From the March 2001 issue, pages 75 - 78.


Update on The Finish on Japanese Model 99 Rifle Stocks

By Stan Zielinski and Shannon Zeigler

Shortly after the article "The Finish on Japanese Model 99 Rifle Stocks", ([1]), appeared Stan was able to obtain some urushi through a friend who was visiting Japan. Stan refinished several pieces of wood from ruined Model 99 stocks and sent the samples to Shannon for evaluation. We both felt the finish matched the original finish, as did others Shannon showed the samples to. But at this point it was still conjecture on our part as to whether or not the original finish was in fact urushi.

Shannon did an Internet search to see if he could find anything to connect urushi to Japanese rifle stocks and Thomas Keep sent us a copy of an article that had appeared in The American Rifleman concerning Japanese rifle stock finishes. Here is a summary of the articles.

The American Rifleman article ([2]) is actually a letter to the editor in which the author describes a rash he incurred while working on a Japanese rifle stock. The author believed the rash was due to the wood used in the stock, and most of the editor's response was a description of various woods that are known to produce adverse reactions in some people. But in the last paragraph, the editor says "On the other hand, your experience may have been due not to the wood itself but to something in the varnish or dressing that the Japs used on the stock. Tung oil is a very popular ingredient in varnishes in China and Japan. Some people are violently allergic to Tung oil and a slight trace of it might produce alarming symptoms."

While the editor was right about the varnish being the culprit, and not the wood, he had the wrong ingredient.

The article "Contact Dermatitis from Japanese Rifles" ([3]) more positively pinpoints the cause of rashes due to the handling of Japanese rifle stocks.

The article begins: "A Japanese rifle was secured for each of ship's company during the stay of this aircraft carrier in Tokyo Bay. These were distributed during a three-week period. An estimated 150 recipients refinished the stocks of their guns, using scrapers and sandpaper. Gloves were not worn and hands were merely washed with soap and water. Seven officers and men subsequently suffered skin lesions severe enough to consult the medical department; of these two required hospitalization in sickbay." ([3], page 384) The author then went on to describe seven cases in detail and then states: "This outbreak apparently represented the result of intimate contact with a special varnish in individuals with known sensitivity to certain allergens. In Japan, the common natural varnish is obtained from the sap of Rhus vernicifera, a species of sumac. The varnish implicated in the present episode has not been positively identified as sumac varnish, although the high incidence of sensitivity to the related Rhus toxicodendron is suggestive. Before the war medical officers of ships stationed in China observed that contact with new lacquerware by seamen on liberty caused a similar vesicular dermatitis, known locally as "Ningpo Poisoning." The itching, vesicular nature of the lesion, its characteristic distribution on the hands and other sites of contact, its onset two days after a single and definite exposure, and its response to removal of the exciting agent and to mild treatment indicates that the Japanese varnish on the rifles caused a contact dermatitis." ([3], pages 386 - 387) The article concludes with: "Since many of these rifles are in the hands of men returned from overseas, scattered cases will probably be seen throughout the country. Care should be used by individuals with known sensitivity to plant and other allergens and that of poison oak or ivy in particular, when handling articles coated with Japanese lacquer or varnish." ([3], page 387)

The article "Dermatitis From Contact With Varnish of Japanese Rifles" ([4]) also describes a situation similar to the preceding article. "During the occupation of Japan, many thousands of confiscated rifles were issued as souvenirs to the members of the occupying forces. Soon thereafter a striking increase was noted in the percentage of cases of contact dermatitis referred to the U. S. S. Benevolence, then serving in the Tokyo Bay area. In many of the cases in which a contact factor was suspected, questioning revealed a history of the patient's having handled a Japanese rifle a day or two prior to the onset of the cutaneous manifestation.." ([4], page 111) The author then describes a case involving a naval officer who had removed with sandpaper the finish of a Japanese rifle. But the author of this article went one step further and conducted the following test. "With a razor blade, a small amount of varnish was scraped from the stocks of several Japanese rifles. This in turn was mixed with acetone, following which some of the solution was applied to the flexor surface of the patient's arm and covered with wax paper. A similar test, using acetone only, was applied to the opposite arm as a control. At the end of twenty-four hours, the patient noticed considerable itching at the site of the patch which contained the varnish, and at the end of forty-eight hours removal of the patch disclosed a sharply demarcated , elevated erythematous area. The patch test with acetone elicited a negative reaction." ([4], page 111)

Shannon had a similar experience while refinishing his rifle stock. He was careful to use latex gloves while handling and applying the urushi to the stock. While he had no adverse reactions to the urushi during application, he did get himself into trouble when he attempted to dull the shine with 0000 steel wool. Again he was careful to use gloves, but he was wearing a short sleeve shirt. He gently buffed a small area on the buttstock with steel wool and observed no appreciable dulling of the finish. He also did not notice any dust as a result from the buffing. But the next morning when he woke up, his inner forearms had broken out. The reaction was identical to the above articles.

It seems pretty conclusive from the above that the finish used on (some) Japanese rifle stocks was the Japanese lacquer/varnish called urushi. Both of us have used urushi to refinish Japanese rifle stocks, and the resulting finish seems to match the original finish.


