European Lacquer (Japanning) Resources
‘Japanning’ refers to European efforts to create finishes that resemble East Asian and Indian lacquer and decoration. It was the height of attempted cultural appropriation for its day, but in their efforts to recreate a varnish they couldn't make, they created something new as well.
I've collected a list of books and articles, and sometimes their contents, here for sharing. If you want to try things out, I've listed materials suppliers at the end. My focus is on japanning wood with shellac varnishes, but I'll include other meanings of japanning over time.
(Yes, right now this is English-language-centric. I hope to expand well beyond that!)
Where to Start
If you want to look at beautiful pieces, Hans Huth's Lacquer of the West is a great exploration, though many of the figures are in black and white. The slightly more recent Lacquer: An International History and Illustrated Survey covers both Asian and European lacquers, with great color photos throughout.
If you're interested in creating something new with a japanned finish, I think the easiest place to start (I did) is Don Williams' Traditional Japanning Techniques. His approach is simplified, but sane, and can yield beautiful results. My first round of japanning used his video, blond shellac from Tools for Working Wood, and Chinese Red pigment from Sinopia. For a solvent, you can use denatured alcohol or Everclear (190 proof, not 151). While I used gesso as a base, hardware store B-I-N is an easier initial primer and worked well in my experiments. I used watercolor brushes to apply 10-15 coats of lightly-pigmented shellac. So far, I'm only working on creating a beautiful ground, without further decoration.
If you're interested in the historical side of the process, Marianne Webb has great resources. Her Lacquer: Technology and Conservation is the best place to start for details on the practice. It covers both Asian and European lacquer, providing a great overview of how they differ and what that has meant for the objects over the years. Unfortunately it is difficult (or expensive) to find, and definitely a good candidate for interlibrary loan if you have access to such things. However, her series on Recreating Western Lacquer using Historic Recipes is an excellent introduction to the techniques and their history, and freely available on the Web.
Links to “plain text” on this site are for texts that I've typed in. If you find errors, please let me know.
Artlove, Mrs. The ART OF Japanning, Varnishing, Pollishing, AND Gilding, BEING A COLLECTION of very Plain DIRECTIONS and RECEIPTS. London: T. Warner, 1730. (Plain text.)
Bonanni, Filippo. Techniques of Chinese Lacquer: The Classic Eighteenth-Century Treatise on Asian Varnish. Translation and introduction by Flavia Perugini. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 2009. (Original in Italian, 1720.)
Brown, William Norman. Handbook on Japanning, 2nd Edition. London: Scott, Greenwood, and Son, 1913. (Gutenberg edition.)
Dossie, Robert. The Handmaid to the Arts. London: J. Nourse, 1758. (Original or partial plain text.)
Kunckel, Johannes Johann Ziegler. Der neu-aufgerichteten und vergrösserten in sechs Bücher oder Theilen verfasten curieusen Kunst- und Werck-Schul. Nürnberg, 1707. (Original).
Merrifield, Mary P. Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to the XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting. London: J. Murray, 1849. (Original or fragments of spirit-varnish-related text.)
Salmon, William. Polygraphice: Or, The Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Vernishing, Japaning, Gilding, &c. Book 11, new to the Eighth Edition. London: A. & J. Churchill, 1701. (Original or partial plain text.)
Sayer, Robert. The Ladies Amusement, or, Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy. Second Edition. London: Robert Sayer, 1762. (Plain text.) Reprinted by The Ceramic Book Company: Newport, Mon, England, 1966.
Siddons, George A. The Cabinet Maker's Guide, or, Rules and Instructions in the art of Varnishing, Dying, Staining, Japanning, Polishing, Lackering, and Beautifying Wood, Ivory, Tortoiseshell, & Metal. Fifth Edition. London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1837. (Original or partial plain text.)
Stalker, John, and Parker, Richard. A TREATISE OF JAPANING AND VARNISHING, Being a compleat Discovery of those Arts WITH The best way of making all sorts of VARNISH for JAPAN, WOOD, PRINTS, or PICTURES. London: 1688. (Original, or plain text.)
The Method of Learning to Draw in Perspective Made easy and fully explained. As also, The Art of Painting upon Glass, and Drawing in Crayons, with Receipts for making them after the French and Italian Manner. Likewise, A New and Curious Method of Japaning, either upon Glass, Wood, or any Metal, so as to imitate China; and to make black or gilt Japan-Ware, as Beautiful and Light as any brought from the East-Indies; with proper Directions for making the hardest and most transparent Varnishes. And Particularly the Way to cast Amber in any Shape. Chiefly from the MSS of the Great Mr BOYLE. London: J. Peele, 1732. (Partial plain text.)
Watin, Jean-Félix. L'Art de Faire et D'employer le Vernis, ou, L'art du vernisseur, auquel on a joint ceux du peintre et du doreur. Paris: Quillau, 1772. (Original.)
Azuero, Katja Tovar. “The development of English black japanning 1620-1820." Conservation Journal, Spring 2006 Issue 52. (Full article.)
Blake, J. P. and Reveirs-Hopkins, A. E. Little Books About Old Furniture: English Furniture. The Period of Queen Anne. London: William Heinemann, 1911.
Cattersel, Vincent. “European Lacquers in Context Project." “A searchable database will be constructed to facilitate sharing and searching information contained within the recipes, and obtained during the research. Conceived as a working instrument, at the end of the project (parts of) it will be made public in order to facilitate further investigations in this field."
European Lacquer in Context (ELinC). Postprints from the ELinC2018 Conference. Studies in Conservation, 64:sup1, 2019.
