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Asian Lacquer – Sap Varieties and a Basic Guide to Purchasing Raw Lacquer

16 January 2021

Asian lacquerware is a unique art form that involves coating objects with layers of natural resin to produce decorative and protective coatings. Asian lacquer is derived from the refined sap of several species of trees within the Anacardiaceae family, and different species are grown in different regions. It can be applied on almost any material and the diversity of lacquered Asian objects (Figure 1) is a testament to this. The materials and methods used in manufacturing and decorating lacquerware varies according to region and culture and is a fascinating world to deep-dive into – I have included some references below for anyone curious. There are also many informative videos on YouTube.

Figure 1 Varieties of lacquered objects. From top left (clockwise): 1. Armour (Gusoku), Japan, 18th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2. Buddha, China, early 7th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 3. Betel box, Burma, Mid-20th century © The Trustees of the British Museum, 4. Kris maker’s adze, Indonesia, 1800-1870s (early), © The Trustees of the British Museum.

There are three main types of Asian lacquer: 1) East Asian lacquer, also known as urushi or Japanese lacquer, 2) Burmese lacquer, also known as thitsi, and 3) Vietnamese lacquer. These are chemically distinguishable based on their primary chemical component, which contributes to differences in the properties of the lacquer, though it should be noted that this is also affected by the age of the tree, the season and process of tapping, and how the sap is refined.  While chemically different, all three types harden through a chemical reaction, known as oxidation polymerization, with oxygen under controlled environmental conditions. The result is a coating that is extremely resistant, inert to acids, alkalis and alcohols, insoluble in most solvents, and is able to withstand high temperatures. Table 1 provides a brief summary.

Table 1 Summary of information on Asian Lacquer

Asian Lacquer – Varieties     
Lacquer Type / Common NameJapanese lacquer / East Asian lacquer / UrushiBurmese lacquer / ThitsiBurmese lacquer / Thitsi  Vietnamese lacquer  
Tree SpeciesToxicodendron vernicifluumGluta usitataGluta laccifera Toxicodendron succedanea
 (Formerly Rhus vernicifera)(Formerly Melanorrhoea usitata)(Formerly Melanorrhoea laccifera)(Formerly Rhus succedanea)  
Primary Chemical Component UrushiolThitsiolThitsiolLaccol 
Found inChina, Japan, KoreaCambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, LaosCambodia, Thailand, Vietnam Vietnam, Taiwan

For my first conservation project, I was assigned a Burmese lacquer cup (Figure 2) belonging to our Conservation Department’s very own Professor Jane Henderson. She shared that she had purchased it as a souvenir from a lacquerware workshop during a trip to Myanmar. The cup was very loved, well-used for drinking, and had overtime suffered losses to the lacquer layer along the mouth rim and foot. She requested for it to be made reusable (safe to drink from) and to appear relatively ‘un-damaged’.


Figure 2 Myanmar Lacquer Cup. Source: Author

While considering conservation treatment options for in-filling the areas of loss, I struggled to find a conservation-grade material that is durable, waterproof and food-safe. This led me to eventually contemplate the use of Asian lacquer as a repair material, which is a common practice in Asia for repairing and restoring lacquerware. Based on the mentioned criteria, it seemed to be a good fit as it cures to become hard, non-toxic and resistant to heat and solvents, thus making it food-safe, washable and durable for regular use. It would also share similar properties to the object’s original lacquer layer, hence making it more likely to age and react to environmental changes in the same way and thus more compatible than other synthetic materials. The downside would be that the repair may be irreversible or difficult to retreat in the future since lacquer cures to become insoluble.

 Since the cup originates from Myanmar, using the lacquer variety (thitsi) from the region would be preferable – this is based on the assumption that a local source of lacquer was used in the manufacturing process. If not, the use of other types of lacquer (urushi or Vietnamese lacquer) can be considered since these would still be characteristically more similar to the lacquer on the cup than a synthetic material.

With that in mind, I moved on to my next consideration – is the material available in the lab? If not, can it be easily purchased?

A quick chat with our tutor confirmed that the lab does not stock any forms of raw Asian lacquer. Answering the second question took some effort and with that, I thought it would be helpful to share what I learned from the sourcing process and to have the vendors’ information consolidated here as a reference for anyone interested in purchasing raw Asian lacquer.

