DIY: Tansu Refurbishing

Updated February 21, 2017

Tansu means chest in Japanese and handmade antique Japanese chests are valued examples of fine craftsmanship as well as versatile storage and display pieces. Tansu were very popular in the Edo period from 1603 to 1868 and the following Meiji period until 1912. Tansu chests from both eras are available -- some in excellent repair, and some in need of repair. If you have an old tansu in need of refurbishing, first be sure the piece is not a rare or museum quality item. Then evaluate the damage, wear or missing pieces to repair or replace them.

Check the hardware. Metalwork was valued in ancient Japanese culture and the type and quality of the metalwork on tansu chests accounted for much of its value. If yours is damaged, dirty or missing, begin by trying to salvage what is there. Remove the hardware if possible, loosening it carefully with a flat screwdriver. Use a wire brush or steel wool to remove grime and rust. If the metal cannot be safely taken off the wood, tape around it with painters' tape to prevent any damage to the wood while cleaning old iron or brass.

Gently clean locks, key plates and decorative metal with a soft cloth and appropriate metal cleaner and then wipe each piece of hardware to remove any residue. Apply wax finish with a soft cloth to cleaned hardware.

Replace missing hardware with authentic pieces from the period of your tansu or, in the event there is no possibility of a period replacement, look for reproduction hardware in the same style and metal.

Remove any wood damaged by insects and replace it with the closest possible match. Professional restorers recommend using old wood whenever you can find it. Select wood that mimics the grain and colour of the original when there is no antique wood available. Bald cypress may be used to replace hinoki and sugi; white ash or red elm can replace old keyaki and kuri wood; paulownia wood can replace Japanese kiri. Attempt replacement of sections of damaged wood only if you are skilled in woodworking to avoid further damage to the piece.

Re-peg loose boards. Don't stabilise a shaky piece with wood screws or nails. Old tansu were made without them so replicate the original joinery if you have to replace missing pegs. Chinks in wood or damaged drawer tracks may need wholesale replacement. Find a skilled restorer or re-create the missing part or track yourself with wood that matches the rest of the chest.

Clean the finish as a first choice. The patina the piece has acquired over the years contributes directly to its value. Avoid stripping an old tansu and live with a certain uneven colouration that reveals its wear. If the finish is badly damaged, peeling or flaking or if the piece has paint or something else obscuring the wood, be conservation in your repair.

Remove only the damaged part of the finish with the least invasive sanding or chemical solvent. Restore a more even colour with alcohol-soluble stains or pigments in a shellac base. Work very lightly and gradually, testing to see that the new pigment blends in with the old finish as seamlessly as possible.


Old lacquers can be toxic, even on an antique chest. Wear a dust mask when sanding or removing an old finish of uncertain origin.

Things You'll Need

  • Flathead screwdriver (optional)
  • Wire brush
  • Steel wool
  • Painter's tape
  • Soft cloths
  • Metal cleaners
  • Wax finish
  • Antique replacement hardware (optional)
  • Reproduction hardware (optional)
  • Woodworking tools (optional)
  • Drill
  • Wood pegs
  • Hammer
  • Fine sandpaper (optional)
  • Brushes
  • Chemical solvent (optional)
  • Alcohol-soluble stains (optional)
  • Shellac-based pigments (optional)
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About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .