Different Types of Lacquer

This week’s question comes from Larry. He writes:

I just purchased an Earlex Spray station 5000 and I’m very pleased with its performance thus far. I’ve sprayed shellac, water based dye, and Deft brushing lacquer, all with good results. I woulsd like to get into spraying more lacquer because its looks great and dries fast, but all the options out there are confusing to someone new to spraying, like me. Post-catalyzed, Pre-catalyzed, nitrocellulose, water-borne. What are the differences and what should I start with? Do certain types work better/worse in different climates? Are any brands better than others? Sherwin Williams seems to have a wide selection, and they have stores everywhere. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for your wonderful website.

And here was my reply:

Hi Larry. I know it can all be pretty confusing. There are so many options and so much jargon that it will make your head spin. I recommend reading a good finishing book by Jewitt or Flexner. These books will review all the the standard finishes and give you a more in depth review on the pros/cons of each finish. But I will give you a nutshell explanation. Waterborne lacquer is a whole different animal and will not behave like the other products. So we’ll leave that for another conversation. Think of the lacquers as having three basic classes: nitrocellulose, CAB-Acrylic, and Catalyzed.
The nitrocellulose is pretty much your “everyday” lacquer. Its the stuff sold at Home Depot and Lowes (Deft). It makes for a beautiful finish and its relatively inexpensive. Problem is that it tends to yellow over time. So its not really the best option for light colored woods.

CAB-Acrylic lacquers are made with acrylic resins and they dry “water white”, meaning they will not yellow over time. These are reasonably durable finishes that are a pleasure to work with.

Catalyzed lacquers consist of both pre- and post-catalyzed versions. Instead of curing by the evaporation of a solvent only, they also cure chemically. The catalyst can be added ahead of time (pre-catalyzed), or in your shop (post-catalyzed). Both have a limited shelf life as a result. The finish, however, is very durable as a result of the chemical curing process. I like Sherwin Williams products and I actually use them for nearly all of my lacquer. I’m not sure if its available in your area, but you should see if you can get the Pre-cat CAB Acrylic lacquer. It was relatively new at the time I was using it and not everyone could get it. But its kind of the best of both worlds: durable, water white, less toxic off-gassing, etc…

As far as conditions go, lacquers are not as forgiving as other wood finishes. Moisture and cold are your enemies. I don’t like to spray much lower than 70F, and humidity isn’t much of an issue here in AZ. But if its a humid day, forget about spraying lacquer. You can easily end up with “blushing” (moisture trapped in the finish). And keep in mind there are going to be some days or seasons (depending on your region), that you just will NOT be able to spray.

And as far as which one to use, that’s a subjective call. Nitrocellulose is relatively inexpensive and widely available. But in my opinion, its worth the trip to Sherwin Williams to get their CAB-Acrylic and pre-cat CAB-Acrylic stuff. Of course there are many other high quality brands out there, but Sherwin Williams is the only one I have extensive experience with.

For some extra reading, here are a few good articles covering the topic of lacquers. They will go into more depth than I have here.

Wood Central – Lacquer

Fine Woodworking – All About Lacquers

Fine Woodworking – Spraying Lacquer

Category: Finishing


  1. Larry,
    I too would suggest the Sherwin Williams products as well but I beleive you will only find their laqcuer products at an industrial coatings branch this is due to EPA regulations that most of your local stores will be unable to meet. Hopefully this should save you some running around town:)



    Excellent point Ron. I totally forgot to mention that! Thanks man.

  3. Thanks Larry and Marc that was the best “down and dirty” explanation I’ve seen. I have a question too, I thought spraying lacquer was a no-no without a booth? This due to flammable aspect of it. I ask because I’m getting ready to move to a new shop and looking hard at the Earlax sprayer as well. Aren’t you supposed to have special equipment (fans, lights, etc) to spray lacquer? Or is this another of those…well I’m supposed to use the blade guard on my table saw too…kind of questions [Grin].

