At DAVIDSON, we are known for our beautiful wood finishes. From unique, hand-tinted sycamores, walnut, oak and Macassar ebony, to gleaming metallics, fine gilding, lacquered vellums and shagreen, our lacquering process has been perfected by our expert craftsmen for more than 20 years. It’s what gives our furniture that extra-special lustre, but what exactly is lacquer?
Well, it’s an ancient technique, but its modern-day use refers to a range of clear or coloured finishes on wood that are dried by solvent evaporation or a curing process to produce a hard, durable finish. It also gives the wood a sheen that can range from ultra-matte to high gloss.
A brief history of lacquering:
The art of lacquering was invented by the Chinese a thousand years ago, as early as the Shang Dynasty, when it was discovered that the resin from the lacquer tree could be extracted and used to make hard, yet lightweight vessels when built up in very thin layers through repeated dipping of wood, bamboo or cloth. Originally intended as a form of waterproof protection, the process rapidly became a popular way to decorate fine objects thanks to the introduction of pigments – usually red and black, although sometimes also green and yellow. Lacquer was also used to fix inlays of shell and coloured stone.
Vintage Chinese Lacquer, by THOR [CC BY 2.0].
China’s lacquer industry went from strength to strength, at one point rivalling bronze among the wealthy as a means of making offerings in ancestral ceremonies. And because of its waterproof properties, archaeologists have found many pristine examples that date back to the late 5th century BC. Sometime in the middle of the 6th century both the lacquer tree and the technique were introduced into Japan and over time its artisans would create a process and look that was distinct from the old Chinese ways.
For centuries, lacquering was only practised and enjoyed in the East, but this changed around the 17th century, when the Dutch and English East India Companies began to bring goods to markets in Amsterdam and London. Lacquered pieces quickly found popularity among the European elite. Such was the fascination with this ancient Asian art that the Chinese and Japanese began to craft lacquered furniture in forms and styles to suit Western tastes. And, as demand grew, European craftsmen even attempted to imitate Asian lacquer by devising complex recipes using the ingredients available to them, such as sandarac (the resin of the North Africa Thuya tree), or shellac (a resin derived from the secretions of an insect living on trees in India).
Even so, Eastern-inspired motifs were still popular and would continue to influence Western furniture designs for many years to come. Indeed, such early 18th Century European examples in the form of highly decorative, colourful bureau cabinets with red lacquer and gilded detailing are highly prized by antique collectors today.
Black Lacquer settee, chairs and table, red lacquer mirror, property of Viscountess Wolseley. From The book of decorative furniture: its form, colour, & history, New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Today, traditional lacquering methods are still used but tend to be on a smaller scale, with the larger market now looking for ever harder-wearing processes of lacquering and varnishing to protect and show high-end pieces of furniture in the best manner.
What’s the difference between polyurethane lacquer, polyester, acrylic lacquer and shellac?
Polyester, polyurethane and acrylic are all modern lacquers, the principle lacquers used in modern furniture making. While the terms lacquer, shellac and acrylic are often used indiscriminately, they are not the same. Here’s a brief description of how to distinguish them:
A type of modern lacquer that dries to form a hard surface, polyurethane is available in both water- and oil-based options, although water-based is the most commonly used today. Polyurethane is thinner than both acrylic and polyester, which can have advantages when lacquering certain materials, and dries to form a hard surface. It comes in varieties of sheen that range from satin to glossy.
Polyurethane is relatively clear, though does have a slight colour (which is visible if poured into a clear glass). It’s fine for use with dark woods like macassar but can taint natural vellum and paler woods.
Polyester is a resin and has similarities to polyurethane but is thicker in its makeup. Quite often, furniture makers will use polyester as it’s particularly good at filling the furrows of open-grain timbers. Typically, polyester is applied to start with and then polyurethane (which is thinner) is used to finish as a top coat. If a sample of wood or a veneer has a very large open grain, a smooth surface can be achieved more easily, and with fewer coats, by using polyester.
Lacquer makers are continually developing new formulas to achieve their desired properties. Acrylic lacquer has become ever more popular in recent years, in part because it’s water-clear, and therefore doesn’t tint paler timber and woods. Especially with high-build finishes, where layer upon layer is needed, its superior clarity makes it a favourable choice. The only disadvantage for furniture makers is that it takes longer to ‘cure’ or dry.
Shellac (French polish)
An old-style lacquer commonly used for finishing antique furniture, shellac – or French polish – is a natural product made originally by combining a secretion from the female lac bug with a solvent such as alcohol. It dries to form a relatively hard protective coating for wood that has a warm amber tone. If subjected to heat or moisture though, it will likely deteriorate; for example, white rings will appear under a hot mug or under the damp foot ring of a glass. Also susceptible to chemical damage, this can be a consideration if being applied to dressing tables or a work bench. It greatly enhances fine furniture as long as proper care is taken. Today it’s more often used in the antique trade for restoring or re-lacquering.
The benefits of modern lacquers
As well as providing aesthetic appeal, modern lacquer is most rated for its durability. It lasts for many years without flaking, chipping or yellowing (which is usually associated with varnish, [polyurethane] or shellac). And, with modern luxury furniture makers using substrate materials that can withstand extreme changes in humidity and heat caused by air-conditioning, under-floor heating and sealed window units, lacquer will protect a piece for decades, if treated with respect.
It’s tough. Matte or satin versions, in particular, provide a less scratch-prone coating than more traditional, high-sheen finishes, such as French polish (shellac). Likewise, if you spill liquid onto a modern-lacquered table, it will just sit on the surface without staining it (and can be easily wiped clean), whereas French polish will mark relatively easily.
It’s versatile. Modern, water-clear lacquers provide protection without tinting pale woods, allowing the grain to really shine through. With all modern lacquers, another benefit is that increasingly effective UV inhibitors are added to their mixtures, which stabilise the colour in the wood and help to protect it from the effects of direct sunlight.
How glossy can you go?
Lacquer comes in varying percentages of finish from flat matte (which can go as low as 2% up to 10%), through satin (20-40%), to very high gloss (80-90%). It all depends on how much sheen you want on your furniture. Here are examples of each and how they beautifully finish some of our favourite pieces.
Often used on paler woods or open-grain woods, a matte lacquer can be just as attractive on a dark grain, as shown by our Olympia table, which is finished in matte open grain oak with brushed brass detailing. Both hard-wearing and smart, it’s the ideal choice for everyday dining.
At DAVIDSON, we pride ourselves on selecting the perfect finish to show off the wood of each piece to the highest level and the satin sheen on sycamore black of The Hatfield Chest does exactly that. The attractive pattern of the dark grain beautifully contrasts with the polished nickel handles. An elegant addition to any bedroom.
If you’re after high style with high shine, take a look at our Hanover cabinet. Finished in rich and glossy Macassar ebony that contrasts spectacularly with the shimmering white gold leaf, this sleek cabinet effortlessly combines high-end design with practical storage.
DAVIDSON is committed to a tailored or bespoke service and most of our furniture pieces can be finished in an option of your choosing. Our helpful team would be delighted to discuss possibilities with you and offer advice.