Lacquer Cabinets

Lacquer cabinets became available in the 1920's after WWI (they had to use all the left-over cotton from gun powder somewhere).  Lacquer is an excellent finish, especially the moisture resistant type.  It is also the most widely used furniture finish. 

Lacquer itself has a long history in the far east, dating back over 2,000 years in China.  The Chinese are experts at applying several thin layers to achieve the look they want.

Lacquer Cabinets - A Good Choice

Lacquer cabinets are a good choice.  Each manufacturer of lacquer makes lacquer with varying degrees of elasticity, color, and resistance to water, solvents, acids and alkalis.  Ask your supplier which lacquer is right for you.  We always had good luck with any Sherwin-Williams lacquers, and found them to be the best in our custom cabinet shop, whether it was in application or durability. 

The Properties of Lacquer

  • Lacquer is a complex finish, meaning it is made of several components.  Often it is made partly of cotton or wood, but most of it is a resin.
  • Lacquer is a film finish.  That means it does not penetrate the wood, but rides on the surface.
  • With each additional coat of lacquer, the lacquer that's already on the piece re-melts and all the lacquer becomes one.  This is unlike shellac, varnish, and polyurethane, were each coat is a separate layer and the layers do not melt into each other.
  • Lacquer is easily applied with spray equipment, you can brush it, but it is difficult because it dries so fast.
  • Because lacquer dries fast, it eliminates dust problems.
  • Under normal circumstances, lacquer dries to the touch within 20 minutes, and can be scuffed and re-coated within two hours.
  • Lacquer can be applied in all types of weather (you may need to add retarders, thinners, etc., but it can be done).
  • Lacquer is resistant to water, and more resistant to heat and solvents than shellac
  • You can lacquer cabinets with a clear lacquer, white, black, cream or several other colors.

Two types of lacquer, only one in high use

There are two types of lacquer, nitrocellulose and cellulose.  Nitrocellulose is the one you will find.  Cellulose was used occasionally because it is much less amber in color and yellows less over time, however, it is more expensive then nitrocellulose.  With the introduction of water-base finishes that do not yellow at all, the use of cellulose lacquer diminished.

We used cellulose once in our custom cabinet shop, and found it to be a little "plastic" like, and if the wood was scratched the least bit, the finish seemed to peal off there.  The only advantage cellulose has over water-based finishes is that it doesn't raise the grain of your wood.  Raising wood grain can be a real challenge for a finisher using water-based finishes.

When you apply lacquer you need to know:

  • When applying lacquer, it is easiest (and if I were you I would) to use spray equipment, because lacquer dries so fast - unless you use a "brushing" lacquer (Minwax makes a good one). 
  • Lacquer needs to be mixed with a solvent before application.  In normal conditions (humidity below 50%), lacquer thinner is used as the solvent.  Your supplier can discuss with you how much to add for your application.  In our wood shop, we usually added around 8 to 10 cups for a five gallon pail to begin with, then added more as needed, but you will need to use your own judgment regarding this.
  • For colored lacquers, the solvent % will be much more, like 50/50.  Again, ask your supplier what is right for you and your project.
  • Application is possible in all types of weather (as long as you have good ventilation) because if the weather is humid (over 50%), a retarder is added to the lacquer to slow down drying time.  If you don't use a retarder, your finish will dry too fast, trapping moisture in the finish.  This moisture will appear as white spots throughout your piece.  You can get rid of these white spots by scuffing and reapplying lacquer that has been properly mixed with retarder.
  • Keep in mind that too thick of coats of lacquer will result in unwanted cracking (not to mention sags). There are lacquers that are formulated to look old and crack on purpose, but I'm not talking about these here.  Lacquer will crack if it gets too thick, although in 15 years of applying lacquer, I never saw it crack, but saw sags often.
  • It's good to apply up to four coats of lacquer on lacquer cabinets.  In our woodworking shop we usually only applied two or three (two if the piece was stained first, three or four if it was not).  You need to achieve the coverage and the look you prefer, so use your own judgment.
  • You need to apply a coat of lacquer, then scuff it before you reapply the next coat.  Scuffing is simply going over your piece with a fine grit sandpaper (320 or 400).  You can then apply the next coat.  If you don't scuff, your piece will be rough from fibers caught upright when spraying.
  • After you scuff, there will be a fine "dust" on your piece.  You can blow the dust away, use a tack cloth, or even just leave it.  See what works for you.

Important Reminder:

Lacquer is dangerous to use.  The solvents you need to use it are highly flammable, toxic, and air polluting.  Use a ventilator mask when applying the finish, and be sure to have adequate air ventilation in the space you are spraying in.

When spraying lacquer, you will get over-spray.  Over-spray is the spray that didn't hit your project, and is now a white powder that has settled all over. Be sure to cover areas you don't want over-spray on (with cardboard).

Also dispose of empty containers and any rags, etc., properly.  They can be a fire hazard.

Cleaning Lacquer Cabinets

Lacquer cabinets are easy to clean (go to our Cleaning Wood Kitchen Cabinet page from this Lacquer Kitchen Cabinets page).

  • Use a mild soap (Dawn dishwashing liquid, Ivory, Murphy's Oil Soap, etc.) and water.
  • Don't let water sit on the wood.
  • You can clean with a good furniture polish (this is a good idea if you wash a lot, because washing with too much water will, over time, hurt your finish if done in excess).
  • You can use a lemon oil on the wood (it cleans and brightens), but not until your finish is at least six months old.  Lacquer does not fully cure for six months.
  • If you use lemon oil or a furniture polish, know that because you are putting oil on your finish, it may (may) cause problems in the future if you actually need to refinish your cabinets.  They oil may cause fish-eye (a pooling and cratering of your finish due to the oil under it).

Lacquer cabinets are beautiful and the finish will last a long time.

And remember - HAVE A HAPPY KITCHEN!!!

Return to our Kitchen Cabinet Finishes page from our Lacquer Cabinets page.


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Cleaning Wood Kitchen Cabinets - It's Easy - you don't need "secret" cleansers or be a pro.  This page tells you how!

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How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets - 6 easy steps & 13 things you must have BEFORE you start.

How to Varnish Wood - 7 properties, 3 types, 6 application steps to follow - Helping you keep it all STRAIGHT!!

Ideas for Painting Kitchen Cabinets - 4 really simple and useful ideas to make your life easier (plus a couple of variations).

Kitchen Cabinet Finishes - From lacquer to water based.  What's really right for you? (and what's just plain out-dated)

Kitchen Cabinet Finishing - Do you homework BEFORE you finish or refinish & you'll have an easy time of it.

Polyurethane Varnish - The "varnish" that works fast and furious.  Tips and Tricks.

Repaint Kitchen Cabinets - Yes, you can repaint your kitchen cabinets in 5 easy steps.

Staining Kitchen Cabinets - Your Time, Your Success - Tips You Must Know.

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