Varieties Of Japanese Lacquer
1. Lacquer drawn from the branches (Seshime-urushi) becomes very hard and is used for priming.
2. The crude lacquer (Ki-no urushi) is a viscous liquid of dirty grayish color and full of impurities, which are allowed to settle, when the lacquer is drawn off and strained through cotton cloth. This straining process is very important, and for fine work the lacquers are again carefully strained through a strong paper called Gashinogamei, just before using them. The fine lacquer is stirred in the open air to allow the superabundance of water to evaporate, when it assumes a brilliant dark brown color, which in thin layers is transparent, but in thick ones opaque.
3. Shunkei urushi is a lacquer which needs no grinding or polishing, and is made by mixing a little oil of Perilla ocemoides (Ye-no-abura) with pure lacquer. This is used for furniture, is of a yellowish color, and so transparent that the grain of the wood remains visible. The most celebrated is made in Akita.
4. Roiro urushi, black lacquer, is produced by simply stirring the crude lacquer in the open air for about two days, and adding towards the end of this time a little water in which iron filings have been standing. These methods are varied to some little extent by the artists, each of whom prepares his own lacquer. In priming, a little burnt clay, dust, or fine stone-powder is mixed with the raw, branch lacquer, to increase the extreme hardness of this ground coating. By mixing a little drying oil with lacquer, its transparency is increased, and when dry has a considerable polish.
5. Colored lacquers are produced by mixing with the crude lacquer, cinnabar, orpiment, red oxide of iron, Prussian blue, etc., ground very fine, and the mixture strained very carefully. In producing objects of colored lacquer, the primary coating is smoothed and polished on a grind-stone, two or three coats of an inferior black or colored lacquer are applied, and when dry this surface is ground with charcoal and water. The final coatings of the purest lacquers are carefully ground and polished with powdered deer horn. To finish an object of black lacquer, it is repeatedly rubbed with a ball dipped in raw lacquer, and each time carefully polished with deer-horn powder.
6. Nashiji, or gold-sprinkled lacquer, is produced by sifting particles of gold leaf on a fresh coat of raw lacquer. When hard this is smoothed over and covered with a mixture of Nashiji-urushi, gamboge, and raw lacquer, which is afterwards ground with charcoal to the required transparency, and carefully polished. For the commoner ware tinfoil is used, and the yellow of the Nashiji-urushi gives it a gold-like appearance.
7. The relief is given by many successive coats, mixed generally with red oxide of iron or colcothar.
8. The metallic powders, gold, silver, bronze, etc., are applied to the final coating before it has hardened. When hard, the surplus powder is removed, and the lacquer polished.
9. Carved lacquer was introduced into Japan by a China-man about the year t600, and is principally confined to red lacquer in imitation of the Soo Chow. It is called Tsi-shu. Occasionally also black or brown lacquer is carved.
10. Guribori is produced by thick successive layers of various colored lacquer, the last being generally brown, with scroll lines engraved deeply, so that the inclined faces will show the different parallel layers of color.
11.. Lacquer is also inlaid with gold, silver, bronze, mother of pearl, ivory, porcelain, stones, and other substances.
12. Tsugaru lacquer presents an appearance marbled in red, brown and green veins. A first coat of black is applied mixed with white of egg or bean powder, then tamped with a ball of cotton to produce irregularities on the surface. These are partially ground down and a second coating of different color applied. The same operation is performed and repeated until all the colors are applied, when the surface is ground smooth, and presents most beautiful veins.
13. Wakasa ware, having a lustrous appearance of green and red, is produced by placing tin foil under the final coatings. The same means produce the brown colors with a metallic lustre.
14. Gold of sixty different shades of color is used in the production of Makiye.
Japanese records prove that lacquer has been produced for more than two thousand years ; its durability seems equal to the hardest substances, even to works of bronze ; neither water nor heat seems to affect the older pieces. It has been used in large constructions as well as in small works of art. The ceilings, walls, pillars, and whole interiors of temples have been decorated with it.
The solidity and durability of lacquer objects depend not so much on the outer coatings as on the priming. When this priming has been properly done, their durability is unlimited, as may be understood by examining pieces now four or five hundred years old. A test of the most severe nature was unwittingly made in 1874, when the steamer " Nile," returning to Japan with the goods bought for the Yeddo Museum at the Vienna Exposition of 1873, foundered off the coast of Japan in twenty-five fathoms of water. Japanese divers succeeded in recovering two hundred cases from the ship, among which were several pieces of fine and carefully made old lacquer. One of these, a very handsome music stand, which was under water over eighteen months, we most carefully examined, and with the exception of the tarnished silver mountings, the piece was as perfect in its joints and in the color and polish of its lacquer as when it left the hands of its artistic maker. Not so, however, with most of the modern pieces, which had cracked and split open, and from which, in many cases, the lacquer had warped and fallen off.
In Japan lacquer bowls are used for hot wines, liquors, soups and other hot dishes. In the cheaper modern objects made for foreign markets, the priming is done with glue or paste, and such pieces will not stand either the continuous action of water or of dry heat. At present the finest lacquer is made at Tokio (Yeddo) and Kiyoto, commoner kinds in the provinces of Aidzu and Yechizen.
Freshly lacquered objects are placed in close wooden boxes which have been sprinkled with water, so that the hardening takes place in the dark, clear of all dust, and in a damp atmosphere. It is also said that some artists finish their fine work at sea to be perfectly free from dust. The finest quality and most esteemed was produced between A. D. 1550 and 165o, and the same causes which produced the magnificent architecture and painting in Europe during the times of feudalism conspired to produce these magnificent specimens of lacquer in Japan.
( Originally Published Late 1800's )