How to Finish Wood Furniture with Lacquer

Polyurethane has lately come under fire as being too dense to use on wood, leading to sun-fade and delamination of the finish. Older coatings, such as shellac, varnish and lacquer are being reinvented as water-based, easier to use alternatives to coating your furniture with plastic. Lacquer is, perhaps, the most challenging of these finishes to choose for your furniture but if you want a high sheen that shows the depth of color in a fine wood, it is worth the time and effort to use.

Things You'll Need

  • lacquer, preferably water-based
  • lacquer thinner
  • sprayer or spray gun
  • tent or old, lintless sheets to form a tent
  • safety glasses, face mask or respirator
  • fine wet/dry grit sandpaper
  • 0000 steel wool or alternative
  • buffing pad and compound


    • 1

      Be sure that your wood is finished properly. Fill low spots and pores with wood filler. Sand with a fine grit to a smooth surface. Be sure that the wood is very clean as any sanding grit or dirt will spoil the lacquer surface. Use a damp rag with paint thinner or tack cloth to clean the surface completely, paying particular attention to corners and details. Be sure that the wood is completely dry before attempting to lacquer.

    • 2

      Lacquer is applied by spraying in a lacquer tent. You can approximate one by building a tent using lintless sheets. The idea is to limit air movement and keep out dust and dirt. Your tent must be big enough to work in and you'll need safety glasses and a face mask to keep the spray out of your eyes, mouth and nose. Check your piece to be sure that it's clean and smooth before proceeding.

    • 3

      Lacquer is applied by spraying three to six very thin coats, depending on the piece. Let the piece dry for three or four days before attempting to "rub it out". Most rubbing out is done with a wet or dry extremely fine grit sand paper followed by a 0000 steel wool. Many products have been marketed recently for this stage and it's best to consult with the source from whom you've gotten your lacquer to find the best materials to use. Rubbing out removes the little bits of dust and puckers that cover your lacquer as it dries. Be careful to avoid sanding through the thin layer of lacquer.

    • 4

      Clean the surface thoroughly with a non-solvent before returning your piece to its tent. Depending on whether you are using a water-based or solvent-based lacquer, your lacquer provider can recommend a material that can be used to clean the surface between spray coatings. Once your piece is clean and back in its tent, spray it again, three to six very thin coats and allow it to dry for four to five days again. Follow the rubbing out procedure again, being careful not to sand or rub through the thin layer.

    • 5

      Your final step after the second rubbing out is to buff the surface, using a rotary or hand buffer and a wax made for your type of lacquer. You should buff to a satin or gloss finish with lacquer. A flat finish simply isn't worth the effort of lacquering.

Tips & Warnings

  • It is very important to put as thin a layer as possible on each time you pass the spray gun across the piece. This enriches the color under the coat of lacquer.
  • Lacquering is not for amateurs unless you are willing to take the time and expend the effort to do it right. If this all seems like too much effort, consider some of the excellent water-based varnish products available today. By rubbing out between two or three thin coats that are brushed instead of sprayed on, you can achieve similar results.
  • It is very important to make sure that you match materials. Certain waxes and cleaners will spot and leave white marks on certain lacquers. Your local furniture crafts person or a knowledgeable hardware or paint store professional can help you choose the right combination of products.
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  • Photo Credit DRW & Associates, Inc.

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