Lacquer has been employed in China since at least the Neolithic period. The intricate techniques for making lacquerware are thought to also have originated in China. These techniques were applied to craft and decorate a variety of objects, ranging from small containers and trinkets to large panels, doors and pieces of furniture.
Although it is not exactly known for certain when lacquer was first used in Thailand, the
northern region of Chiang Mai has been closely associated with the development of the lacquerware industry, in this area, throughout its history.
Chiang Mai’s typical styles, particularly dark-red-on-black coloring and engraved
decoration, represent a tradition which was also influential in the development of the famed lacquerware industry of Burma. It is in fact thought that the Burmese lacquer industry, and especially the yun type of decoration (the name of the Yun or Lao Shan tribes) was brought from northern Thailand to Burma.
Quarrels and wars between Thailand and Burma culminated in the sacking of the Thai
capital, Ayutthaya, by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. Following that terrible
event, craftsmen of all fields were brought back to Burma from Thailand by force. There, they introduced their techniques and styles to Burmese craftsmen. Along with so many other things in the artistic and cultural fields, Thai influence on Burmese culture has always been important.
The sap that produces lacquer is harvested from the “Gluta Usitata” tree (also known as the Burmese lacquer, Varnish tree etc) by tapping, similarly to rubber tapping. Once tapped, the light-colored sap turns glossy black.
Lacquer sap can be used on many different kinds of surfaces. When applied to a surface,
it both water- and heat-proofs it. It also has adhesive properties and is insect and bacteria resistant.
Many of the making processes are the same as those used in the past, but other features have inevitably changed. For example, nowadays the core materials upon which the lacquer is applied can be ceramic, wood, bamboo, clay, metal etc. It is also common to find various decorative and utilitarian objects painted with colorful acrylics, or inlaid with egg shells and mother of pearl.
Many of the intricate techniques, such as those indicated below, because of the high costs generated by lengthy making processes, have also been simplified. The traditional making processes still in use are the engraved and washed techniques, commonly called “Lai Khut” and “Lai Rot Nam.”
Building the structure
In the old days, the artisans prepared thin and flexible strips of bamboo for weaving or coiling. They then wove or coiled these strips into the desired object.
Once the object was shaped, its interior was covered with a paste made of lacquer sap mixed with ground clay and/or ashes of cow bones and/or burnt rice-paddy husks. This ensured that the interstices of the basketry were filled to form an impermeable seal and smooth surface. The object was then placed in a dark and humid place, usually a special cellar, for seven days. Once dry, its exterior surface was covered with a lacquer paste and returned to the cellar for another week of drying. Once dry, the exterior surface was smoothed.
Next, the lacquer paste used was finer and than the earlier one. For it was made of lacquer sap mixed with the pounded ash of cow bones. The artisans carefully
added this very fine paste to the exterior surface before returning the object to the cellar for drying. Once dry, the object was smoothed again but with different materials, which allowed the artisans to refine the smoothing even better.
[At this stage, it is worth noting that, apart from basketry, the technique indicated above is not commonly practiced in Thailand any longer. (Hence me using the past tense.)]
After this, pure lacquer is applied and the object again returns to the cellar. When dry it is polished and lacquered again before going back to the cellar for drying. This last process is applied several times to build up an increasingly smoother surface. Each time lacquer is applied, the object returns to the cellar for drying. The number of times this is done determines the quality of the finished product. The greater the number of lacquer applications, the finer, and more expensive, the product will be. The final layer is washed with water and the black surface is polished with pulverized fired clay, giving it a lustrous shine. The object is now complete in structure.
Lai Khut decoration
The first main technique practiced is “Lai Khut,” or engraving, method of decoration. For this method, the master artisan uses a small sharp-pointed tool to scratch the surface of the object, engraving the design free-hand.
He then applies a coloring mixture to the outside of the object and rubs the object with vegetable scraps, which presses the coloring mixture into the engraved surfaces. When finished, the object is returned to the cellar to dry for ten days before being rubbed with wet rice-husks. This step removes the color from the surface, except where it is embedded in the engraved design. The object is left to dry in the sun and then returns to the cellar for a final drying session where it hardens.
For the following color, the object is covered with an adhesive substance, generally made from natural resin, and the part of the design that is to be the new color is engraved. Next the object outer surface is covered with lacquer sap, which is then wiped off, but which remains in the engraved design. When the next coloring mixture is rubbed onto the surface, this lacquer sap acts as an adhesive and the rubbed color remains embedded in the engravings. The object is then returned to the cellar for drying for a further seven days.
This last process is done once more, and when the object is finally dry, it is washed with water. This step removes the adhesive substance and the color, except from where the design has been engraved. The object is again returned for a final drying session in the cellar where it hardens.
The process remains identical for each additional color, and therefore the production of a sole object can take up to a few months.
Lai Thong (Lai Rot Nam) decoration
The second main technique practiced is called “Lai Rod Nam,” or washing, also known
as “Lai Thong,” or gold, method of decoration. This method is applied to items that have been prepared with a very high-gloss black surface, thus providing a contrast between the black lacquer and the gold decoration.
The outlines of the design are drawn in using a gummy mixture. Details within the wanted design are then engraved. The rest of the object is dusted with wood powder and, other than the outlines already drawn in, covered with the gummy mixture. The interior of the wanted design are therefore the only part left black. This is based on the principle that where the gummy mixture is applied on, the gold leaf will not stick, meaning that the areas covered with that mixture will remain black.
The artisan covers the object once again with the wood powder, and applies a layer of pure lacquer to the design. Next he carefully presses the sheets of gold leaf on to the areas which has had the lacquer applied to it. He then firmly presses the gold leaf sheets into place with an oily cotton swab. Any gold that does not stick to the surface is caught up in that swab.
Once all the gold leaf is pressed into place, the object goes to the cellar to dry for a while. Before the decoration has fully hardened, the object is cleaned in a bowl of water. The water cleans the gummy mixture, only leaving the gold leaf attached to the surface.
Browse lacquerware hand-crafted in Chiang Mai province.
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Text and images by Thannaree C. © Ezistock Co., Ltd., 2011 – All Rights Reserved.
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