Techniques of Lacquerware Production
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The usual method of tapping is to make two deep notches to form a V. The notches are eight to ten inches long, and about two inches deep. At the base of the V, small bamboo cups are placed, with an edge stuck into a small horizontal cut just at the base of the V, in such a way that the oil which exudes from the V-shaped notch flows into the cup.9
He then goes on to describe how often the tapping can be done and also that it apparently has no deleterious effect on the health of the tree. Unlike rubber, lacquer has never been grown under plantation conditions, but gathered, haphazardly, in the forest.10 Given the obsession which the British had with harnessing the natural products of the countries they controlled during the days of Empire, this is rather surprising and must reflect the lack of serviceable uses which the colonial administrators could find for the material.11 In Burma, though, there has never been any lack of uses for this versatile resin.
One of the remarkable features of lacquer sap is that it can be used as a coating on many different surfaces. Examples seen in this publication include split bamboo, wood, cane, palm- leaf, metal and leather. When applied to a surface, lacquer both waterproofs and heatproofs the object; it can carry colour and has adhesive properties; when mixed with powder, it can be moulded or sculpted; and it makes the substrate rigid. In addition, it is insect and bacteria resistant and, if thin enough, retains its flexibility; it is also a natural polymer. Thus, from a functional point of view it is very attractive. There are some disadvantages, but they are few compared to the many advantages: prolonged exposure to the raw sap for those in the lacquer workshops can cause a blistering rash (this seems to affect people differentially),12 and, as an organic material, lacquer is subject to decay in humid and damp conditions. Further, as it forms a hard surface when dry, it is liable to crack if mistreated. Once broken, it is difficult to repair without the break being obvious. It is true, though, that until recently there were itinerant craftsmen who mended vessels, especially domestic ones where the importance of maintaining decorative integrity was less. Several of the functional items illustrated in this volume have been repaired.
For vessels — always the major product for lacquer application in Burma13 — the other main raw material is bamboo, split into thin strips.14 The bamboo used in Pagan today comes from the Chin State, to the north and west of Pagan, and is transported to the workshops by river, first down the Chindwin and then down the Irrawaddy.15 The hollow lengths of bamboo are cut into shorter lengths, each length being the space between the nodes in the bamboo. These lengths are then turned on end and split further into strips. Each strip is shaved to make it smooth and the remnants of the node are chopped off. These strips are still too thick to be useful for making coiled basketry so, having tipped the end of the strip in oil to make it pliable, the worker skilfully makes a series of cuts in the top. This is then held firmly in the toes and each cut is pulled on, towards the worker, producing a thin, pliable length of split bamboo for either coiling or weaving.
Most vessels such
as vases, offering vessels (hsun ok), bowls (except the small ones) and plates
are made of coiled, rather than woven split bamboo, though in most workshops in
New Pagan today both skills are to be found.16 The coiled vessels are
made as follows. A strip of split bamboo is cut to make the correct length for
the bottom of the wall of the vessel (the base is a separately coiled circular
element which is joined to the walls later). A V-shaped cut is made in each end
of the strip, at the top of one end and the bottom of the other. These can then
be ‘hooked’ on to each other, thus holding this first element in the vessel in
place; here and at other crucial parts of the construction, the strips may be
tied in place with a small length of cotton. The next strip of split bamboo is
then pushed against the ‘hook’, on the inside, slightly above the first round
strip; it is then coiled upwards. The whole structure is built up by the
repetition of this process.
and bowls are
very thin and made especially soft by being boiled first in water. In most
instances these finely split strips of bamboo make up both the uprights and the
pieces woven in between, but in a few cases horsehair is used for the woven
element instead of bamboo (see p. 33, photo. below right; and cat 20).. This
produces an extremely pliable vessel where the lips of the bowl can be pressed
together without causing any damage to the vessel (see cat 21), as is famously
and repeatedly demonstrated to visitors. This technique is much more
time-consuming than making the vessels only of bamboo; it also requires special
skills. Consequently, the horsehair cups and bowls are more expensive and are
mostly produced by one or two skilled workers only.17
In the next stage
the lacquer paste, thayo, is finer, being made of lacquer sap, thit si, mixed
with the pounded ash of cow bones. This makes a smoother paste than the earlier
one. Once more the vessel is attached to the lathe and the thayo is added using
the fingers —- and with considerable skill. A cloth is used to smooth away any
finger marks, and when the bowl is removed from the mandrel, the operator wears
a little pointed cover over his thumb, so as to avoid any fingerprints on the
tacky surface. Again it returns to the cellar for drying. As before, the next
phase after drying is one of smoothing on the lathe, but this time, instead of
the relatively coarse blade held against the revolving bowl, a stone is placed
against it, followed by a handful of basketry shavings, which further refines
the smoothing.19 After this there are a series of applications of raw
lacquer (i.e. no longer mixed with ash or other thickening agent) to build up an
increasingly smooth surface, both inside and out. Each time lacquer is applied,
the vessel has to return to the cellar for drying. The greater the number of
applications at this point, the finer the end product — and the more expensive
it will be, not only because more lacquer is used but because it takes longer to
Thus the first
element in this sequence of decoration is for the design for one colour to be
laid out by someone who has mastered the variety of different styles and motifs.
