Nitrocellulose lacquer is a material which has many uses both inside and outside the home. Like any other lacquer, it can be used to finish wood products and keep painted surfaces shining, though there is much more to it than that.
Nitrocellulose lacquer is made by taking cotton and treating it with sulfuric and nitric acid, generating an acidic pulp, which can be strained to produce a watery resin. The resulting resin is then combined with a number of fast drying solvents to produce the finished lacquer.
Nitrocellulose lacquer was initially marketed as a fast-drying alternative to wood treatments such as shellac and varnishes. It was also combined with pigment to produce one of the first spray-on paints. Today it is still used for staining woods as it's cheap, dries quickly and blends well with the natural grain and coloring of different woods.
One half of nitrocellulose, cellulose, is treated with nitric and sulfuric acid in the exact same way that trinitrotoluene is created, better known as TNT or dynamite. While not nearly as volatile or explosive as dynamite, nitrocellulose lacquer is extremely flammable and produces fumes when it's being used that can easily ignite. As such, even products which have been treated with nitrocellulose lacquer many years ago are still easily burnt, making nitrocellulose a dangerous chemical to use.
Nitrocellulose lacquer was first invented in 1921 by Edmund Flaherty while working for the DuPont Chemical Company. The rights to it were quickly bought by the Ford automotive company. When mixed with pigments, the nitrocellulose made an excellent quick-drying paint, speeding Ford's car production immensely.
Nitrocellulose lacquer is very quick drying—one of the main reasons it became so popular—but this property can also cause some problems. If conforms to a given surface that it's laid on, but can be caused to contract too quickly when exposed to high temperatures and strong sunlight. This results in cracks or crazing, which can be problematic when trying to establish a clear, clean finish to a surface.