The lacquer plant Toxicodendron vernicifluum (or Rhus verniciflua) belongs to the same family, Anacardiaceae, as cashew nuts and poison ivy. This shrub can grow to 30 ft. It is found in Asia, in forests or on hilly ground up to 2,500 ft. Originating in China, it was then introduced into neighboring countries. The trunk is no bigger in diameter than a wrist. Incised with a blade, it oozes a latex, and the procedure is performed on plants at least 10 years old. Harvest occurs from mid-June until the end of October. Each plant yields about half-a-pound of latex. Polymerization takes place upon contact with air, producing a lacquer. The main ingredient, urushiol, is a potent allergen, the same found in poison ivy. The craft is ancient. A bowl, dated 4,000 to 5,000 BC, was found in the Zhejiang province of China. Lacquer is applied, layer by layer, for months and even sometimes years, in order to waterproof and to create attractive bowls, boxes, combs, and other luxury items. Because the craft is meticulate and extremely time-consuming, these refined artefacts have fetched high, sometimes astronomical prices. Lacquered objects were coveted by the mighty and by collectors, for milennia, in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
My book, in French, Copal benjoin colophane … , Le Pommier, Paris, 2007, provides more information on the Chinese lacquer tree.