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Straining. Though it’s always good practice to strain a finish before applying it, straining is doubly necessary with water-based finishes because there are usually coalesced particles in them that can mess up your finish. That isn’t the case with true lacquer.

The two products – both useful – are quite different.

Dating back at least 100 years, the term “lacquer” has referred to a non-crosslinking finish that thins with lacquer thinner. The most common type is nitrocellulose lacquer.

In the late 1980s water-based (or waterborne) finishes became available and some were labeled “lacquer.” The reason, as one manufacturer confided at the time, was to make woodworkers think they were using a familiar finish, one that would apply and perform like the traditional lacquer they were used to. This might make them more likely to try it.

To justify the name, manufacturers claimed that their water-based finish “burned in” like traditional lacquer. That is, each freshly applied coat dissolved into the previous coat, creating in effect one thicker coat. So the example of equivalency was burning in.

To some degree this is true. Water-based finishes do bond fairly well to previous coats, but the similarities pretty well end there. In virtually every other important quality, the two finishes are very different and should have different names to avoid confusion. Manufacturers, writers and teachers should stop referring to water-based finishes as lacquer, or water-based lacquer.


The biggest difference, of course, is that water-based finishes contain a lot of water and lacquer doesn’t. Consider these consequences of water.

■ Water raises the grain of wood. To get a smooth final result you have to sand the raised grain level and do so without sanding through to the wood or a stain. Though you should also sand the first coat of lacquer or…


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