Inside the conservation lab: Asian lacquer treatment

Feb 4, 2015

Asian lacquer is a hard glossy finish made from a tree resin containing the organic allergen urushiol. Lacquerware has been highly prized in east Asia for centuries, and its introduction to Europe resulted in a bustling export market. The use of lacquer became popular on Western furniture forms in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These were often delicate objects, such as the 1840s-era sewing table currently being treated at the Historic New England conservation lab in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

When cured, a lacquer surface is relatively durable but, unlike most Western coatings, prefers a humid environment. It is prone to cracking and flaking in fluctuating environmental conditions, like the dry heating necessitated by New England winters. Once it begins to flake, lacquer is vulnerable to further damage or loss.

An adhesive such as cold fish glue can be injected behind the damaged areas to re-adhere flakes, but it is necessary to apply consistent pressure while the adhesive sets. The traditional approach is to construct a frame support and insert a flexible stick called a shimbari (literally translated from Japanese as “stay” or “brace”). With this system, the sides and odd contours of an object can be appropriately weighted.

Repairs to the lacquer sewing table are progressing well, and the current challenge is to find convincing materials and techniques to fill losses. After treatment, the table will be on view in a second-floor bedchamber of Historic New England’s Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts, which is undergoing a multi-year interior restoration project.

To support conservation treatments such as this one, please consider a donation to the Collections and Conservation Fund.