When it comes to giving your woodworking project the perfect finish, the choice of wood finish can make all the difference. Two popular choices that often come to mind are polyurethane and lacquer.
But what are they, and how do they differ? This article will provide a detailed overview of these two prominent wood finishes, helping you decide on your next woodworking project.
What is Lacquer?
Lacquer, a clear or colored wood finish, has been a go-to choice for woodworkers and furniture makers for centuries. But what exactly is it?
Lacquer is a type of finish typically high-gloss, durable, and dries quickly. It dissolves nitrocellulose, plasticizers, and pigments in volatile solvents. This composition makes lacquer a highly effective sealant for wood.
One of the most significant advantages of lacquer is its versatility. It can be used on a variety of surfaces, not just wood. From metal to plastic and even leather, lacquer provides a robust and glossy finish that enhances the material’s natural beauty.
Lacquer is also known for its ease of application. It can be sprayed on, which makes it a popular choice for large-scale projects or pieces with intricate details. However, it’s worth noting that while lacquer dries quickly, it requires multiple coats to achieve a durable finish.
Regarding aesthetics, lacquer imparts a high-gloss finish that can give your woodworking projects a polished and professional look. However, it’s not just about looks. Lacquer also provides a hard and protective finish that can withstand the test of time.
Different Types of Lacquer
When discussing lacquer, it’s important to understand that it’s not a one-size-fits-all finish. There are several types of lacquer, each with its unique characteristics and uses.
Nitrocellulose lacquer is the classic, original used in the woodworking industry for decades. It’s known for its fast-drying properties and high-gloss finish. Nitrocellulose lacquer is made by dissolving nitrocellulose, a plant-based fiber, in a mixture of solvents. This type of lacquer is durable and offers excellent resistance to water, making it a popular choice for furniture and other indoor wooden items.
Next up is an acrylic lacquer. This type of lacquer is a more modern invention made by dissolving acrylic resin in a solvent. Acrylic lacquer is known for its clarity and non-yellowing properties. It is a great choice for light-colored woods or any project where maintaining the wood’s natural color is paramount. It’s also more flexible than nitrocellulose lacquer, making it less prone to cracking over time.
Last but not least, we have water-based lacquer. As the name suggests, this type of lacquer uses water as a solvent, making it an environmentally friendly option. Water-based lacquer is low-odor and non-flammable, making it safer than its solvent-based counterparts. While it may not be as durable as nitrocellulose or acrylic lacquer, it’s a great choice for projects where safety and environmental impact are considerations.
Lacquer can be applied using a brush, but an HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) sprayer is the way to go for the smoothest finish. This tool atomizes the lacquer into tiny droplets, creating a fine mist that lays down a smooth, even coat.
Before you start spraying, make sure your workpiece is clean and dust-free. Any dust or debris on the surface can get trapped in the finish and create a rough texture. Once your workpiece is clean, you’re ready to start spraying.
Hold the sprayer about 6 to 8 inches from the surface and apply the lacquer in thin, even coats. It’s better to apply several light coats than one heavy one. This technique helps prevent drips and runs and ensures the lacquer dries properly.
After each coat, let the lacquer dry completely, then lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper. This step helps the next coat adhere better and results in a smoother finish. Repeat the process until you achieve the desired level of finish.
What Is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is a synthetic varnish, a plastic in liquid form that hardens to create a robust, protective film over the surface of your woodworking project. It’s much thicker than lacquer, and applying it can be more challenging unless it’s thinned out. Polyurethane is known for its durability and protective qualities, making it a popular choice for furniture and other woodworking projects requiring a resilient finish.
Polyurethane is essentially plastic in liquid form. It comprises a base of urethane, a type of polymer, and a solvent. The solvent helps the polyurethane spread and level out on the wood’s surface; as the solvent evaporates, it leaves behind the urethane, which forms a hard, protective coating.
