This is 14 Helpful Tips for Applying Wood Lacquer, your guide to successfully using lacquer as a finish for your woodworking projects. Lacquer is one of the easiest and best finishes you can use, and I’ll show you why.
Applying Wood Lacquer
Wood lacquer is one of those finishes that you will really enjoy working with. It’s fast to apply, easy to work with, and leaves a finish that looks great. It’s also a versatile finish, because you can use it on all kinds of builds, from small wood projects to full size dining tables.
Like any finish, you do need to spend a little time learning how it works, and doing some practice to get it right. However, the learning period is quick, and it won’t take you much time at all to become good at using lacquer on your woodworking projects.
The following tips will help you become a master of lacquer finishes. They have taken me years to learn, but instead of having to figure it all out yourself, you can follow these tips and it will be a much smoother learning process. Enjoy.
Start with the Best Wood Lacquer
Before you actually begin using any kind of wood lacquer, this one tip will help you more than any of the others, and that is to use the best lacquer. There are a lot of lacquer products on the market, and they are not all created equal.
Starting on the bottom shelf, there are clear sprays that are called lacquer that are not really lacquer, and are not fun to use. These cause more problems than they solve, and the only thing they have going for them is that they are cheap.
However, when you consider the price of your projects, in materials, time, labor, etc, the wood lacquer you choose can cost you a lot more in the end if you use a cheap product. If that cheap lacquer never dries, or it leaves the surface unprotected and poor looking, then you really didn’t save anything.
My recommendation is to only use name brand, middle to high end lacquer for your projects, and nothing else. Personally, I use Mohawk lacquer, though I have used Deft in the past with success. If you are buying a can for the first time, get Mohawk Pre Catalyzed Lacquer, and you will not be disappointed.
Don’t Use Old Wood Lacquer
Another great tip for using wood lacquer is to never use old lacquer. If you have old cans of lacquer in the shop, or the garage, or you don’t know the age, don’t use it. It’s better to buy new than to ruin a project trying to save a couple dollars.
Old lacquer can have a lot of problems once you finally use it. The biggest of them all is that the product loses its ability to fully dry, and that means a sticky mess on your woodworking projects. It can also yellow, or spit when you spray, and both of these will leave a poor finish.
Rather than using old product, simply buy a new can, and buy less than you think you will use in a few months. If you are brand new to lacquer, just buy one can, and when you are out, buy the next until you know how much you go through.
This way, you don’t have to worry about having old lacquer in the shop, and you won’t waste money on extra lacquer spray that you don’t need. This keeps your wood finish fresh, and you don’t have any of the problems associated with old lacquer.
Don’t Store Wood Lacquer in Heat or Cold
One of the biggest mistakes that woodworkers make with their lacquer and their finishing supplies in general is how they store them. Finishing supplies need to be held at room temperature to last the longest, and your garage is not the best place.
Extremes in heat and cold had a negative effect on wood finishes, including lacquer. These temperature extremes cause lacquer to age prematurely, and then you run the risk of your finish not drying, staying tacky, or just not working like you want it to.
Instead of storing your lacquer in the garage, or in the shop, store it in a place where the temperature is more consistent, like a room in the house. Keep the products away from kids and pets of course, and keep the cans clean to avoid any smells or contamination issues. Since the cans are in the home, they will be at the same temperature all year round, and your lacquer will last longer.
Pick the Right Lacquer Sheen
The next best tip for using wood lacquer is to pick the sheen you need right form the start. Rather than buffing, or shining up your finish after you apply it, just buy the sheen level you need right from the beginning.
Lacquer comes in several sheens, ranging from dead flat to high gloss, and everything in between. If you want a sating finish, get a satin lacquer. If you want a flat finish, get flat lacquer. In general, for most projects that don’t need to be shiny, flat lacquer is the best bet.
For gloss levels, the glossier the look, the more imperfections you will be able to see. If you are trying to hide, or minimize some minor imperfections, using flat lacquer will help. The opposite is true too, so if you are planning on a high gloss finish, make sure that you put enough effort into your surface prep to remove all the defects.
Gloss lacquer will only amplify problems, while flat lacquer can minimize some of the smaller ones. Neither will hide outright problems, but if you want to see less defects, use a flat sheen.
Shake Your Lacquer Well
When using a rattle can, which is one of the easiest ways for a hobby woodworker to spray wood lacquer, you need to make sure that you shake the can enough. Using thoroughly mixed product helps ensure that your finish mixture is correct, and it performs as expected.
