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Received 22nd Oct 2012
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Japanese lacquerware is prized because Japan's lacquer contains the highest proportion of the one substance that gives lacquerware its coveted qualities, it is called 'urushiol' borrowed from the Japanese word for lacquer, which is ‘urushi’. The value of the sap of the lacquer tree has been known in Japan since prehistoric times and it was used as an adhesive to mend pottery and fix arrowheads to their shafts. Lacquer can be applied to many materials including wood, silk, metal and plastic, (which is what our range of Japanese lacquerware has been made from) and creates a beautiful high-gloss finish, typically in black or red.
Lacquer itself is clear, and one style adds no pigment to it at all, employing the color and grain of the wood as part of the design. The most common base colors for lacquer ware are black and red. One style begins by coloring the base black, covering it with coats of red, then partially polishing the upper coats away, so that the black undercoat shows through in places, giving the impression of a worn, utilitarian object.
How many coats of lacquer to apply and of what quality is the next decision that determines the value of a piece? The wooden core, which has already gone through a long process of shaping and seasoning to make it a stable base, is first impregnated with raw lacquer to make it waterproof and ready to accept subsequent coats of increasingly refined lacquer.
Each coat must harden before it is polished and the next coat applied. The word "drying" is not really appropriate for this phase in the production of lacquerware. A piece with a fresh coat of lacquer is placed in a specially controlled environment of high temperature and humidity. It remains there from several hours to several days and, during that time, chemical processes takes place that cause the lacquer to harden while maintaining a high moisture content.
After hardening, each coat is polished using abrasives ranging from powdered stone to crushed flower petals. When the object has taken on a silken smoothness and high luster it is ready for decoration, again, there are a multitude of choices. The simplest, of course, is to add no decoration at all that will interfere with the elegance of the piece's form. Some styles add designs or pictures by painting the surface with colored lacquers. Colour may be added to complement a relief carved into the base before any lacquer was applied. A design may be cut into the hardened layers of lacquer and then filled with colour or precious metal. In a style called maki-e, all or part of an illustration is created by applying gold, silver, tin, or mother of pearl in leaf, flake, or powder form. The material is sprinkled over a figure while it is still tacky after being painted in colored lacquer over the background.
Some of the techniques for decoration are lost today. Fewer craftspeople can invest the time required to create the multiply layered designs that have become rare treasures. In some cases the materials needed, are no longer available, such as the hair of river rats for making certain kinds of 'urushi' brushes.
The final step in making a piece of lacquerware is to apply and polish the top clear lacquer coats. There is a Japanese saying, "Urushi should be applied in a boat at sea," which refers to this last step. It is crucial that not a speck of dust should be allowed to touch the surface as the last coats of lacquer are applied and hardened.
Even after the final coats have hardened, lacquerware continues to interact with its environment. If you take your lacquerware to a climate less humid than Japan's, storing it next to an uncovered glass of water will preserve its moisture content. Minimizing its exposure to light will also help to prevent the surface from discoloring.