To the uninitiated, lacquerware can look just like plastic. This perception typically prompts the question, “Why is it so expensive?” Even among Japanese, who see and use lacquered bowls and trays regularly, there are many who are unaware of just how time-consuming and labor-intensive the art of lacquering is.
The craft process shown above for an item of Negoro-nuri lacquerware is in fact a condensed version of all that is involved. A piece is coated, allowed to harden, and polished repeatedly. It takes a seasoned artisan to accomplish the dozens of tasks involved. The higher price refl ects this.
But why all the fuss—is it really worth it? The answer lies in the stellar properties of lacquer as a coating and the beauty of its lustrous coat. Made from the sap of tall deciduous trees of the cashew family, this all-natural varnish creates a hard, durable fi lm that repels water, heat, salt, acids, and alkalis. It can even withstand nitrohydrochloric acid, which dissolves gold. Natural lacquer also has superior antiseptic and antibacterial qualities. Lacquered items several thousand years old have been excavated intact, their sheen unblemished. Its only vulnerabilities are extremely dry conditions and the UV rays in direct sunlight.
The dewy look of lacquer is owed to its molecular pliability. Indeed, the surface has a silky, almost wet quality. Note the feel of a lacquered cup when you bring it to your lips, and compare its texture to that of plastic. Viewed under high magnifi cation, the surface of hardened lacquer has an uneven grain structure. That “give” accounts for its plump feel and soft luster.
It seems contradictory that a material rivaling epoxy resin in terms of sheer toughness and durability should feel so soft to the touch. No other coating boasts this combination of qualities. That, essentially, is the enduring appeal of this all-natural wonder material.
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