Caring for the Lacquer on Byobu Screens: a Practical Guide with Expert Tips

Japanese folding screens, or byobu, are exquisite three-dimensional works of art that have a long and illustrious history. Their complex construction combines specialties of several different types of craftsmen and byobu present unique considerations for their care and handling.

Let's delve into the fascinating world of alluring lacquer edging, where I'll share some information and tips about what it is and how you can keep it beautiful for years to come. Although urushi lacquer has the ability to retain its beauty for centuries, it's also a delicate surface that needs a bit of knowledge to care for properly.

Whether you’re an Asian art collector or if you’ve just inherited your byobu from your family, this practical information will make it easy for you to care for your Japanese folding screen.

The magic of urushi lacquer:

Urushi, the natural resin extracted from the sap of the lacquer tree, has been an important component of Japanese art and craftsmanship for centuries. As a refined material and technique, it provides a unique luster and texture to many art forms, including fine tableware and luxury items like writing boxes (suzuribako), inro, and even leather items like Inden which is decorated with fine details in urushi.

The process of applying urushi lacquer is painstaking and time-consuming. It requires multiple layers of application and a controlled drying process between each layer. This meticulous attention to detail results in a stunning and durable material with a gorgeous sheen and refinement. Cool Fact!  Art Fitters Exclusive Insights

Interestingly, many people are allergic to the sap of the lacquer tree. Because of this genetic factor, the skill often remained within specific families who had a natural ability to withstand the toxicity of urushi. This led to a very specialized skill, with artisan families benefiting from both the exclusivity and continuity of knowledge over generations.

The lacquer edging of byobu is carefully crafted by these special artisans, apart from the painting and fabrics that comprise the rest of the byobu. It’s usually made of sugi, "Japanese cedar" wood which has been carefully dried to prevent warpage. There are many types of lacquer edging but the most common type is a glossy black with a flat interior edge and a softly curved exterior edge. This frames the byobu with a crisp, elegant appearance which also serves to protect the artwork within. Since byobu are a very canonical art form, the vast majority of them measure ¾ inches in depth. Byobu edges in red, orange, brown, natural wood, or gold-dusted lacquer are not as common but should still be cared for in the same way.

Caring for the lacquer edging on byobu:

  • Prevent scratches: This is the #1 most common form of damage to lacquer edging. It can easily get scratched, so be extra careful when using any sharp edges around it. When moving a byobu, grip the folded edges and lift. Never slide your byobu on the floor or into position.

  • Protect from sunlight and heat Protect from sunlight and heat: Lacquer can discolor in direct sunlight, and heat can warp the wood structure. Keep your byobu away from direct sunlight and maintain a consistent room temperature and humidity.

  • Dusting Dusting: To maintain the lacquer's shine and prevent dirt buildup, gently dust the surface with a soft, dry cloth. Chamois is our favorite but microfiber, or cotton pads are an easy alternative.  Just remember not to use any liquids. Regular dusting helps preserve the lacquer's glossy sheen.

  • Removing debris: If there are any globs of dirt or debris, very lightly mist plain water on a soft cloth. Do not mist the artwork directly. Slowly and gently wipe across the area with the barely damp cloth or cotton and immediately dry it off with a separate cloth. Repeat as necessary until the gunk is completely removed. Although you may be tempted to scrub it harder or use a cleaning agent, taking your time will make sure that you don't cause damage which can be extremely costly to repair.

  • Chipped lacquer: If there are any chips in the lacquer, keep moisture away from the chipped area to prevent the wood from swelling and causing the lacquer to delaminate, crack, or blister. If you’re dusting or removing debris close to it, take extreme care to avoid the edges of the chipped area.

  • Cleaning the hardware: check back soon for our guide on maintaining the beauty of the ornate brass, silver, or gold hardware on Japanese folding screens. 

Choosing the right mounting hardware for your byobu:

In addition to caring for the lacquer edging, it's essential to use high-quality mounting hardware when you hang your byobu on your wall. Our selection of screen hanging kits are designed to provide secure support for your screens while minimizing distraction. They’ve been in use for over 25 years in collections all over the world, withstanding the test of time.

Here are a few important aspects of design that we’ve incorporated from decades of use and feedback:

  • Lucite brackets: Our brackets are made of lucite, a form of plexiglas. Lucite has an ever-so-slight amount of flexibility, reducing the chance of scratching or gouging the lacquer surface. We use a specific high-grade of lucite that provides this bit of flexibility while also providing structural integrity.

  • Color-matching: Our black screen clips are a glossy black which allow it to virtually become indistinguishable from the lacquer edging. If your screen is not black, our clear screen clips will allow you to display your byobu without visually breaking up the line of edging, letting the color shine through.

  • Rust-resistant: Vintage metal brackets can be prone to rusting, but our Hawaii-based company has designed these brackets to withstand the harsh conditions of a tropical climate.

  • Wall-mounted design: Previous top-hanging methods of mounting can easily be dislodged or fail over time (and they’re often highly visible). We designed our brackets to be mounted directly into the wall, giving support at structural points of the byobu to distribute the weight and preventing the chances of the byobu from falling.

Treating your byobu with care will ensure that they'll remain valuable heirlooms, bringing daily beauty and inspiration to your home or office. We hope this article has given you a greater appreciation for the amazing craftsmanship and beauty of Japanese folding screens!

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