The designer does this using a small engraving tool (see cat. 28 for two
examples), with a mixture of free-hand and compass technique.23
stylus is held in the right hand and is pushed across the surface to be engraved
with the left thumb.24 As the point moves across the surface, it
scratches down to the basketry beneath, leaving coils of debris which the
engraver clears away as he works. The majority of the design is done freehand
and seemingly entirely from memory. There are apparently no pattern books, nor
is it necessary for the design to be measured out first; it is all arranged by
eye. The work with the compass is restricted to concentric lines, usually around
the edge of the main design at the top or on the base. The designer often
undertakes the engraving of the more complicated elements, while younger,
less-experienced workers fill in much of the detail — and in this style there is
usually plenty of detail work. At the Htun Workshop today, as elsewhere in
Pagan, designs are gathered from a variety of sources, including murals that
range from the twelfth century to the more recent nineteenth-century examples of
the Kon-baung dynasty.25
At the Htun Workshop the next colour
to be engraved is green, which is done according to the same principle as before
but with different details, including the use of glue as well as lacquer. The
glue is made by dissolving lumps of resin from the acacia, or htanaung, tree in
water,28 and the mixture is then strained through a cloth. The vessel
is covered with the glue, and the part of the design that is to be green is
engraved using a small engraving tool, which is sharpened, as required, on a
small sandstone slab. Next the cup is mounted on the mandrel and thit si is
rubbed over the outer surface. This is then wiped off, but where it has settled
in the engraved design, it remains so that when the green colouring powder is
rubbed on to the surface of the vessel, the thit si acts as an adhesive and the
green colour remains.29
The vessel is then returned to the cellar for
drying for a further seven days. This whole process is done a second time, and
when finally dry, it is taken from the cellar and washed, using shavings from
the lathe. The water removes the glue and the green colour from everywhere
except where the design has been engraved. It is returned for a final session in
the cellar where it hardens; for the best quality it should stay there for at
least ten days. The last process, before it goes to the sale room next door, is
to polish it on the lathe.
A similar sequence was recorded for the addition of yellow, starting with an application of the acacia tree glue, followed by engraving, in the instance recorded, with a ruler and a pin mounted in a wooden handle to create a series of straight lines (see cat. 28, bottom). Yellow was certainly a secondary colour in this instance, reserved for the decorative borders. The main free-hand design was produced in red and green. This is followed by the same sequence of covering with plain black lacquer, wiping it clean, then adding the yellow powder — all of this accompanied by repeated periods of drying in the cellar. In this instance the final polishing was recorded in detail. After the vessel comes from the cellar for the last time, it is polished not only with powder made from teak charcoal, which has been wetted before it is powdered, but also with powder ground from lumps of fossilized wood.30 This is then washed off with wet and then dry cloths before a final buffing with the hands.
The above observations are concerned almost entirely with the preparation of the exterior of the vessel. The interior is rarely decorated, except perhaps for some concentric rings around the rim and red colouring. When colouring with red, the inner surface is first of all rubbed with emery paper and then cleaned with a cloth and water. Thit si is applied to the inside and the vessel is then placed back in the cellar for seven days to dry. This work has to be done in sunlight to ensure that any excess water in the thit si can evaporate. After the period of drying, the red hinthabada is applied, as usual, by hand. Again this operation has to be done in direct sunlight because of the thit si in the hinthabada,31 which means that the months of the monsoon, June—September, are not good for this stage in the process, as the cloud cover is often great. Usually a team of several men sit together and colour the interiors of a large number of vessels, all at one sitting. The first man roughly applies the hinthabada and then sets it in the sun for five minutes or so to ensure a good colour. Next two men work in the hinthabada, and the fourth one finally smooths it, making certain that there are no inclusions. After each stage of this process the vessel is put in the sun as after the first stage. Then, of course, it needs to go back to the cellar for final drying before it is quickly dusted off and sent to the shop for sale.