  4. Ray June 5, 2008

    Jim I have the same concerns that you do. I have been spraying lacquers, and other flammable paints for some time. I do have a small paint room with a exhaust fan ,but not so sure it is spark proof. I do open the door and windows while spraying but I could still be taking a chance.Iam thinking about changing to water based lacquers. Mark I am wondering if you have ever used crystalac water based. I see in MFeely’s catalog they have a samplers kit for 47bucks ,but would like to here your comments on any of the water based lacquers before I try any, and if you were satisfied with the results. I hear so many pros and con’s, it certainly has to be safer. Mark It is so refreshing to see the wood whisper, with your straight forward talk and humor. keep up the good work Mark It is well appreciated.

  5. Hey Mark,

    I just have to throw in my thoughts here on this one.

    My favorite lacquers are the Sherwin Williams line of pre-cats. I shoot in various climates. At home in Montana the ambient shop humidity level runs about 20%. When I work in Ohio, out of my brother’s shop, the ambient humidity runs 65% – 85% because I often open the overhead doors.

    I have heard many complaints about the blushing problem while in Ohio, but I have never had this issue. This can be resolved a couple of ways.

    One solution is to use a retarder to slow the dry time and allow the moisture to escape during the dry time.

    I personally do not like to alter the chemistry of my finishes more than I have to and I simply use thinner coats of finish. I may have to add an extra coat but I have never had blushing.

    I have done a lot of spraying in a cool winter shop both in Ohio and Montana. I tend to keep the shop at 50 degrees at night and I turn it up to 60 or 62 if I am finishing. The dry time definitely slows down but I can still get a coat every 30 to 45 minutes without a problem.

    My experience with the waterborne lacquer from Target Coatings was a money losing one. It took 1 1/2 to 2 hours to dry at 70 degrees and 20% humidity. With pre-cat solvent lacquers I can get 3 coats per hour at those conditions. I have to admit that I am attracted to trying more environmentally products. There were no harmful fumes when spraying this product, but I still wear a respirator to prevent from inhaling the atomized product.

    One other issue with the waterborne lacquer is the way that it wears. It is very hard but brittle. It seems to easily show scratches with wicked white lines. I don’t care for the way that it wears on a table with objects sliding on it.

    Sherwin also carries a line of waterborne lacquers and they are on my list of “must try” products. I do have faith that all of these products will be developed better in the future as the industry is turning that direction.

  6. Yoann July 24, 2008

    my question may sound stupid, but I was wondering by reading this blog what is the difference between “water-based” and “waterborne” lacquers, is it the same ?
    If not, can any lacquer be either water-based or waterborne ?
    Thanks for the clarification !!


    Hey Yoann. Not a stupid question at all. Its another result of the confusing marketing jargon in the finishing industry. As I understand it, water-based is pretty much a misnomer. To call something water-based suggests that you can redissolve it in water, which is not the case with these finishes. These water containing finishes are actually still solvent based, and I believe the reason folks started calling them “water-based” was to distinguish them from traditional solvent-based finishes.
    So how do these finishes work? The mixture generally contains polyurethane or acrylic, a solvent (usually glycol ether), and water. After application, the water begins to evaporate. Soon after the water evaporates, the solvent begins evaporating and the finish particles fuse together to become a single layer. So even though these finishes are solvent-based, water is the carrier, hence the term, waterborne.

  8. Craig Smelser September 28, 2009

    Mark – assuming I spray lacquer as suggested here – how often should I be cleaning my gun to prevent clogging?

    BTW – great podcasts!


      thewoodwhisperer September 29, 2009

      Hey Craig. I used to work in a refinishing shop where we’d leave the pots and guns loaded for days. Usually there would be a little cap of finish that would dry over the tip, which you can knock off with your fingernail. Anything that started to dry would generally redissolve as soon as the lacquer thinner hit it.

