> I'm looking at trying my hand at making some Japanese style furniture.
> I know the lacquer they used would be somewhat dangerous to use today,
> so what would be best to use instead? Just a modern black/red spray
The Japanese still use urushi lacquer quite extensively. In addition
to the danger of allergic reaction, you will find it quite difficult
to acquire on this side of the Pacific.
There is a cashew lacquer available today that is less likely to cause
an allergic reaction, but it is mostly intended for smaller items and
is priced accordingly.
I have had good luck with a brand of modern polyurethane varnish that
contains pigment. It's sold by Minwax under the trade name "Polyshades".
It's not quite the same as lacquer, but it has a nice translucency and
after a dozen or so coats the color deepens wonderfully.
You might also consider the beauty and simplicity of bare wood.
> Also, what wood would have been used under the lacquer?
That depends. Paulownia, as Lady Solveig suggests, is popular for
furniture (especially traveling furniture) as it has a very high
strength-to-weight ratio. Other popular woods are cedar, cypress,
ash, yew, zelkova, chestnut, mulberry, persimmon, and pine.
I find cedar to be widely available in home improvement stores
these days, and affordable.
> What books/websites are good for documentation or how-to?
I recommend "Traditional Japanese Furniture; A Definitive Guide" by
Kazuko Koizumi (Kodansha, 1986). This book was recommended to me, and
has proved helpful. It not only contains discussion of the furniture
items themselves, but places them within Japanese culture and history.
For information on lacquer and lacquering, I refer to "The Inro
Handbook; Studies of Netsuke, Inro. and Lacquer" by Raymond Bushell
(Weatherhill, 1979). Inro themselves are so gray-area that most
people accept them as post-period, but this books notes on lacquer
are the best I have.
The Hon. Lord Ishiyama Gen'tarou Yori'ie
(mka: Elliott C. "Eeyore" Evans)