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What is Japanning?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2014
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Japanning is a lacquering technique which is meant to imitate the lacquer traditionally produced in Japan and other Asian countries. A number of surfaces can be japanned, ranging from snuff boxes to tables, and this lacquering technique enjoyed a period of immense popularity, especially in the 18th century. Numerous beautiful examples of japanned pieces can be seen on display in European museums and in private collections, and some companies continue to produce pieces in this style, although it may not always be referred to as japanning.

The art of japanning arose in the 17th century, when Europeans began to be captivated by the fine lacquerwork that came out of Japan, China, and India. Several companies experimented with a variety of varnishes and lacquers before producing a thick, black lacquer with a resin base which would harden to a brilliant shine when handled properly. At one point, pieces coated in this lacquer were known as “Indiawork,” but “japanning” to describe this style caught on instead.

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Most classically, a japanned piece is totally covered in rich black lacquer which may be decorated with painted designs in other colors. Gold paint or gold leaf is commonly used as an accent color on japanned pieces; the gold stands out beautifully against the black to create a rich look. Japanned pieces may also use red, blue, or other colors as a base in addition to classic black. It is also possible to find a piece with several base colors, such as black outside a box and red inside.

European companies japanned tables, chairs, cases, trays, snuff boxes, and a wide assortment of other goods. When the work is done well, a japanned piece can be extremely durable, and one could almost consider japanned goods as an early form of plastic. The enamel could be polished to a high sheen, and it was often quite impact resistant, although it would eventually crack or wear away with hard use. Japanned ornaments were immensely popular in many 18th century drawing rooms, and they were classically decorated with Asian motifs.

Tools for japanning are sold in some craft stores, along with things like stencils for applying patterns and designs to finished japanned pieces. Japanning requires patience, as the lacquer must be applied in several layers and it needs to be allowed to dry completely before more coats can be applied. It is also important to work in a clean, dry space without dust, as a small fleck of dust can ruin the finish of a lacquered piece.

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anon319725
Post 5

I built a ukulele-sized version of the three-stringed instrument called a shamisen. It is known as a gottan. I finished it using jappanning technique which requires not only building up layers of lacquer, but rubbing between layers with rottenstone. It's a traditional way to finish lots of things from tables to music boxes, and everything wooden. It does require patience, but is well worth the effort.

Tomislav
Post 4

@alfredo - I have never tried this technique before, but I do know you can acquire a gallon of lacquer (which is even more than you need) for usually about twenty to twenty-five dollars.

As far as I can tell you do not need a specific type of lacquer for this type of craft. Good luck and one more piece of advice - lacquer is very hard to remove from places you did not intend for it to be, so lacquer carefully!

aLFredo
Post 3

I will have to tell my in-laws about this technique! They have always loved and been intrigued by Asian artwork. It seems to be so intricate and exotic with each piece that I see.

This sounds like a great way to do some Japanese-inspired artwork on a budget, since the lacquer is available at craft stores. Does anyone know how much it would cost to buy enough lacquer for a small side table?

SteamLouis
Post 2

I build model airplanes and although I usually use good old paint, I'm thinking about japanning my last model. I've read that a primer is not needed and it lasts a very long time.

I'm sure it still will need at least two or three coats of it but that won't be a problem since my models are pretty small.

I can also do some designing on it when I have time. I think silver designs would look really good.

Now, I'm wondering where would be the best place to get it? I don't want to spend too much on it so I hope that it's affordable.

And do I need a top coat to fix everything in place or is it pretty much good to go once it dries?

ysmina
Post 1

I think there was a lot of Western envy towards Asian artwork in the 18th century. I think it's interesting and a little funny too. Many of the items I have seen that were decorated with japanning techniques have Eastern designs on them, but it is also very evident that it was made in the West. The designs and decorations are sort of a Western interpretation of Eastern art.

There is even one where the theme is Christmas and features Santa Claus in the center. But around it, there are Chinese art designs. I think the envy and intrigue over Asian art and japanning techniques resulted in this very unique art trend. It's very interesting to look at.

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