      But for the home shop, I would probably not leave it for more than 24 hrs. So if you are doing like a big three day finishing fest, I would not clean the gun every night. But then again, I’m a little lazy in that area, lol.

  9. jack February 21, 2010

    Hello all,
    I’m a bit of a wood working novice and not too sure about getting into spraying. Can you use these with a brush by chance and how much of a difference of quality is there going to be with brush versus spray? Thanks and awesome site!

      thewoodwhisperer February 21, 2010

      Hey Jack. There are brushing lacquers out there. In fact Deft, found at Home Depot and Lowes, is specifically labeled as a brushing lacquer, although you can obviously spray it. I would simply suggest buying a small can and trying it out on scrap. See if you like the results. And get yourself some lacquer thinner so you can clean off that brush between practice runs.

  10. Isaac Moore October 7, 2010

    I just wanted to add a caveat to the S-W precat lacquers. The gloss version is only available in 5 gallon drums, so if you are (like me) a weekend warrior, and are only doing small projects (desk, dresser, toybox, etc…)I would go with another brand. I have used Mohawk 80 sheen gloss with great results and I can buy a gallon at a time (online). S-W does carry their semi and satin in 1 gallon cans, but most pro finishers recommend building coats with gloss.

  11. Isaac, indeed the S.W pre-cat version is available in one gallon, I live in Ga, I repeatedly get mine from my local S.W. paint store. I love this stuff.

  12. jc davis July 1, 2011

    Precat is only available at SW here in KC as fives….otherwise I’d try it too….

  13. Jason March 15, 2012

    Does anyone know of a fix for wood filler bleeding through to the top coat? I am using a white laquer paint to spray some cabinets and I have a pink area showing around all my wood filler repairs. Can I simply spray a coat of catalyzed semi gloss lacquer and then reapply my top coat?


      Dewaxed shellac is one of the best sealers for stuff like this. And it tends to be compatible with all types of finishes. That’s what I would recommend.

      • Jason March 15, 2012

        Is this the kind I see at Home Depot in a spray can? I think its a zilsner or bullseye product. I was thinking shellac as it will work over knots but wasn’t sure if it would work with the lacquer.

      • Jason March 15, 2012

        I am just learning that the lacquer paint I used was a non catilyzed paint. I was going to put a clear coat of semi gloss lacquer over it to give me a semi gloss finish. SW has a lacquer but it is catalyzed. Will this matter or do I need to find a non catilyzed for the top coat?

  14. Jonathan July 20, 2012

    For a good and affordable waterborne, give Hydrocote Resisthane a try. It is available in clear from Highland Woodworking and both clear and pigmented from Hood Finishing http://www.hoodfinishing.com/H.....ishes.html I built a bathroom vanity for my parents and they wanted a painted finish in gloss white. I sprayed on the white and put 2 coats of gloss clear on top of that and it turned out great. After about 45 minutes it can be sanded and it powders nicely and doesn’t clog up the sandpaper the way the trim acrylics from the big box stores did. It gets hard and has good blocking resistance for shelves so that objects don’t stick after sitting for a while like latex does.

  15. Will (http://Www.culnan.com) January 14, 2013

    Hi, I have recently started a small business venture building longboards and skateboards, I have been playing around with different sealants for the boards and think that lacquer gives the boards the best looking finish. Could I possibly get some suggestions about what type of lacquer to use? Keeping in mind that these boards are constantly being flexed and pushed aggresively. I am also using glass for grip by sealing the small glass pieces onto the board with sealant, so the sealant must be very durable. I guess I am looking for a product that is flexible, very durable and resistant to wear and tear.

    Thanks, I would really appreciate any advice on the subject.



      I would imagine there are some heavy duty finishes I’m not even aware of that would be good for what you describe. But what comes to mind is something oil-based. Lacquer finishes can be beautiful, but they are fairly rigid. Not sure that’s the best choice for something requiring a little flex. Given the fact that moisture might be involved as well, you might take a look at marine varnishes. Those are meant for outdoor environments where expansiona and contraction, as well as moisture, are constantly present.

