MaterialsJapanese samurai armor is typically made up of many small parts and a wide variety of materials. Steel, leather, and wood typically form the protective plating, which may be composed of many small sections laced together using leather or silk cord. Lacquer is then applied over the parts to hide the construction beneath a smooth, glossy surface. The leg and arm guards might be made from chain link or plating, stitched to richly decorated silks and leathers. The addition of finely wrought details such as monograms, fasteners, and ornaments, often in gold and contrasting colors, makes the entire costume a luxurious fashion statement as well as effective protection.
This X-ray image reveals the hundreds of small metal plates making up the do, or body section. The plates are laced together in an overlapping pattern provide strength with flexible movement to the wearer.
Conservation TreatmentProper display of these costumes can be difficult because materials such as silk, steel, and lacquer have very different chemical structures and respond to the environment very differently. After several centuries, once-strong silk lacings may no longer be able to support the weight of heavy steel plates. Lacquered parts may be bowed, cracked, or flaking, and steel elements may have rusted. Each material needs special attention and any treatment must take into consideration all the surrounding materials as well as the overall function and appearance of the armor. A conservation treatment always starts with careful examination, materials identification, and documentation before any alterations are proposed. Because every case is unique, the pictured steps are chosen to illustrate interesting examples rather than a step-by-step treatment. This is not intended as a teaching tool or a how-to instruction. Armor is delicate and easily damaged — home treatment is not recommended. Always consult a professional for advice on care of your precious art and artifacts.
Whenever possible, conservators choose reversible, age-tested materials that will complement and work with the originals. Below, printed leather bands on the haidate (thigh guards) are repaired to prevent further damage. Small pieces of long-fibered, hand-made Japanese paper are inserted as a fill and set down with a flexible, inert adhesive. The toned paper is flexible and strong, so it can move with the armor without adding bulk.
To support the armor, a traditional Japanese mount was adapted by adding a custom-built internal form. The form was constructed in the Conservation department from layers of starched buckram, foam, and fabric. All of the materials are carefully tested before use to ensure that they will age safely and harmlessly — with care this new mount will provide support and protection to the armor for many years to come.
Once the conservation treatment is completed, the assembled armor appears to be hanging freely on a Japanese-style mount. But beneath the simple appearance lies a great deal of hard work. As with many conservation treatments, the hand of the conservator is intentionally hidden from view. The ultimate goal of a conservation treatment is to preserve the work without distracting the viewer from the intrinsic beauty of these powerful and elegant works of art.