Snapshot 7: Life Blood

Life Blood
True lacquer is the life blood of Wajima lacquerware.  It’s a natural product tapped from the lacquer tree.  It is then refined and filtered before it can be used.  Black and red true lacquer are the most common colours used in Japan but many others are possible.

Today Japanese true lacquer is scares and expensive.  Much is imported from China but that is not just a recent trend.  It is possible to blend lacquers to achieve the desired degree of transparency, colour and drying properties.  Actually—and I may have said this before—true lacquer does not dry but cures.  Thickly applied lacquer might take several days to harden and if left as an expressive dribble, for example, it can take two years or more to go completely hard.

Because it cures at an optimum temperature of 25˚C and 80% humidity it reacts to changes in atmospheric conditions.  Over the last few days the humidity has risen to 70%+ having previously been in the mid- to high-fiftys.  Consequently an adjustment may be necessary to slow down the process.  A very small amount of the light Japanese version of soya sauce can be added to slow down the hardening process.  It’s the salt in the soya sauce which does the trick.

Lacquer workshops often hold a stock of this precious material and let it “sleep” in a store house where the temperature and levels of humidity are stable.  If it is moved to another workshop and applied to a bowl or other article it may not dry at all despite ideal conditions.  Return it to it’s “home” and it will behave and go hard.  It would seem that it does not really like to be disturbed.  That, however, does not make it unusable.

The other major ingredient used in the making of Wajima lacquerware is ji no ko—a processed diatomaceous earth which along with the application of a fine reinforcing cloth gives it a well-known robustness.  It is, however, unseen.  More of this another time.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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