MossValley: The Varnish Tree (1836 article)
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The Varnish Tree

(Rhus vernix)

Transcript from
The Penny Magazine
The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowlege

The Lacquer Tree, Rhus vernicifera The beautiful black Japan varnish so much admired in Europe is the production of a tree which grows wild as well in China as Japan. It is cultivated in plantations, and is so much improved by the treatment it receives that a cultivated tree affords three times more of this valuable product than the wild one. The Chinese call the tree "Tsi Shoo": it has some resemblance to the ash, with leaves shaped like those of the laurel, of a light green colour and downy feel. It is of no great beauty, but is valuable as the source of a very lucrative manufacture.

There is scarcely anything more curious in this tree than the common manner of propagating it, which is neither by seeds nor suckers. Early in spring, a small branch or twig is selected, about a foot and a-half or two feet in length, and a ring of bark cut from it all round, about half in inch in breadth. The wound is immediately coated up with smooth soft clay, and a ball of the same clay formed all round it as large as a child's head. This is then covered up with matting to prevent it from falling to pieces, and a vessel of water hung over with a very minute hole in the under part, sufficient to let the water drop slowly upon the ball and to keep it constantly moist. As the water drops from the vessel it is of course replaced from time to time, and in the course of six months it is found that the wounded edges of the bark have shot forth into the mass of clay, fibre-like roots, which form the more readily as the tree is still supported by the sap from its parent stock. When the twig is thought to have taken sufficient root in the mass of clay to support an independent existence, it is sawed off from the tree a little below the clay, placed immediately into a hole prepared for the purpose, and becomes at once a tree.

When these trees are seven or eight years old, they are capable of supplying the precious varnish, which is gathered in the following manner:– About the middle of summer, a number of labourers proceed to the plantations of these trees, each furnished with a crooked knife and a large number of hollow shells, larger than oyster-shells. With their knives they make many incisions in the bark of the trees about two inches in length, and under each incision they force in the edge of the shell, which easily penetrates the soft bark and remains in the tree. This operation is performed in the evening, as the varnish flows only in the night. The next morning the workmen proceed again to the plantation; each shell is either wholly or partially filled with varnish; this they scrape out carefully with their knives, depositing it in a vessel which they carry with them, and throw the shells into a basket at the foot of the tree. In the evening the shells are replaced, and the varnish again collected in the morning. This process is repeated throughout the summer, or until the varnish ceases to flow. It is computed that fifty trees, which can be attended by a single workman, will yield a pound of varnish every night. when the gathering is over, the varnish is strained through a thin cloth, loosely suspended over an earthen vessel; and the little impurity that remains in the strainer is used in physic.

There is a corrosive property in the varnish which operates very injuriously to the workmen employed in the preparation of the varnish, if the utmost care and precaution be not taken to obviate its distressing effects; a kind of tetter appears on the face, and in the course of a few days spreads over the whole body; the skin becomes red and painful, the head swells, and the whole surface of the body is covered with troublesome sores.

To prevent these effects the workmen rub their bodies well with prepared oil, before they proceed to their work; they wash themselves with a decoction of herbs and bark, and prepared themselves by a course of medicine. In addition to these precautions, they wrap their heads in linen veils whenever they are at their work, leaving only two holes for their eyes; and also cover themselves with a close dress of leather, and wear long gloves reaching above the elbows; by these means they are enabled to escape the diseases generated by the noxious properties of the varnish tree.[*] It is not improbable that an exaggerated version of these precautions may have given the first idea of the fable of the dreadful Upas or poison-tree of Java, with which the Dutch writers of the last century amused or horrified their readers.

[ * Footnote: it is said that there are men that will handle this varnish-tree or touch the juice with impunity, while others are dreadfully affected even by being in the way of the smoke, or the wind which carries the effluvia of the tree. The artisans who employ this varnish can only work in the dry season when the north wind blows. The varnish is brought to market in great tubs – its natural colour is white, and it looks like cream, but it blackens in the air. Dampier says they make in Tonquin the best glue in the world from it. ]

Another tree very useful to the Chinese artisans is the Kou-Chou, which resembles a fig-tree. This tree on incision yields a milk, or liquid gum, which they use in gilding with leaf-gold. They wet their pencils in it, and then draw their figures and ornaments with the gum upon wood, over which they apply the leaf-gold, which is so firmly cemented by the gum, that it never detaches. This gum in its effects is like the transferring varnish now used in Europe, but more tenacious.


In Britain and elsewhere the lacquering process was copied (using synthetic materials) and was known as 'Japanning', which the following links are mainly concerned with:

Wolverhampton History & Heritage Society (WHHS): Japanning

Paul R Morin at The Old Tools Shop: Japanning Recipes

Compton & Schuster Conservation: Lacquer & Japanning

The Varnish Tree

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