Polyurethane is commonly used as a finish for various woodworking projects. It’s a popular choice for furniture, flooring, and cabinetry due to its durability and resistance to water, heat, and everyday wear and tear. Polyurethane is a protective coating for doors, trim, and other woodwork in homes and commercial buildings.
Different Types of Polyurethane
Polyurethane comes in two main types: water-based and oil-based. Each has its unique properties and uses, and the best one for your project will depend on your specific needs and preferences.
Water-based polyurethane is popular for many woodworkers due to its low odor and relative safety. It’s virtually clear, which means it won’t add any color to the surface it’s applied to. This makes it a great choice if you want to preserve the natural color of the wood.
On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane adds a slight color to the surface it’s applied to. It’s also more durable than its water-based counterpart, making it a better choice for projects with a lot of wear and tear.
When applying polyurethane, start by ensuring that the surface of the workpiece is clean and free of any dust or debris.
Then, apply a thin coat of polyurethane to the surface using a natural bristle brush. Be sure to follow the grain of the wood to ensure a smooth, even coat.
Once the first coat has dried, lightly sand the surface to remove any bumps or imperfections. Then, apply a second coat and wipe away any dust with a damp cloth. Repeat this process until you’ve achieved the desired level of protection and shine.
Remember, patience is key when applying polyurethane. While applying thick coats to finish the job quickly might be tempting, this can lead to a less-than-perfect finish. Instead, take your time and apply thin, even coats for the best results.
Lacquer vs Polyurethane: Quality of Finish
The debate between lacquer and polyurethane is long-standing regarding woodworking and furniture finishes. Both are popular choices but offer different qualities and characteristics that can significantly impact your project’s final look and durability. Let’s dive into the details.
Durability and Susceptibility to Damage
Lacquer, derived from shellac and alcohol, is known for its versatility. It can be applied to various materials, including wood, metal, and hard, smooth surfaces.
When dry, lacquer creates a highly glossy, durable, and hard surface. It’s recommended to reapply every few years to avoid discoloration and scratches.
On the other hand, polyurethane, a synthetic varnish, comes in oil- and water-based forms. It’s essentially liquid plastic that hardens upon drying. While it adds a slight color to the applied surface (especially if oil-based), it’s not as durable as lacquer, making it more suitable for objects that won’t see a lot of wear and tear.
Lacquer vs Polyurethane: A Comparative Analysis
When comparing lacquer and polyurethane finishes, it’s essential to consider the material you’re working with. Both can be used effectively on wood and metal, but some differences exist.
- For instance, polyurethane can be used on plastic substances, especially water-based polyurethane, but lacquer cannot.
- Over time, lacquer will corrode and destroy plastics, including ABS plastic.
- In contrast, lacquer adheres better to Formica and wood laminate, especially furniture, while polyurethane typically does not.
The Final Look: Glossy or Clear?
The final look of your project also plays a significant role in choosing between lacquer and polyurethane.
- Lacquer yields a shinier, almost glazed look, making it popular in modern styles of furniture and flooring.
- Polyurethane, particularly water-based, will be much clearer.
Polyurethane might be your best bet if you’re coating wood and want to preserve much of the original color and tone.
Lacquer vs Polyurethane: A Comparative Study on Application
When it comes to woodworking and furniture finishing, the choice of finish can significantly impact the final product’s durability, aesthetics, and maintenance. Two commonly used finishes are lacquer and polyurethane. Both have unique characteristics and understanding these can help you choose the right one for your project. In this article, we will compare the application process of both lacquer and polyurethane, discussing the tools needed, the potential for brush marks, and spray application.
Lacquer Application: A Glossy Finish
Lacquer is a versatile substance made from shellac and alcohol. It can be applied to various materials, including wood, metal, and hard, smooth surfaces. The lacquer application creates a durable, hard surface that gives a highly glossy finish when dry. It is recommended to reapply lacquer every few years to avoid discoloration and scratches.
