New Rodmaking, New Respect

for professional rodmakers, and for the unholy ingredient, Japanese urushi lacquer.  My teacher long warned me about the allergenic effects of urushi, and advised that we worked with the synthetic version, but I insisted on the real stuff.  After a number of sessions, it appeared I was not affected by urushi; however, last week I had my first reaction to it. 

The most common variety of reaction is a rash in the area of the skin which has come into contact with the lacquer; however, I suffered the other more systemic variety, where seemingly randomly different parts of the body come up in an allergic dermatitis, often recurring or appearing only many days after apparently recovering.  Although I was lucky in that the reaction was not severe – the real proper cases entail a visit to the sawbones, and require hospitalisation – but it took about ten days to recover fully, and the itchiness was literally, maddening.  In fact I woke myself several times in the night, roused by my own unconscious scratching.  It started on the inside heel of my left ankle, working its way to the top of my foot, and variously made appearances on my left wrist, between the fingers on both hands in various combinations, the crook of my elbow, my neck at the collar-line in several places, the flank on my right waist, and somewhat embarassingly, on the most important thing in the world to all men (not ham, as Eric Cartman would say, but the other thing).  I have no allergies and so have never experienced anything like it: the incessant itch felt inside the skin, the weird tingling of the eyebrows and lids, the blotches of raised skin.  My teacher was rather unsympathetic, laughing as he declared that those who want to make rods seriously, must have a reaction to the lacquer at least once.  Unlike most allergens where the allergic response tends to get stronger and more dangerous with repeated exposures, most humans can apparently develop a tolerance to urushi.  Anyway, he also gave me some practical advice about cleaning up after lacquering, which perhaps I was not so strict in doing when working by myself at home.


Anyway work on my haze rod continues, and now I am at the stage of lacquering with a variety called nashiji, which has a much lower content of urushiol than other types and it went uneventfully.  When the lacquer goes on it is almost invisible, but when hardened it has a very rich chestnut colour.  Wet:



The lacquer gradually lightens over the months as it slowly polymerises, so it needs to be applied in three layers – with sufficient drying time in between each layer – to keep the nice colour.  When I made my wakasagi rods last month I rushed them a little and the quality of the lacquer suffered a little.  A professional craftsman making a custom rod would spend about 6 months on the lacquering of the rod; I am not a professional, so will try and do it in about 3.

I also picked up some gold leaf.  In the ludicrous Bubble era of the 80’s sushi chefs would wrap tuna sushi in it in the place of nori seaweed.  I will be using it on my new wakasagi rod, which I have designed and started making after the experience of my trip to Sagamiko last month.  In the photo you can also see the bamboo tweezers for handling the gold, and also a new brush, made from human hair, for lacquering.


2 responses to “New Rodmaking, New Respect

  1. Wow, I am glad you are okay, but it sounds like complete torture! Please make sure that you take care. I unfortunately have my mother’s allergy genes which means a lifetime of skin and breathing reactions. I can tell when someone has recently cut grass within a two block radius, if the wind is right.

  2. Hi Amy,
    I think I have recovered now, thanks. I think I have learned my lesson and will be more careful handling the stuff. The finished product is however, very beautiful, and I can’t see myself using the synthetic urushi; the colours just don’t come out right with the manufactured stuff, not nearly as rich.

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