Varnish vs Lacquer (Which One Do You Need?)

When you want a nice glossy sheen on your wood, most painters will advise you to either go for varnish or lacquer since both finishes offer a strong and durable gloss on wood. But what’s the difference between both finishes?

The main difference between varnish and lacquer is that varnish is gotten by combining solvents, driers, and resins. While 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 deeply. Instead, varnish stays on the top layer of the wood where it forms 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.

You should also know that varnish has a higher solid to liquid ratio making the finish very protective of the wood underneath. Varnish is very 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. You should know that 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 wood
  4. To create a glazed finish
  5. Being a clear coat, varnish is used over wood stain and paints
  6. The finish is commonly used for its durability
  7. Varnish can be applied over finished wood

Now, let’s check out lacquer and its uses.

What is Lacquer?

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer is a solvent-based finish that consists of several moisture-resistant compounds. Lacquer is known primarily for its moisture resistance and high sheen.

Both of these features are in the lacquer due to the formula of the lacquer. Lacquers often contain plasticizers and shellac. Both of these are moisture compounds are used to waterproof wood.

The presence of these compounds also makes the lacquer finish very glossy. Lacquer is often so glossy that painting over it is often impossible. Lacquer has a thin flow making it very easy to thin and spray the finish. Lacquer is also easy to repair as damages can be easily sanded and sprayed with another coat of lacquer.

What Is Lacquer Used For?

  1. To make wood glossy
  2. Lacquer is used to polish wood stain
  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: Head to Head

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

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

Now, let’s examine these differences in detail.

The Formula

This refers to the ingredients in the finish

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

The formula of varnish contains more solid compounds than lacquer giving varnish a more solid than liquid formula. Lacquer’s formula is more liquid than solid. This is because lacquer contains solvents and thinners rather than solids like varnish does.

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. Lacquer on the other hand has a lighter or thinner flow because it is largely made from solvents.

Lacquer is so thin that you can spray the finish from the tiny nozzle of a spray gun. The thick flow of varnish means it can’t be sprayed. To apply varnish, you’ll need a paintbrush.

Sheen Level

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

Varnish is not as glossy because the ingredients in varnish make the finish harder and not glossier. Lacquer on the other hand contains plasticizers and solvents that reflect light. This makes lacquer appear glossier.

Wood Protection

How well does the finish protect wood?

Both varnish and lacquer offer great protection to the wood. However, varnish is known to offer better protection to wood. One reason for this is that varnish solidifies on the top layer of the wood.

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 more resistance to moisture than varnish. This is because the ingredients in lacquer have moisture-resistant properties. Plasticizers for instance are waterproof when dry and hard.

Shellac as well is designed to stop stains and bleed through in wood stains. This means shellac is also moisture resistant. The combination of plasticizers and shellac in lacquer makes 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 for instance costs about $40.

You should know that 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 for bulk purchase, lacquer will cost you more.

Surface Application

Varnish is commonly used over finished wood. If the wood has been stained, painted, or finished, you can put varnish over the finish. Being a topical finish, varnish will stay on the paint or wood stain properly. Varnish can also be used on bare wood but you’ll need to alter the texture of the wood to make varnish stick.

Lacquer on the other hand is common on bare wood. This is because lacquer contains several solvents and thinners that can ruin wood stains and paints. Due to this reason, lacquer isn’t common on finished wood. Also, since lacquer is light, it is often used to reveal the wood grain. Lacquer is also used on bare wood to make the wood moisture-resistant.

Do You Need Lacquer or Varnish?

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

1. The Price Tag

An important factor is your budget. How much are you willing to spend on the finish? Lacquer finish will cost you more especially 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

You need to consider how you’ll apply the finish. Varnish will need paintbrushes to be applied but lacquer often comes in spray cans meaning that you can spray the finish directly. You don’t need any equipment to apply lacquer so it’s more suited to beginners.

3. Moisture Resistance

Do you need a finish for its moisture resistance? If so, the lacquer will serve you better. Lacquer offers better moisture resistance than varnish so it’s ideal for outdoor furniture and surfaces that will get wet often.

4. What Do You Want to Cover?

This is another important factor to consider. If you want to cover an existing finish, use varnish as it is safer to use on other finishes. Lacquer should be used on bare wood since it contains solvents that can damage an existing finish.

Final Words

Overall, lacquer and varnish are amazing finishes. You should know that lacquer is better suited to covering bare wood given the large volume of thinners and solvents in its formula.

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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