The application process of lacquer requires specific tools for the best results. An HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) sprayer is typically used to apply lacquer, which helps give it a smooth finish. However, it’s worth noting that surfaces can feel sticky and difficult to spray if not applied correctly.
Polyurethane Application: A Durable Coat
On the other hand, polyurethane is a type of synthetic varnish. It comes in both oil-based and water-based forms. Polyurethane is essentially plastic in liquid form that hardens when it dries.
The oil-based polyurethane adds a small amount of color to the surface it is applied to, while the water-based variant adds virtually none. However, polyurethane isn’t the most durable type of varnish. It’s great for objects that won’t see a lot of wear and tear.
The application of polyurethane doesn’t require any special tools. It can be applied using a simple brush or a roller. However, it’s important to note that regular polyurethane is very slow to dry and smells strong.
Lacquer vs Polyurethane: A Comparison of Drying and Curing Time
Lacquer and polyurethane, while similar in many ways, have distinct differences when it comes to their drying and curing times.
Lacquer, a versatile substance made from shellac and alcohol, is known for its quick drying time. This rapid drying property allows for applying multiple coats relatively quickly, making it a favorite among professionals who need to work quickly.
On the other hand, polyurethane, a synthetic varnish that comes in oil- and water-based forms, tends to have a slower drying time than lacquer. This slower drying time can be a disadvantage when multiple coats are required, necessitating longer waiting periods between each application.
However, polyurethane’s slower drying time can also be advantageous as it allows for a longer working time, making it more forgiving and easier to apply for beginners.
Lacquer or Polyurethane for Various Surfaces
Lacquer is a versatile substance made from shellac and alcohol. It can be applied to various materials, including wood, metal, and hard, smooth surfaces. When dry, lacquer creates a durable, hard surface with a glossy finish. It’s recommended to reapply every few years to avoid discoloration and scratches.
On the other hand, polyurethane is a type of synthetic varnish. It comes in both oil-based and water-based forms. Oil-based polyurethane adds a small amount of color to the surface it’s applied to, while water-based adds virtually none. However, it isn’t the most durable type of varnish, making it more suitable for objects that won’t see a lot of wear and tear.
Lacquer vs. Polyurethane: Best Uses
Both lacquer and polyurethane can be used effectively on wood and metal. However, there are some differences in what they can be applied to. Polyurethane can be used on plastic substances, especially water-based polyurethane, but lacquer cannot. Over time, lacquer will corrode and destroy plastics, including ABS plastic.
Lacquer adheres better to Formica and wood laminate, especially furniture, while polyurethane typically does not. Therefore, lacquer would be your go-to coating if you’re working with plastic or wood laminate.
Considerations for Different Surfaces
When choosing between lacquer and polyurethane for different surfaces, you need to consider the final look you want to achieve and the use of the item.
Lacquer yields a shinier, almost glazed look, making it popular in modern styles of furniture and flooring. On the other hand, polyurethane, particularly water-based, will be much clearer. Polyurethane might be a better choice if you’re coating wood and want to preserve much of the original color and tone.
In terms of durability, lacquer is more durable than polyurethane, providing a thicker coating that is much more water-resistant. It can survive spills, splashes, bangs, and bumps much more heartily than polyurethane. However, lacquer tends to scratch more easily than polyurethane, a significant downside for high-traffic objects subjected to a lot of wear and tear.
Is Sanding Needed Between Polyurethane Coats?
Sanding between coats of polyurethane is not just a recommendation—achieving a smooth, even finish is necessary. The primary reason for this is to promote adhesion. Polyurethane, unlike some other finishes, does not meld into previous layers. Instead, it sits on top, forming a separate layer. Therefore, sanding is required to create a mechanical bond between the layers.
