Marie Ebersolt

5th July, 2023

Nanbutekki cast-iron teapots are all the rage. Extremely hard-wearing, they can be passed down from generation to generation, since with careful use and simple but regular maintenance, they can have a lifespan of a hundred years. If they become too damaged, they can be melted down and recycled. In this way, their durability adds to their effectiveness. They retain heat well and add roundness to the texture of the water. Their well-groomed appearance adds an authentic touch to tea service. Let's take a closer look at the history of Nabutekki teapots and how they are made, to get a better understanding of their qualities.

In the second half of the Heian era, the founder of the Hiraizumi dynasty, which ruled northern Japan, brought foundrymen from Shiga. They followed their main client wherever he went on political business. They made weapons for him, as well as accessories such as meditation bowls for temples. After the death of their benefactor, the factories turned their attention to making everyday objects, such as kettles, teapots and racks, and settled permanently in the Iwate region, where iron filings were abundant and charcoal, clay and sand were of the highest quality. The foundry grew and its craftsmen gradually became a vital part of local life.
During the Second World War, natural resources were devoted to the war effort and foundries were only allowed to produce military equipment, which drastically reduced the number of activities. After the war, aluminium gained ground and the use of iron declined. Nevertheless, the added value of iron for its slow, gentle firing and thermal performance once again attracted consumers, and the growing demand from tea masters gave Nanbutekki a new aura.

The cast-iron teapots we're interested in here originally came from two distinct schools, although the manufacturing methods are very similar. Nanbutekki, which literally means "southern iron container", is now the equivalent of an appellation. It is the name of an association that brought together the two streams, which were located to the south of the seigneury from which they originated, in 1959. Today, 74 workshops employing 730 craftsmen generate annual sales of 400 million euros. Nanbutekki products were added to the list of traditional crafts in 1975. 
Today, the workshops are renewing their range. Among the items produced are kettles, saucepans, trivets, candlesticks, fuurin (bells), frying pans and croque-mr machines! Because cast iron is an alloy made up mainly of iron, objects made from it can be very sensitive to corrosion, especially if they are repeatedly in contact with water and air. The passivation of the irons obtained by firing at 900 degrees forms a membrane that resists the appearance of rust, and is a surface treatment that plays a major part in the success of Nanbutekki.

First, the craftsman makes a life-size drawing of the silhouette and designs that will appear in the boss. He then cuts a thin iron board in the shape of a symmetrical half of the future piece. In the past, this piece was made of wood, so the name kigata literally means wooden form. This is centred in the centre of a brick box that is gradually filled with sand mixed with clay. By turning this tool around the pivot, the teapot will gradually take on its shape. This first mould is made with three specific types of grain. The outer surface is coarsely ground to make it easy to give the shape, then finer to consolidate it, and finally the last layer is so smooth that it has a texture similar to silk (which gives it its name, kinumane, silk clay). Before this final layer of clay dries, stamps and brushes are used to decorate the surface of the teapot. Once completely dry, the mould is fired at 1200 degrees.
Next, a mould matching the inner surface of the teapot is placed in the outer mould mentioned above. Also made of sand and clay, it is not fired but only dried and is considerably smaller than the first mould. It is coated with an ash so that it can be removed once the piece has been fired. Molten iron, reaching a temperature of 15,000 degrees, is poured between this gap. The teapot, removed from its two moulds, is then fired at 800 degrees. It is at this point that the heat treatment provides protection against rust. 
Finally, the finishing touches are applied. The details of the decoration are sanded to perfection, then the work is heated to 300 degrees to apply a coat of lacquer using a brush. The colouring is done with a liquid of iron acetate mixed with an infusion of tea, the level of which will shade the colour between black and brown.

These cast-iron teapots are so popular that imitations have invaded the market. If the colours are too bright, don't hesitate to check where they come from. They should be stamped Nanbutekki de Iwate. Watch out for fakes!

Marie Ebersolt