Why Use Lacquer Vs Varnish?

There are many types of finish coatings available to preserve and protect your DIY projects.  Many people ask, what are the differences between lacquer vs varnish?  Why should I use one over the other? 

Read on to find out which finish coating is best for the project you’re working on. 

lacquer vs polyurethane
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Lacquer Vs Varnish

Let’s discuss the similarities and differences between lacquer vs varnish.

What is a Lacquer Spray Finish 

Lacquer is a type of finish coating that can be clear or tinted.  It’s pretty thin when compared to some other finishing coats, and you get Pro results when you apply it with the best lacquer spray gun.  A lacquer finish gives you a very intense gloss finish while being durable and resistant to damage.  You can buy tinted or clear lacquers so you can customize your finish to your liking. 

What is Varnish Paint? 

Wood varnish paint is a type of coating that penetrates and protects your wood DIY projects.  It doesn’t come with an added tint or pigment like lacquer.  Most people use it when they want to keep their wood projects looking more natural compared to lacquer, which gives that glossy, shiny look.  One disadvantage is that, like polyurethane, it can tend to yellow and dull over time. 

Water Based Lacquer Finish

There are 2 types of lacquer: water based and nitrocellulose lacquer.  Each one should be used for specific projects to get the most out of your project and its finish. 

Water based lacquer will dry up on you fast: you need to clean up after you’re finished right away.  taking long breaks while applying this type of lacquer just isn’t possible.  You cannot leave this type of lacquer laying around inside your spray gun.  Flush it out with water if you are stopping for any length of time and wipe off the parts to prevent lacquer build up. 

With nitrocellulose lacquer, you can spray or paint throughout the day, taking breaks, and only need to clean up your painting equipment once your all finished.  Always follow the spray gun manufacturers recommendations for cleaning your paint sprayer after you’ve used lacquer. 

Pros of Lacquer

Dries quickly, allowing for fast production times
Provides a glossy finish that is highly durable
Offers excellent resistance to scratches and wear
Can be easily repaired or touched up if damaged

Cons of Lacquer

Can be hazardous to use due to its highly flammable and toxic nature
Cannot be applied to all types of wood, as it can cause certain woods to discolor or warp
Requires a well-ventilated area for application due to its strong odor and toxicity
Can be difficult to remove once applied, requiring sanding or stripping to remove the finish

Lacquer Paint for Wood: Best Lacquer Brands 


best sprayer for lacquer

Deft dries in about 30 minutes with a crystal clear finish that won’t yellow or darken with age.  Available in gloss finish, it covers approximately 400 sq feet per gallon.  Perfect for wood finishes and stains, Deft sprays awesome when you’ve got yourself one of our recommended spray guns for lacquer.

best sprayer for lacquer


Watco by Rust-Oleum is a tried and trusted brand for over 80 years.  The finish is super clear and durable.  We found it dried in just under 1 hour and will cover about 290 square feet. Great for small batch jobs.

Promises to not yellow over time as some lacquer can do, especially if painted over an oil base paint. 

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How to Apply Lacquer : Lacquer Vs Varnish

Lacquer can be applied using a brush, roller or lacquer paint sprayer.  Warning: applying lacquer with a roller will create an uneven finish with bubbles.  Not what you want to see in a glass like finish on your furniture.  Even the best roller can leave bubbles behind.   

Using a brush is a better option, but you should use a natural bristle brush to avoid an uneven finish.  The downside of using a brush is that it can leave brush marks on your surface. 

Using a paint sprayer is your best option for a professional, glass like finish.  It applies the thin lacquer easily and evenly.  If you’re applying more than 1 coat of lacquer, using a spray gun means that your first coat will dry much faster than using a brush or roller.   

When shopping for a lacquer spray gun, check out our post here.  Make sure you grab yourself an HVLP or LVLP spray gun.  Lacquer is very thin and using a high-powered airless sprayer will make a huge mess and not give you the pro results you’re looking for. 

Applying lacquer when there is low humidity is key: higher humidity can lead to lacquer blushing which means the lacquer looks hazy, instead of glassy, when it dries.  If you live in a high humidity area, usually early morning is the best time of day to get your lacquer on. 