A small amount of gold marbled work is made at the workshops in New Pagan, but this technique has only been introduced from Japan within the last few decades. It remains to be seen whether it will become popular.32
Apart from yun engraving, the other main technique practised at Pagan today is the black and gold, shwe zawa method of decoration. This work was witnessed at the Htun Workshop in 1995. It is clear from examples with known dates of purchase that this technique has been used at Pagan for much of the twentieth century,33 though in the nineteenth century it was more connected with Prome, and especially, at the end of that century, with Hsaya Pa.34 At Pagan today this technique begins with placing a quantity of resin of the neem tree in water, which by the next day has formed a viscous glue. This is then strained through a cloth and mixed with the yellow colouring agent, which in the past would certainly have been orpiment (arsenic trisulphide).35 Based on the principle that where the gum/orpiment mixture is painted on, the gold leaf will not adhere, the technique is usually applied to items that have been prepared with a very high-gloss black surface, thus providing a contrast between the black and the gold.
The design on the plate recorded at the Htun Workshop was a mythical lion, chinthe, at the centre with leaf borders at the rim. The outlines of these are drawn in — free-hand for the chinthe and with a compass for the border — using the yellow colour/gum mixture. This means that at the end of the process the outlines will remain black. Details within the design, such as the coat of the chinthe and the interior of the leaves in the border, are then engraved. The rest of the plate is dusted with a powder made from pulverized petrified wood, and then the whole of the plate other than the area already drawn in outline (the chinthe and the border) is covered with the orpiment and gum mixture. The interior of the chinthe and of the leaves of the border are thus the only part left black, as it were ‘in negative’. The yellow mixture quickly dries and the plate is again covered with a dusting of the pulverized fossil wood. A layer of lacquer or varnish is applied,36 and the plate is wiped clean; the sheets of Mandalay gold leaf are then pressed on to the area which has had the yellow/gum mixture applied to it.37 The gold leaf is peeled off its distinctive paper backing and pressed into place using a cotton swab that has had a little oil added to it. Any gold that does not adhere is caught up in the oily cotton and is then cleaned by someone who will recycle the gold leaf. Once all the gold leaf is pressed into place, the plate is set aside in the cellar to dry. Before it has become hard, it is brought out and carefully cleaned in a bowl of water. The water quickly becomes brilliantly yellow from the orpiment/gum mixture, which soon comes away from the surface of the plate, leaving the gold leaf attached to the reserved surface, in this case the chinthe and the leaf border
This completes the record of the work carried out in the Htun Lacquer Workshop in New Pagan in October 1995. On the evidence of that visit, by far the most numerous objects being made in the workshop were basketry vessels decorated with the engraved, yun technique in red, green and yellow, with some blue. Certain items of furniture were also seen in the workshop: circular and octagonal tables (the latter a design imported from northern India during the colonial period), chests, and screens. There was no sign of any relief-moulded work, though on a previous visit to Pagan a mould for pressing out repeating thayo elements was seen (see cat 31 for such a mould). Such work has clearly been done there in the past, despite the prominence today of the yun technique. The main market for the wares produced was the tourist trade — buses of visitors to Pagan regularly stopped at the premises during the making of this record — and, despite the political turmoil in the country, there appears to be a sufficiently steady stream of visitors to enable this workshop, and others at Pagan, to continue in business. Generally, however, centres of lacquer production in Burma are now few because of the greater reliance on metal and plastic vessels for domestic use, though while the whole of Southeast Asia remains a tourist destination, it seems likely that the lacquerware traditions of Pagan will continue.
2 Morris 1919.
3 Fraser-Lu 1985 (new edition forthcoming); also Fraser-Lu 1994: 221—51.
4 Blurton 1999: 103—16. Some authors have also completely incorrectly described the production of engraved, yun lacquer vessels, such as Talbot Kelly 1905: 180 and Yule 1858: 157 and 197—8 (the former probably drawing on the latter, whose quality of information is usually dependable). Even the redoubtable Scott, writing under his nom-de-plume Shway Yoe (1882: 277—8), fails to describe the
technique correctly. The mistake common to all three writers was the assumption that the pattern is exposed on the surface of a vessel by smoothing down through a layer of lacquer to the previously laid-on design. They entirely misunderstood the purpose of the engraving, as is described here.