When you start shaking, it will take a few seconds sometimes to hear the can rattle. That is the small glass bead that goes inside each can, and helps mix the chemicals. You need to get that glass ball moving in order to thoroughly mix your lacquer in the can.
Once you hear it, keep going for thirty seconds with the can upright, and then another thirty with the can upside down. This is generally enough to get even the most separated lacquer mixture to combine well enough for spraying.
Over time, the solids in lacquer settle to the bottom, and the solvents rise to the top. If you don’t shale the can enough, you run the risk of spraying out mostly solids, and that is going to look extra flat, and cause an uneven sheen on your final project.
Point the Nozzle Towards the Dot
On most lacquer cans, there is a little black dot on the top of the can near the nozzle. You need to turn the nozzle until the spray end points towards the dot. This is for an interesting reason, and it all has to do with the anatomy of the can.
Inside the can is a straw, and that is what sucks up the lacquer when you press the nozzle down. It bends inside the can, going all the way to the bottom corner. When you point the nozzle towards the dot, it ensures that the straw is at the lowest point in the can.
This is a good thing, because you don’t want to suck up air, or have gaps in the liquid going through the spray nozzle. When you start running out of product, getting that last bit to come out well allows you to finish the entire can.
Clear the Nozzle First
Before you spray, it’s a good idea to clear the nozzle first. Sometimes, when lacquer is used, there can be dried bits and coagulated lacquer inside or around the nozzle. Clearing it removes these things from the spray, keeping them off your project.
Dried bits of lacquer and semi dried lacquer chunks can ruin your finish, because they form lumps on the wood surface, and don’t dry the same way. Instead of allowing those things on your project, just clear the nozzle first, then spray like normal.
All you need to do to clear the gunk is point your wood lacquer away from your project, but in a safe direction. Spray a small blast of lacquer, and that will clear it. If you see or feel anything odd about the spray, it will also show itself to you right at that point, giving you a chance to fix the problem before you spray it all over your woodworking project.
Spray Light Coats of Wood Lacquer
This is true of any finish, and lacquer is no exception. When you apply a coat of lacquer, apply a thin one, and resist the urge to over coat the surface. It’s much better to apply several thin layers than one thick layer, and this is for several reasons.
Thin layers dry faster, and they have less runs than thick layers. When a layer dries faster, it means you can get right back to adding another layer faster, and that’s how you build up your finish quickly.
Thin layers also have less runs, meaning areas where there was too much finish applied and it runs down the surface like a water drip. These are hard to fix, and most of the time you need to allow the project to fully cure for a day or so and then sand them out.
This is not good, because the few seconds you tried saving by applying a thick coat of finish are now all gone because now you get to wait entire day waiting for the project to dry so you can sand out the runs.
Instead of causing problems with your finish that you will be stuck fixing later, just apply thin coats that barely cover the surface, and let them dry before going back for another. It’s only a little more work, but the time you get back from making less mistakes more than covers it.
Allow Each Lacquer Layer to Dry
In between layers of lacquer, it’s important to let the previous layer completely dry before you move on to the next one. This is good for a couple reasons, but the most important once is that trapped wet lacquer may never dry, and that’s a recipe for a sticky mess.
Lacquer works great when you apply it well, and one of those steps is to allow each layer to completely dry before going on to the next one. A dry layer will support the next layer better, and when you combine wet layers it can sometimes cause drying issues.
Also, the drying of the layers is a good way for you to learn the timing of applying lacquer, and how well you can build up your layers. Mohawk lacquer will dry enough for another layer in minutes, so get used to that timing, and you will be able to finish your projects much more easily.
Lightly Scuff with Steel Wool
I generally don’t recommend scuffing with steel wool between lacquer layers. Instead, I recommend doing so after applying several layers, or not at all.
Lacquer has a unique property where the new layer melts into the previous layer, so in the end all of your layers become one. If you are applying thin coats, and not hosing the surface for each coat, you may not need to do anything to level the surface at all.
In cases where you do see a little something like dust nibs, or an uneven area that needs some help, feel free to steel wool. If you don’t see anything like that, then don’t steel wool. Just apply the final coats of lacquer in thin layers, and you will be all set.
Create an Even Layer on Flat Surfaces
This is my favorite trick for wood lacquer. If you are finishing a larger, flat surface, like a table, this is going to be your favorite as well. One of the challenges to finishing a large surface is getting an even coating, and if you don’t your projects can look like they have stripes.
