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For centuries, lacquer finishes have been used to give woodworking a long lasting, durable water-resistant finish. Lacquers are available in two styles: spray and brush-on, although they’re both among the fastest drying finishes. That said, brushing on a lacquer finish is more diligent and precise work and takes longer, but is also cleaner than spraying on finish.
What is Lacquer?
Lacquer tends often to be confused with shellac, which arises from shellac coming from the “lac” beetle. Lacquer, on the other hand, is derived from the resin of a varnish tree which is then harvested, distilled and combined with a lacquer thinner to create the common finish. Lacquer is also typically used with a variety of paints to deliver a strong, durable paint finish.
Lacquer today tends to contain another type of resin, nitrocellulose that combined with other ingredients, allows for a thin coat of lacquer to dissolve within an earlier coat which results in a hard, yet flexible finish. However, one disadvantage to the above is that nitrocellulose lacquer finishes have a high susceptibility to UV light.
As mentioned above, lacquer can be applied in one of two ways: sprayed on or brushed on. Spray-on finishes can be bought as aerosol spray cans or can be used with a pneumatic / airless sprayer. Though the former tends to be expensive, quality of finishes is also unbeatable, particularly for small projects. Also ensure that you work in a ventilated environment since solvents used in the lacquer are highly flammable and odours.
Brush-on lacquer finishes tend to dry quickly but not as fast as spray on lacquer. Start by using a bristle brush (preferably with high quality bristles) to apply the finish, but remember to work quickly by first adding a thin layer and not over brushing your work. Additional coats to even out the finish can be added in later.
One last thing: do NOT try to brush a spray-on application or vice versa, since spray-ons tend to dry faster.
Lacquer vs Polyurethane
An advantage to using lacquer finishes over polyurethane is that that for beginner woodworkers, they’re easier to apply, dry a lot faster and don’t need as many brush strokes for a complete finish. And though they may not be as long lasting as poly’s, they are a lot easier to reapply if and when anything happens. Additionally, lacquer finishes can also protect metals.
It is important to note, however that the two finishes don’t work well together; it is very much an either/or scenario.