5 Made by U Htein Win of Rangoon.
6 New Pagan is the settlement to which all the lacquer workers of Pagan were forcibly moved by the government in 1990; it is located to the south of Myinkaba village, close to the Lawkananda pagoda.
The Htun Lacquer Workshop (G/i, Khanlaung Quarter, New Pagan) is, like most lacquer establishments in Pagan, made up of two separate elements: workshops and a sales area. The latter also has facilities for potential buyers to be provided with refreshments. The pressure of non-Burmese tourists in Pagan has had an effect on the industry. Those items not sold in Pagan itself are transported to Rangoon, while large quantities are also exported to parts of Southeast Asia with high tourist exposure, such as Bangkok. This tourist market is countered by a decrease in sales to Burmese, as vessels made of mass-produced metal and plastic force lacquer out of the market, especially for domestic vessels. This lacquer workshop was founded about seventy years ago by the grandparents of the present proprietor. It only opened in New Pagan, however, in 1991. One of the workers who has been there for fifteen years trained at the Lacquer School for eight years (for the Lacquer School at Pagan, see Fraser-Lu 1986), having started there at the age of thirteen. Some of the designs used at Htun are those developed at the school, while others have been invented ‘in house’.
7 Previously known as Me!anorrhoea usitafa or usitatissima.
8 Nathaniel Wallich in 1828 mentions seeing it near Prome and later at Martaban, as well as in the Salween valley; in the Imperial Gazetteer (1908) under ‘Pegu, District’ (vol. XX, p. 90) there is mention of the thitsi tree j.. among trees which have a marketable value’ (whether for the wood or the sap is not indicated). Morris, in 1919, says: ‘The bulk of the present supplies [of lacquer sap] come from Katha and the Shan States and it is estimated that the total output is about 200 tons a year.’ Certainly the Shan States was the source for the lacquer used at the Htun Workshop in Pagan in 1995, which cost then 7,500 kyat for a box of 10 viss; they used approximately fifty boxes of this size per year. In addition to specific locations in the southern Shan States (Momeik, Loilem, Kengtung and Lawsawk), Fraser-Lu (1985: 8) also refers to Katha in the Sagaing District and Bhamo in Kachin State as sources for raw lacquer. She also mentions areas where second quality lacquer comes from. Morris 1919: i defines the tree as a ‘fine upstanding tree found particularly in the drier forests of the province up to 3,500 fee
9. See p.26 for Wallich’s slightly different method of collecting the sap.
10 Morris has something to say on this subject: ‘Bad methods of tapping threaten the future supplies, and the question of preserving the tree and regulating tapping is under consideration. At present the right to tap trees is subject to forest licences, but there is no attempt to ensure scientific and safe methods.’ Morris 1919: 2. So far as we know, there never was any attempt to regulate tapping.
11 Burney in 1832 (p. i8o) did make several suggestions, such as for ‘ladies’ square work boxes, and gentlemen’s hats’. A recent acquisition in the British Museum is of exactly such a ladies’ sewing box, with internal tray (oA 2000.2—3.1). It was used by a British teaching/missionary family based in Burma between 1915 and 1940, and bears an inscription with the maker’s name, Hsaya Ba. Burney
also suggested several more industrial uses for lacquer such as the waterproofing of boats and rigging, as well as caulking: ‘ I applied a coat of it [lacquer], in the absence of paint, to the sides of some gun-boats, and found the material cheaper and more durable than paint.’ Burney, delightfully, was not prepared merely to speculate but was keen to experiment. See cat. 153, 157 and 174 for examples of vessels made of lacquer but in European shapes.
12 Again Burney (1832: 170) is one of the first to record this effect, though see also the Edinburgh Journal of Science, 1828, 96—100, for an even earlier mention.
13 For the techniques of lacquer use other than for vessels, see the relevant entries in this catalogue, e.g. for the method of making dry-lacquer sculpture, see cat. 39; for items decorated with gilded and moulded lacquer paste, see cat. 33.
14 Traditionally bamboo had an almost universal usage in Burma. Yule (1858) speaks of ‘the all-useful bamboo’ and (p. 153) lists forty different usages of bamboo, including ‘cooking pots... clothes-boxes, pan-boxes, dinner trays...’, all of which are illustrated in this volume.
