Remarkably resistant to water, acid, and in some cases, heat, lacquer—a natural plastic—has been used by East Asian craftsmen for centuries to create highly-detailed inlaid decorative boxes.

Although it can take up to twelve months of labor to make one of the treasured boxes, the results are nothing short of stunning. It comes as little surprise, then, that some of the best pieces can fetch thousands of dollars.

According to the MET, raw lacquer is collected each year by extracting the sap from notches cut in trees. After a heating process to remove impurities, it can then be applied to nearly any surface—with many applications demanding over 30 coats.

Among others who are keeping up with the age-old lacquer technique is Lee Kwang-Woong. A specialist in the traditional Korean style of decoration, Lee is no stranger to creating inlaid lacquer boxes from scratch.

From harvesting sap from a lacquer tree, to charcoal polishing and curing, Lee’s painstaking—yet satisfying—process of creating a box inlaid with delicate shell decoration is definitely worth five minutes of your time today:

Find out more about ancient lacquer techniques over at the MET.


Simon is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and Managing Editor of EVD Media. When he finds the time to design, his focus is on helping startups develop branding and design solutions to realize their product design vision. In addition to his work at Nike and various other clients, he is the main reason anything gets done at EvD Media. He once wrestled an Alaskan alligator buzzard to the ground with his bare hands… to rescue Josh.