Different Types of Lacquer Finishes

instrument with lacquer finish

Lacquer finishes come in several general types, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the proper lacquer depends on your experience with applying lacquer, the piece being lacquered, and the look that’s just right for your project.

Urushiol-based Lacquers

The original lacquer was a varnish resin derived from the sap of a tree indigenous to China and Japan, who’s active ingredient is urushiol. It is highly resistant to water, alkali, acid, and abrasion, and has a very hard and durable finish. They are unique amongst lacquers in that they are slow-drying and water-based. Additionally, they require warmth and humidity, as they need oxidation and polymerization to properly set, as opposed to simply setting from evaporation as most lacquers do.

Nitrocellulose Lacquers

These are quick-drying solvent-based lacquers containing nitrocellulose. Developed in the 1920’s, they were widely popular in automobiles for their quick-drying nature and their ability to allow numerous bright colors. They are also commonly used on wooden products and musical instruments. They are best applied with a spray gun because of drying so fast, and may be difficult for a novice to apply evenly. The major drawback is their hazardous solvent, being toxic, volatile, and flammable.

Acrylic Lacquers

This acrylic synthetic polymer, developed in the 1950’s for automobiles, is similar in many ways to nitrocellulose lacquers, but offers a superior quick-drying time. They were used extensively in automobiles. Today, they are used extensively on wooden products.

Water-based Lacquers

Because of health and environmental risks inherent in using solvent-based lacquers, less toxic water-based lacquers have been developed that often yield acceptable results. Commonly they are used on automobile interiors and under the hood, and extensively used on wooden products.

Edward Kimble, professional painter and author of Interior House Painting Blog, contributed to this article.

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