Sand down your project and make sure to clean off all the dust with a blower or lint free cloth.  3-4 light coats of lacquer work much better than 1 thick coat.  Ensure that you let each coat dry completely before spraying on another coat.   

In between coats, it’s a great idea to use 320 fine grit sandpaper to help each new coat stick to the old coat. If you get any runs, cut it off with a razor blade very carefully after drying and respray to fix it. 

Pros of Varnish

Provides excellent protection against moisture, UV rays, and wear and tear
Can be applied to a variety of surfaces, including wood, metal, and concrete
Comes in a range of finishes, from matte to high-gloss
Provides a hard, durable finish that is resistant to scratches and damage

Cons of Varnish

Can take a long time to dry, requiring several coats and extended curing times
Can yellow or darken over time, especially when exposed to sunlight
Can be difficult to remove once applied, requiring sanding or stripping to remove the finish
Can be sensitive to temperature and humidity during application, requiring ideal conditions for best results

Is Lacquer Waterproof? 

Lacquer is waterproof.  This is because it’s thinner than most protective coatings and penetrates deep into the surface of your wood.  Lacquer and water aren’t very compatible though, if your lacquered project get any liquid on them, you should wipe it up right away.  Otherwise, you could end up with a stain or water marks on your beautiful DIY projects. 

Is Lacquer Food Safe?  

According to this blog, food pieces that are not subject to damage from utensils are acceptable to use.  They give examples like serving platters.  If you’re going to be using the food piece a ton, and where damage from utensils and other things is likely, for example a cutting board, or salad bowls, then a penetrating oil finish is better to use. 

Cracks in Lacquer vs Varnish Finish  

Lacquer is a thinner coating than most other finishes.  It will crack and get more damaged faster than other types of coatings like varnish and polyurethane. 

Lacquer vs Varnish: Which Scratches more Easily? 

Lacquer is a thin coating that does scratch easier than most other coatings.  If you’ve applied lacquer to a table top or other item that sees high use, scratches will happen.  Our recommendation is to put rubber feet on any item that might sit on the top of your lacquered projects, use placemats, and just generally be careful. 

What is Varnish Paint Used For?

Many people use the word varnish to describe any sort of clear protective coating on a wood project.  Some manufacturers will call lacquer a varnish when it really isn’t.  You can get varnish in matte, satin and gloss finishes, where lacquer is just a glossy finish.  

Varnish is a combination of thinners, oils and resins that are different for each manufacturer.  You can really fine tune your results with the variety available.  

Is Varnish Toxic? 

Yes, varnish is toxic.  You should avoid getting on your skin and handle it carefully because they contain benzene. Never ingest varnish because it is toxic when ingested.  Because you can get varnish inhalation poisoning, always use the proper paint respirator when applying varnish.  Apply varnish in a well ventilated area and keep that area ventilated until the varnish dries and the fumes disappear.   

Non Toxic Varnish and Other Wood Sealers 

This is a big topic to cover, so I will leave it up to the experts.  Please click this link HERE to read all about a ton of choices to go chemical free when sealing and protecting your wood projects. 

Which is Better: Lacquer or Varnish?

The choice between lacquer and varnish ultimately depends on the type of project and desired finish. For example, if you are looking for a glossy finish that is highly durable and can be easily repaired, lacquer may be the best choice.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a protective coating that can withstand harsh weather conditions and provide long-lasting protection, varnish may be the better option.

It is also important to consider the application process and any safety precautions that may be necessary. Lacquer is highly flammable and toxic, requiring a well-ventilated area and proper protective gear during application.

Varnish, while less hazardous, may require more time and effort to apply due to its curing times and sensitivity to temperature and humidity.

In terms of cost, lacquer is typically more expensive than varnish, but it provides a higher level of durability and finish quality.

Varnish is more affordable and readily available, making it a popular choice for outdoor furniture and other projects that require long-term protection.

Lacquer Vs Varnish Conclusion 

Choosing lacquer vs varnish for your DIY projects depends on the type of environment your project will be in, how much it will be used, and what kind of finish you’re going for.  Pick right the first time and enjoy your DIY for years to come! 


What is the best lacquer paint sprayer on the market for me?

Check out our detailed review post where we discuss the best lacquer sprayers on the market.