Urushi & tea leaves

The incredibly excessive atmospheric moisture of this winter overwhelmed the painted finish on the steering wheel and it started flaking off. Series rover steering wheels are notorious for breaking down after about 50 years. The coating on the outside wears off over time and the composite material leaves black sludge on your hands when the weather is damp.

With some more time to put against the project a decision was made to experiment with natural tree-source urushi lacquer to see if it could hold up to the task. Urushi is a precious material made from the sap of a certain tree (related to poison ivy) and must be handled carefully by the average person until it cures, however it makes a beautiful and enduring surface with a unique feel and had a subtle translucent quality. Traditionally it is used for containers, rice bowls, and sword scabbards.

In its natural state it is a slightly transparent deep dark-chocolate colour but can also be turned black by reacting with iron oxide. It does not dry but instead cures in the presence of just enough humidity and warmth. It must be applied in very thin layers or it will run, wrinkle, take ages to cure, or all of the above. It contains small impurities and also attracts dust when wet which makes obtaining a smooth surface quite difficult even in a controlled environment, and generally requires delicate wet-sanding between each layer. It took more than seven layers to achieve a satisfactory final finish for the steering wheel.

For removal, the boss pries out to reveal the horn connection wires and the nut holding the wheel on (top photo from earlier in the year). Note the small rubber wheel between the turn signal lever and the base of the steering wheel which rolls to cancel the signals–straightforward and simple!

The boss had a wrinkled texture but was flaking off and was easily removed with a soft copper scraper. Urushi bonds well to steel and after the first layer cures fully the second layer is applied and ground tea leaves (it is a British machine after all!) are sprinkled into it wet to create a “sabi-nuri” texture reminiscent of cast or rusted iron. After curing this layer, additional layers saturate the tea to harden and darken the surface. The horn button was also sanded and given several thin layers of natural urushi to seal and protect it.

The wheel itself was first sanded to remove as much of the old paint as possible and then sealed with several layers of urushi coloured black by iron-oxide reaction. The layers each required several days to cure in a warm, humid environment created in a utility sink with a damp towel set near the heater. After establishing a base the surface was carefully wet sanded with 1000grit paper to remove some of the imperfections from the unfiltered lacquer or dust in the air, though not excessively so, it is a rover not a sword scabbard after all! The final coats were wiped on in fukiurushi style very thinly to seal the surface.

While test driving to assess the alignment of the re-installed steering wheel quadruple 7777 rolled by on the odometer, so triple 777 plus 8 as a new beginning will have to suffice as a documented milestone.