Instead of leaving stripes, you can simply use this trick, and your larger flat surfaces will look like they were sprayed at the factory. The secret is maintaining a wet layer on the surface, and spraying a little more lacquer than normal, and in a couple directions.
Spray an even layer, overlapping strokes by about ten percent, and then once you reach the other end of the project, turn ninety degrees and spray another layer with about two thirds as many strokes perpendicular to the first layer.
Now, you’ve sprayed two layers right on top of each other, with the second one perpendicular to the first, and you should have an even looking wet layer on the project at this point. Allow it to fully dry, giving it more time than a thin layer, and it should be great looking, without any stripes.
Use Super Blush to Slow Lacquer Drying Time
If you are working in a hotter area, or you are still getting a striped look on your flat surfaces, then you might need a little help slowing down the drying time. Since lacquer melts together, you can slow down the drying, giving the layer more time to self level, and create a better looking surface.
The best product for this is called Super Blush, which is a product that you spray over your wet lacquer layer, and it slows down the drying process. This allows the lacquer to level out better, and your tops and flat surfaces will look professionally done.
Follow the direction on the can, but in general you lightly dust with the Super Blush after you finish spraying your normal wood lacquer, and while the layer is still wet. The product makes the drying time take longer, but you will have a beautiful finish afterwards.
Finish in a Dust Free Area
In order for your finish to dry well, and without any dust or particles stuck to the surface, you need to finish in a place where there is no airborne dust. This is easier than it sounds, but important none the less to a great looking finish.
If you are new to finishing, or you don’t have a dedicated finishing area, then you can simply finish somewhere else, or wait a day for the dust to settle and then finish. If you are in a garage, take the piece outside, and finish there.
If you are stuck indoors, just wait a day, and all of the dust will settle in the shop. Once it does, sneak out there carefully without disturbing the dust, and spray your finish. This way, you get less dust on your project, and your surface looks smooth and beautiful.
Wood Lacquer Layers Melt Together
The final tip I have for you is about the properties of woodworking lacquer in general, and one of the things that make it the most interesting and useful. The layers of lacquer melt together and fuse into one, and that’s the way lacquer works.
Other finishes like varnishes are very resistant to solvents, even the ones in the same finishing product. This is why layers of varnish build on top of each other rather than melting together. This can be a problem with varnishes, because sometimes these layers can separate.
Also, sometimes things get trapped in between the layers like humidity, and that can cause hazing or an uneven look. With lacquer, you don;t have those same problems, and for that reason it;s a much easier finish to use.
People Also Ask
How do you get a smooth finish with lacquer? The secret to getting a smooth finish with wood lacquer is good surface prep, and applying thin cots of finish with each coat. Prepare your surface for finishing well, sanding down to 220 grit, and then wipe off all of the dust. Begin applying thin coats of lacquer, letting them dry in between, and repeat this last step until you’ve built up a finish with a look that you like.
Can you apply lacquer with a brush or roller? Lacquer can be applied with a brush, but you need to specifically buy the type of lacquer that you can apply this way. Spray lacquer cannot be applied like this, but lacquer in a can is meant to be brushed on, though a roller might not work as well just because it might get sticky and leave pull marks on the surface.
How many coats of lacquer should I apply to wood? You should apply as many coats of lacquer as you need to achieve a good coating on the surface that will protect it from damage. The goal of any finish is to protect the surface, so keep on applying lacquer until an even coating is achieved.
Different projects need different levels of protection, and while a small toy might only need a few light coats, a table top will need more. Small projects are not handled the same as a table top, so you need more protection in the case of the table, and that means more lacquer.
Should I sand the final coat of lacquer? Sanding lacquer is not necessary unless you make a mistake, or get some dust on the surface that needs to be removed. If you can keep your surface nice during the spraying process, and prevent dust from landing on the surface, then you don’t need to sand the final coat of lacquer.
How to Apply Wood Lacquer Wrap Up
The most important thing you can do at this point is go out into the shop and put some of these tips into practice. Start with a nice lacquer, from a good brand, and when you get it home, find something to finish that you can use for practice.
Practice until you can spray vertical and horizontal surfaces well, and without defects like runs, dull spots, or stripes. It may take a can or two, but you will get it, and next thing you know you will be a pro at using lacquer on your woodworking projects.
If you have any questions about using lacquer, please contact me and I will be glad to help you.
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