Lacquer Wood Finish Review: The Pros and Cons

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 04/23/23 • 

Lacquer finish became popular as a replacement for shellac wood finish because of its many good qualities. It is resistant to water and other elements, has fast drying, and maintains transparency as it ages. Because it is a synthetic finish, it can be controlled to meet various user needs, and the supply does not depend on exotic natural resources.

Types of Lacquer

There are different types of lacquers. However, most of them are based on nitrocellulose, which is made by treating cellulose fibers in cotton and wool with sulphuric and nitric acids. Nitrocellulose is the binder that gives lacquer its fast-drying properties.

However, because nitrocellulose has a poor build, does not bond well, and is not flexible, resin and oily chemicals are added to improve these qualities. These are called plasticizers, and the quantity added will vary between manufacturers. Examples of resins added include Alkyd, Urethane, Maleic, Acrylic, and Amino.

Apart from nitrocellulose lacquer, there is also acrylic lacquer and the most popular cellulose-acetate-butyrate (CAB) acrylic lacquer. CAB lacquer combines CAB and acrylic resin, making it more flexible and less likely to crack compared to nitrocellulose lacquer.

There is also catalyzed lacquer which contains a chemical that causes the lacquer to dry harder and have a more durable finish. The manufacturer can add the drying chemical, also called pre-catalyzed, or added by a user before application, which is called post-catalyzed. Post-catalyzed lacquers are also referred to as conversion varnish or catalyzed conversion varnish.

Pros of Lacquer

Cons of Lacquer

Crackle Lacquer

This lacquer-based product has so much pigment with little finish or binder to glue the pigment together. This results in the finish cracking or shrinking as it dries. The most common pigment used in crackle lacquer is silica.

Applying crackle lacquer is about controlling the cracking. This is done by applying crackle lacquer of varying thickness and the time it takes for a coat to dry. Applying thicker coats will result in more noticeable cracks, while thinner coats will produce smaller cracks. Slow drying will result in bigger cracks, while fast drying will result in bigger cracks.

Lacquer Thinner

This is a unique solvent made by combining different individual solvents in different ratios. When designed properly, a lacquer thinner evaporates quickly as it is sprayed or applied to a wood surface. Depending on the lacquer thinner used, lacquer can be sprayed or brushed. For spraying, a fast-evaporating lacquer thinner is used, while for brushing, a slow-evaporating lacquer thinner should be used.

Compared to paint thinner, lacquer thinner is more powerful enough to soften dried lacquers and other oil-based finishes. Check out our informative comparison guide on lacquer thinner vs. paint thinner.

How to Apply Lacquer

Lacquer can be applied by either brushing or spraying. However, most of the time, lacquer is sprayed because of its fast-drying properties.

Brush-on lacquers are made with slower evaporating solvents so they can be brushed successfully. If you’re brushing lacquer, choose a good quality natural bristle brush. Do not use a foam brush, which the powerful lacquer thinner might dissolve. Brush lacquer in thinner coats; if you miss a spot, do not pass your brush over. Wait until the next coat to apply it.

Lacquer Respray

Lacquer Respray

Spray-on lacquer can either be used in aerosol spray cans or spray guns. Aerosols are much more expensive but good for smaller projects. When using a spray gun to apply lacquer, hold it about 8 to 10 inches from the surface at a 45-degree angle. When applying a bigger surface, overlap each stroke by half for better results. Allow the first coat to dry, lightly sand it, and apply consecutive coats until you’re satisfied. Check out some problems you’ll likely encounter while spraying lacquer.

Once you’re satisfied with the thickness of your lacquer, you can leave it as it is or finish it off by polishing using sandpaper, steel wool, or rubbing compounds.

Lacquer vs. Polyurethane Finish

The major difference between lacquer and poly is their durability and strength. Polyurethane is more durable and offers better protection to your wooden surfaces than lacquer. Poly is also less likely to chip over time, resulting in a higher sheen than lacquer.

However, lacquer is easier to apply owing to its ease to repair in case of any damage during application. Fast-drying lacquer thinner can also be applied to a wood surface faster and get a dust-free finish.

If you want to paint or repaint your tabletop, check out our guide on polyurethane vs. lacquer.


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