Canadian Woodworking

Lacquer wood finish

Author: Carl Duguay
Published: October November 2004
Lacquer Wood Finish
Lacquer Wood Finish

Use lacquer for a super clear wood finish that is easy to rub out.


I would hazard a guess that while most woodworkers have heard of lacquer, few have ever used it. No wonder, lacquer has typically been associated with commercial spray finishing. The big shops like lacquer because of its ease of application, ease of repair, super quick drying time, unsurpassed film clarity, and excellent versatility for color matching. Don’t despair though; there are several brushing lacquers available for those of us without spraying facilities.

Left – Natual, Right – 2 coats of lacquer

Left – Natural, Right – 2 coats of lacquer

Things to Know

Before you rush out and buy a quart of lacquer you need to know a few things. First and foremost, lacquer contains a lot of thinner. The thinner is highly flammable, and very toxic to your health. In fact, when you open a can of lacquer the neighbours down the street will smell it. The same applies to lacquer thinner, which you’ll need for cleaning your brushes. This means that you’ll need to use a good quality organic vapour respirator and work in a well ventilated room. If your shop is in the home, wait until your significant other is out of the house for the day before you begin lacquering, and start early in the morning – it takes hours before the odours dissipate. Second, lacquer dries very quickly. As soon as it comes in contact with air it begins to dry, so you need to work quickly, which can be a bit of a hassle if you’re finishing a large project. It dries so fast you can’t re brush the same area, or else you’ll muck up the surface. Third, lacquer is not an overly resistant finish. It fits somewhere between shellac and varnish when it comes to heat, wear, and solvent resistance, and is somewhat better than shellac in water resistance. Importantly, it is well below shellac and varnish in water vapour resistance.

Likeable Lacquer

What’s to say in favour of lacquer? Well, it dries so fast that dust isn’t a problem. As it’s an evaporative film finish it cures from the bottom up, so you can apply subsequent coats over previous coats that haven’t dried, without any problem. You don’t have to sand between coats, as the solvent in the new coat will partially dissolve the previous coat to fuse the layers together.

Laying It On

Finally, lacquer rubs out beautifully (we’ll cover rubbing out finishes in a later article).

For the best lacquer finish you’ll need to use a good quality bristle brush. Stir the contents (it appears milky in the can, but dries clear). Apply a liberal coat without over brushing. If you notice that you miss a spot don’t go back over it. The next coat will cover it. Wait two or three hours, then apply another coat. You can sand between coats with extra fine sandpaper if you have noticeable brush marks. Apply at least three coats for optimal protection and durability.

I’ve used both Watco and Deft brands, and haven’t noticed any difference between the two brands. The product comes in the usual glossy, semi-gloss, and satin sheens. Both also offer lacquer in spray cans, but I’ve never had much success with them; too many runs – but then, I’m clumsy, so you may have better success. If you plan to rub out the finish, let it cure at least one week before doing so. Lacquer doesn’t impart a yellow appearance to light woods as much as varnish does.

Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.


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  2. For durability and resistance on a ash kitchen table should i use waterbase varnish or lacquer ? I will apply the finish with a quality bristle brush.

    1. Either leaves a hard, durable surface Robert. Of the two, lacquer is the toughest and offers the best wear resistance. If you decide on lacquer make sure you use a very soft haired brush. I use a badger hair brush. Good luck.

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