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What Is Chinese Lacquer?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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Chinese lacquer is a durable finishing material used to create distinctive art objects and furnishings. This type of lacquer is made from the sap of several closely-related species of tree, but primarily from one specific variety, known colloquially as the "lacquer tree." Objects can be coated with Chinese lacquer for simple protection and wear from the elements. In other cases, multiple layers of lacquer are applied to a given object, and coloring and carving techniques are used to create extremely detailed and precious works of art.

The secret of manufacturing Chinese lacquer was first discovered well over 2,000 years ago but did not spread beyond China, Korea, and Japan until the relatively recent past. This variety of lacquer is produced by carefully harvesting sap from certain trees, most commonly the species Toxicodendron vernicifluum. This is not a simple process, as the sap of these trees can be effectively gathered only during the summer months and only before the sun has fully risen. The fact that this sap is a powerful skin irritant further complicates the process.

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Once sap has been harvested, it can be purified and used as lacquer. The normal color of this type of lacquer is close to clear. It takes dyes readily, however, and is often colored when used. Black and red are the most commonly-used colored forms of Chinese lacquer, but others are possible. The substance is then painted onto an object in a thin coat and allowed to dry in the presence of warmth and moisture.

An object coated in Chinese lacquer will be quite resistant to wear and weathering. Once hardened, even one or two layers typically suffice to protect against ordinary wear and tear. Chinese lacquer is also waterproof, and will protect effectively against moisture damage.

Many celebrated examples of lacquerware and other types of Chinese lacquer art involve far more than the simple protection of basic objects against the elements. The most elaborate types of lacquer art often require the addition of many layers of lacquer on top of one another. This process gradually builds up a thick coating of lacquer on an object.

After an object has been coated with many layers of lacquer, it can be carved. Fine details can be carved into the durable lacquer surface. Special effects can also be achieved through the use of layers of lacquer with different colors. Some of the most highly-prized Chinese lacquer crafts are made entirely of lacquer, which is initially shaped on an interior mold that is later removed.

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