Laquaer Work

Lacquering as a process is thought to have started around the 8th century A.D. Whether the lacquering process began in Japan or China is still a question.

The Urishi tree (which makes the gum needed for making the lacquer) grows naturally in China, however the resin was in short supply in Japan. The fact remains that during the Classical Period - Japan excelled in the decorative arts and the quality of their lacquer work was known to be the best. The making and the application of lacquer was a time consuming and complicated process.

In this article, we will just cover the use of Black lacquer. Preparation for the piece that was to be lacquered had to be perfect. Once the lacquering began there was no room to make any changes to the construction which would be glued and pegged. After this process, the piece was sometimes covered with a thin cloth and covered with gesso or gesso alone. The gesso had to be a very smooth, as it was the basis for the lacquer.

The gum from from the Urishi tree was mixed with a small amount of what was called Tung oil. This was to prevent the gum from hardening. The mixture was then put into vessels that were air tight to prevent it darkening too quickly. When it was time to be used, the mixture was exposed to the light and charcoal was added to it to make the lacquer very dark. The application process took a very long time.

The lacquer was very thin but it took some time to dry in a humid atmosphere before it could be rubbed down for the next coat of lacquer. (Sometimes as many as 200 layers would be applied to a piece.)

In Europe, once it became fashionable to decorate with “japanned” furniture, everyone wanted to copy the look. By the mid 18th century, England was importing large amounts of the lacquer and became as skilled as the Chinese at lacquering. However; they were never able to reach the the highly skilled techniques of the Japanese.

Article by P.R. Burke

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