See Lacquer: An International History and Illustrated Survey (1984).
The term lacquer originates from the Portuguese word for lac, a type of resin excreted from certain insects. Regardless, in modern usage, lac-based varnishes are referred to as shellac, while lacquer refers to other polymers dissolved in Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), such as nitrocellulose and later acrylic compounds dissolved in a solvent generally referred to as lacquer thinner.
While both lacquer and shellac are traditional finishes, lacquer is more durable than shellac.
Urushiol-based lacquers differ from most other lacquers in that they are slow-drying, water based, and set by oxidation and polymerisation, rather than by evaporation alone. In order for it to set properly it requires humidity and warm temperature. The phenols oxidize and polymerize under the action of an enzyme laccase, yielding a substrate that, upon proper evaporation of its water content, is hard and fairly resistant to mechanical stress. Lacquer skills became very highly developed in India and Asia, and many highly decorated pieces were produced. The process of lacquer application in India is different from China and Japan. There are two types of lacquer: one is obtained from the Rhus tree and the other from an insect. In India the insect lac was once used from which a red dye was first extracted, later what was left of the insect was a grease that was used for lacquering objects. Insect lac was introduced to India from Persia (Iran). The fresh resin from the Rhus trees causes urushiol-induced contact dermatitis and great care is required in its use. The Chinese treated the allergic reaction with shell-fish.
The contemporary theory held that from China, knowledge of lacquer technology was introduced to Korea, and from there to Japan. It was believed that Japan had also been using lacquer from ancient times, but the systematic process of application was developed by the Chinese. With the discovery of lacquer ware in Japan dating back to Jōmon period, conflicting theories claim that technology may have been independently developed in Japan. Trade of lacquer objects traveled through various routes to the Middle East. Known applications of lacquer in China included coffins, plates, music instruments and furniture. Lacquer mixed with powdered cinnabar is used to produce the traditional red lacquerware from China.
The trees must be at least 10 years old before cutting to bleed the resin. It sets by a process called "aqua-polymerization", absorbing oxygen to set; placing in a humid environment (called "furo" or "muro" in Japanese, means "a bath" or "a room") allows it to absorb more oxygen from the evaporation of the water.
Lacquer yielding trees in Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Taiwan, called Thitsi, are slightly different; they do not contain urushiol, but similar substances called "laccol" or "thitsiol". The end result is similar but softer than the Chinese or Japanese lacquer. Unlike Japanese and Chinese Rhus verniciflua resin, Burmese lacquer does not cause allergic reactions; it sets slower, and is painted by craftsmen's hands without using brushes.
Raw lacquer can be "coloured" by the addition of small amounts of iron oxides, giving red or black depending on the oxide. There is some evidence that its use is even older than 8,000 years from archeological digs in China. Later, pigments were added to make colours. It is used not only as a finish, but mixed with ground fired and unfired clays applied to a mould with layers of hemp cloth, it can produce objects without need for another core like wood. The process is called "kanshitsu" in Japan. Advanced decorative techniques using additional materials such as gold and silver powders and flakes ("makie") were refined to very high standards in Japan also after having been introduced from China. In the lacquering of the Chinese musical instrument, the guqin, the lacquer is mixed with deer horn powder (or ceramic powder) to give it more strength so it can stand up to the fingering.
There are more than four forms of urushiol which is written as thus:
R = (CH2)14CH3 or
R = (CH2)7CH=CH(CH2)5CH3 or
R = (CH2)7CH=CHCH2CH=CH(CH2)2CH3 or
R = (CH2)7CH=CHCH2CH=CHCH=CHCH3 or
R = (CH2)7CH=CHCH2CH=CHCH2CH=CH2 and others.
Quick-drying solvent-based lacquers that contain nitrocellulose, a resin obtained from the nitration of cotton and other cellulostic materials, were developed in the early 1920s, and extensively used in the automobile industry for 30 years. Prior to their introduction, mass produced automotive finishes were limited in colour, with Japan Black being the fastest drying and thus most popular. General Motors Oakland automobile brand automobile was the first (1923) to introduce one of the new fast drying nitrocelluous lacquers, a bright blue, produced by DuPont under their Duco tradename.
These lacquers are also used on wooden products, furniture primarily, and on musical instruments and other objects. The nitrocellulose and other resins and plasticizers are dissolved in the solvent, and each coat of lacquer dissolves some of the previous coat. These lacquers were a huge improvement over earlier automobile and furniture finishes, both in ease of application, and in colour retention. The preferred method of applying quick-drying lacquers is by spraying, and the development of nitrocellulose lacquers led to the first extensive use of spray guns. Nitrocellulose lacquers produce a very hard yet flexible, durable finish that can be polished to a high sheen. Drawbacks of these lacquers include the hazardous nature of the solvent, which is flammable, volatile and toxic; and the handling hazards of nitrocellulose in the lacquer manufacturing process. Lacquer grade of soluble nitrocellulose is closely related to the more highly nitrated form which is used to make explosives.
As Asian and Indian lacquer work became popular in England, France, the Netherlands, and Spain in the 17th century the Europeans developed imitations that were effectively a different technique of lacquering. The European technique, which is used on furniture and other objects, uses varnishes that have a resin base similar to shellac. The technique, which became known as japanning, involves applying several coats of varnish which are each heat-dried and polished. In the 18th century this type of lacquering gained a large popular following. In the 19th and 20th centuries this lacquering technique evolved into the handicraft of decoupage. The English novelist George Eliot mentions a "lacker [sic] box" in her novel Silas Marner.