15 According to the 1912 Burma Gazetteer: Lower Chindwin Disfrict, Upper Burma, under the entries for the two villages of Kyaukka North and South, both important centres of manufacture of lacquer vessels even today, ‘The variety of bamboo used is the tinwa, which is imported from the Upper Chindwin, the quality which renders it suitable being its pliancy.’ This is no doubt the same today.
16 Although not recorded at the Htun Lacquer Workshop, other investigators mention that preparation of the basketry substrates is farmed out. This would certainly make sense as huge quantities of these frames were stored in the Htun workshop, probably more than could be produced within the workshop itself. A common sight on the road to New Pagan is groups of people, on foot or bicycle,
carrying enormous numbers of ready-woven basketry shapes for betel-boxes. Further, the author saw rio evidence of matting being woven in the workshop, and amounts of this will have been used for items such as large trays.
17 At the Htun Lacquer Workshop the specialist in this technique was Win Ma Aye. From personal observation, it is usually women who do both types of weaving on the mandrel — with plain bamboo and with bamboo and horse-hair.
18 The author was pleased to discover, several years after this fieldwork, that Burney records exactly the same utensil in use in 1832 (p 170). ‘Generally, to save the hand, the first coat is applied with a rude brush made of the husk of the cocoa-nut.’
19 In the example witnessed, the shavings used were those produced from the previous work on the lathe.
20 Morris mentions that the very finest wares may have as many as twenty-six different applications. He goes on to say that as a result these vessels may take up to six months to produce and are consequently more expensive (Morris 1919: 6). At the Htun Workshop the finest wares may take up to eight months to produce. In nearby Myinkaba, at the workshop of U Aung Myin, items of yun-decorated wooden furniture, such as chests of drawers or screens (see cat. i8o) may take up to two years to complete. The unengraved wares made in Kyaukka (black outside and red inside, see cat. 155) take less time: ‘Each article requires from two-and-a-half to three months to complete.’ See Burma Gazetteer: Lower Chindwin District, Upper Burma, Rangoon 1912, p. 125.
21 At the Htun Workshop they go to Rangoon to buy both cinnabar and orpiment.
22 Burney (1832: 172) records that the Pagan wares were noted for being decorated in red and green.
23 At the Htun Workshop the designer was Kyaw Kyaw.
24 Exactly the same arrangement is recorded by Burney at Ava in 1832 (p. 173).
25 See cat. 184 for a design copied from Pagan murals.
26 Fraser-Lu 1985: 13 mentions the use of shanzi, or tung oil, ‘which comes from a tree in the Shan States (Aleurites sppj’. Morris 1919: 3 & 6 mentions the same shanzi oil. Presumably the two oils have the same function in the mixing of the hinthabada. It may be that peanut oil is easier and cheaper to acquire today. Burney in 1832 says that shanzi oil comes from the tree Dipterocarpus
27 At the Htun Workshop they used the outer wrappers from maize cobs.
28 In this context it is perhaps no coincidence that the inscription on cat. 155 from Kyaukka mentions the workshop of lacquer-master U Htun as at ‘Acacia Grove’. The acacia is the source of the glue known in the West as ‘gum arabic’.
29 In the past green colour would be made from a mixture of the mineral dye, orpiment (arsenic trisulphide), and the botanical dye, indigo. Today, we suspect that a mass-produced chemical colour is used and Fraser-Lu, writing in 1985, records the (then) current use of house-paint.
30 This unusual material is easily found in and around Pagan. Burney 1832: 170—71 says that the tree is called ‘en-gyen’, that it is Ficus religiosa, and that the powder is termed ‘en-gyen kyouk-tshowe amhoun.’
31 Compare Burney 1832: 178: ‘The workmen seem to prefer always to use the varnish in the sun.’
32 See cat. 59 for a typical example of this work.
33 For a cup decorated with a shwe zawa design which was acquired fl 1920 at Nyaung U, close to Pagan, see cat. 159.
34 For mention of this master craftsman, see Watt 1904 (he won a commendation at the Indian Art Exhibition at Delhi in 1902/3) and Morris 1919.
35 The author did see some of this at the Htun Workshops where it is undoubtedly sometimes used. However, it is unlikely to be used every time yellow is required; that used for the shwe zawa work witnessed for this record was exceptionally bright and looked rather like poster paint. It is apparently imported from China.
36 Traditionally this would certainly have been lacquer, but today it is called ‘furniture polish’; Fraser-Lu 1985: 23 says ‘lacquer or varnish’.
37 For the preparation of gold leaf of this type, see Keretsky 1991.