Kintsugi: The Art of Mending What’s Broken

Loosely translated as “golden joinery,” Kintsugi, or Kintsukuroi, “golden repair” is the Japanese art of fixing broken ceramics. It seems that people in the West are used to replacing broken ceramics with new items, but in Japan, broken poetry is treated differently. Instead of hiding the breaks with a camouflage adhesive, or simply purchasing a new item, Kintsugi masters use lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver, or platinum powder, to simultaneously embellish and mend a broken item.

By using the art of Kintsugi, pottery is not only repaired, but is also improved. Instead of hiding, the scars are emphasized and used to improve the overall look of the piece, thus making them a part of the unique history of the object. The Japanese are appreciative of old, enduring things that stand the test of time. 

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The concept comes from the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi that teaches people to accept growing old and embrace scars that come with age. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi teaches us that everything has flaws and these imperfections only increase with age. But rather than rebel against them, we should embrace and celebrate our scars and the transitory nature of life. Kintsugi also expresses the feeling of mottaini, loosely translated as regret for things that are wasted without deriving their value. All of these philosophies were a fruitful ground for the creation of the art of Kintsugi that would rather repair a broken item than hide its shortcomings.

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By Motoki Tonn via Unsplash

The Art of Kintsugi Pottery

The origin of Kintsugi can be traced all the way back to 15th century Japan. The legend says that a person responsible for the invention of the craft is Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who sent his cracked tea bowl to China for repairs. 

Disappointed to find out that menders used metal staples to fix the bow, he began to look for an alternative, more aesthetically pleasing repair method. Within the next two centuries, Kintsugi has developed from a repair technique to a decorative trend. In the 17th century, Japanese warriors began to buy ceramics, and deliberately smash them, just so that they could decorate them with Kintsugi and sell them for profit.

Kintsugi ceramic plate with a golden powder and a glue
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Next talk: Kintsugi: Japanese Art of Repair and Healing, 13th of October, 6pm BST, at LEVEL

Kintsugi Repair Kit

Traditionally the art of Kintsugi is practiced by Japanese lacquer masters trained in a variety of techniques. Today most lacquer masters are using epoxy and gold, silver, or platinum powder. This mixture is also used as a putty to fill all holes in the broken vessel. 

Traditionally gold is not mixed into the sap, but applied over the lacquer when it dries, with a fine point paintbrush to ensure precision. However, today with the development of cheaper powders, epoxy, and gold substitutes many repairers are mixing the pigments directly into the lacquer, therefore simplifying the process. Apart from the lacquer and the brush, a Kintsugi repair kit is usually equipped with a mixing stick and occasionally gloves and cloth for cleaning potential messes.

How to do Kintsugi?

Not all repairs are the same and most Kintsugi masters use one of three techniques: crack, piece method, and joint-call. Crack is the traditional and most common way of Kintsugi repair. This method employs the lacquer sap and gold and silver powder to glue the pieces together. The result will be a repaired piece featuring sparkly lines where two pieces were stitched together. 

The second method, the piece method is used when a vessel is missing a fragment. This type of damage can not be repaired by simply gluing the pieces back together. That’s why a mender will connect the pieces and then use sap or epoxy to fill the void. The missing piece should be made from the same material as the repair lines to create consistency.

Third, the joint-call technique is also used to repair ceramics with missing pieces. Except this time, instead of making new pieces from sap or epoxy, the bowl is repaired by using pieces from other ceramic items. For example, you can use regular pieces of white ceramic to fix the damage on a colorful plate or the opposite, to use parts with flower patterns to fix a monochromatic bowl. Fixing a piece by using similarly shaped parts of other broken pottery, will create an eclectic but unified result, a stark difference from all other techniques.

Let’s Make Kintsugi Pottery Together

The ancient art of Kintsugi heals the object, but also the mind of the repair. By mending the broken pieces, we are learning to embrace our scars, our imperfections, and painful life experiences. If you want to master the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, join us on an hour-long online lecture entitled  Kintsugi: Japanese Art of Repair and Healing. We invite you to take broken pottery (a bowl, a plate, a favorite cup…) and a kintsugi kit and turn it into a unique art piece under the guidance of our guest speaker Azumi Uchitani. If you don’t have a kintsugi kit, you can get one right here. Azumi Uchitani, founder of Japanese SALON art & culture, will guide you through both the technique and the philosophy behind Kintsugi, healing your pottery as well as your soul.

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