Natural Lacquer Arts

What Is All Natural Lacquer?

Coating objects with natural lacquer is a process first developed over 7,000 years ago in Asia. Lacquer in China, Japan, and Korea developed along somewhat similar lines, with each nation applying their own artistic and cultural influences to the final product.

Lacquer is the refined sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron verniciflua), which traditionally is only found in Asia. When applied correctly, all natural lacquer creates a clear and nearly impenetrable barrier against heat, water, bacteria, and even some types of electromagnetic waves, making it ideal for household wares.

The secret to the strength of the lacquer coating is in the chemical process it undergoes after being applied. Unlike a traditional varnish, lacquer does not dry into a hard shell through evaporation; it actually goes through a process of oxidation and polymerization. The resin from the lacquer tree contains the chemical urushiol, and the urushiol is why the chemical bond it forms when refined and dried under the correct conditions, is incredibly strong, durable, and resistant.

The lacquer is applied in multiple layers and must sit in a special drying room to set the lacquer between each layer. Pigments made from specific minerals are sometimes ground to a powder and used to add color to the lacquer.

The final product, after preparing the base material, harvesting and refining of the lacquer, and then adding multiple layers of lacquer, may involve the hands of several artists and take months.

In Korea, the process of creating lacquerware has developed into a particularly beautiful art form: steeped in tradition yet open to exciting new innovation in design; maintaining the traditional all-natural processing while bringing this ancient art form into a new modern world.

How Are Natural Lacquer Items Made?

It takes several months to create even a simple lacquer item.

The various stages of designing, forming and decorating a highly refined piece can take years to complete. The artists who create these works of wonder must train for decades to master the necessary skills. They must learn how to sap the lacquer trees and refine the liquid, strengthen the core object and apply base coats, and then begin complex decorative techniques.

Most lacquer items have a wood substructure at its core, however bamboo, metal, ceramic, bone, leather, paper, and even sharkskin have been identified in a variety of historic objects. Modern craftsmen who create these substructures are highly skilled in their own rite. Once the basic components, say a box and lid, are carved it can take up to three years to cure—adding more time to the overall creation process.

The lacquer trees require 8-10 years to mature.

The tree sap is harvested annually between June and early September. It takes about 108 days to complete the sapping process. Shallow cuts are made in the bark of the tree, and every four days larger cuts are added. In Korea, a special tool is used to make the cuts, and then the raw lacquer is scrapped out with a spatula and added to a small bucket. In other Asian countries the trees are sapped more like maple syrup, with buckets left to collect the sap over several days. This Korean method is more labor intensive and the best artists personally collect the lacquer, in order to ensure the highest quality.

After the raw sap is back at the studio, the artist and studio workers remove debris and other impurities. Next the water content of the lacquer is evaporated. The final product is a deep amber color. Ground-up mineral pigments are added in order to create a variety of colors. For example, the mineral cinnabar makes the traditional vermilion red. Further refinements produce clear lacquer, which is used for the finishing coats to enhance the luster and sheen of the final product.

The first step is to strengthen any fragile seams or smooth out any rough areas of the core object with a mixture of rice glue and raw lacquer. This is allowed to dry, then sanded, cleaned, and the initial coat of lacquer is applied. Between each coat, every item must be put into a special room with a set temperature and humidity level, in order for the chemical bonding process to occur properly. It takes at least 24 hours for the surface to harden. The piece is then sanded and cleaned, again. Depending on the final design and intended use of an item, anywhere from ten to (literally) thousands of coats might be needed. This ancient process requires a firm understanding of organic chemical properties and a great deal of patience.

Although the basic steps for making lacquerwares are the same throughout Asia, special decorative techniques emerged in different countries.

In Korea, the shell inlayed method known as, najeon (nah-jôn), is praised as the most advanced. The individual shell pieces that make up the design are all hand-cut. Next, the pattern pieces are glued to the surface—this pattern must be carefully aligned.

Lacquer the same color as the background is then painted over the entire piece, including the shell design. It takes many layers, with adequate drying time between each, to buildup a completely smooth surface. Finally, the most difficult step begins; scraping away the lacquer to expose the final shell design. This takes a masters’ skill, because it could easily ruin the entire object after many months of hard work. Other popular methods of decoration include inlays of other materials like metal and gems, building up thick layers then carving relief sculptures, and paintings in a variety of themes.

All natural lacquerwares aren’t only healthy, practical, and durable, but also incredibly beautiful.

It takes the knowledge and care of a farmer to harvest the sap, the skill and precision of a craftsman to strengthen and form the objects, in addition to the soul and patience of an artist to bring beauty to each individual piece. This is why every one of our natural lacquer products is so special.

We hope you enjoy them!