Varnish vs Lacquer (What’s the Difference?)

You can go for lacquer or varnish if you want a glossy sheen on your wood. But, what’s the difference between lacquer and varnish?

The main difference between varnish and lacquer is that varnish is gotten by combining solvents, driers, and resins. In comparison, lacquer contains plasticizers, shellac, and alcohol. This makes varnish have more solids, but it also makes lacquer lighten than varnish.

Since varnish contains more solids, it offers good protection on wood. Lacquer, on the other hand, is a thin solvent-based finish. All these solvents make lacquer almost waterproof.

This article reveals more about the differences between varnish and lacquer. So let’s dive in.

What is Varnish?

What is Varnish?

Varnish is an artificial oil finish. Unlike traditional wood oil finishes, varnish doesn’t penetrate or soak into wood grain. Instead, varnish stays on the wood’s top layer, forming a thick and moisture-resistant layer. Since varnish stays on the top layer, it is commonly used to create a glazed finish on wood stain.

Varnish has a higher solid-to-liquid ratio making the finish very protective of the wood underneath. Varnish is durable and can last up to 10 years if applied and maintained properly.

There are different types of varnishes ranging from polyurethane to acrylic varnish. Each of these varnishes can be used over wood or stain directly. However, sanding is always required before applying varnish.

What is Varnish Used For?

  1. Varnish is used to protect wood and wood stains from dents and blemishes.
  2. A few coats of varnish make wood moisture-resistant.
  3. Varnish protects the wood.
  4. To create a glazed finish.
  5. Being a clear coat, varnish is used over wood stain and paints.
  6. The finish is used for its durability.
  7. Varnish can be applied over finished wood.

What is Lacquer?

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer is a solvent-based finish that consists of several moisture-resistant compounds. Lacquer is known for its moisture resistance and high sheen. Both of these features are in the lacquer due to the formula of the lacquer.

Lacquer contains moisture compounds (plasticizers and shellac) that make wood waterproof. The presence of these compounds also makes the lacquer finish very glossy. Lacquer is so glossy that painting over it is almost impossible.

It has a thin flow, which makes it easy to spray (or thin the solvent). You can repair lacquer damages by sanding and spraying another coat. 

What is Lacquer Used For?

  1. To make wood glossy.
  2. Lacquer is used to polish wood stains.
  3. Lacquer offers amazing moisture resistance.
  4. Lacquer is used over broad furniture like center tables because it’s easier to spray over large areas.

So is lacquer better than varnish? Let’s compare both finishes to find out the answer to that question.

Lacquer vs Varnish

To compare both finishes, we’ll use the features of a proper wood finish and see how both finishes (varnish and lacquer) compare.

Now, let’s examine these differences in detail.

The Formula

Varnish is made from resins, solvents, and oil driers. Lacquer is made from moisture-resistant compounds, including plasticizers and shellac.

The varnish formula contains more solid compounds than lacquer, which makes varnish more solid than liquid. On the other hand, lacquer has more liquid than solid formula. This is because lacquer contains solvents and thinners rather than solids like varnish.

Verdict: Lacquer has a light formula, while varnish’s formula has a higher solid ratio.

The Thickness

Varnish is thicker than lacquer. The thicker flow of varnish is because the varnish has a higher solid ratio. Conversely, lacquer has a lighter or thinner flow because it’s made from solvents.

Lacquer is so thin that you can spray the finish without having to thin it beforehand. However, you can’t spray varnish without thinning it first. To apply varnish, you must use a paintbrush. 

Sheen Level

Since lacquer has more sheen, it makes it glossier than varnish. Lacquer is considered a high-gloss finish, while varnish is considered a semi-gloss finish.

The ingredients in varnish make the finish harder and not glossier. Lacquer, on the other hand, has plasticizers and solvents that reflect light and make the finish glossier. 

Wood Protection

Both varnish and lacquer offer great protection to the wood. However, varnish offers better protection to wood than lacquer. This is because varnish stays on top of the layer rather than penetrating the wood grain. 

The top layer stops dust nibs, dents, and scratches from getting to the wood. Lacquer also protects wood from scratches, dents, and dust, but the thinner nature of the finish means that it wears quicker than varnish.

Moisture Resistance

Lacquer offers better moisture resistance than varnish. This is because the ingredients in lacquer have more moisture-resistant properties, such as plasticizers that are waterproof and hard when dry.

Varnish stops stains and bleed-through in wood stains, so varnish is moisture resistant too. But, the combinations of plasticizers and shellac in lacquer make the finish more water-resistant than varnish. 

Price Tag

The prices of these finishes vary based on the brand and size of the finish. Lacquer often comes in small spray cans (measured in ounces) since the finish is thin enough to be sprayed. A 12.5-ounce can of lacquer usually costs below $20.

Varnishes come in large containers and not spray cans. A quart of urethane varnish costs about $40.

However, you’ll need more spray cans of lacquer to cover the same surface area that a quart of varnish will cover. So in terms of per-unit cost, lacquer in a spray can is cheaper, but lacquer will cost you more for bulk purchases.

Surface Application

Varnish is used over finished wood. If the wood has been stained, painted, or finished, you can put varnish over the finish. Since varnish is a topical finish it doesn’t need to penetrate the surface to stick. Instead, it stays on top of the paint or wood stain. 

You can use varnish over bare wood too, but you must alter the texture of the wood to make varnish stick. 

On the other hand, lacquer is used mostly on bare wood. This is because lacquer contains several solvents and thinners that can ruin wood stains and paints. Due to this reason, lacquer shouldn’t be used on finished wood. 

Since lacquer is light, it reveals the wood grain and makes bare wood moisture-resistant.

Here is a table that identifies the major differences between varnish and lacquer:

 LacquerVarnish
ThicknessLacquer is lighter than varnishVarnish is thicker
Wood protectionGoodGood
Moisture-resistanceGreatGood
Paint ApplicationLacquer is applied using paint sprayersVarnish is applied using paintbrushes
Sheen LevelLacquer has multiple sheens leading to high-glossVarnish is not as glossy as lacquer
The FinishLacquer finish is very glossyVarnish is less glossy

Should You Choose Lacquer or Varnish?

Here are a few important factors to consider while choosing varnish or lacquer:

1. Your Budget

An important factor is your budget. How much are you willing to spend on the finish? Lacquer finish will cost you more if you want to cover a large surface.

This is because you’ll need more lacquer spray cans. Even the larger 1-liter lacquer finish costs more than the 1-liter varnish. So for a pocket-friendly option, pick varnish.

2. Paint Application

How will you apply the finish? You must apply varnish with a paintbrush, but you can spray lacquer since it comes in spray cans. 

So, the varnish is easier to apply since you don’t need to use a paint sprayer. 

3. Moisture Resistance

If you need a moisture resistance finish, you must use lacquer. Lacquer offers better moisture resistance than varnish, so it’s ideal for outdoor furniture and surfaces that get wet. 

4. What Do You Want to Cover?

If you are trying to cover the existing finish, you must use varnish as lacquer can’t be applied over paint. However, you can use lacquer if you want to paint over bare wood.

Final Words

Overall, lacquer and varnish are amazing finishes. Lacquer is better suited to covering bare wood given its formula contains large volume of thinners and solvents.

Varnish can also be used on bare wood, but it’s better suited to covering existing stains and finishes on wood. Ensure to consider the features you’ll need from the finish before choosing either varnish or lacquer

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