FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: What is a Tansu?
A: A Tansu is a traditional Japanese wooden chest. Made up of a combination of drawers and sliding doors, tansu were designed to accommodate a variety of different uses.
When thinking about identifying antique Japanese furniture, it is helpful to imagine sitting on a two and a half-inch thick rice mat known as a tatami. From this low-seated position most daily activities occur - eating, writing and grooming. As a result, tables are low (12-13 inches) and chests, know as tansu, sit directly on the floor.
Made up of a combination of drawers and sliding doors, tansu were designed to accommodate a variety of different uses. For example, and ishodansu stored kimono, a chobadansu stored documents while a chadansu stored implements for tea ceremony and a kodansu was used as a writing desk and secretary. While the size and positioning of the doors and drawers vary among these different tansu, they hold in common clean lines and asymmetry. With a focus on utility, many of these chests are stackable and most have metal side handles so they can be easily moved.
Q: How do you know how old something is?
A: The type of wood or material, condition, style and workmanship of the piece, marks and dates stamped or written on the piece, type of metalwork and method of production, books and online reference, many many years of experience. Some pieces are more difficult to judge than others, but for those things that we focus on, we typically can get pretty close.
Q: I want to put a TV in my new armoire. Can you customize it for me before I get it?
A: Absolutely. We can add or remove shelves, remove the back to allow room for your TV's tubes, and cut holes for the wires. We just need measurements and direction. Significant alterations may have an additional charge.
Q: Do you deliver?
A: Yes, we deliver for free to the Portland, Oregon area. Outside Portland (but within driving distance - from Seattle to Eugene, say) is negotiable. We ship items large and small via shipping companies, UPS, the US Postal Service. Packing shipping charges vary greatly depending on the item and destination. Contact us for more information.
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Glossary of Terms
BAIMU – Cypress, a softwood, that is used for large pieces of furniture or decorative trim. Has a light colored grain.
BODANSU – A general term for any tansu that relies on a vertical locking bar (bo) to secure the drawers. This is one of the very oldest tansu designs. The bar is sometimes referred to as a kannuki, or closing bar.
CHADANSU – A chest for tea utensils. Finely crafted pieces make in the twentieth century have lost their mobility and therefore cannot be considered tansu in the strict sense of the word. Chests specifically intended for use in the tea ceremony are called tea-ceremony tansu.
CHODANSU – A general term for shop tansu, originally used to store account books, also called chobadansu if intended for use on the raised platform (choba).
DOGUBAKO - Small tansu used by craftsmen to store fine tools and small supplies.
EDO PERIOD – Japan, 1603-1868.
FUNADANSU – Sea chests, tansu used on the “thousand-koku” ships and on land by ship owners and captains. Mostly built between 1716 and 1907 at the Japan Sea towns of Ogi, Sakata, and Mikuni in three styles: kakesuzuri for the ship’s papers, hangai for clothing and chobako for account books, money and documents.
GOYODANSU – Goyo designates some official function. These chests were most commonly used to transport and store documents.
HAKO – Literally a box but occasionally applicable to tansu as in the chobako sea chest and the gyoshobako. Hako is pronounced –bako in compounds. In that tansu makers were often referred to as hakoya or box makers, it is still common for the older generation to speak of the tansu craft as hakomono, literally box things.
HEISEI ERA – Japan, 1989 to Present.
HETAOMU – Chinese walnut, ranging from a medium to dark brown. It is somewhat rare and seems to show up most often in tables from the 18th century.
HIBACHI - A vessel made of bronze, ceramic or wood with a metal lining, filled with fine ash and bits of charcoal used in Japanese homes as a portable fireplace and space heater.
HINOKI – Aromatic cypress used for the framework of some merchant tansu from western Honshu, as well as for objects of daily use.
HONGMU – More commonly called “blackwood”, this wood is rare but not uncommon. Often used for decorative trim on cabinets and chairs. Its color is a deep chocolate brown bordering on black with a small grain.
