Pursuit of the Ultimate Decorative Surface 2.2b

As I work my way through preparing many “in process” samples for an upcoming video shoot on japanning, I am struck by how straightforward good finishing is.  It is so simple I have distilled it down to six basic steps.  For japanning and the final and ultimate decorative surface the emphasis is overwhelmingly on Step #1: Prepare the surface properly.  Japanning requires a lot of sanding, polishing, and preparing.  Further, while not especially time consuming (once you know the technique a small japanning project probably consumes fewer than a dozen hours, but those hours are often spread out over a week or two), painted decorative surfaces are analogous to fancying-up a house; if you do not have a good roof, foundation, utilities, etc., painting, papering and decorating are a waste of time.   In japanning the “showy” stuff happens so late in the process that it is often a psychological hindrance to any woodworkers who, regardless of how exquisite their craftsmanship in fashioning wood into a magnificent object, simply want to puke out some polyurinate onto the surface and be done with it.  And in the absence of any exposure to the effect or its process, it is not considered an option by even woodworkers who might be so inclined.

It is my mission to help woodworkers get over their infatuation with dovetails and mortise-and-tenons, to see them as simply part of the vocabulary rather than mystical workbench liturgy.  In my upcoming video I will make it abundantly clear, I hope, that japanning is a spectacular option that is easy to do.

How easy?  This easy.

Start with an unfinished box.

csizing 2

Seal it with glue.

cFigure 6

Build a ground with gesso or bulked undercoat.


Sand it to make it smooth as a kittens paw.

c pigments

Make a translucent paint with pigments and shellac.

c black first coat 2


Build up the painted background with pigmented shellac.  This usually takes 10-20 coats, each consuming about 30 seconds for application.

c Figure 17

Rub it out.  Several times, certainly between each of the final two or three coats.

c plant form

Add decorative figures or whatever stylistic character you want using gesso and copying an existing pattern.


Add gold leaf with oil size.


Detail it with an ink pen or ultra-fine brush.


Seal it all in with a varnish top coat.


Stand back and accept the accolades.  This group of boxes was the result of a group of students, all new to the technique, during a week long workshop.

Which of you are not up to that?  I thought so.

Next time, we will finally arrive at the true Ultimate Decorative Surface.