      • Rob March 25, 2013

        Marine Varnish (Epifanes) give a high gloss finish, but the color is golden brown. It’s great for dark colors, but I would avoid in on whites and pastels.

  16. Carlos March 27, 2013

    I would not recommend using a brush in painting wood furniture with lacquer finish for someone who is a beginner. Lacquer is quick to dry and if you are not skilled enough you may get good results such as brush strokes.

  17. Alan Lichtenstein April 6, 2013

    Which Sherwin-Williams Pre-Cat Lacquer are we talking about here?
    The SHER-WOOD® Acrylic Conversion Coating appears to be Pre-Cat, but is it a conversion varnish or a lacquer.
    The SHER-WOOD® CAB-Acrylic Lacquer doesn’t appear to be a pre-cat lacquer (no mention of catalyst on their web site.)

    Is there another finish that is the Pre-cat CAB Acrylic lacquer?

    Which is the finish that you are suggesting to use, Marc.


      Unfortunately, the Pre-Cat CAB Acrylic Lacquer I’m talking about isn’t all that easy to get. Here in Pheonix, we have a Chemical Coatings division of SW downtown that sells it. But none of the local store locations carry it. It seems to be a special order sort of thing. So if you can get it, it’s great stuff.

  18. Leonard July 20, 2013

    My dad was a painting way back in the day and I used it with him and had great experiences with it. He is gone now so I have no chance of asking him questions I have. But I remember him talking about white water lacqouer and how water resistant it was. At the time we were using laccqouer for spraying cabinets and construction. I am now working in wood working and making furniture. But my question is I remember my dad telling me that furniture finished with the water white lacqouer would not leave water marks where wter accumulated on the table tops under drink glasses. Is this true? Or was he talking about some other lacqoure finish?

  19. Jim November 2, 2013

    I am using Sherwin Williams Catalyzed Lacquer (precat) in my home shop. A good friend built a desk and used Minwax stain on it. Will this lacquer work over that Stain? I have very little experience with Minwax products.

  20. Adrian March 13, 2014

    HI I was wondering if I could get some suggestions for a project I am attempting. I am trying to put a thick lacquer finish on a axe handle that is hand braided with think leather. I am wanting to preserve and protect the leatherwork . I plan on dipping the handle in a long cylinder of lacquer until I get a thick coating. I haven’t a clue as too what type of lacquer to use . From what I read I gather Acylic lacquer may work. I am a younger person trying this for the first time and would greatly appreciate any suggestions or comments on how to do this right . Thank you very much !


      Honestly, this is a bit out of my league. I don’t know anything about treating leather with lacquer. I’m wondering why you would want to essentially put plastic over leather. Seems that might defeat the functional purpose of the leather. But again, I don’t know much about axes or treating/protecting leather.

  21. Jim L March 17, 2014

    I am building my own kitchen cabinets with black walnut face frames and door frames and tiger maple door panels and drawers. I want the grain on the tiger maple to “pop” and want to ultimately finish the cabinets with pre-cat lacquer. I plan to finish the door panels prior to assembly with a finish compatible with the lacquer. I would prefer to not have a 4-step finish, but need to ensure that I won’t get fish eyes in the lacquer. So, I was thinking about starting with aniline dye in SealCoat to pop the grain, then sand and finish with varnish as illustrated for the pencil box project. Will I then need to put on a coat of SealCoat in order to later spray the lacquer on top? Would the grain pop as well by just putting the dye into the varnish, thus skipping a step? Thanks for any help you can provide!

  22. Hey Marc! Yes, many years late to this post but having just finish Jeff Jewitt’s book on Finishing I have to say this is the best explanation I’ve read on the various lacquers out there. And I completely agree with the Sherwin-Williams CAB-Acrylic comment at the bottom. I have been spraying just the CAB product for about a year now and WHOA, what a fun product to work with. Lays down so very nice.