Getty Conservation Institute. “Characterization of Asian and European Lacquers." https://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/science/lacquers/
Huth, Hans. Lacquer of the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Lacquer: An International History and Illustrated Survey. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984.
Le Hô, Anne-Solenn, et al. “Eighteenth-century lacquer art in Paris: green japanned panels from a Chinese cabinet in the duke of Richelieu's townhouse". Lisbon: ICOM-CC, 2011. (Full article.)
Rivers, Shayne, and Umney, Rick. Conservation of Furniture. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Rizzo, Adriana. ‘Venetian “Lacquer”: A Scientific Approach’ in Venice and the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Walch, Katharina, and Koller, Johann. Lacke des Barock und Rokoko / Baroque and Rococo Lacquers. (in German with English parallel translation.) Munich: Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, 1997.
Webb, Marianne. Lacquer: Technology and Conservation. A comprehensive guide to the technology and conservation of both Asian and European lacquer. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000.
Webb, Marianne. Recreating Western Lacquer using Historic Recipes. Mariannewebb.com, 2013.
Williams, Donald C. “The Art of Japanning", American Period Furniture, December 2009, p. 4-11.
Williams, Donald C. Traditional Japanning Techniques. Cincinnati: F+W Media, Inc. 2016. (Sample.)
Broader Varnishing and Gilding Information
Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak. Āʼīn-i Akbarī. 1597. Three volumes, translated by H. Blochmann and H. S. Jarrett. (Excerpts and notes on lac.)
Bigelow, Deborah (Project Director). Gilded Wood: Conservation and History. Madison, CT: Soundview Press, 1991. (Includes a chapter, “Contrasting Traditions: The Carving and Gilding Trades in Prerevolutionary Boston and Philadelphia", by Luke Beckerdite, that includes japanning.)
Cennini, Cennino. (Daniel V. Thompson, Jr., trans.) The Craftsman's Handbook: The Italian “Il Libro dell'Arte.” New York: Dover, 1933.
Cennini, Cennino. (Lara Broecke, trans.) Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell'Arte: A new English translation and commentary with Italian transcription. London: Archetype Publications, 2015.
Hammerl, Josef and Reiner. Violin Varnishes: Interesting information on resins and basic materials for violin varnish and advice on varnishing. Fourth Edition. Baiersdorf: Hammerl, [no date].
Langenheim, Jean H. Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2003.
McTaggart, Ann and Peter. Practical Gilding. London: Archetype, 2002. (Originally 1984.)
Mills, John S. and White, Raymond. The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, 2nd Edition. Abingdon: Routledge, 1994.
Orta, Garcia de. Colloquies on the simples & drugs of India. (Clements R. Markham, trans.) London: Henry Sotheran and Co, 1913. Originally published in 1563. (Original and chapter on lac.)
Shepherd, Stephen A. Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint: Traditional 19th Century Woodwork Finishes. Great Salt Lake City, Utah: Full Chisel Press, 2011.
Shepherd, Stephen A. Hide Glue - Traditional & Practical Applications. Great Salt Lake City, Utah: Full Chisel Press, 2009.
Thompson, Daniel V., Jr. The Practice of Tempera Painting: Materials and Methods. New York: Dover, 1962. (Originally 1936.)
Tingry, Pierre-François. Traité Théorique et Pratique sur L'art de Faire et D'appliquer les Vernis; sur les différens genres de peinture par impression et en décoration, ainsi que sur les couleurs simples et composées. Geneva: G. J. Manget, 1803. (Original.)
Tingry, Pierre-François. The Painter's and Varnisher's Guide, or, A Treatise, Both in Theory and in Practice, on the Art of Making and Applying Varnishes, on the Different Kinds of Painting; and on the Method of Preparing Colours Both Simple and Compound. London: G. Kearsley, 1804. (Original.)
Williams, Donald C. Creating Historic Furniture Finishes. Cincinnati: F+W Media, Inc. 2016. (Sample.)
Lac was used for dying long before it was used as a spirit varnish. If you want to explore the early history of lac, or use lac as a dye or pigment, these sources point the way.
Cardon, Dominique. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science. London: Archetype Publications, 2007. (Chapter 12 is on insect dyes, concluding with lac.)
Castro, Rita et al. “Interpreting lac dye in medieval written sources: new knowledge from the reconstruction of recipes relating to illuminations in Portuguese manuscripts.” in Sources on Art Technology: Back to Basics. London: Archetype Publications, 2016.
Clarke, Mark. Mediaeval Painters' Materials and Techniques: The Montpellier Liber diversarum arcium. Archetype Publications, 2011. (Section 1.9 is about lac.)
Clarke, Mark. Tricks of the Medieval Trades:: A Collection of 14th Century English Craft Recipes. Archetype Publications, 2018. (Recipes 5 and 6 are about lac.)
Retail Sources of Specialty Materials
- Gilded Planet
For gilding supplies, whiting, and glue.
- Kremer Pigments
For pigments, binders, whiting, shellac, gilding supplies, and other varnish ingredients. Includes many historic materials, and tools and materials for conservators.
- Lee Valley Tools
For shellac, glues, and other finishing supplies.
- Natural Pigments
For pigments, binders, whiting, and gilding supplies.
For all varieties of shellac, as well as polishing supplies.
For pigments, whiting, and gilding supplies.
For gilding, shellac, glues, and binders.
- Tools for Working Wood
For shellac, hide glue, and other finishing supplies.
- Utrecht Art Supplies
For pigments, whiting, and oil varnish and painting supplies.