japanning, method of varnishing a surface, such as wood, metal, or glass, to obtain a durable, lustrous finish. The term is derived from a process popular in England, France, the Netherlands, and Spain in the 17th cent. that imitated the East Asian lacquerwork known as Japan ware. Japanning varnishes usually have a resin base and are colored by mineral and other pigments. Several coats of varnish are applied to the desired surface, the successive layers being heat-dried. Luster and hardness are attained by polishing each coat. Japanning has been applied to furniture, screens, and such small objects as trays and snuff-boxes.

Japanning is a word originating from the 17th century, used to describe the European imitation of Asian lacquerwork, originally used on furniture.


Japanned is most often a heavy black lacquer, almost like enamel paint. The European technique uses varnishes that have a resin base similar to shellac, applied in heat-dried layers which are then polished, to give a smooth glossy finish. It can also come in reds, greens and blues.

Originating in India, China, and Japan as a decorative coating for pottery, it made its way into Europe by the 1600s. In the late 17th century, high European demand and rumors that higher quality pieces were not exported led to production starting in Italy. Its traditional form can be found using gold designs and pictorials contrasting with the black base color.

Development in Europe

As the craze for all things japanned grew, the Italian technique for imitating Asian lacquerwork also spread.

The Art of Japanning developed in 18th century England at the court of King George III, and Queen Charlotte the art of applying paper cut outs to other items (decoupage) became very popular, especially the botanically inspired works of Mrs Mary Delaney.

Japanned metal

Ironware was japanned black, for decorative reasons and also to render it rustproof and suitable for carrying water. A large industry developed in South Wales, before tinplate.


In the 19th and 20th centuries this lacquering technique evolved into the handicraft of decoupage. Decoupage focuses less on furniture and more on temporary boxes and toiletry containers.

The technique was also developed to protect wood and later industrial metal objects such as hand planes and builders' hardware. Later it was as an insulating film on transformer laminations. It was also used as the substrate for the tintype photographic process.


  • Japanning at
  • Eerdmans, Emily (2006). Classic English Design and Antiques: Period Styles and Furniture; The Hyde Park Antiques Collection. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

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