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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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.
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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