An Introduction to Chinese Lacquerwork

acquer has an extremely long history. Examples of lacquer finish have been found dated as early as 7000 BC. The technique of using lacquer was also discovered independently several times across Asia, where the lacquer tree is indigenous. Even now there are different traditions of lacquer use, most notably the Chinese style (which also includes Japanese), and the India/Burma style.

Click for larger view Ceremonial Chu coffin from 4th century BC
Chinese lacquered coffin from the ancient State of Chu, dated to the 4th century BC.

Lacquer use developed and spread, despite the difficulty of working with it, because of the remarkable strength and durability it has when dry, and its beauty and versatility. It can be considered technology's first plastic, and is highly resistent to damage by water, acid, alkalai, or abrasion. (it is more sensitive to UV light, and should be kept out of direct sunlight). Due to its durability and beauty, lacquer has been used for common items of daily use as well as for works of art.

Lacquer is a finish made from the sap of the lacquer tree. 10-year-old lacquer trees are slashed in several places to get a small amount of the sap. The lacquer tree is in the sumac family, related to poison sumac, and so the sap, as well as the wet lacquer itself, is a strong allergen. Workers who could come in contact with it, or even breathe its fumes, must take care to avoid string allergic reactions.

Uncolored, lacquer is a kind of transparent brown, but usually the artist will add a coloring agent to the raw lacquer. Traditional colors were limited by chemical reactions between the lacquer and the pigments, so traditionally there are only a few colors, most often black or red. Other techniques of decoration are common too, including mixing colors, carving the lacquer for a 3-D effect, and embedding things like gold dust or eggshell in the lacquer when it is still wet.

Click for larger view Carved lacquer box
Carved lacquer box

Lacquer can be applied on almost any surface: wood, bamboo, stone, metal, leather, or even "bodiless lacquer", where the first few layers are painted on top of a body which is removed, so the final object is only lacquer.

Working with lacquer is difficult. Besides the inconvenience of its being such a potent allergen, it must be painted on in very thin layers because of the way it dries. If the layers are at all thick only the outer surface will react with oxygen to harden, leaving the inside liquid. As a result, to build up the thickness of .5 to 1.8 cm needed for decoration can require dozens, or even hundreds of layers. Each layer must be carefully painted, dried, and polished, and take one to two days. Just preparing an item can take months or years. The end result makes it worthwhile.