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 The Making of a Kokeshi

by Madelyn Molina 05/04/2021


The original Kokeshi from Japan were made out of "Wood". Today we can see many types of materials used to create what collectors refer to as "Kokeshi Inspired". But to be truly considered "Kokeshi" in the traditional sense they would need to be made of wood. The definition for こけし (Kokeshi) is a limbless wooden doll made on a potter's wheel (lathe) that had been sold as souvenirs at hot springs in the Tōhoku region since the late Edo period. 

Now that we've defined Kokeshi. An important note is classifcations. While Kokeshi is now recognized as both dentō (traditional) and Sōsaku (creative) forms. They were initially only the "dentō" types of Kokeshi which were composed of 10 strains (later expanded to 11) all originating in the Tōhoku region. Today those classifications have broadened but mostly due to and by collectors attempting to categorize and identify their collections. Many of the terms used by collectors are sometimes not recognized or heard of by Japanese craftsmen.

01 Prepping the Wood

Before we begin looking at the type of wood, I think it's important to note that wood cultivated to create Kokeshi can be dried for upto 18 months prior to use. This is primarily to achieve the right balance of dryness and whiteness. The tree bark is removed by hand in the winter when there is less humidity in the air.

02 Types of wood 

Primarily used is the "Mizuki" or Dogwood tree (Corylopsis pauciflora) endemic to Japan. It is a light wood which is ideal for creating the head piece for Kokeshi and can also be bleached for an even lighter colored result. But most importantly it has a neutral grain, not showing the ring growth, which can sometimes distract from the Kokeshi design.

There are other types of wood used as well. Sōsaku Kokeshi in particular are made of Keyaki or Japanese Zelkova Serrata. It is the symbolic tree for many cities and prefectures in Japan, including Miyagi Prefecture which is in the central part of Tōhoku, the birthplace of Kokeshi. The Kokeshi made of this wood are considered high quality pieces. Some dentō Kokeshi are also made of this wood, but rarely.

Other commonly used tress are:

a. Sakura (Cherry)

b. Itaya (Maple)

c. Tsubaki (Japanese camellia)

d. Japanese Linden (Shinanoki)

e. Hoonoki (White bark Magnolia)

f. Enjyu (Japanese Pagoda)

This is not an all-inclusive list, there are a few other types of wood that are used but not as commonly as those listed. Check out Dr. Jennifer McDowell's dissertation Kokeshi: Continued and Created Traditions(Motivations for A Japanese Folk-Art Doll) for more information.

03 Turning the Wood

Dentō Kokeshi kōjin follow the wood shapes inherent to their strain of Kokeshi, which has been handed down from one generation of workers to the next. They have specific measurements for the lengths of the Kokeshi they create. The shape and size for the heads is also carefully measured. 

Sōsaku Kokeshi do not have any of these restricting size/shape mandates. However they do study measurements carefully to create a work that has a good flow between body/head and overall design. They also employ additional techniques such as handcarving and wood burning that are not typcally used in the making of dentō Kokeshi.

04 Painting

Craftsmen often created their own water-based pigments or ink. They used 4 basic colors black, red, green and yellow (2 others rarely used were blue and purple). Because the paint would easily run the craftsman would sometimes infuse the paint with gelatin or glue. Today black sumi-e paint is still used, but because there are so many paints available in the market and some collectors would like the Kokeshi’s paint design to remain for a longer period of time some craftsmen are using acrylic paint.

05 Finishing Wax

Not all Kokeshi are finished with Wax. As a matter of fact, some collectors insist that the wax not be applied as they feel it makes the Kokeshi feel “not authentic”. While other collectors appreciate the added protection for their Kokeshi. There are 3 types of wax that may be used (a) Bee’s Wax which has a dull finish (b) Carnauba for a shinier finish or (c) Paraffin a chemical wax that became more readily available and easier to obtain (though many craftsmen still prefer to use natural wax).



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