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 them?

The main difference 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.

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

Varnish

What is Varnish?

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

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

There are different types of it, ranging from polyurethane to acrylic varnish. Each of these types can be used over wood or stain directly. However, sanding is always required before applying it, and between coats (expect for the final coat). 

You can use varnish:

  1. To protect wood and wood stains from dents and blemishes.
  2. To make wood moisture-resistant.
  3. Over wood stains and paints.
  4. To create a glazed finish.
  5. The finish is used for its durability.
  6. Over finished wood.

Lacquer

What is Lacquer?

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

Lacquer contains moisture compounds (plasticizers and shellac) that make it waterproof. The presence of these compounds also makes its 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. 

You can use lacquer:

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

Lacquer vs Varnish

To compare both finishes, we’ll use the features of a proper wood finish and see how both finishes 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 which makes it more solid than liquid. On the other hand, lacquer has more liquid than a solid formula because it contains solvents and thinners rather than solids.

The Thickness

Varnish is thicker than lacquer because it has a higher solid ratio. Conversely, it 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. So, it’s recommended to use a brush to apply it.

Sheen Level

Lacquer has more sheen and a glossier finish and is considered a high-gloss finish.  While varnish is considered a semi-gloss finish because its ingredients 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

Varnish offers better protection to wood than lacquer because it 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 more quicker.

Moisture Resistance

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

Varnish prevents water or liquid to penetrate its coating, so its finish 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 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 it will cost you more for bulk purchases.

Surface Application

If the wood has been stained, painted, or finished, you can put seal it with varnish. Since it 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 it over bare wood too, but you must alter the texture of the wood to make it stick. 

On the other hand, lacquer is used mostly on bare wood because it contains several solvents and thinners that can ruin wood stains and paints. Due to this reason, it 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 both finishes

 LacquerVarnish
ThicknessLighter FlowThicker Flow
Wood protectionGoodGood
Moisture-resistanceGreatGood
Paint ApplicationYou can apply it with a sprayerYou need to apply it with a brush.
Sheen LevelHigh-gloss finish.Semi-gloss finish

Which One Do You Need?

Here are a few important factors to consider while choosing the finish you need:

  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 because you’ll need more lacquer spray cans. Even the larger 1-liter lacquer finish costs more than the 1-liter 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.
  3. Moisture Resistance – If you need a moisture resistance finish, you must use lacquer as it offers better moisture resistance, 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 it is a topical finish and can stick over finished surfaces.

Final Words

Overall, lacquer and varnish are amazing finishes. Lacquer is better suited to covering bare wood given its formula contains a 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.

Tony Adams
Tony Adams

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about,

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