The Traditional Origins of Lacquerware

Lacquerware has a long and decorated history. In Vietnam, it is referred to as Sơn Mài where lacquer was used as one of the original Vietnamese painting materials. 

Though lacquer is used in association with Chinese or Japanese handicrafts – often paintings – the difference between the two is the grinding technique used by the Vietnamese crafters. 

Through the exploration and technical development of the Asian lacquer painting tradition, a grinding technique was discovered. The technique involves sanding each layer of lacquer and then reapplying it, in order to harden and protect the product.

Originally used to help preserve wooden furniture from sweltering heats, the technique stuck and is still used today to produce incredible products like bowls, plates and wine holders!

How did Traditional Lacquer Craft develop?

In 1925, French painter Joseph Inguimberty was at a working session in the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu), Hanoi when he was taken aback by the gold decorated lacquer panels. 

He immediately proposed to a Mr. Victor Tardieu, the Director of the Indochina College of Fine Arts (now known as the Vietnam University of Fine Arts) to put the painting style into the research and internship program. 

From then on, Inguimberty regularly encouraged his students to use lacquer painting techniques in their fine art styles. 

Whilst the lacquer material’s traditional colours are that of red and black, more colours were introduced that are believed to be accredited to Inguimberty’s French influence. These colours are still seen today, and include gold, silver and eggshell. 

So the origins of the lacquerware technique are entirely down to these established artists and their first students at the Indochina Fine Arts School. The variety of colours were explored, and combined with the grinding technique to create the unique lacquerware process.

It was there that the terms lacquer and lacquer painting were coined as lacquer paintings can be drawn, then sharpened over and over again until the artist has achieved their desired effect. The final step of course is repeated polishing of the painting.

Traditional lacquer paintings include those of artist Nguyen Gia Tri, who led the peak period of lacquer painting between 1938-1944. His works included titles like Rural Landscape (1939) and Young Woman by the Mangrove Tree (1944). 

Rural Landscape (1940) Nguyen Gia Tri

Read More: What is Vietnamese Lacquerware? 

How is traditional Lacquerware made?

Today’s lacquerware creation follows many of the same principles as the very first pieces made in 1925.

Lacquerware is an incredibly personal and traditional experience. Each artist will have their own decorative methods or techniques that have been passed down to them through generations. Some lacquer artists even keep and reuse the same bit of sandpaper and are incredibly proud to do so.

As lacquerware is such a versatile skill, used for a plethora of purposes like creating paintings, moulding statues, and of course creating and decorating objects, it in essence can be divided into four stages. These are: Bunching, scraping, decorating, grinding and polishing.


The bunching stage refers to the collection of the material that will be used to create the piece. In the past to create paintings, balt paper was used as it was tougher and more durable than fabric. For objects wood has always been used, and for statues it is usually stone. 

At Silkwood Traders we sell items made from wood, including jackfruit, bamboo and composite fibre wood. 

So in our case, once the wood is selected the next stage is to close the cracks of the wood by using a layer of naturally extracted lacquer. In its traditional origins lacquer was used with alluvial soil or stone powder, which was cut, then crushed to seal the cracks. Today our products use lacquer extracted from the cây sơn tree, a tree found in the mountain ranges of Phú Thọ Province.

Now it’s time to protect the wood. In this first stage cloth resembling the thickness of fine gauze is then glued on. A layer of lacquer is then applied, which dries and shrinks the gauze on to the wood. 

This stage is essential. Not only does it prevent the wood from cracking in sweltering or freezing temperatures, it adds strength, and protects the wood from insects like termites. Rumour has it that if this process is completed correctly, then each lacquerware piece has a lifespan of 400+ years!

Finally to smooth the surface, a ground up mineral powder is also mixed with the resin and then painted onto whichever piece is being created. After three days have passed and providing it is dry, it’s sanded smooth ready for the decorative stage.


The decoration stage is what gives any piece of lacquerware its sensational depth of colour and eye catching sheen.

This stage also uses the same traditional processes as have been imparted throughout the generations. 

A lacquer craftsman will now either hand paint the design, or paste on materials in order to create a number of beautiful designs. Materials could include aluminum leaf for gold, silver or other metallic covers, or more delicate items like eggshell to create intricate designs. 

As this is such a precious stage of the lacquerware process, craftsmen and women usually work in either closed rooms, or make screens around their pieces. This is to protect raw materials being blown into the wet paint, or even to prevent the paintwork itself from spoiling.

Grinding and polishing:

Finally the grinding and polishing technique is at the heart of all lacquerware creation.

Across a period of around three months, layer upon layer of lacquer will continue to be applied to the item. In between each layer, the artist will sand the lacquer to make it smooth before applying the next. 

Originally items such as banana leaves, crushed charcoal and even chicken liver stone were used as sanding materials for this stage! Nowadays artists prefer to use smooth pieces of sandpaper.

It is this meticulous process of grinding (also referred to as sanding) that makes lacquerware items stand out from the rest. Not only do the pieces have a glossy looking finish, they are made strong and robust. 

To Sum Up:

The traditional origins of lacquerware are just one part of what makes these items so special. They are Vietnam’s history combined with modern homeware design. By techniques being handed throughout the generations, you know that each piece is handmade with care, precision and pride. 

Owning one of these incredible pieces is not an opportunity to pass up. At Silkwood we have personal relationships with craftsmen and women who make these pieces, so we know they are steeped in tradition and handmade with love. Browse our collection on our online shop today. 

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