How to Get a Smooth Lacquer Finish

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Lacquer is a quick-drying, non-curing finish. It dries quickly, making it easy to build up multiple coats in a short period of time. If you work carefully with the right supplies you can easily build a smooth lacquer finish on any workpiece. Read this article to find out how. 

How to Apply Lacquer with a Smooth Finish

Learning how to apply lacquer so that you end up with a smooth finish takes practice. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Completely remove all traces of the old finish. Starting from a clean, even surface is incredibly important to achieving the lacquer finish of your dreams. Defects in the surface of the wood will carry through with each successive layer of varnish. Peeling, cracking, or tired finish should be removed before you mix your first pot of lacquer. For surfaces covered in polyurethane, use a chemical stripper. If budget permits, choose a paste to avoid drips and splashes. If not, a liquid product is fine, but be extra careful to protect your skin and airway from contact. 
  2. Even the surface of the wood. Use a sanding block or orbital sander to remove splinters and rough spots. Start with 220 grit sandpaper and finish with 150 grit. Vacuum up the dust and wipe the surface of the wood with a tack-cloth. The light wax coating on the tack cloth will grab any remaining particles. 
  3. Choose a wood grain filler. You can choose between oil and water-based fillers. Water-based wood grain fillers dry in 15 minutes or less. They release fewer VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than oil-based products, and are significantly less stinky as a result. Oil-based grain filler takes up to an hour to dry and you’ll need acetone or turpentine to clean your brushes. However, oil-based products can stand up to water, rot, and extreme temperatures better than water-based wood grain filler, making it the ideal choice if your finished workpiece is going to live outside
Wood fillers
  1. Fill the grain. Like human skin, wood has pores. These tiny pockets can absorb lacquer, leading to a stippling effect on the surface of the wood that will prevent you from achieving a super-smooth finish. Filling the pores with wood filler creates a flat surface that will evenly absorb lacquer. Use a paint brush to apply the filler. Scrape off excess with a plastic scraper, using firm pressure and scraping against the grain of the wood, to push the filler into the pores. After a few hours, the filler should be dry. Sand with the grain of the wood, using 150 grit sandpaper. 
  2. Choose an application method. Brushable lacquer can be applied with a brush, but this method is not recommended when you want to achieve a super-smooth lacquer finish. Instead, consider purchasing or renting a spray gun. Spray can or ‘rattle can’ lacquer is also available, but this product is not recommended when achieving a smooth finish is important to you. 
  3. Mix your lacquer. Properly mixed lacquer is key to achieving an even, clear finish. Thinner is used to lower the viscosity of lacquer, making it easier to spread. Lacquer applied with an air compressor and sprayer generally needs to be thinner than lacquer applied with a brush. Pour some lacquer into a clean container, and dilute it with lacquer thinner. Lacquer begins to dry as soon as it is exposed to the air, so don’t mix more than you need and keep mixed lacquer covered. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, dilute the lacquer with lacquer thinner and stir until well-mixed. 
  4. Prepare your work environment. Adequate ventilation and limited humidity are two necessary elements for safely creating a smooth lacquer finish. Try to eliminate sources of dust. Use dust sheets or plastic coating to protect your work space from drips, splashes, and lacquer. Wear protective clothing, including gloves, a respirator, and an eyeshield. 
  5. Apply a coat of lacquer. Unlike polyurethane, lacquer is a buildable finish. This built-up application process allows for a gorgeous, deep, and shiny lacquer finish. But each layer must be perfect in order to achieve that result. Spraying is the best way to create an even, thin coat of lacquer without bubbling, dripping, or splashing. With the sprayer’s reservoir filled with an appropriately thinned lacquer, connect it to compressed air. Squeeze the trigger and sweep the nozzle back and forth over the surface of your workpiece, applying a thin and even layer of lacquer. In about 20 minutes, the lacquer should be non-tacky and dry to the touch. 
  6. Sand the lacquer and check your work. Use 400 grit sandpaper to level the surface of the lacquer and prepare it to receive additional coats. Wipe the lacquered surface with a tack cloth to remove dust. Run your hand over the surface of the lacquer, checking for any bumps or lumps. Shine a light horizontally across the surface to check for evenness, and sand as necessary. Apply two more coats of lacquer, sanding between them. Allow the lacquer to dry for one day before applying the finish coats. 
  7. Move on to the finish coats. Store your mixed lacquer overnight in an airtight container. Never return mixed lacquer to a container of unmixed lacquer. By now, you’ve likely perfected your application technique. Between each coat, allow the lacquer to fully dry, and rough it up with 400 grit sandpaper, wiping dust off before applying the next layer. Three or four coats of lacquer should give you a smooth and shiny finish. The lacquer should be free of dimples, even and smooth. For an extra-smooth and shiny finish, allow the lacquer to cure for one week before moving on to the rub-out phase of the process. You can clean your brushes or sprayer at this point. 
Person smoothening lacquer finish with a brush

