Lacquer is a type of varnish used to seal, protect, color and decorate objects of wood, metal, bone and more. The most popular examples of lacquered art include chopsticks, bracelets and decorative boxes, but it has been incorporated into larger works as well. Tables, armoires and even parts of shrines and temples have been decorated in lacquer. In Japan, lacquer's protective qualities have made it popular on everyday household items such as sake cups, rice bowls and combs, and at one time, soldiers wore armor and carried swords coated with lacquer.
Japan is famous for lacquer work, and lacquered jewelry and ornaments that date back more than 9,000 years have been found there. The urushi tree, from which lacquer is derived, was considered so valuable that groves were planted throughout Japan during the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), though relatively few remain today.
The town of Wajima, Japan, boasts its own lacquer technique that involves the application of cloth to reinforce delicate places on lacquered objects. The cloth is sanded along with the piece, and the lacquer is then applied over it until the cloth blends into the piece. This technique, called "Wajima nuri," is so revered that Japan declared the town an Intangible Cultural Asset.
Lacquer is made from the sap of the urushi tree, which is native to Japan. During the summer and early autumn, the trees are "bled," and the thick white sap begins to solidify immediately. The solid material is filtered through cotton and spun in a centrifuge to remove bark and other contaminants. The product at this stage is suitable for use as a base coat, but must be further refined to be used for middle and final coats. Iron powder is then added to tint the base lacquer black or red.
Lacquerware is still produced by hand today. There are hundreds of steps, including about 30 individual coats of lacquer that must be sanded and polished before the next one is applied. Because the process is so time and labor intensive, even a small piece can take up to six months to produce. As a result, lacquerware can be very expensive.
Lacquer is very strong, and protects the underlying wood from mold, mildew and the effects of weather. It is also acid proof and waterproof, and when wet, it is one of the strongest adhesives known. Because it absorbs moisture from the air as it dries, it retains a bit of water content and stays very shiny and wet looking without requiring polishing or burnishing.
Ultraviolet rays can cause black lacquer to become dull and less protective. Small lacquer objects should be stored in a silk bag when not in use to avoid exposure to sunlight.