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Copyright: 2014. The Wooden Artifacts Group Wiki pages are a publication of the Wooden Artifacts Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The Wooden Artifacts Group Wiki pages are published for the members of the Wooden Artifacts Specialty Group. Publication does not endorse or recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein.


Japanning is a process by which Europeans treated and decorated antique furniture with lacquer and resin, in order to imitate various styles found across the Asian continent. Historically, the Japanning process required smooth wood which was varnished with a spirit substance that is soluble in alcohol, much like shellac. The varnish was then applied in very thin layers and dried into a hard surface (Hill 1976).

Materials and technology[edit | edit source]

Lacquer in Asia was composed of sap from the tree Rhus vernicifera. Because this sap was mostly available in China, Europeans usually only imitated the lacquer using various varnishes (Kisluk-Grosheide 1984/1985). Varnish color can have different affects on wooden furniture. For example, some colors were mixed with an adhesive to bind the color to the wood firmly; this however could cause flaking problems later on. Tortoise-shell varnish, in particular, required a variety of pigments, and, therefore, different application methods, which included chemicals such as turpentine and drying oil (Hill 1976). One way to conserve Japanning on artifacts is to infill spaces that are cracking or flaking. For Japanning to be treated properly, it must be clearly identified and distinguished from original Eastern methods of lacquering, as the materials are different and should be conserved differently. Webb (1998) discusses filling Japanning with gesso, though, as the gesso fill dries, it shrinks, and so several layers must be applied. Webb (1998) also discusses filling Japanning with papier-mâché, wax, and Paraloid B-72 bulked with microballoons. The technique applied to Japanning should rely on the fragility of the material and the ingredients involved in the lacquer.

===History ===
If appropriate: brief summary or introduction to historical context, art historic background, function, use, etc.

Materials[edit | edit source]

Raw materials; composition; definitions; parts; types; substrate(s); surface decoration; finish; chemical, optical, physical, or thermal properties; etc. *Remember:

Sub-subheadings use this formatting[edit | edit source]

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Technology[edit | edit source]

Sources, processing, tools, fabrication, manufacture, design, construction, decorative techniques, etc.

The process of japanning, or varnishing, has varied throughout the years as technologies and ingredients have changed. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, varnishing wood was especially popular (Azuero 2006).

Alcohols were used to dissolve the resins to make the varnish. The lac or lacca was a resinous substance from Asia that comes from trees. Shell-lac was one such type of lacca that was used and was more popular than seed-lac or stick-lac because it was more easily dissolved in alcohol and formed a soft varnish. When the shell-lac was mixed with the alcohol, it was usually yellowish brown unless it had been whitened with chemicals. When coating wood, porous, or rough and uneven surfaces, coats of linseed oil were first rubbed on to even the surfaces and save some of the lacquer. Afterwards, excess linseed oil was wiped off and the wood was allowed to sit for a few days (On Japanning and Varnishing No. 2 1826). Uneven surfaces could also be coated with shell-lac, though the layers of varnish could potentially detach from the wood after much use. After the shell-lac was painted on and allowed to dry, it was roughened with sand paper so the varnish layers would stick to it better (Larocque 1924).

To fill in uneven surfaces, extra layers of varnish could simply be added, though this used more lacquer. This approach, however, made the lacquered object last longer rather than coating it with shel-lac first(Larocque 1924). Coats of varnish were then added to the wood, allowing each coat to dry fully between applications (On Japanning and Varnishing No. 2 1826). Shell-lac was made black with lampblack or ivory black. Other colors in powder form were mixed with the shell-lac after first being dissolved in alcohol or Venice turpentine. Red shell-lac, for example, was best made with Dutch sealing wax and was used for coating glass and wood (On Japanning and Varnishing No. 3 1826). Some examples of materials used to mix various colors included colored grounds such as Indian red or brown red oaker, white lead, vermillion, lampblack, yellow masticot, and isinglass (Artlove 1730).

Varnish was typically applied with flat hog’s hair or camel’s hair paint brushes (On Japanning and Varnishing No. 3 1826]]). It was applied in long sweeping motions (Artlove 1730). After the surface was varnished with four or five coatings, the surface was polished. A rag wrapped around a cork or piece of wood was used to rub down the layers or powdered pumice stone was used(On Japanning and Varnishing No. 3 1826).