HUANGHUALI – A hardwood valued by the ruling Chinese elite, it belongs to the rosewood family and originally came from the south China island of Hainan. Furniture makers often dyed it to look like zitan but it became so popular among western collectors during the late 19th and 20th centuries the color was often stripped off. Usually thought to have a honey colored hue and a tight even grain, it can actually range in color from light brown to mahogany dark. Very few stands of these trees are left, and at times it was thought to be extinct.
HUANGYANMU Boxwood, a brown hardwood used ornamentally in Chinese furniture, in a relief sculpture or carved wooden hinge on a cabinet door.
HUALI – A common, light honey colored wood sometimes mistaken for huanghuali.
IKEBANA - The art of Japanese flower arranging.
IMARI - Japanese high fire ceramic that was produced near and shipped out of the port city of Imari.
ISHODANSU – General term used to denote clothing storage.
JICHIMU – Literally translating as “chickenwood”, this rare wood is brown with a vivid grain that resembles the layered feathers of a chicken wing.
JUMU – Southern elm, a soft deciduous wood (meaning that it is porous enough to hold a color) most commonly used for late Qing pieces. Plentiful in central and southern China, it has a rich grain, is usually a medium brown but can also be lighter or darker.
KAIDANDANSU – Built in staircase tansu, most always in two or three sections for mobility. Popular with merchants in urban areas of Honshu during the Edo period for use in shops and storehouses.
KATANADANSU – Tansu for storing sword blades without the hilts and scabbards. Usually of paulownia wood with one or several small lockable drawers to accommodate sword fittings.
KEYAKI – Zelkova, a hardwood related to the elm with a bold grain and used in tansu as both a primary and a secondary wood.
KIMONO - A type of Japanese clothing.
KIRI – Paulownia, a softwood highly prized by the Japanese for cabinetry because of its flexibility, tone and texture.
KURUMADANSU – A wheeled chest. Outlawed in Tokyo during the Edo period due to safety issues.
MEIJI ERA – Japan, 1868-1912
MIZUYA – This term is associated with the preparation area of a tea ceremony room. The mizuya chest is usually a frame and panel chest on chest for food and utensil storage, found within or near the kitchen.
OBI - A sash used to tie a kimono.
QING DYNASTY – China, 1644 - 1911
SAKE - A Japanese type of alcohol.
SHODANSU – Book chests, usually small, with drop fit doors. These chests are sometimes referred to as shobako.
SHOGUN - In Jana, the person with the highest political rank starting in the Kamakura period c.1200 and ending in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration. Only a person in the military class could rise to the position of Shogun, and only one person at a time could be Shogun, and they were always male.
SHOWA ERA – Japan, 1926-1989
SUGI – Cryptomeria, a non-resinous conifer used extensively as a secondary wood for the tops and sides of case pieces with hardwood faced drawers.
TAISHO ERA – Japan, 1912-1926
TANSU – Japanese cabinetry that allows for mobility by either by structural design or hardware. When used in a compound, tansu is pronounced -dansu.
TATAMI - A thick mat made from rice straw covered in a thin woven mat attached with a fabric band used in Japanese homes, usually of a set dimension.
TEMORO – A small personal tansu for women to store hair ornaments, a mirror, cosmetics, etc.
TETSUBIN - A small iron pot with a handle used to warm tea water.
UKIYO-E - Japanese woodblock prints. Translates to "pictures of the floating world".
USUBATA - A bronze flower vase used in ikebana.
YUMU – Northern elm, similar to jumu.
ZITAN – The most sought after wood of the Chinese court, it was imported from SE Asia and cut to extinction. It is a very hard wood and thought to be a yellow flower pear wood. It has a rich, deep purple/black color.
Chinese Country Antiques – Vernacular Furniture and Accessories, c. 1780-1920. McCormick, Andrea & Lynde. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, 2000.