In short, lacquer is the sap from the very aptly named “lacquer tree.” It is found mainly in an area just under the bark, and it’s main purpose is to seal any injuries to the tree as protection.
Well, somebody at least 10,000 years ago discovered that this tree sap can be used as a protective finish, thus giving rise to lacquerware. This 100% natural finish not only protect the wood, but it acts as a stain and a film finish to both strengthen the wood and give it a unique appearance. Once dry, lacquer typically does not fade, stain or require any special maintenance. Also, the finish will not be harmed by heat, acid, alakaline substances, and moreoever, it has been shown to have anti-bacterial properties.
Eventually, once the high gloss film is worm away but years of use, it will be necessary to refinish, but this will take years or decades to occur. This safe, natural finish will hold up to many years of use, while still looking good.
Lacquer is harvested from the spring to fall by cutting the tree and then collecting the sap that comes out. This is repeated over and over once a week or so until the sap stops flowing in the fall. At this point, the tree has been weakened to the point it is no longer useful and is cut down to make room for new saplings. A 10-year old tree will provide slightly less than 0.5 lbs (200g) of raw lacquer. This raw lacquer is either filtered and used in its raw form, or it can be further processed by heating off the excess water to form a thicker version that is better suited for brushed finishes. Lacquer itself has a reddish-born color and is mostly transparent, but it can be reacted with iron to create the typical black finish seen on many Japanese lacquerware. It is also possible to add a number of different pigments such as red to create opaque lacquer finishes in a range of colors.
For more information about lacquer and some of the lacquering techniques, please feel free to browse through the blog.