Designer: Jacques Blanchard
How Lacquerware is Made
The art of lacquerware in Vietnam is part of a more than 2,000-year-old tradition and has roots in many Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea and, of course, Vietnam. In general, lacquerware objects are made by applying multiple layers of tree resin to objects to create a hard, protective coating. While this technique is common to all countries who work with lacquer, this is where the similarities end. Different countries, and even different regions within each country, have personalized this art to fit their unique cultural aesthetics. To gain a deeper understanding of this beautiful tradition, it’s useful to understand how these objects are made.
In the North, lacquer resins are traditionally harvested from the Rhus Succedanea tree. Once the sap has been converted to resin, the first step is to coat the object, making sure any imperfections are completely sealed and the surface is completely smooth. Once everything is sealed, the wood is covered with cotton and sawdust mixed with soil, finely ground rock and lacquer. This is repeated twice, and the artisan then applies his designs directly to the object’s smooth surface. These decorative elements vary per artist, although many artisans prefer paints, seashells, mother-of-pearl and eggshells. Once the artwork has been finished, the artist seals his creation with another coat of lacquer to make sure everything stays firmly in place. At the end of this process, the object is coated in wax to ensure that everything is securely protected.
What makes Vietnamese lacquerware so special? Let’s start with the unique history. For one thing, in Vietnam lacquer is considered more of a painting technique than a coating technique. Called Sơn mài, lacquer painting had a long history in Vietnam but became internationally famous in Hanoi during the 1930s with the Indochina Fine Arts School. Artists during the ‘30s would create images using a mixture of crushed eggshells and painting pigments (typically brown, black and vermillion) over gold and tin foil; adding sand to this mixture was also common at this point. These ingredients produced images that were both creative and eye-catchingly metallic, and it soon became the trademark of Vietnamese lacquerware.
Because Vietnamese lacquerware requires the artist to manually paint, the process takes longer than in most other countries. In fact, it can take up to 115 days to finish a complex object, and 75 days to finish something simpler, like a bowl. At a minimum, any lacquerware product goes through 20 different steps of production before it is ready to be sold. With such an intricate method of production and such a long and complex history, the opportunity to own an authentic piece of Vietnamese lacquerware is definitely something that shouldn’t be missed. When you buy Vietnamese lacquerware, you’re buying more than a piece of furniture or a bowl – you’re bringing home a part of a beautiful tradition that will continue to grow for centuries to come.
How to Care for Lacquerware
Cleaning Methods: Do’s and Dont’s
Lacquerware is a delicate and ancient artform, and it must be treated as such. Painstakingly constructed, it can take up to three months and 40 different complex stages to produce just one piece of lacquerware, depending on the size and complexity of the object. And while these pieces of furniture and dishware are elegant and long-lasting showpieces, they also require care and maintenance to keep in good condition.
It should be noted that East Asian lacquerware has particular care concerns. This kind of lacquer is particularly susceptible to degradation if stored in an area with high humidity and fluctuating temperatures. Warping is more likely to occur, which in turn will cause cracks to form and the lacquer surface to lift from the base. Try to keep your lacquerware away from heating and cooling vents, where temperature fluctuations are most intense. Storing pieces far from drafty doorways and windows will also cut down on this sort of gradual decay.
Cleaning lacquerware is actually quite simple and can be done using only common household items. You only need warm, soapy water and a soft sponge to clean lacquerware items. When it’s clean, dry the piece using a dry towel or cloth. You can also use a small bit of furniture polish with a soft cloth to make it really shine. That’s all it takes!
Rather than focusing on what you should do, it’s almost more important to highlight what you shouldn’t do with lacquerware. To make sure it keeps its brilliant lustre, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
--Don’t soak it in water for too long.
--Don’t use overly abrasive sponges or harsh chemicals, as these might wear away that brilliant sheen.
--Don’t even think about putting it in a dishwasher or microwave.
--Don’t use it as a cutting surface – this will cause chips.
--Don’t stack multiple lacquerware pieces on top of each other.
--Keep out of direct sunlight, as the color will fade.
Breakage and Chipping
If you do unfortunately chip or break your lacquerware piece, all hope is not lost. There are a few things you can do short of taking the piece to a professional. For minor chips and scratches, you can apply clear nail polish to the affected area, or even a nail polish that closely resembles the color of the lacquerware piece. Be sure to get a good six coats of polish on there to make sure it’s totally sealed. The polish will help make sure any chips don’t grow bigger.
However, take this advice cautiously. If you’re not sure if the nail polish would help or hinder, it’s better not to risk it. Chances are there’s a furniture restoration company that would be willing to take a look at the broken piece and judge whether or not a more substantial fix would be required. In the end, once you have your unique piece of lacquerware art, our ultimate advice to you is to take good care of it – there’s no need to fix it if it doesn’t break!