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Color en México
Arts and Crafts of Mexico

How Mexican Lacquer is Made

Church
This church in Olinalá, Mexico is a magnificent exhibition of local skills.
Also of interest
Places and history of Mexican lacquer
Arts and Crafts of Mexico
Color en México

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There are a variety of different lacquer techniques practiced in Mexico today. Broadly, the pieces available fall into the two categories:
Etched lacquer'Rayada' (engraved) Lacquer

Painted lacquer'Dorada' or 'Pincel' (painted) Lacquer

The base processes are broadly the same for all types of lacquer. The variations in the techniques are most evident in the decoration of the pieces. The main processes are:

PlaningCreating the object to be lacquered

SandingPreparing the surfaces

Undecorated gourdsApplying the black lacquer base layer

PaintingDecorating the piece

 

Creating the object to be lacquered

The lacquering technique may be applied to any number of objects. Some common examples:
Dried gourdsNatural fruits
The fruits used to make lacquered gourds come from two types of plant:
  • The xicaleuáhitl tree
  • The cucurbitaceae family of plants (members include pumpkins, marrows, and squashes)
After suitable gourds are selected, they need to go through a drying process. Drying is generally done close to where the plants are grown. After drying, the gourds are delivered to the artists ready to be lacquered. Some artists prefer to grow their own gourds.
The gourds are cut when they are still immature then left to dry out naturally. After drying, the gourd is hard and dry. The seeds and pulp now need to be removed. Removal of the now dry pulp is done by filling the gourd with water and leaving it to soak for a couple weeks. The pulp softened during this soaking and may be easily removed afterwards. The shell is sufficiently hardened so maintains its shape while the pulp is softened. Once the pulp is scooped out the gourd is ready to be lacquered!
Scented wood
The wood used for all our wooden boxes comes from the linaloé tree. This wood is specially selected for the delicious aroma that emanates after it has been cut.
Scent linesWhile the scent of the wood is natural, the aroma is enhanced by a very delicate and skilled process. While the tree is still living, a surgically clean and sharp instrument is used to make long cuts in the bark of the tree. The cuts are made along the length of the tree trunk. These lesions permit moisture to enter the tree creating dark lines in the wood of the tree. These dark areas are highly aromatic and can be seen inside many of our boxes!
The process creating these scent lines is extremely delicate and is only performed by skilled experts. If the cuts are made too lightly, no dark scent lines will be created. If the cuts are made too deeply the tree will die! After making the cuts, the tree needs to be left to grow for at least a further 10 months before it is ready to be used.
Unscented wood
For sealed pieces, where all exposed wood is lacquered, there is obviously no need to use scented wood. For these pieces a variety of woods are used - often with more than one type per piece.
Seasoning the wood
WoodWhen the tree is mature, it is cut and seasoned. The seasoning process consists of first boiling the wood then leaving it to dry for several months, depending on weather conditions. This seasoning process helps dissipate any resin deposits in the wood. Resin deposits need to be avoided as, in time, they may cause the lacquer finish to become separated from the wood.
Creating the base object
The creation of a single lacquer piece is usually the work of many specialized individuals. It is quite common for a family to specialize only in making of the base wooden boxes which are then passed on to other artists for the lacquering processes. Boxes and charolas (square edged dishes and trays) are made in standard sizes in the following stages:
PlaningPlanks1. Cutting the seasoned trunks into usable planks.
2. Planing the planks to smooth the sides. It during the hand planing process that the natural aromas of the wood are released.
3. Creation of the base object, e.g. box or charola. Each piece is created with created precision to make sure nothing detracts from the appearance of the final piece. At this stage the lids of the boxes are actually sealed to the body using a light adhesive. This is to ensure that the edges of the lids will be completely flush with the body in the finished product.
Preparation of the base object before lacquering
SandingFor the lacquer process to be effective, the wooden surface needs to absolutely smooth and free from any defects what-so-ever. To achieve this smoothness, each pieces undergoes an intensive sanding process.
 

Applying the base lacquer

The lacquer which is applied to the wooden base is created from naturally occurring minerals and soils. The base layer is created from the powdered minerals calcium carbonate and magnesium. The minerals are extracted from the earth and powdered using a baking and grinding process. The resulting black powder is known as the tepútzchuta or the tizate. In order to apply the tizate to the wood it necessary to mix it with natural oils. When combined with the oils, a polymerization process occurs which gives the lacquer its protective qualities of hardness and resistance to water.
The oils used are obtained from plants, seeds, and insects. Again, the production of these oils is a highly specialized task requiring special knowledge of the local natural resources. The quality of the tizate and oils is critical to the end appearance of the lacquer and this is what can define the difference between a high quality lacquered product, such as those sold at worldexperience.com, and lesser quality finishes.

