The Making of Japanese Lacquerware

The manufacturing of Japanese lacquerware is roughly divided into 4four processes: "wood base", "undercoat", "middle coat & final coat" and "decoration".

Each process involves different types of processes depending on the materials, required quality of lacquerware and prices.

Woody: wood powder and synthetic resin that are corked, which becomes stronger and heavier than synthetic resin.

Synthetic resin: plastic

Manufacturing of wooden lacquerware products begins with cutting natural wood into the right sizes with cutting tools such as an adze or hatchet.

Thoroughly dry the cut workpieces for approx.

6 months to 1 year to make them ready to use for manufacturing.

In making round shaped tableware like soup bowls, wooden workpieces are placed on the potter’s wheel and shaped with a cutting knife called “Mino.”

To make angular items such as trays, tiered boxes, and small boxes, dried natural wood are cut into pieces then assembled.

On the other hand, woody and synthetic resin types of lacquerware are shaped by heat treatment and molding.

In the molding process, parting lines of molds create burrs (raised edges) to workpieces which are deburred with a special knife to make the surface smoother.

Craftsmen specialized in each work process by paying attentions to details.

Please note that lacquerware using natural wood requires longer time and higher techniques than woody and synthetic resin types in terms of drying and shaping.

Next step is base coating.

Applying a base coat reshapes and reinforces the wooden surface.

In lacquerware making, this is the most important work that determines the hardness of the lacquerware.

In the base coating process, "base lacquer" is applied to the surface of workpieces.

Base lacquer is made with the mixture of lacquer and "Jinoko" which is a type of clay powder made from grilled diatomite.

In some cases, juice of sour persimmon substitutes for lacquer, but it does not have the same strength as that of lacquer.

However, sour persimmon is still used just because it is cost effective.

The base coat is applied with a bamboo or wooden spatula.

As applying base coat using a spatula creates uneven surface, the surface is sanded to smoothen after the applied lacquer if completely dried.

The number of coating and sanding processes depends on the use of lacquerware and budgets.

A set of coating and sanding process is applied only once in some cases, and twice or three times in other cases.

The more layers of base coating are applied, the stronger lacquerware becomes.

Given that Urushi (lacquer) is a coating material just for waterproofing and antiseptic, the lacquerware after base-coating process can be ready to use.

However, by adding middle-coat, final coat, and decoration, lacquerware gains more gracefulness.

After the base coating process for reinforcement, workpieces go into the middle coating and final coating processes.

In the base-coating process, bamboo or wooden spatulas are used, while “Urushi brushes (lacquer brushes)" are used for middle coating and final coating processes.

Urushi brushes are made of animal fur such as horses or human hair, and selecting which brush to use depends on the shape of lacquerware.

In the middle coating process, higher purity lacquer is used than base-coating process.

The number of middle-coating application varies depending on the use of the lacquerware and a manufacturing site, but generally it is done twice.

In addition, lacquer color selection from black or iron red in the middle-coating depends on what types of lacquer is to be used in the final-coating process.

Middle-coating makes a difference in the aesthetic quality of final coating.

Since lacquer applied to workpieces does not dry immediately, the workpieces that completed middle-coating are put into a drying shed called “Nushiburo" where the temperature and humidity are controlled constantly.

It is also called "Kaiten-buro (shed with rotating shelves)" because the shelves from which workpieces are hooked rotate so that lacquer applied on the surface of workpieces does not drip.

After drying, workpieces are polished with water and a special plane called “Kanna” or a grinding stone called “Toishi” to remove debris and unevenness of the surface in order to make the best possible condition for the final coating.

Then, workpieces go to the "final coating" process.

In the final coating process, highest purity lacquer is used, which has been filtered through layers of Japanese rice paper over and over in the special filtration tool.

This final coating is the most important work that determines the beauty of lacquerware.

To prevent the surface of workpieces from debris or dust, lacquer is applied thinly and uniformly by paying close attentions.

In the drying process of final coating, workpieces are dried in the "Urushi-buro (lacquer drying shed)" in which the shelves are scheduled to rotate at certain intervals to prevent unevenness of final coating.

The finishing quality of lacquerware with elegant gloss is all determined by this process.

The lacquerware with final-coating can be ready for sale, and in some cases decorationcases, decoration is additionally applied to their surfaces.

There are several decoration methods.

“Byakudan Nuri (Byakudan coating)” is a decoration method that drawings are put on the surface with gold powder or silver powder sprinkled over before final coating, then clear lacquer called "Suki Urushi " is applied so the patterns raise to three dimensional.

"Roiro" is another decoration method in which the dried surface is polished with charcoal over and over after the final coating is applied.

It gives deep and moist feeling gloss.

"Makie (Makie)" is a method in which drawings are painted by a brush with lacquer on the surface of lacquerware, then gold or and silver powder is sprinkled before drying.

The Makie method has some variations, for example, gold powder called "Nashijiko” or Raden is pasted and lacquer is applied, then the surface is scraped until underlaid Nashijiko or Raden gets surfaced.

"Chinkin" is a method in which engraving on the surface of lacquerware with a fine knife called Nomi, then lacquer is filled in the grooved area and gold or silver powder is sprinkled on top.

As you have seen, the making of Japanese lacquerware takes long time and requires sophisticated and reliable techniques.

As mentioned in the beginning, the value of lacquerware varies greatly depending on what materials are used in each process, types of techniques and time required.

Please keep in mind that it does not mean that the higher price, the better value.

Take it easy and enjoy using Japanese lacquerware in you daily life and meal times.