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What Is Lacquer?

By C. Daw
Updated May 16, 2024
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Lacquer is a coating that is generally seen on furniture, guitars, and some wooden sculptures. It can be matte, glossy, or resinous and can come in clear or colored styles. The clear type will give the object a slightly yellow look, while colored varieties will give the desired hue. They are mainly applied to protect the surfaces of the object from moisture, oils such as from the hands, sunlight, and bacteria and fungus that can form on wood when it gets wet. It will dry very quickly after it has been applied, and will produce a durable finish. Many people confuse this type of coating with a varnish coating, but it is actually different because of the durability, color, and the chemical construction of it.

As with all other types of coatings, lacquer can be purchased as a natural or synthetic form. The natural type is manufactured directly from the lacquer gum tree, while the synthetic is made by dissolving nitrocellulose during the production process. Various other chemicals are also added to allow it to be used for different tasks and to add pigment to it. Synthetic lacquer is also mixed with various types of plasticizers so that it resembles the natural type, which makes it more popular because it can be mass produced in order to keep up with the public demand for it.

This type of coating has been around for decades, beginning in China during the Song Dynasty. It was then produced as a water based coating by using Urushiol. This lacquer took a long time to dry because the oxidization process was drastically slower when compared to the varieties now manufactured. Asian people also had a version of lacquer, consisting of a coating made from the gum found within trees. The industrial age that boomed in Europe was the location for the first synthetic type, from which color and durability began.

The easiest way for a lacquer coating to be applied is by spraying, but it can also be brushed or wiped on with a rag. When using a brush only natural bristles should be used, and when wiping it on a clean, cotton cloth should be used. When the spraying method is used, care must be taken to begin in one area and work outwards. These steps allow the lacquer to be applied in a uniform way that will not show bristle marks or runs caused by excess lacquer being applied.

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Discussion Comments

By anon308861 — On Dec 13, 2012

I’m wondering if lacquer and stain are the same things. I find that lacquers are much more durable than varnish.

By andee — On Aug 23, 2011

I had a bookcase that I wanted to finish with a black lacquer color. After applying the last coat I buffed the entire bookcase with a steel wool pad.

Once it was buffed, I applied a good paste wax and then buffed it until it had the glossy effect that I wanted.

I haven't done too much wood finishing, but I was happy with the way it turned out. The color blends in well with the rest of my furniture, and I enjoy the sense of pride in finishing something I did myself.

By LisaLou — On Aug 22, 2011

I have two old end tables that I bought cheap at a garage sale. I really like the look of lacquer on wood furniture, so wanted to finish them with a clear lacquer.

Because lacquer dries so fast, the easiest way I have found to apply it is with an aerosol spray can. I will spray on a coat about 18 inches away from the surface.

Each coat dries in about 40-50 minutes, and I usually apply several coats. Since you don't have to wait very long between coats, you can easily finish a project in a weekend.

By dimpley — On Aug 21, 2011

I’m wondering if lacquer and stain are the same things. I’m not sure, but I’ve used stain about a million times over. My dad is good for making me great pieces of furniture for my home, but not staining it for me.

He’s made beautiful bookshelves for my library and a china cabinet with glass doors and a mirror backing. For my kids he’s made a hope chest (for my daughter) and a custom toy chest (for my son).

He loves the woodworking, but he hates the actual staining and such. I normally have to stain, then wait, then apply polyurethane for shine.

If I could use lacquer with color and get the same effect in a whole lot less time, you better believe that I would.

Does anyone know anything about pricing and if it works as well as what I’ve been doing or not? I’m looking forward to an additional bookshelf for my bedroom this year (I adore reading) and would like to try it out if it’s pretty comparable.

By runner101 — On Aug 21, 2011

@speechie - I have actually read that applying lacquer by brush does is not recommended by amateurs. But the good news the lacquer spray is. However, just like painting lacquer the spray lacquer comes with specific instructions as well.

For example I have read strict instructions to keep eighteen inches from what you are spraying as anything more than that might cause dimpling.

I have not ventured into spray lacquer yet (I did not know it existed until recently)! But I have spray painted before and what I learned via experience I have seen backed up in "do it yourself" articles - spray on newspaper before you spray on furniture!

Every spray can seem to have a mind of its own so you get to practice how to spray evenly with that specific spray can. I would even go so far as to start spraying a spot on the furniture that is less likely to be seen after you practice on newspaper so you can also see how the furniture's material reacts to the spray (Does it soak it up? Does it coat well?).

I'm looking forward to trying the glossy finish of a lacquer!

By Speechie — On Aug 20, 2011

@wander - I have heard that also about lacquer being quite harsh from a friend.

This friend of mine had two tables that I was astonished to find were not brand-new. Turns out that she had just lacquered it and the tables had actually come from a local gift shop.

I love the idea of repurposing furniture so I asked her for a few tips and the biggest tip she gave me was that wherever the lacquer lands it stays; therefore, to practice extreme caution when applying and also to choose a good spot for the lacquering process for that same reason.

Since then I have seen spray lacquer, does this give as much of the same shine and beauty that a painted on lacquer finish gives and is it as harsh chemically?

By wander — On Aug 20, 2011

If you have a piece of natural wood furniture that hasn't been previously stained a good idea if you want beautiful color is to paint it with a lacquer.

I find that lacquers are much more durable than varnish and that they seem to hold color better.

A lot of wood pieces you find coming from Asia will have a lacquer finish rather than a varnish. This lacquer is what gives wood such a distinct gloss and richness of color. A great example of this is the low tables that you get from places like Korea.

When choosing your lacquer make sure you pick up brushes with natural hair so that you don't end up melting the plastic of a cheaper brush. The chemicals in lacquer can be quite harsh. If you don't want to use a natural brush, a simple cotton rag can be used as well.

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