by Tsuyoshi Ageta
Kochi Washi Coop
Handmade Japanese paper (washi) consists of the paper materials, tools, and papermaking techniques. This time, I will talk about the tools. To make washi is a very demanding task, moreover making the tools used for Washi requires extraordinarily delicate skills. The principal tool in making washi is the su and the keta. Primarily made of bamboo, the su is used to thinly spread the pulp material on when making the paper.
The inner layer of the bamboo is chipped off and then the skin is split to form bamboo splints, which are used to form into sheets. The nodes of the bamboo cannot be used for the bamboo splints, so only the length between the nodes is used. Bamboo splints that differ in thickness cannot be used in the same su, only the splints that are equal thickness are used. The length of a bamboo splint is generally up to 16-18 inches long and they are carefully braided together one at a time. The thickness of the bamboo splints differs depending on the paper being made. Heavier paper requires thicker splints, and lighter paper requires thinner splints. Even when making only one su, 3000 splints are generally needed, so it can take from one week to 10 days to complete.
Next is the keta, which is the wooden frame the su is inserted into. Making the keta requires even greater technique than making the su. The material for the keta comes from Hinoki Cypress that is no less than 400 years old. The keta has to be light because it will be filled with water and the soaked paper materials. It also has to be strong enough to withstand intense swinging actions during the paper making process as well as stay in tact despite all the water that seeps in. For these reasons, the Hinoki Cypress that is used has to be dehydrated for several years. This adds the degree in difficulty for the washi tool making technique and testing the materials is very important.
Other than the su and keta, there are the metal fixtures for the keta, the silk threads for braiding the su, and the brush used to dry the washi. All of these require advanced techniques and careful picking of the ingredients necessary to make them. Right now, there are approximately 30 people in Japan who are occupied with making the tools for washi, with the core of it advancing to 80 years in age. For the future of washi, Kochi prefecture holds an annual “Nationwide Preservation of Handmade Japanese Paper Tool Making Techniques” to train succeeding generations.