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Saturday, June 5, 1999

Brushing up on hairs and whiskers the write way

Staff writer

"The first thing that I learned from my father was how to choose the right type of hairs," says Yoshio Tanabe, the fude (Japanese writing brush) maker who owns Tanabe Bunkaido. Selecting the hairs is the first and most important step taken in the brush-making process, he says.

"The fude maker has to have a good eye to do this. The way to distinguish between good hair and bad is to see its luster and how flexible it is when bent." According to Tanabe, the best type of hair for making writing brushes is sheep wool, especially thin hairs that don't snap easily.

After the selection is made, he processes the wool by boiling it and sprinkling it with the ash of burned rice hulls to remove the grease and make it more absorbent. The hairs are rubbed, squeezed, blended and put together in several steps. Then the brush tip is inserted deeply into a stem, with only about one-third sticking out, and glued in place. The inside of the stem has been ground and polished to fit the tip. Tanabe uses stems made from water buffalo horn, though bamboo is also used by some makers.

The brush maker then combs funori (vegetable starch) through the tip. Finally, he ties one end of a linen thread around the tip and holds the other end in his teeth, drawing it toward him to make a pointed tip. This is done in an instant; one has to look very carefully and closely to see the trick.

Tanabe Bunkaido opened in 1934. A small shop located in Tokyo's historic Yanaka district, it is filled with different types of writing brush. The tips are made of sheep wool, horsehair, mink, weasel, wolf and mouse hair, among others. Rabbit whiskers and even peacock feathers are sometimes used.

With a choice of writing brushes ranging from very thin to thick and using different kinds of hair, the customers normally take time in choosing which brush to buy, Tanabe says. They come to the shop, sit down and talk in detail with Tanabe before they decide.

"It's good for me to talk with the customers; I can learn a lot about fude from them, too," says Tanabe.

Tanabe Bunkaido's customers have included Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and their students, as well as famous Japanese calligraphers and artists such as Seiji Togo. "Such professionals can tell instantly which fude are good, without having to try them out," says Tanabe.

It takes four to six weeks to complete a writing brush, and the shop produces about 200 to 300 a month. The basic process of making a brush takes only three to four years to master, but "it takes a lifetime of learning to make a good fude," says Tanabe.

"It's very much like an artist learning throughout his life to master his craft."

Tanabe Bunkaido: 1-1-28 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0001, (03) 3821-5720

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