Burmese lacquer

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Burmese lacquer

Visitors to my shop http://stores.ebay.co.uk/Naga-Store will find many excellent examples of Burmese lacquerware made at workshops in Bagan, the main centre of lacquer design and production in Burma.

Lacquer is tree sap, which sets as a natural flexible plastic resistant to water, heat and insect damage. It can be applied to a wide variety of surfaces such as wood, leather, metal and palm-leaf, but it is most frequently used on split, coiled or woven bamboo and sometimes teak. Virtually all of the pieces in my shop fall into the last category. As well as being used in its liquid form as varnish, glue or ink, the sap can be mixed with ash or sawdust to create a putty or thayo which can be sculpted.

Lacquerware production

Many of the lacquer production processes used today are the same as those recorded 170 years ago. Lacquer vessels are made by hand, and can undergo many different processes during production. Depending on the intricacy of the decoration, it can take three to four months to complete a small vessel while larger pieces can take over a year. No lacquer piece is the product of a single hand, but is the result of specialists in different techniques working together.

Lacquer vessels are not solid lacquer, but have wood, bamboo or horsehair base coated with layers of thayo putty and liquid lacquer to create their characteristic smooth surface. The Burmese word yun means both lacquer and a decorative engraving technique. Although gilding and relief decoration are also used, yun is the most common technique used on lacquerware and most of the items I sell conform to this method of production.


Yun deocration is made up of a series or tiny lines engraved on the surface of the lacquer object, which are then filled with coloured lacquer. The most common colours for yun designs are red, green, yellow and orange on red or black backgrounds. The majority of the engraving is done free hand. There are no pattern books, nor is it neccessary for the design to be measured out first, it is all arranged by eye. The decoration of a single object requires thousands of engraved lines with the design for the red, yellow, orange or green engraved, coloured and finally dried seperately. The designer often undertakes the engraving of the more complicated elements, while young understudies fuill in much of the detail.

Uses of lacquer

The properties of lacquer, both as a protective sealant and as a medium for decoration, mean that the opportunities for its use are practically limitless. In the average Burmese household, it was particularly useful for making vessels used for the storage, preparartion and consumption of rice such as storage pails, steamers, serving trays, food stands, and cooked rice containers. Lacquered vessels were also used for other foodstuffs, including liquids such as oils. The main meal may have been accompanied with water served from a carafe, preceded by snacks served from a lahpet tray and perhaps after the meal a digestive from the betel box. All of these items were made of lacquered basketry, either woven or coiled.

Modern lacquer work

The production of lacquer vessels continues in modern day Burma or Myanmar. The main centre for production is Bagan in central Burma, historic capital of ancient Burma, and where I buy all my lacquerware from. The government started a school in the 1920's and today there are dozens of different workshops producing some standard designs but many specialising in the production of certain specialities. Bagan also specialises in the intricate yun technique described earlier. Some of the larger items in my shop took many months to produce and pieces can also be made by commission, which I can arrange if you have a particular item in mind.
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