Traditional Culture of Japan - Portal site of traditional crafts and culture

What is lacquer?

 

Lacquerware refers to the traditional crafts that are finished by coating wood or cloth with lacquer. Lacquer is the sap of the “lacquer tree”, and it is made by getting the liquid that is tapped from cutting a tree to bleed and refining the liquid.

 

Lacquer has a strong adhesive force and smooth sheen. Because of these features, lacquer is used not only for craft work but also for restorations of broken ceramics. Lacquer has special characteristics that cannot be found in other substances. Lacquerware is created by leveraging these characteristics.

 

Characteristics of lacquer

Lacquer trees are found in East Asia. In addition to Japan and China, you can also find them in countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and India. But, you won’t find the lacquer trees if you go west of these countries.

 

But, lacquer trees are now replanted in other areas such as South America, so you may occasionally find them in areas outside of East Asia.

 

Lacquer is obtained by cutting the lacquer tree to bleed, but the main ingredient varies depending on the country where the tree grows.

 

The main ingredient of the lacquer that is obtained from the lacquer trees in Japan and China is called urushiol. Urushiol bears the distinguishing characteristics of lacquer such as creating the sheen and making the coated objects more durable.

 

However, the main ingredient of the lacquer tree varies depending on the locality. The main ingredient of the lacquer trees in Taiwan and Vietnam is laccol whereas that of Thailand and Myanmar is thitsiol. Because of this, it is important to turn your attention to the type of trees in order to acquire high quality lacquer.

 

Additionally, lacquer differs in the way it dries depending on the climate. When it is dried after the coating process, it turns into a high quality lacquer in a climate such as Japan. In other words, the “drying location” is critical for lacquer. Therefore, even though the exact same lacquer is applied, the quality of lacquerware varies between the ones that are dried in Japan and the ones that are dried in Europe.

 

Also, if any natural oils from your hand touches the lacquer when applying, it will leave a lasting mark. Additionally, drying the lacquer largely depends on the humidity of the day that it is dried. This indicates that lacquer is a delicate living creature.

 

Lacquerware is durable
The materials that are applied with lacquer become very durable. Lacquer is naturally resistant to heat, acid, and alkali. Lacquer remains unperturbed even against aqua regia, which can dissolve gold. Also, hydrogen fluoride, which can dissolve ceramics and glass, cannot dissolve lacquer.

 

The lacquer that is just tapped is in a liquid form, but once this dries out, it will never dissolve again. This is the reason why lacquerware is so durable.

 

As just described, due to its characteristics that make the coated object durable, lacquer is also used as a material of a ship, which is exposed to the sea breeze over long periods of time. In fact, lacquer is most frequently used by high-grade ships.

 

Looking at tools that were excavated from ancient burial mounds shows that even lacquerware that was buried in the mud for over 2,000 years still looks shiny while keeping its shape. If this material, lacquer, is applied, you can use the coated object over hundreds and thousands of years. Lacquerware is that durable.

 

Of course, if a “low-quality lacquer”, such as one where oil or other substances are mixed with the lacquer, is used, the coating could come off with use. However, with the use of a pure lacquer, the coating might be blemished but will not come off.

 

In other words, if you use the real lacquer, it will actually cost you less in the long term. This is because that lacquerware will last longer and you can use them for generations.

 

Interestingly, Marie Antoinette, who lived a glamorous lifestyle at the Palace of Versailles, is also noted as someone who had collected lacquerware. From its brilliant sheen and attractive appearance, lacquerware was popular among court aristocrats in Europe for quite some time.

 

You can appreciate these lacquerware in museums in Europe. Lacquerware was highly praised in the world as an oriental work of art sent from Japan.


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