Urushi–A Part of Life
Lacquer (urushi) has been an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle; it is taken for granted as part of life and treasured for its many qualities. It has been used as a protective and decorative coating material for at least six thousand years in Japan. Lacquer-coated earthenware pots and wooden combs have been found in Japanese Neolithic sites carbon dated to about 4500 b.c. Urushi may well be mankind’s first true paint and superglue.
From early historic times until the present, urushi has been used to coat such things as temple and shrine interiors; furniture and chests; sliding doors; walls and architectural interior trim; eating vessels of every type; casks, ewers, and bottles; personal accessories; chopsticks, lamp stands, paper products, and so on. The list is indeed long. Urushi’s soft surface, gentle yet bright gloss and deep colors fit the traditional Japanese room interior–that is, urushi looks and feels right in a room composed of tatami mats, wood, earth, and paper. The traditional Japanese New Year repast is incomplete without lacquer ware. Particularly, special decorative lacquered tiered boxes are brought out at this time to contain the festive fare. Today, urushi is even used to decorate such things as elevator doors and computer cases.
A Living Substance
Urushi is the sap of a tree (Rhus verniciflua). It in no way resembles the smelly stuff made in petrochemical plants, sold in little cans, and used to paint bicycles and model cars. (Both substances share the quality of having a high gloss, however, which is why both are called “lacquer.”) Japanese lacquer is a living substance, even after it has been refined and pigmented and applied in numerous coatings to a wooden core.
After the urushi sap has been removed from the urushi tree, it is aged for from three to five years and then processed to form a number of lacquer types with different properties.
When urushi is applied as a thin coating over a (usually wooden) core, it undergoes a chemical hardening process (very different from evaporative drying) in conditions of high humidity and temperature. A hardened urushi coating repels water and resists acid, alkali, salt, and alcohol. It even insulates against heat and electricity. Urushi contains urushiol (the same stuff as is found in poison oak and ivy), which is responsible for lacquer’s wonderful material properties as well as giving some people a month or so of severe itching if liquid urushi is touched.
The complex organic structure of urushi resisted analysis until the last decade or so, and there are still mysteries that need clarification. The impervious yet resilient surface, a surface that is terribly strong yet soft to the touch, has given lacquer ware its appeal over the millennia.
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