Decorations were added to the object in a number of ways. Pictures were added and a layer of sealing varnish was applied over top of them. Decoration could also be in the form of raised and painted outlines. Decorations were traced on the varnished object and a mixture of whiting and glue was painted on the outlines only, layer by layer, until the outline was raised. It was then painted or leafed with gold and covered with a securing varnish layer (Larocque 1924).

If appropriate: visual examination, microscopy, spot tests, instrumental techniques, etc. In order to reduce overlap, generic identification issues could refer to the appropriate RATS wiki section such as Materials Testing, Analytical Techniques, or Technical Studies.

Deterioration[edit | edit source]

Material/object specific issues attributed to physical, chemical, or biological factors including light, heat, moisture, pollution, mechanical damage, faults in the design, poor quality materials, inherent vice, etc.

Conservation and care[edit | edit source]

This information is intended to be used by conservators, museum professionals, and members of the public for educational purposes only. It is not designed to substitute for the consultation of a trained conservator.

  • To learn how you can care for your personal heritage, please visit AIC's Resource Center.

===Documentation ===
If appropriate: for examination or documentation issues specific to a material or object type, including tips for accurately and meaningfully documenting specific materials, common types of previous repairs or restoration, etc.

For general recommendations, please refer to the Wooden Artifacts wiki article on Conservation or for general conservation work practices, please refer to the main AIC wiki section on Work Practices.

Preventive conservation[edit | edit source]

For material/object type specific issues regarding recommendations for storage and display, handling, inhibitive conservation measures, supports, mounts, labeling, transport, condition surveys, monitoring, etc. In order to reduce overlap, general preventive care issues should refer to or be discussed in the appropriate Preventive Care section of the main AIC wiki.

Interventive treatments[edit | edit source]

Topiary camels at Rough Point, Newport, RI

Don't forget to add images throughout the article as appropriate!
To insert an image as a thumbnail you can use the following code, which will size the image for you, let you align it on the right or left, and allow you to insert a caption. [[File:Image_name.JPG|thumb|right|Caption for the image as you want it to appear]]
Example: [[File:Topiary_camels.JPG|thumb|right| Topiary camels at Rough Point, Newport, RI]]

====Cleaning ====
Mechanical, solvent, chemical, aqueous, poultices, pastes, or gels; reduction of surface dirt, grime, accretions, or stains; removal/reduction of non-original coatings or restorations; etc.

====Structural treatments====
Readhering loose joinery, removal of deteriorated previous structural repairs, structural fills, joining, etc.

====Stabilization of decorative elements ====
Consolidation, deacidification, corrosion inhibitors; etc.

====Aesthetic reintegration ====
Loss compensation, fills, casting, molding, re-touching, polishing, etc.

====Other treatments====
If appropriate: This section heading should be used if the treatment being discussed does not fit into any of the other heading categories.

References[edit | edit source]

Artlove, Mrs. 1730. The art of japanning, Varnishing, Polishing, and Gilding. Being a collection of very plain directions and receipts. Fine Arts 1-28. http://find.galegroup.com/ecco/ (accessed 04/14014).

Azuero, Katja Tovar. 2006. “The Development of English Black Japanning 1620-1820.” ¬¬Conservation Journal 52. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-52/the-development-of-english-black-japanning-1620-1820/ (accessed 04/01/14).

Hill, John H. 1976. The History and Technique of Japanning and the Restoration of the Pimm Highboy. American Art Journal 8(2):59-84.

Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle O. 1984/1985. A Jappaned Cabinet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum Journal 19/20:85-95.

Larocque, Eleanor. 1924. Features: The Pleasant Art of Lacquering, or Japanning. Vogue 67, 86, 88. http://search.proquest.com/docview/879178548 (accessed 04/14/14).

1826. On Japanning and Varnishing No. 2. Journal of the Franklin Institute 2(2): 100-104. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016003226907503# (accessed 04/14/14).

1826. On Japanning and varnishing No. 3. Journal of the Franklin Institute 2(3): 150-154. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00160032/2/3 (accessed 04/14/14). Webb, Marianne. 1998. Methods and Materials for Filling Losses on Lacquer Objects. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 37(1):117-133.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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