Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Books on japanning
Over the past couple years I've spent quite a bit of time researching the history, and making of, the finish commonly called "japanning". The link to Wikipedia describes what japanning is decently but here goes...
Japanese woodworkers used to use the sap from a particular tree, which was quite gummy, to cover their steel tools with so they didn't rust. After drying this finish would have a dark brown, almost black, color and a nearly semi-gloss sheen. Western tradesman saw this finish on tools brought to them from the far east, recreated it using western ingredients and dubbed it "japanning". This process of finishing, especially steel tools, has been in use by westerners since at least the 17th century and became very popular in the 18th century. All sorts of steel implements were covered in japanning from hand planes and chisels all the way to sewing machines and cast iron stoves.
A common misconception is that japanning is only available in black but that's certainly not the case. Asphaltum, and more so lamp black, was widely available in the 18th and 19th centuries and definitely were the most common pigments used. Lamp black especially so since it was readily available as a by product of the lamps used to light everything in everyday life. However, there are examples of many other colors such as white, yellow, blue, brown and even red being created. It's all about what pigment is used to grant a certain color profile to the liquid.
At some point in the 19th century, tool makers, notably hand plane manufacturers such as Stanley and Union, used various recipes for japanning to cover the steel portions of their tools to prevent them from rusting. They used this type of finish up until around World War II when the more modern enamel finishes, like we use today, were introduced and became cost effective. At some point, somewhere in the 1950's and 1960's it seems, the original japanning fell out of favor by these manufacturers and ever decreasing qualities of enamel paint replaced it. By the 1970's it seems the finish these companies were using wasn't even a decent quality enamel but just plain ole oil based paint.
In my plane restoration endeavors I have tried to reproduce something that is similar to the recipe Stanley used circa 1910-1930. I chose that era to reproduce as that was the heyday of plane making here in the U.S. and the finish they achieved was quite excellent. During this development I discovered a few old books on the subject and wanted to share them with others. If you're interested in making your own japanning, these are a good place to start.
My three favorites are: