How To Lacquer A Table

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Learn how to use a sprayer or a brush to lacquer a wood table in this article. It is packed with useful information, such as the materials you will need to complete this project, the right way to prepare a wood surface to accept a lacquer finish, and instructions for spraying or brushing on lacquer. 

Preparing to Lacquer a Wood Table

No matter whether you opt to spray or brush your lacquer, these are the steps you need to follow for preparation

  1. Prepare your surface. Bare, natural wood can be lacquered as soon as it is sanded smooth. Use a tack cloth to clear away any dust.
  2. Choose an application method. Lacquer can be applied with a sprayer or a brush. Rattle-can products are available, but are not usually recommended due to their inconsistent results and tendency to pool and puddle. 
  3. Acquire your materials. You will need: a sprayer or brush, lacquer, lacquer thinner, and lacquer retarder. A set of old measuring cups is also helpful. 
  4. Check the weather. Lacquer is a somewhat temperamental finish. The ideal temperature to apply lacquer is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, also known as ‘room temperature’. Slightly colder temperatures can still work, but anything below 55 degrees Fahrenheit will prevent the lacquer from drying properly. For best results, wait for a day when the humidity is between 50-70%. 
  5. Apply the lacquer. See the appropriate section below for application instructions based on the method you chose in Step 2. 
Table without any wood finish

How to Use a Sprayer to Lacquer a Wood Table 

Follow these steps to lay down multiple smooth and even coats of lacquer

  1. Protect from overspray. When lacquer is atomized by a sprayer, particles of lacquer will float into the air and settle on whatever is nearby. Use plastic sheeting to cover everything in the area except your wood table.  
  2. Set up the sprayer. Pick a high quality HVLP sprayer for your project. Turn the nozzle so that the lacquer will spray in a horizontal fan pattern for the legs, as you’ll be spraying up and down. When you’re ready to spray the table top, change the nozzle orientation to a vertical fan and spray from left to right. 
  3. Mix your lacquer. To spray lacquer, you must mix it with lacquer thinner. Start with a mixture of 20% lacquer thinner, or follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. 
  4. Experiment with the sprayer settings. Practice on scrap wood or cardboard. You should be able to adjust the amount of air and fluid (in this case, thinned lacquer) as well as the pressure. Setting the pressure to 30 or 35 PSI will generally result in an actual PSI of 20 to 25, perfect for getting a controlled, even spray. Adjust the amount of air and fluid until you have the thin, steady stream that doesn’t dribble or drip. 
  5. Spray the lacquer. Hold the spray gun nozzle eight to 12 inches from the top of the table legs. Squeeze the nozzle and maintain distance while smoothly and evenly moving the sprayer down the table leg. Continue until the spray has cleared the bottom of the legs, then release the trigger. Use the same technique for the table top, adjusting only the direction of the nozzle. 
  6. Wait for the lacquer to dry. Wait for the lacquer to be dry to the touch before adding a second coat. This usually takes 15-30 minutes. Apply a third coat, then let the lacquer dry overnight. Apply another three coats in the morning, with 15-30 minutes between coats.  Let the table dry for four to six hours. Add another three coats to finish the job. 

How to Use a Brush to Lacquer a Table

While brushing on lacquer is difficult, it’s not impossible. Work carefully and follow these steps. 