  23. Jorge May 7, 2014

    Yo Marc,
    Great site and awesome YouTube channel; I have a question: I own an old (60’s) grand piano that’s in desperate need of refinishing, being the Do-it-yourselfer kinda guy I am, I want to refinish my own piano, I had a professional refinisher come out and he told me that the current finish on my piano is lacquer. The piano is all black and shiny. I started reading about lacquer and now I don’t know if I should go for a base paint (and possibly primer) of black paint and then apply a gazillion coats of clear lacquer to get the high-gloss piano finish or just use a black lacquer, what is the difference, benefits, pros/cons if any? I never held a *spray* gun before but it doesn’t seem that difficult. Also, I know guitar luthiers swear up and down by the nitrocellulose lacquer but I don’t want it to yellow over time, what should I do? The piano is veneered but like I said it’s all black. Thank you so much, oh and I’m in Las Vegas so humidity and temperature will not be an issue. Thank you.

    • Judy December 2, 2014

      Hi, Just trying to sort something out. I have a large wall unit which is pecan wood, medium tone with a lacquer finish. The piece is in remarkable condition. Can I apply a dark stain and lacquer over existing lacquer finish? I have been told some time ago that I would need to use “universal tinting lacquer.” I have been unable to locate this product. What I want to accomplish is a dark , kind of like mahogany color. Is the above process possible? Thanks


        The previous lacquer has sealed the wood so a regular stain would be ineffective and not advisable. If you do as advised and use lacquer that has dye added to it, you can certainly layer that on top to get a darker color. Ultimately, you might just have to make it yourself by picking up your preferred lacquer product, and then adding some dye to it such as Transtint.

  24. Paul May 31, 2014

    I’m wanting to re=finish some older kitchen cabinets in my home that have a honey oak stain with a lacquer topcoat. I was going to sand them and use an oil based primer then paint with a waterborne paint. Probably SW pro-classic or Ben Moore satin impervo. Both of them would be the waterborne acrylic latex enamel. I don’t want to use oil because of drying time and the chance of yellowing. (I’ll be painting an off white color) Now, I’m hearing that waterborne isn’t a good product for kitchen cabinets and that lacquer needs to be sprayed and is very dangerous to use in an occupied home. Has anyone painted their cabinets with waterborne paint and gotten really good results? I was going to use a quality brush but may consider buying an airless sprayer to do the job if I use the waterborne. Would oil or a pre-cat lacquer be a better choice for kitchen cabinets or would the waterborne be ok???

  25. Matt gavin August 19, 2014

    I’ve been using s w hi bild lacquer for years in my antique restoration buisness and suddenly having issues matching sheen with the dull rubbed tech support has no idea. I always stir apporpitly

  26. Ian Fassnacht August 19, 2014

    I am curious of your opinion on Krylon Special Purpose lacquer ultra hard factory like finish sold at Sherwin Williams. I am looking for a rattle can lacquer for my humidor and this is what they have at my local SW.



      Never tried the stuff. Can’t really offer an informed opinion unfortunately.

      • Ian Fassnacht August 22, 2014

        No worries. I bought that, a can of deft and Rust-Oleum from home depot and I’m going to use my excess veneered spanish cedar to test the different lacquers to see which one I like better! I’m excited about this humidor project! :)

  27. tony brereton September 18, 2014

    Hi, I sanded down an oak desk, dyed it with rustins dye (ebony) let it dry for 2 days, tried to roll on an ac lacquer with catalyst mix (10 to 1), when I rolled it on the dye lifted onto the roller and as a result the finish had a lighter (med oak) bubbled look, anyone know why this has happened ?

  28. Jose November 18, 2014

    Hello, what is the difference from regular clear lacquer and Clear High Build Lacquer? I notice that the high build is more shiny than the regular.


  29. Kyle November 20, 2014

    With nitrocellulose lacquer do I have to apray the clear coatfor it to harden properly, or can i go with just the color?

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