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Guide to Russian Lacquer Boxes

History of Lacquer Art Lacquer Box Guide Lacquer Art Authenticity

The Making of Russian Lacquer Boxes

The miniature works of art you see on this web site are made according to a traditional, specific and quite lengthy process. This ensures that the lacquer box will be highly durable, so its beauty will last for many years. Russian lacquer boxes are made from papier-mache, layers of cardboard glued together and tightly compressed. When it is still wet, the papier-mache is pressed into shapes for making boxes: flat panels and curved pieces. The material is then placed into a hot linseed oil bath and dried gradually for 30 days in a special airtight oven.

Craftsman making a papier mache Box
The photo above shows a Palekh craftsman at work on an early stage of the box-making process. He has recently been given dried papier mache pieces, and his job is to carefully place them together to form the basic box shape. The artisans who put together the boxes specialize in this part of the process.

Kiln used to cure boxes After the box is joined, it is covered in primer, to get it ready for the lacquering stage. Then it is put into an oven like the one pictured at right. Similar "ovens" are used between other steps in making a box, as well, to provide a stable and safe environment for the box to mature.

The primed box is given to another artisan, who covers it with black lacquer on the outside, and red lacquer on the inside, then dried again. (Every once in a while, different colors other than black and red are used, but these two are by far the most common.) It takes about 45 days for the papier-mache to be dried, the box to be joined and primed, and then covered with the base lacquer. The photo below shows an artisan in the final preparatory stages of making a box. She is covering the exterior of some boxes with black lacquer.

artisan covering box in black lacquer
Now the box is ready to be painted. It is this step, more than any other, that gives the box its character and value. As a preliminary step, the artist makes a preparatory sketch and lightly scratches the drawing on the surface of the box. Sometimes Fedoskino artists will also add an inlaid piece of mother-of-pearl to the surface of the box at this point, as well. Then the actual painting, which can take from less than a day to more than a year, depending on the size and complexity of the piece, begins. Artists from Fedoskino use oil paints to create their art, while Palekh, Mstera and Kholui artists use egg tempera paints (the traditional medium of icon-painting). Below, you see Palekh artist Ksenia Grishina at work, putting the final touches on one of her boxes.
Ksenia Grishina finishing on a Lacquer Box

Near the end of the painting process, lacquer artists, particularly from Palekh, will often add ultra-thin strokes of gold paint to their works and polish the gold with a wolf's tooth. The gold will achieve a magnificently radiant shine.

Polishing a coat of lacquer The box is now ready to be covered with a number coats of clear lacquer, often as many as ten layers. Each layer of lacquer must be dried completely before the next coat is applied, a process that will take more than a week. Along with this, the box is also polished several times, both by a mechanical wheel and by hand. The woman on the right is busy polishing the clear lacquer on a wheel. The wheel has been covered with velvet to ensure that the lacquer will have a smooth polished appearance, free from scratches.

Traditionally, lacquer box artisans use oil-based lacquer to give the miniatures their shiny appearance, but recently some artists have turned to high-quality synthetic lacquer -- the same kind of lacquer used on luxury automobiles such as Mercedes and BMW. It is often possible to tell the difference between synthetic and oil-based lacquers because the oil-based lacquer tends to impart a slight yellowish tinge to the work where it covers the drawing, while the synthetic material is usually perfectly clear. Synthetic lacquer works especially well for works with a lot of blue and violet tones, as it preserves the original color better.

unassembled lacquer boxes
These boxes (above) are almost ready to go. It only remains for craftsmen to put the pin in the hinges of hinged boxes. Because the box is made of papier-mache, it will not warp or crack, and yet it is hard and strong enough to last for many generations. Now the finished lacquer box is ready for its journey into the hands of collectors around the world!

Travelling to Baltimore or Washington, DC? Come see and purchase
from our collection in person. We have a special section for these items
inside our main store The Book Escape at 925 S. Charles Street in Baltimore.

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