Referred to as 'Keyaki' in Japan, a type of Elm, the wood from the tree is one of the most revered
materials for woodwork. It has been widely used through history in construction and for furniture or other interior items. A deciduous tree of medium hardness, the wood has a unique and striking golden color to it, and the grain is often quite beautiful, and with a number of pattern variations. I haven't used it so much, the grain being rather bold, I found it a little strong when wanting to produce subtle designs, but my eye has been changing and I'm liking it more and more for furniture.
The tree grows quite abundantly in Japan and is hearty. It has been suggested as a good replacement for Elms in the states, so ravaged by the Dutch Elm disease, Zelkova being greatly resistant to the blight.
Favored in gardens around homes, the mature tree makes for great shade, so you usually don't have to go far when in some areas to find nice old specimens. The size can become huge, with very broad limb spreads, the tree often being hundreds of years old. It is seen in parks and around temples as well, and sometimes will be lining a street in the city. There are still a few ancient trees that can be found, on up to a thousand years old or more.
The wood can sometimes be rather hard and heavy, but it isn't a particularly difficult material to work with, either when machining or when using hand tools. Wood from younger trees is rather susceptible to warping, so it's the material from the older trees that is most desirable, and with the longer growing, there is usually also the advantage of better color and tighter grain. Like other Elms, the grain tends to be very interwoven, so it is less susceptible to cracking than a lot of hardwoods. In that respect, doing things like wedging tenons close to the edge of the wood can be done successfully, where with other species a much greater degree of caution would be required.
The chair is made from Keyaki, a design I picked up from an old one that belonged to a friend in England. I don't recall what the original was made from, possibly Beech with an Elm seat, a common combination of woods during the era in which it was built. It had been his grandfather's chair, and was still in very good condition and getting daily use. I lightened and simplified mine a bit, particularly the legs which had a series of rings, changed the way the arm joins into the back corner post, and later an urushi artist finished it with a number of coats of lacquer. I thought that it turned out very well. It sold at an exhibition in Nagoya, and another person requested that I make him one as well. Very nice to receive the positive response, as I had not built this design for a number of years, and the first time in Zelkova. The seating is comfortable, and makes a very nice desk or reading chair, and terribly English...
The Urushi is fairly dark initially, but lightens up considerably over time. Photos don't really do it justice. The sheen is very warm and inviting with a very attractive depth, and it is also amazingly durable as a finish.