As a side note of additional interest, note the descriptions of the distribution of the rifles as souvenirs, and the mention of the number of refinished rifle stocks using scrapers and sandpaper. Perhaps "Bubba" has gotten undeserved blame for all those refinished rifle stocks. This also may explain the many mismatched parts, as it seems likely that while the stocks were being refinished, parts may have been swapped intentionally to make the rifle "look better."

As an additional side note Stan refinished a Japanese Model 99 stock which had been broken through at the wrist and then reglued. A number of various modern chemical paint removers were used (including a lye solution) in an attempt to remove the remaining original finish, but none were particularly successful. Once hardened, the urushi finish seems to be a very durable finish, and this may also be an explanation as to why so many refinished stocks have been sanded and/or scraped.

But how to explain the different color variations noted on Model 99 stocks? In September Shannon was sent to Japan on temporary assignment. While there Shannon was able to visit a store that sold the urushi. He found that urushi comes in a range of colors, and that various shades of urushi correspond exactly to the different stock finish colors noted on Model 99 stocks. Thus it seems likely that the various shades of colors on Japanese stocks may not have been intentional but rather a result of the particular lot of urushi that the factory received.

One remaining question is when did the Japanese first begin to use urushi on rifle stocks? It seems fairly clear that at least some Model 99 stocks were finished with urushi.

As was pointed out to Shannon ([6]), Fred Honeycutt cites Dr. Masaya Kawamura and Sadamitsu Taguchi in his discussion of urushi. "The grips of Type 14 pistols were finished using a lacquer type finish made from the sap of the urushi tree. The grips of earlier Type 26 revolvers and even Type 38 and early Type 99 rifle stocks were finished similarly. This special technique, termed "Urushi," was introduced into Japan from China over 1000 years ago. The finishing technique is difficult, but the durability, when compared to ordinary lacquer, is excellent. As World War II progressed, "Urushi" production was interrupted by Allied bombing, and increased production requirements dictated alternate finishing methods. Thus, ordinary lacquer was substituted for "Urushi" in about 1942 for both rifle stock and pistol grips. By this method, four brush coats of lacquer were applied to the Type 14 grips." ([5], page 58)

Shannon comments: I don’t totally agree with this. Toyo Kogyo’s exhibit urushi use through the late 35th series. I have a series 35, serial number 55,417 (current high number is 56,658) and it definitely has an urushi finish. The other arsenals may have had to change finishes, but not all. I have several mid to late series Nagoya’s (series 6th-11th) that appear to use other than urushi as a finish. Athough, I would not be surprised if the finish was a very diluted urushi, or urushi combined with another lacquer/oil.

Stan comments: And since urushi is made from the sap of the lacquer tree, which grows in Japan, it’s hard to understand how Allied bombing could have disturbed production. In using urushi to refinish stocks, both of us have noted that one coat hardens rather quickly and less than 4 coats are needed to produce a good finish. As to the difficulty in using urushi, other than the possibility of skin rash, it is no more difficult to use than any other type of varnish. Perhaps the reference here is to the use of urushi in the lacquerwork referred to above in which many coats of heavily pigmented urushi are built up to produce the surface, but this is not the method used for stock finishes. According to more detailed articles on urushi, urushi cures by a chemical reaction, not by drying, and the chemical reaction is accelerated by both heat and humidity. Cold, dry weather might lengthen the curing time. Also, as noted in my first article ([1]), urushi is lacquer, as the term was used pre-WWII, and perhaps the terminology ("ordinary lacquer") is not quite correct. The term lacquer as used today refers to an entirely different finish, but which has many of the characteristics of urushi. Moreover the terms varnish and lacquer are not clearly defined and have in the past been used interchangeably (as they are in the articles quoted above). What was often earlier referred to as lacquer, we now call shellac, and the "ordinary lacquer" referred to here may in fact have been shellac. If so, this should be easy to verify as shellac is easily removed with alcohol (the main vehicle in shellac) and shellac is also not waterproof. (Wood tabletops finished with shellac are often marred with white rings from the moisture condensation at the bottoms of glasses containing cold drinks.)

Additionally, Shannon would argue any WW II built or arsenal rebuilt 38 rifle or 38/44 carbine was finished with urushi. He has a Chigusa rebuilt Type 44 and the finish resembles clear urushi. He also has WW II built Type 38s, Nagoya and Kokura series 26, and a Jinsen that appear to be finished in urushi. He is not sure about his Mukden (Hoten).

We would be interested in any comments readers would care to make. And as a final note, if you are sensitive to poison ivy and poison sumac, then you might be wise to be very careful in doing any kind of work that involves disturbing the finish on the wooden parts of your Japanese small arm.




1. Zielinski, Stanley, "The Finish on Japanese Model 99 Rifle Stocks ", Banzai, May 2000, Issue 216, pp 131-135.

2. Bylin, Richard S., "Poisoned by Jap Rifle Stock," The American Rifleman, December, 1946, page 57.

3. Hinman, Lt. Frank, Jr., "Contact Dermatitis from Japanese Rifles," Annals of Allergy 4 (1946), pages 384 - 387.

4. Coomber, Ralph B., Lieutenant Commander, MC-V(S), U. S. N. R., "Dermatitis from Contact with Varnish of Japanese Rifles," Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 55 (1947), pages 110 - 111.

5. Honeycutt, Fred L. Jr., Military Pistols of Japan, Third Edition, Julin Books, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, 1991.

6. Keep, Thomas, personal correspondence to Shannon Zeigler.


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