Conversion Varnish vs. Lacquer: Which Should You Choose?

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 05/30/23 • 

Your choice of wood finishing can either make the product or break it. Lacquer and conversion varnish all serve to protect wood products from the effects of heat, water, and other elements.

However, each type of finish has its pros and cons, which you should determine when choosing which is suitable for your application. In this article, I’ll cover both lacquer and conversion varnish so you can pick which is right for you.

What is Conversion Varnish?

Conversion varnish, also called catalyzed conversion varnish, is a type of varnish applied as a protective coat to wooden surfaces. Before application by spraying, a catalyst is added to the varnish. The mixture of the acid catalyst and the finish should be done correctly to cure and harden properly.

Post Catalyzed Conversion Varnish Finish

Post Catalyzed Conversion Varnish Finish

The added acid catalyst hardens the conversion varnish and makes it fast drying, durable, and much easier to clean. A resin is also added to conversion varnish, which contributes to film building and hardness and adds a glossy appearance.

Mahogany Countertops With Water-Based Conversion Varnish

Mahogany Countertops With Water-Based Conversion Varnish

All these characteristics make conversion varnish a popular finishing option for cabinets, kitchen countertops, bathroom vanities, and anywhere you’d like to show off the natural beauty of wood. Check out our best clear coats for kitchen cabinets.

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer became popular in the 1920s as a better alternative to shellac finish. It was more resistant to water, acids, heat, and other elements. Apart from that, it is a synthetic finish, which means its characteristics could be varied to meet different needs. Lacquer thinner, used to dissolve lacquer, could also be varied in evaporation rate and strength.

Most lacquers used with wood are nitrocellulose, which gives a lacquer finish its fast drying properties. However, because nitrocellulose is not flexible, has a poor build, and doe not bond well, resins, like Alkyd, Maleic, Urethane, and Vinyl, are added to improve these properties.

Walnut Table Gloss Lacquer Finish

Walnut Table Gloss Lacquer Finish

Because of its fast evaporation rate, most lacquer finishes are sprayed with a spray gun onto the surface of the wood. However, using a slow-evaporating lacquer thinner can make it possible to apply lacquer by brushing it.

Conversion Varnish vs. Lacquer

Application

Both conversion varnish and lacquer are spray-on wood finishes. However, when applying each, you will need to apply more lacquer coats than conversion varnish. This is because conversion varnish has more solid contents, 40 to 60 percent by volume, than lacquer, which is about 12 to 18 percent solid contents by volume.

Conversion varnish will require fewer coats to reach the ideal film build compared to the lacquer, in which you’ll need to reapply several coats to reach an ideal protective film.

Dry Time

Although lacquer is one of the fast-drying wood finishes around, it does not compare to conversion varnish. Lacquer is air-dried and dries as air blows to increase the solvent evaporation rate.

Conversion varnish is chemically cured by generating heat once applied to a surface. This drastically shortens the drying time of conversion varnish compared to lacquer.

Appearance

Both conversion varnish and lacquer have a smooth sheen that can vary from matte to gloss. With these two, you can choose between glossy, matte, or something like satin or semi-gloss sheen.

Durability and Strength

When it comes to durability and strength, conversion varnish is superior compared to lacquer. This is largely because it has more solids than lacquer, which makes the dry film thicker, more durable, and less likely to scratch.

Conversion varnish is also flexible and elastic, which allows it to move as the wood moves. This means it will stand up better against regular use. It also resists moisture, heat, and scratches better than lacquer-finished surfaces.

Maintenance

Because both conversion varnish and lacquer are applied more smoother, they are easier to clean and maintain. You will easily notice dirt marks and other surface marks, which makes it easier to clean.

Cost

Conversion varnish always tends to be more expensive than lacquer. While most lacquers range around $25/gallon, conversion varnish will cost around $60 to $80/gallon.

MWB-Team

Hello there! This is the Make Wood Better Team. Here, we share informative how-tos and guides focused on making wood better. Whether it's finishing wood, maintenance, or restoration, there's something on this website for you to learn and improve your skills.