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How is lacquer made? Yoko Zeltersman-Miyaji, catalyzed lacquer, nitrocellulose lacquer, Yoko’s methods, and the history of Japan’s esoteric cosmology are just a few of the questions you might have. Discover the many ways this versatile material is used to create beautiful and durable finish on wooden objects.
Learn how Japanese lacquer is created by visiting the museum of modern art. Yoko Zeltersman-Miyaji’s studio features furniture, lacquerware and objects crafted from natural materials such as urushi, wood, and eggshell. Inlaid eggshells add decoration, while linen on wood provides structural strength. She uses Japanese brushes made from women’s hair to paint her lacquered pieces.
A variety of natural substances, including the urushi sap, are used to create Japanese lacquer. These materials are then applied to wooden pieces, or to paper, cloth, and molds. The process of applying urushi lacquer creates a highly durable finish. The lacquer used by the Wajima lacquerware artisans goes through 75 to 130 processes.
The early stone-age peoples first discovered urushi’s adhesive properties, and began using it to make wares. As the Japanese culture developed, they realized that urushi could protect wood and pottery, baskets, and bone objects. Urushi continued to develop alongside their culture, and urushi bowls became part of traditional Japanese cuisine. During the Edo period (1603-1868), urushi was imported from China.
The sap of the Toxicodendron vernicifluum tree is used in urushi lacquer. It is highly allergenic, and can cause allergic reactions just from the fumes of the product. The sap is harvested by a craftsman called a urushi gatherer, and it is boiled and colored before being applied. It is then applied to a piece of wood in a humid environment where it cures. This process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and renders the allergenic urushiol inert.
The sap of the urushi tree is harvested from June to November. The sap is collected by gouging a small groove into the tree trunk. The sap starts to solidify as it comes into contact with air. After the sap has solidified, it is scraped out of the grooves by using absorbent cotton. This process yields about 250 ml to 300 ml of urushi, which is used to produce the base coat of lacquerware. It is important to note that the amount of urushi sap collected from each tree is limited to about 250 milliliters a year.
There are two types of lacquer: conversion varnish and catalyzed lacquer. Both of these types of lacquer are easy to spray on and require a catalyst. However, one is flammable and toxic, and the other is less susceptible to damage. Both types are highly flammable and may be outlawed in some regions. Listed below are some of the pros and cons of each type.
Pre-catalyzed lacquers have great sanding properties, excellent durability, and are water-clear when applied. Most of these products can be reapplied after about 45 minutes depending on the environment. However, they must be scuff-sanded between coats. If the coating dries too quickly, it may crack or peel off.
Processed lacquer is called guangqi in Chinese. It is mixed with linseed oil to make it glossy. In Japan, it is known by many names, including kijiro-urushi (transparent lacquer), roiro-urushi (pre-mixed with iron hydroxide) and gamboge-urushi, a thicker, white lacquer that can be used to apply gold or silver leaf.
Originally, catalyzed lacquers became popular as a decorative finish for wood. However, acrylic and nitrocellulose lacquers had been the norm for professional woodworkers. However, catalyzed lacquer offers greater durability, fewer problems with finishing, and comparable price tags. In California, the thinner used in catalyzed lacquer is considered illegal because it leaves the same toxic emissions as gasoline.
The difference between post-catalyzed and pre-catalyzed lacquer is that post-catalyzed lacquer has a catalyst added at the factory, while pre-catalyzed lacquery has a catalyst added at the time of use. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Pre-catalyzed lacquer is slower to dry and cure, while post-catalyzed lacquer has a higher shelf life.
The basic process for applying nitrocellulose varnish to stringed instruments is relatively straightforward. Using cellulose, nitric acid, and solvent, this lacquer dries quickly and is considered durable. Because it’s flammable and toxic, this finish should never be attempted by children, particularly unsupervised ones. To avoid damaging its glossy finish, it’s best to avoid direct contact with a sharp object.
While most guitar players aren’t aware of how nitrocellulose lacquer is made, it is widely used by custom shops and luthiers. Guitars were commonly coated in nitrocellulose lacquer to simulate the aging process that occurs over time. Guitars that were finished using this method also shared color codes with automobiles. However, the use of this type of lacquer for mass production declined as environmental regulations prompted manufacturers to choose polymer finishes instead. Nonetheless, Fender and Gibson still use nitrocellulose lacquer for historical accuracy.
Until the late 19th century, wood lacquers were made primarily from nitrocellulose. Later, the technology evolved and the material was used for plastic-coated aircraft. The CAS number of nitrocellulose lacquer is 9004-70-0. This new material improved the quality and durability of wood lacquer and was also more versatile. Its high-quality properties made it popular for use on musical instruments.
Besides being used for painting, nitrocellulose varnish is also used for coating playing cards. In addition to this, it also holds staples in office staplers. However, it is a highly explosive material and is considered hazardous to the environment. Luckily, there are no known fatalities associated with the production of nitrocellulose lacquer, and this is thanks to its fast-drying properties. Its low esterification also makes it perfect for the manufacturing of guitars and other stringed instruments.
Preparing wood for lacquer
Before applying lacquer, you must prepare your wood. First, sand it with sandpaper to remove any imperfections, rough edges, or previous finishes. Wait at least 30 minutes for the wood to dry completely. If it is moist, it will be easier to damage the lacquer. Afterwards, apply a layer of lacquer with a paintbrush or motorized sprayer.
After the wood is cleaned, you should seal it with a water-based or lacquer-based filler. Be careful not to apply more than the surface of the wood because it will cause water spots. You can also use a sharpened stick or the tip of a screwdriver to fill in any cracks. Finally, the wood must dry completely before proceeding with the lacquer application. Using a tack cloth will remove any residue from the sandpaper.
If the wood is in need of a lacquer finish, you will need to remove the old lacquer finish. This will take some time. You can also use steel wool or a scouring pad instead of a steel wool. Then, wipe the surface with a mixture of alcohol and thinner. You should be able to wipe away a large portion of the lacquer with this method.
Another common method of applying lacquer is through the use of primer. If you choose this method, you will need to remove any existing finishes, including shellac, stains, or wax. You will need to clean the wood thoroughly with a solvent before applying any new lacquer. Then, follow up by applying a thin layer of lacquer. This will prevent water vapors from escaping, causing overspray.