Decoration of the piece

It is during the decoration of the lacquered piece where the differences in technique are most evident. As mentioned earlier, there are two main types of lacquer technique available from worldexperience.com; engraved lacquer and painted lacquer.
A good example of an engraved lacquer piece is this box:Blue box
A good example of a painted lacquer pieces is this plate:Plate with colored flowers
Engraved lacquer
Second layerApplying second layerThe process for creating an engraved lacquer piece is truly fascinating. The process begins after initial, generally black, tizante layer has been applied and polished. Fresh oil is applied to the hard lacquer shell of the piece and powdered gray soil is rubbed into the oil. This creates a new, dark gray, coating.
After the second coat is dried, the distinctive designs are scratched into the second coat. The designs are created from the artists imagination as he or she works. This is why no two pieces of engraved lacquer are exactly alike. The design is scratched into the second, gray, coating using a special tool, the point of which is a long thorn from a local thorn tree. The thorn is inserted into a feather, making it easy to hold. The feather has another purpose as we'll see in a moment.
EngravingSmall sections of the matte gray second layer are broken up into dust as the designs are scratched into it. The scratching of the designs reveals the shiny, generally black, base layer. It is obviously a very skilled process to remove parts of the second layer without damaging the first layer - and to create beautiful designs at the same time! This is the reason a wooden tool is used for the scratching process - it is much less likely to damage the lacquer coat than, say, a metal tool. As the dust from the removed parts of the second layer builds up, it is brushed away using the other end of the scratching tool - the feather.
Applying colorRemoving colorOnce the design has been completely revealed, the distinctive bright colors are applied. The technique for applying the colored layer is very similar to that used for applying the second layer. The piece is again covered in natural oil then the sides are pressed into a container of brightly colored powder. The powder sticks to the oil and so colors the piece. Of course the color also sticks to the revealed, black, parts of the design so it is necessary to carefully remove the colored layer from the revealed sections before the final layer dries. This, again, is done with the special thorn tool with the surplus dust is brushed away.
Thanks to the oils, and the nature of the soils used, the final colored layer merges into matte gray layer to form a hard, durable, and very attractive finish. The end result is a 'two level' appearance with the bright colored layer engraved away to reveal the deep black lacquer underneath.
Red charolaNote, sometimes the color of the layers is reversed, with the colored layer being applied first, with the final layer black. An example of this technique this red charolas:
PalettePainted lacquer
The painted lacquer technique basically involves painting intricate designs over the main, black, lacquer layer. A wide variety of painting techniques are used - in fact almost every artist has their own, slightly unique, style. Generally, the painted design is applied in such a way that the design is raised slightly above the base black layer. This gives a beautiful texture which is pleasant to the touch as well as the eye!
PigmentPincelsThe most common tool for applying the paint is a 'pincel'. Artists tend to make their own pincels using cat hairs which are bound tightly then inserted into the plume of a feather. Apart from being readily available, cat hairs are used because they allow a high level of control over the way the paint is applied. This is essential for the detailed designs that are typical of this art form.
The colored paint is created from powdered pigments. A small mound of white powdered pigment is placed on a smooth board with a hollow in the center. Natural oil is poured into the hollow then vigorously mixed with the white powder to form a thick paste. Powdered colors are then added to the paste and blended until the desired shade is reached.
PowderApplying oilPasteApplying color
Other techniques
Instead of using a black base layer, there is a very special technique which uses gold or silver leaves as the base. Designs are then painted onto the gold or silver leaf using standard painted lacquer techniques but usually of exceptional high quality and detail. We are proud to offer some of these pieces on special order basis. Please contact us for details.

Polishing

As a final step, a variety of waxes are used to polish each piece. The polishing gives protection and shine to the artwork and will keep your lacquered piece looking beautiful for many lifetimes! The final lacquer finish is very durable and may be cleaned and polished with standard household furniture polish.

Finishing

Fitting hingesFitting hingesIn the case of boxes, a few finishing touches need to be made - like the fitting of hinges! During the preparation and lacquering process, the lid of the box is lightly glued to the body to ensure that the edges of the lid will be perfectly flush with the body. To finish the piece, the lid needs to be separated and the hinges added. This is usually the work of yet another specialist!

Using

The most final, and most important, step in the lifetime of a lacquered piece is when it becomes one of your treasured possessions! Mexican lacquer is one of the beautiful way to decorate any environment, whether your living room, bedroom, kitchen, or office.
Click here to read about the history of Mexican lacquer and the places where it's made!

  
Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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