  1. Sand and/or seal the table. A clean, super-smooth surface is essential to getting a good outcome with lacquer. Any unevenness or imperfection will be carried through into each coat, so take your time to get things perfect from the beginning. 
  2. Gather your materials. You will need: a clean natural bristle brush, a mixing container, a paint stirrer, an old set of measuring cups, lacquer, lacquer thinner and lacquer retarder. 
  3. Choose the right day. It is not possible to lacquer a table when the temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This environment is too cold for the ingredients in lacquer to work properly.
  4. Protect from spills. Lay plastic sheeting down below the table to catch any drips, drops, or splashes. 
  5. Mix your lacquer. Carefully pour the lacquer of your choice into a clean plastic container. Add thinner or retarder, as desired. You should only mix as much lacquer as you plan to use in one session, as it starts to harden when exposed to air and will not last longer than a day or so. 
Man brushing a piece of wood with lacquer
  1. Apply the first coat. Dip the brush into the lacquer, loading the bottom one-third of the brush with finish. Use the rim of the container to remove excess lacquer. Start with the table’s legs and the underside of the table top, then move on to the top of the table. Use the brush to spread the lacquer onto the wood. Use slow, one-directional strokes, moving in the direction of the grain. Do not backbrush. If the brush starts to drag, flip it over to use the lacquer on the other side, then reload with more lacquer. 
  2. Wait for the first coat to dry. The lacquered surface should be dry to the touch and ready for re-coating within two to four hours. Lacquer is a dissolving finish, which means that each coat partially dissolves and melds with the one beneath it.
  3. Correct the first coat. Use a razor blade to slice off any large or obvious drips or bumps. Lightly sand the entire surface with 320-grit sanding paper to remove any imperfections. 
  4. Evaluate your results. If the lacquer was thick and difficult to apply, you may need to add lacquer thinner. The solvents in lacquer thinner will also speed the drying process, so make sure you balance the mixture out by adding lacquer retarder as well. 
  5. Apply and correct subsequent coats. Plan on at least three coats of brushable lacquer, though you can apply more than that to build a thicker, more durable finish. Waiting two to four hours between coats and sanding lightly before wiping with a tack cloth will go a long way towards ensuring a smooth lacquer finish. 

What Materials Do I Need to Lacquer a Table?

Ensure the success of your table lacquering project by gathering the right materials for the job. 

Sprayer or Brush

For the smoothest finish, lacquer should be applied in thin coats using a compressed-air powered sprayer. An airless sprayer or high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer is ideal for applying lacquer. They can be rented for between $40 and $120, and the rental period is usually two to three days. 

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You can also use brushable lacquer. It is quite difficult to get a smooth finish with brushable lacquers, so this method is not recommended for beginners. 

Lacquer

There are several different types of lacquer, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. 

For a kitchen or dining table that sees heavy use, a CAB-acrylic lacquer or catalyzed lacquer will provide the best resistance when it comes to scratches, scrapes, and spills. 

A decorative table in a medium-colored or dark wood may benefit from nitrocellulose lacquer, which tends to take on a reddish-amber hue as it ages. Nitrocellulose lacquer is not recommended for light woods for this reason. It gives less robust protection than catalyzed or acrylic lacquers. 

Freshly lacquered table

Traditionally made tables from Eastern Asia are usually finished with urushiol lacquer.

Catalyzed lacquer, which is also called conversion varnish, dries to an extra-hard and durable finish due to the presence of certain chemicals. 

Lacquer Thinner

Lacquer thinner is much more caustic than paint thinner, and usually contains several different solvents. It speeds dry time considerably.

Lacquer Retarder

In very hot temperatures, lacquer can dry too quickly. Adding lacquer retarder helps slow down the drying process, giving you more time to work with the lacquer before it dries out. 

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Measuring Cups

Some trial and error is usually required to find the right viscosity for your table lacquer product. Use the old measuring cups so that when you find a ratio that works, you can recreate it exactly. 

How to Prepare Finished Tables for Lacquer 

Lacquer can be applied over clean, dry, undamaged shellac. If the surface has been varnished or polyurethaned, you will need to remove the finish before lacquering. Natural wood should be sanded until very smooth. Use a tack cloth to remove any dust before starting to work. 

You can expect good results from lacquering over latex paint with a flat finish. The chemicals used to make latex paint shiny can sometimes interfere with the lacquering process, causing wrinkles. Lacquer will not adhere to oil-based paint. 

Unwaxed shellac effectively seals either latex or oil-based paint, and provides a grippable surface that easily accepts lacquer. If you’re concerned that your latex paint is too shiny or aren’t sure what kind of paint you used, laying down a coat of shellac is a smart choice. 

The same principles hold true for stains. You can apply lacquer over a water-based stain without issue, but oil-based stains should be sealed with a coat of shellac before lacquering.

Conclusion

Lacquer can be applied to a smooth, even surface using a brush or sprayer. Gather your materials beforehand to ensure success. Almost any wood surface can be prepared to accept lacquer as a protective coat.

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.