What is Vietnamese Lacquerware?

One of the most commonly asked questions around Vietnamese Lacquerware is… What exactly is it?

Lacquer is a natural resin which is carefully extracted from the cây sơn tree, most commonly found high in the mountains of Phú Thọ Province. 

The resin is harvested much the same way as rubber: An incision is made into the bark and the flowing sap is then collected. Fresh lacquer is mostly white in colour, but will turn brown upon exposure to the air. 

The Stages of Lacquerware Technique:

The creation of traditional Vietnamese Lacquerware is a labour intensive and time consuming process. Each piece takes three months to make, and goes through at least 40 stages before its completion.

Before the lacquer painting stage can even be reached the wood must first be carefully chosen. Rose, cherry or walnut wood is chosen for furniture pieces, screens or jewelry boxes, ebony wood is chosen for statues and bamboo and jackfruit wood are chosen for Vietnamese lacquer boxes, bowls and plates with plywood being set aside for paintings. The lacquer for Silkwood Traders products is applied to wooden bases. For example Silkwood Traders’ small 25cm vases are a single piece of wood  which has been individually turned on a lathe and then drilled out inside. The large vases are made from two pieces and joined together in the middle.

The wood used in Silkwood Traders products is typically jackfruit wood, composite wood fibre board or bamboo all harvested from sustainable sources. 

However, lacquer can be applied to anything. For example on fibreglass, stone (Silkwood Traders used to sell lacquered pebbles!) and of course the term lacquer is applied to the synthetic lacquer which is used in the car industry in much the same way – to build up layers of clear lacquer which protects the underlying paint.

Once the wood is selected it will then be filled with a layer of extracted natural lacquer. This seeps through into the core of the wood, hardening it and protecting it. 

At this stage, cloth, like a very fine gauze, is glued on. The resin is then applied, it dries then shrinks the gauze on to the wood. The purpose is to prevent the wood from cracking in different temperatures and to add strength. 

At the next stage, to make the surface smooth, a ground up mineral powder, like black talcum powder, is mixed with resin and painted onto the vase, plate or whichever object is being made. Once dried, after three days, this is then sanded as smooth as a blackboard. 

The item is now ready for the next stage which could be either hand-painting with a specific design, such as Picasso, gluing squares of aluminium leaf onto a surface, such as metallic red colour, or applying eggshell for more intricate designs and patterns, e.g. Silkwood Traders’ dragonfly design.  

Over the next three months, layer upon layer of lacquer is applied. In between each layer of lacquer the artist will wait until the lacquer is dried before it is sanded back and another layer applied. Eventually this smoothness results in each piece of Vietnamese lacquerware possessing an incredible shine and sparkling depth of colour. Its strong and robust finish also means it is able to withstand most of life’s knocks, bumps and drops.

The natural materials which help to give Vietnamese Lacquer Painting its originality and depth of colour were discovered in the 1930s, by the first recorded Vietnamese painters who studied at Indochina School of Fine Arts. They experimented with materials like egg shells and bamboo extract. 

Lacquer Ware Polishing

Finally, polishing is the last stage in the lacquerware and painting process. 

In between its drying and polishing stages, the lacquer becomes smooth but not shiny. So, to give it the eye catching sheen it is known for, the lacquerware artist will apply charcoal, or iron oxide to polish the lacquerware and give its glossy appearance. 

An incredibly fine sandpaper is also used to polish the pieces of lacquerware. The sandpaper is so worn that it resembles the same thickness as a well used bank note. Lacquer artists are so proud of their pieces of well worn sandpaper that they actually keep them in their top pocket for their own personal use. Incredibly, John at Silkwood Traders was actually gifted a piece by a very proud craftsman. 

Using this material is time consuming and requires an intense level of skill, especially in the production of pieces such as boxes or frames that have tiny corners that must be sanded smooth.

To Summarise:

Lacquer painting and lacquerware creations are both time consuming and labour of love undertakings but they are certainly worth it. It is a tradition that has been passed down for generations and the results are stunning pieces of work. Each piece of lacquerware is completely handcrafted too, making them entirely unique to own.

You too can own a piece of this timeless and exquisite artistic tradition. Just click here to shop our range of stunning lacquerware pieces for your home. 

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