Sanding also serves another crucial purpose: it helps to eliminate imperfections. No matter how careful you are during application, dust particles, tiny bubbles, or brush strokes can mar the finish. Sanding between coats helps to remove these imperfections, ensuring a smooth and flawless finish.
The process of applying polyurethane and sanding between coats is straightforward.
- After the first coat, please wait for it to dry completely.
- Then, lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. T
- he goal is not to remove the polyurethane but to roughen the surface slightly so the next coat adheres better.
- Wipe off the dust with a tack cloth and apply the next coat. Repeat this process for each subsequent coat.
Can I put Polyurethane Over Lacquer?
Applying polyurethane over lacquer can be done, but it comes with potential issues. The primary concern is the compatibility of the two finishes. Lacquer and polyurethane are chemically different, and while polyurethane might adhere to lacquer initially, over time, it may peel or chip off due to the slick, hard surface of the lacquer.
Another issue is the difference in appearance and durability. Lacquer provides a high-gloss, durable finish that is resistant to damage and wear. On the other hand, polyurethane offers a more natural, matte finish. If you apply polyurethane over lacquer, you might not achieve the desired look or durability.
Preparing the surface properly is crucial if you still wish to apply polyurethane over lacquer. The lacquer surface should be clean, dry, and lightly sanded to provide some “tooth” for the polyurethane to adhere to. Testing the combination on a small, inconspicuous area first is also recommended to ensure the polyurethane adheres well and the desired look is achieved.
Best Lacquer and Polyurethane Products
Regarding woodworking and furniture finishes, lacquer and polyurethane are two of the most popular choices. Each has its unique properties and uses, and choosing the right one can make all the difference in your project’s final look and durability. Let’s delve into some of the top products in each category.
RUST-OLEUM Specialty Lacquer Spray
One of the best lacquer products on the market is the RUST-OLEUM Specialty Lacquer Spray. This product is renowned for its ability to provide an ultra-hard and durable finish, making it a top choice for both professional woodworkers and DIY enthusiasts. It’s easy to apply, works well on wood and metal, and is suitable for indoor and outdoor use. However, it’s important to apply it correctly to avoid a sticky surface, and it can sometimes be difficult to spray. Despite these minor drawbacks, its high-quality finish and versatility make it stand out in lacquers.
MINWAX Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Finish
When it comes to polyurethane products, the MINWAX Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Finish is a top contender. This water-based polyurethane is useful for a broad array of jobs and surfaces, and it also comes in a fast-drying product for those on a tight schedule. However, it’s not durable enough for outdoor use and has a very strong smell. Despite these cons, its clear finish and versatility make it popular among woodworkers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Lacquer and Polyurethane Water-Resistant?
Both lacquer and polyurethane offer a degree of water resistance, but there are differences. Lacquer, especially in multiple coats, can provide a highly water-resistant finish, making it a good choice for items exposed to spills or moisture. Polyurethane, on the other hand, forms a hard, protective barrier that is water-resistant, making it a good choice for surfaces needing a durable, moisture-resistant finish.
Are Lacquer and Polyurethane Toxic?
Both lacquer and polyurethane contain chemicals that can be harmful if inhaled or ingested, so it’s important to use them in a well-ventilated area and to wear protective gear. Water-based polyurethanes and lacquers are less toxic than their oil-based counterparts but require careful handling.
What’s the Difference in Their Finish?
Lacquer tends to yield a high-gloss, smooth finish often described as “glassy.” It’s a popular choice for high-end furniture and musical instruments. Polyurethane, however, provides a hard, protective finish that can range from matte to glossy, depending on the product. It’s often used on floors and other surfaces with a lot of wear and tear.
Lacquer and polyurethane have their place in woodworking and furniture finishing. The choice between the two often comes down to the specific needs and conditions of the project.
Lacquer, with its high-gloss finish and quick drying time, is often the choice for high-end furniture and detailed woodworking projects.
Polyurethane, with its durable, protective finish, is often the choice for floors and other high-traffic surfaces.