Flexner on Finishing: Water-based Finish isn’t Lacquer

strain water based lacquerThe two products – both useful – are quite different.

by Bob Flexner
pages 50-52

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.

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From the April 2026 issue #224
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