Lacquer vs. Varnish

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Difference between Lacquer and Varnish

For many people, lacquer and varnish is essentially the same thing, and so often, each is used when the other would be more appropriate. However, both are actually quite different from each other, and as such, they have their own specific purposes. Have a read through this comparison article and you will know when to use which as the situation calls for it.


In Brief

Lacquer is composed of a combination of nitrocellulose, plasticizers and pigments, dissolved in a volatile solvent mixture. Because of its shellac in alcohol solution, lacquer provides a glossy surface to anything it is applied. The word “lacquer’ comes from the Portuguese word “lac”, which is a resin that certain insects expel. Varnish on the other hand is a clear, hard solution that gives a glossy finish to wood as well, although it forms a protective film around it besides. Varnish is composed of resin, drying oil and either a thinner or solvent solution. Varnish is often applied on top of a wood stain to enhance its glossiness, since it usually has very little color.

Appearance And Durability

Both varnish and lacquer are used to give a shiny and glossy finish to wood. The main difference is that varnish is generally transparent and colorless, while lacquer may either be clear or colored. Lacquer is also usually shiny in itself, coming in different levels of gloss, while varnish relies on flatting agents to provide a semi-gloss or sheen finish to whatever surface it is applied on. While both varnish and lacquer will result in a hard and durable surface, lacquer generally provides a harder wearing surface due to its plasticized content. Lacquer is also particularly resistant to damage from acids, alkalis, water and scratching.

Usage And Application

One other important difference between the two is how they are applied. Varnish is usually meant to be brushed on, while lacquer is often meant to be sprayed on. In addition, lacquer is also suitable for use as a metal finisher, a task for which varnish is simply not suited. This is why many cans used for food and drinks often have a layer of lacquer baked onto the surface. Lacquer also dries a lot faster than varnish, and it requires fewer coats in order to get the same glossy finish.

Similarities and Differences


  • A combination of nitrocellulose, plasticizers and pigments in a volatile solvent mixture
  • Forms a high gloss coating due to its shellac in alcohol solution
  • Comes clear or colored
  • Has a harder wearing finish than varnish due to its plasticizer content
  • Is usually sprayed on as opposed to being applied with a brush

  • A hard, often clear solution that is commonly applied to wood in order to give it a glossy finish
  • Provides a protective film
  • A combination of resin, drying oil and thinner or solvent
  • Often have very little color making them suitable for application over wood stains
  • Often totally transparent
  • Usually brushed on as opposed to being sprayed on


comments 3 Comments

  • donna dunavan . 3+ yrs. ago

which is best to do on the inside of bathroom no window on wooden walls. how long are the fumes of each harmful.

  • Chuck Feathers . 3+ yrs. ago

Lacquer can be damaged with water. Varnish would be the best choice. Rather than use a brush, try using a foam backed paint pad and thin the varnish slightly for better flow. Using the paint pad, the layer is very even and does not show brush marks. Paint pads usually have handles and are flat with many short bristles coming out of the foam back.

  • Joyce . 3+ yrs. ago

Can lacquer be applied over a varnish finish?

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