Rub-out Lacquer to a Smooth Sheen

When you’ve finished painstakingly applying coats of lacquer and your workpiece is dry, walk over to inspect it. Tiny pieces of dust, sawdust, and minute fibers floating through the air will embed themselves in sticky varnish, no matter how careful you are. Luckly, there is a way to remove the debris and smooth the top layer of lacquer.  

  1. Sand. Start with 400 grit sandpaper wrapped around a felt block. Using very light pressure, stroke the sandpaper across the surface of the lacquer. A few quick passes should be enough to remove most of the debris. Start in the middle of the workpiece, saving the ends for last. You don’t want to break through the coats of lacquer you applied. Barely any pressure is required for this technique. You may notice some minor scratches in the finish as you sand — don’t worry, we’ll buff this out next. 
  2. Buff. Wrap the felt block in new, 0000 steel wool. Using a light touch and light pressure, slide the steel wool over the surface of the lacquer to remove any scratches left behind by your sandpaper. Again, start with the middle and be extra-cautious when buffing out the edges. Move in the same direction as the grain of the wood. Don’t sand or buff across the grain. Even high-quality, extra fine steel wool will leave minute scratches, so one final technique is needed to remove those defects from the varnish. 
  3. Buff again. Dip your steel wool in a dish of soapy water. Use the foam block to guide the soapy steel wool over the surface of the wood in circular motions. When you’ve soaped the entire surface of your workpiece several times, check your work by removing all the soapy water with a clean rag or tack cloth. 
  4. Use your hand to check your work. Run your hand gently over the finished lacquer. It should feel silky smooth, with no raised bumps or protrusions. Visually inspect the lacquer for even sheen. If some parts of the wood are more or less reflective than others, repeat the last step with soapy steel wool to even out the sheen. 

What Kind of Lacquer is Best for a Smooth Finish?

Unlike finishes in the varnish family, lacquer is solvent based. The three major types of lacquer are: nitrocellulose, acrylic, and catalyzed. Keep reading to find out which kind of lacquer is best for your project.

Man spraying lacquer on wooden chair

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

A popular and common product, nitrocellulose lacquer is inexpensive and widely available. It has a light amber tint that enhances the look of many woods. While brushable formulations are available, spraying will achieve smoother and more even results.

Remove any open flames from your well-ventilated spray area because nitrocellulose lacquer is highly flammable in a mist form. Each layer dissolves the previous coat and mixes with it. Lacquer retarder may be necessary to eliminate blushing in high-humidity environments

Acrylic Lacquer

This product adheres well to metal. Unlike nitrocellulose lacquer, it will not yellow over time, maintaining a crystal-clear finish for years to come. Acrylic lacquer performs best when applied with a sprayer. The finish will be more flexible and less brittle than nitrocellulose products. 

Catalyzed Lacquer

Most lacquer hardens due to the evaporation of solvents. This chemical process is one part of the curing process for catalyzed lacquers. A hardening effect is also sparked when two reactive chemicals are combined.

Pre-catalyzed lacquer will need to be mixed at home. Post-catalyzed lacquer has already been mixed and can be used out of the can. Once mixed, catalyzed lacquer has a short pot life, so don’t buy more than you need. 

Conclusion

To achieve a smooth lacquer finish, use a nitrocellulose lacquer. If you want to avoid yellowing, choose an acrylic or catalyzed lacquer. Build the lacquer in smooth, even layers using a sprayer. Finish by rubbing-out the lacquer with sandpaper and steel wool.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.