My Key Takeaways:

  1. Urushi can be easily purchased online. Vendors often provide different qualities of urushi, and these can be pre-coloured or clear. Some even stock kintsugi kits and other related tools and materials. The cost depends on the origins of the lacquer – Chinese sourced lacquer is usually cheaper and of a lower quality than Japanese ones (the quality depends on the urushiol content). The cost price of materials from Japanese vendors is lower but once shipping and additional costs are included, the overall amount may be similar. When purchasing kintsugi kits, be sure to check if what you want is a traditional kintsugi kit using raw urushi or a modern interpretation that uses epoxy (links are to blog entries by alumni students, Shan-Ying Chen, and Cal James respectively).
  • Southeast Asian lacquer is hard to obtain. I contacted several lacquerware workshops based in Southeast Asia over social media and emailed the Asian Lacquer Craft Exchange Research Project but had no positive result. In the end, a personal contact connected me with a lacquerware workshop in Myanmar that was open to selling thitsi – even then, there were concerns with shipping (see point 3). Unfortunately, I have not yet found a vendor that sells Vietnamese lacquer.  
  • There are import considerations. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) may be required when importing lacquer, particularly if shipping is by air. The shipment may not be accepted by the courier service without this information. Hence, always clarify these matters with the vendor before making the purchase. If possible, purchase from one that already has experience exporting the material internationally. In the case of the vendor from Myanmar, they could not provide the MSDS documents required for export shipping as the production of MSDS does not yet exist in their country. While they were very helpful and offered alternative delivery options, the import process appeared risky, and in the present climate (thanks Covid!) of restrictions in travel and movement of goods, a stressful experience was one that I’d much rather avoid. Lastly, there may be additional customs and tax charges for importing goods… so be mentally (and financially) prepared to get another bill on top of what was paid.
  • Health and Safety considerations – Raw lacquer is a hazardous material that can cause skin allergies (rashes) similar to those caused by poison ivy – it loses this property once properly cured. Certain countries may require a license for the import, use and storage of hazardous materials, though this is usually only applicable to large amounts, so be sure to check whether this is applicable in your local context and for the quantity ordered. On a related note, make sure to read up on the Health and Safety advisories for lacquer before working with it and ensure that appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is worn when using and handling the material.

Table 2 summarizes the vendors I found online that have good reviews and who provide services in English. Prices are excluded as this largely depends on the amount and type of lacquer.

Table 2 Summary of information on vendors that sell raw Asian lacquer

Type of LacquerVendorWebsiteBased
in
Source of LacquerRemarks
UrushiKintsugi OxfordlinkUKJapan– Stocks pre-coloured and clear urushi, and kintsugi kits
 Kintsugi Shop ArtlinkFranceJapan– Stocks pre-coloured and clear urushi, bulking and filler materials, kintsugi kits and Japanese lacquer tools and brushes
 Kremer PigmentelinkGermanyInfo not provided– Stocks pre-coloured and clear urushi
– Also a supplier for art and conservation materials
 Mejiro JapanlinkJapanInfo not provided-Stocks pre-coloured and clear urushi, bulking and filler materials, kintsugi kits, Japanese lacquer tools and brushes and more
-Stocks low allergenic lacquer 
 Watanabe ShotenlinkJapanChina and Japan– Stocks pre-coloured and clear urushi, bulking and filler materials, Japanese lacquer tools and brushes and more
ThitsiEver Stand Lacquerware WorkshoplinkMyanmarBagan, Myanmar– If needed, request for Ms Malar from Ever Stand for assistance
– They are unable to provide MSDS documents which are required for delivery by air

I hope anyone looking to buy raw Asian lacquer to experiment with will find this helpful! If you would like to add a vendor to the list or share any other tips on purchasing, please comment in the ‘Comments’ section of this blog post. Happy shopping!

References

Brommelle, N. S., and Perry Smith, eds. 1988. Urushi: Proceedings of the Urushi Study Group, June 10-27, 1985, Tokyo. Marina del Rey, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/gci_pubs/urushi [Accessed 10 January 2021].

Lu, R. & Miyakoshi, T., 2015. Lacquer Chemistry and Applications. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Rivers, S., Faulkner, R. and Pretzel, B. eds. 2011. East Asian Lacquer: Material Culture, Science and Conservation. London: Archetype Publications.

Scott, P., 2019. Vietnamese Lacquer Painting: Between Materiality and History. [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.sg/magazine/vietnamese-lacquer-painting-between-materiality-and-history [Accessed 10 January 2021].

Szczepanowska, H. & Ploeger, R., 2019. The chemical analysis of Southeast Asian lacquers collected from forests and workshops in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Journal of Cultural Heritage, Issue 40, pp. 215-225.

Tamburini, D. et al., 2019. The evolution of the materials used in the yun technique for the decoration of Burmese objects: lacquer, binding media and pigments. Heritage Science, Issue 7.

Webb, M., 2000. Lacquer: Technology and Conservation. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Williams, J. L., 2008. The Conservation of Asian Lacquer: Case Studies at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. s.l.:Asian Art Museum.


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