekly two-hour meditation that busy Tokyoites can look forward to attending.
Unaginonedoko is a community space offering workshops for traditional Japanese crafts such as ikebana and kintsugi -- Photo by Athena Lam

Interested in traditional Japanese culture? Here are other great experiences:

Athena Lam