About Lacquerware

Lacquer is a type of sap which has been used as a paint to protect and enhance wooden or clay products for at least 4000 years in China. Late Jomon Era (1500–300 BCE) Japanese pottery painted with lacquer has also been discovered. These days, Japan still loves using lacquer – about 500 tons per year! – with about 95% of it being imported from China. While only a small amount of lacquer is produced domestically, it is of very high quality. Growing lacquer trees can be very difficult as the variety of tree has to closely match the climate and type of soil. High-quality lacquer is able to withstand both very high and very low temperatures and has resistance to electricity, as well as infrared and UV light. Lacquer coatings bond strongly to the product they’re covering and with proper care will last forever.

うるし1(1)First some of the lacquer tree’s bark is scraped away.
うるし2(2)8-10 parallel lines are carved.
うるし3(3)A sharp tool is used to cut into the lines, and sap oozes out.
うるし4(4)The sap is collected with a spatula and scraped into a container.
うるし5(5)An old-fashioned centrifuge is used to remove impurities.
うるし6(6)The lacquer is dried either in the sun or with an electric heater to remove the remaining mosture. It takes at least half a day, often a full day.

木曽漆器とはThe Kiso area has long been known for producing lacquerware. The original lacquerware from the area was in the form of shipping boxes to and from Ryugenji temple, still located in Kiso. From the dates and maker marks written on these boxes, we can tell that lacquer has been produced in Kiso for at least 600 years. In the 1650’s, Kiso’s lacquerware producers had shops in nearby Shiojiri. It was around this time too that the Edo government allowed Kiso cypress to be used as a lacquerware base. These lacquerware products made with Kiso cypress became popular souvenirs for tourists from Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka, allowing Kiso products to be spread throughout Japan. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912) many Kiso artisans studied how to improve their lacquerware in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, an area still renowned for the high quality of their lacquerware. The Kiso lacquerware industry developed rapidly, and Kiso’s abundant local resources have allowed it to become an area famous for lacquerware products.

How is Kiso lacquerware made?

Lacquerware Production

( 1) Material collection 材料集め Logs from trees in the mountains are naturally dried in the sun.
( 2) Wood processing 木地加工 A woodworker forms the base.
( 3) Priming 下地塗り Rice flour and unrefined lacquer is mixed and used to fill the joints of the wood.
( 4) Priming 下地塗り Rust fungi and unrefined laquer are mixed to make a strong base coat for the wood. This step is very important for ensuring the lacquer will bond strongly to the wood.
( 5) Second coat 中塗 (なかぬり) A coat of unrefined lacquer. This coat is to prevent dust from accumulating.
( 6) Decoration 型置 (かたおき) A rough pattern is made.
( 7) Color 色漆塗り (いろうるしぬり) Lacquer is mixed with dyes for color and painted on 12-13 times. Each coat must dry completely before the next coat is applied.
( 8) Sanding 研出 (とぎだし) The colored lacquer is sanded smooth.
( 9) Polishing 胴擦 (どうさつ) The lacquerware is polished with charcoal powder mixed with oil.
(10) Washing 摺漆 (すりうるし) Lacquer is applied to a cloth and wiped onto the lacquerware, then quickly wiped away before it dries.
(11) Final polishing 磨き Rapeseed oil is mixed with a polishing powder and used to give the lacquerware a glossy finish.
(12) Finish 仕上がり Other techniques may be used depending on the desired pattern and color of the product.

Lacquerware Techniques

Lacquerware can bring a natural feeling to any space. Using different techniques, lacquer can bring out the beauty of the natural wood grain or cover it completely to create a new pattern. Access to modern technology means that both traditional patterns as well as more modern patterns can created. These are the main techniques used for Kiso lacquerware:

木曽堆朱(きそついしゅ) Relief patterns
This is a common technique for Kiso lacquerware. A pattern is made using lacquer, and the rest is filled with colored lacquer. Once the space is filled in and the surface is flat, the piece is sanded and polished smooth. A subtle pattern with a variety of colors emerges.
塗り分けろいろ塗(ぬりわけろいろぬり) Separate coating
A special second coat called “Jinuri Nakanuri” is applied. This coat is sanded and polished, and a further coat is applied on top. After this coat is sanded and polished, the piece gains a beautiful mirror-like gloss.
木曽春慶(きそしゅんけい) Lacquer staining
A thin layer of lacquer is applied to dried wood with a strong natural grain. This laquer stains and protects the wood while allowing the natural wood grain to show through.
曲物(まげもの) Circular pieces
The wood is cut to a suitable thickness and softened with hot water. The wood can then be bent into a circular shape before being covered with lacquer.
摺漆(すりうるし) Washing
Natural patterns such as cherry blossoms are first made on the wood. Then, lacquer is applied using a cloth before being wiped away, allowing the natural wood grain to show through.
溜塗(ためぬり) Color staining
A colored second coat of red or yellow lacquer is painted, and a thin layer of regular lacquer is put on top. The color shows beautifully through the transparent layer on top, giving subtle color to the piece.
蒔絵(まきえ) Metal lacquer
One of the most well-known features of Japanese lacquerware, the glow of delicate gold or silver applied to a piece gives it a sophisticated decadence. These techniques require using gold or silver powder and a high level of skill.
沈金(ちんきん) Metal inlay
This technique requires carving grooves into the laquer and filling it with gold or silver powder. The technique looks subtly three dimensional and gives it depth.

After many years of use, lacquerware can occasionally become dirty or cloudy. In that case, please wash it with warm water and a soft cloth or sponge. If it still looks dirty, use Benzine on gauze or cotton and wipe it off. While lacquer is durable, it should not be left in water for too long. The color or shape can also change if exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods of time. The piece can be placed in a box or a dry, shady place to help ensure it doesn’t get too hot.