A large part of any project seems to be the research that goes into the processes and techniques needed to achieve it. Now that I've decided to paint the box, my next step was to find out how to do that and get a really authentic look to it. The history of Chinese and Japanese lacquerware (urushiol-based lacquer)
is a long and impressive one. When done right, the result is not only beautiful, but the lacquer itself cures through oxidation and polymerization to form a a kind of natural plastic that is extremely robust and can last over a thousand years. The process of applying it is long and arduous and includes lots of noxious and toxic vapors even if you can find the authentic ingredients and complete step-by-step instructions. Not to mention that, if you don't know what you're doing, getting it on your skin can result in "urusiol-induced contact dermatitis". And having read enough about exotic tree resins from sou-east Asia I decided that there had to be a better way that I personally could achieve good results.
There are all kinds of commercial lacquers out there both acryllic based and nitrocellulose. But the first thing their labels mention is about how to paint a car. Somehow I don't think this is what I have in mind. There are water-based lacquers too. But the general consensus is that the finish they produce is relatively fragile. If I am going to put all this effort into something I want it to last. So moving on......
Then I came to "Japanning". Oriental lacquerware was quite popular in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Due to the high cost of importing both the goods and the materials, Europeans developed imitations of their own that were effectively a different technique of lacquering based on shellac. I finally located a plain-spoken practical source on how to do this. The Handbook on Japanning: 2nd Edition by William Norman Brown, D. van Nostrand, New York, 1913. Although most of the book is about applying japanning to metal as an enameling technique, the fir 11 pages are all about applying it to wood. From the first step of preparing the surface, to priming and then application, it leaves out nothing. Complete with exact recipes not only for the varnish itself but for exactly how to put which pigments in it to achieve the color you like. The language is stilted and pedantic and I will have to take some time taking it from antique book to studio notes, but with a little effort all the information is laid out one step at a time. I have painted icons before and am familiar with this technique of sizing and gesso-priming a surface. It will take patience and care, but I think it's well within my scope to be able to turn out a creditable outcome.