Lacquerware: Stunning Burmese handcrafts

By January 6, 2013Myanmar

Lacquerware was the most fascinating handcraft I saw in Myanmar. Men and women have been creating these beautiful, decorative vessels, plates and even furniture of bamboo or wood  since 1600 B.C. in China.

The Burmese straw-colored lacquer derives from a wild growing Burmese tree and turns black when exposed to air. Lacquer vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboo strip base often mixed with horsehair (see the coiled vase in the slide show; here no glue was used). The lacquer is mixed with ash to form a rubber-like substance which can be formed. The object is coated layer upon layer with lacquer and lacquer-ash mixtures to make a smooth surface and an – after a long drying period – object which is hard as stone.

Every layer of lacquer has to dry in a cellar for about a week. Depending on the quality of the item, it takes incredibly 20 to 100 layers of lacquer before it is polished and engraved free-handed with intricate designs, commonly using red, green and yellow – the Burmese colors – on a red or black background.

The finished product is a result of teamwork for months or years and not crafted by a single person. Holding these items in my hands, I admired the preciseness and talent of the people who created these wonderful pieces of art.  Lacquerware is produced in many countries nowadays, even in Germany, France and Russia. 

Bagan is the capital of lacquerware in Myanmar. In the beginning I did not know about the “real” lacquerware, but bought “fake” things instead. To distinguish between fake and real you need to check the colorings and the weight. A fake product is way lighter and the colors are painted and not rubbed into the carved areas. The items are also very beautiful, but will not last for very long. The colors will come off soon and the wood might break after some time.



  • bebs1 says:

    Oh wow, thank you. I now have a better appreciation of the product knowing the back breaking works involved and the time put into it. Truly a labor of love.

  • Mon says:

    Thank you so much for this which beautifully appreciates our homeland’s one of the treasures, in detail of hard work, as well. We have got a number of precious fine arts which are not out to the world as Burma has been in the wrong hands for ages.

    • I am really honored if I was able to contribute to communicate Burmese talents despite the closed doors of the country in the past. I am sure, that with more and more tourists coming to your country, the Burmese way of life and the handcrafts will also find there way in to other cultures and living rooms. Hopefully, this will not change the way the Burmese people live together peacefully and respect other cultures. I guess tourism is only a good thing to a certain extend…

  • Amel Ryan says:

    Fantastic to see these craft skills being kept alive! Just curious though (and at the risk of sounding like a capitalist philistine ;-)… did you hear of any factories in Burma where they can produce large quantities quickly? Genuinely handmade lacquerware is very special, but it can become pricey, I’m wondering if there may be cheaper sources where mass production keeps costs low.

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