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.
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.