Lacquer vs Stain

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What are lacquer and stain, how are they the same, and how are they different? When should I use lacquer, and when is stain a better choice? What’s the major differentiating factor between the two — which is better? 

Keep reading to find out.

What Is Lacquer?

The technical definition of lacquer is: a non-curing finish formulated with a resin and a solvent, and which dries through evaporation of the solvent. It can be used to finish wood and coat plastic. It is often used in the formulation of automotive paint

Commercially, lacquer is commonly understood to refer to synthetic finishes that contain resin and various polymers and solvents. For the purposes of this article we’ll be referring to the commercial product known as lacquer rather than the technical definition. 

There are several different kinds of lacquer, sorted by the kind of resin used. The most common resins used to make lacquer are nitrocellulose, CAB, urushiol, and acrylic. 

When chemical additives are added that increase the hardness of lacquer, this product is called ‘catalyzed lacquer’. Pre-catalyzed lacquer comes in two parts that are combined just before application. Post-catalyzed lacquer has already been mixed. As a consequence, the shelf-life of post-cat lacquer is shorter than that of pre-cat lacquer. 

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Man brushing lacquer on a piece of wood

Lacquer Characteristics

Lacquer is clear by default, but pigments can be added to create a vibrant opaque surface with incredibly high shine. 

Lacquer hardens through the evaporation of solvents, or in the case of catalyzed lacquers, through both evaporative and chemical means.

A process called ‘cross-linking’ brings the lacquer molecules closer together as the mixture is exposed to oxygen, resulting in a durable and smooth coating. 

Lacquer Dry Time

Lacquer dries very quickly, which can make it difficult to achieve the even application necessary to produce a hard and shiny finish.

Drying time is also highly affected by the weather or environmental conditions. Lacquer thinner is often necessary to achieve the appropriate viscosity for a clean application, which further speeds dry time. 

For this reason, lacquer retarders are often added to allow enough time to work with the lacquer before it sets. 

Laquer Application

Lacquer is applied in very thin coats, usually with a paint sprayer powered by compressed air. High-quality machines are necessary to ensure perfect results, and renting them can be out of the budget of many non-professionals.

While brush-on lacquers exist, they are much more difficult to work with because the finish dries so fast. Rattle-can lacquers are ideal for smaller projects. 

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Protecting wood with lacquer can be a difficult and painstaking process, as each layer adheres to the one underneath it. Unlike other finishes like varnish, it does not partially dissolve and blend with the top of the previous layer. 

Sanding is necessary between coats to ensure a perfectly smooth surface, adding to the labor involved. Lacquer’s high reflectivity means that any irregularities under the surface of the finish will stick out like a sore thumb. 

What Is Stain?

Wood stain is a liquid applied to wood, usually with a brush. The liquid, which is called the ‘vehicle’, contains pigments or dyes. The vehicle and pigments or dyes penetrate the wood and change its appearance by adding color. 

Chemically, stain can either be a solution or a suspension. The vehicle can be either oil or a mix of acrylic resin, water and solvent. Larger pigment particles do not fully dissolve into the vehicle but are instead suspended within it. If left to settle, the suspension will separate with the pigment at the bottom of the container. 

All stains should be thoroughly remixed with a stir stick upon opening the container, immediately before transferring to another container, and just before application. This ensures an even distribution of pigment throughout the vehicle. 

Most stains contain both pigments and dyes to ensure they provide similar results across a range of wood. Coarse or open-grained woods easily absorb either dye or pigment, while the pigment particles are too large to penetrate finer-grained woods.

For this reason, a binder is often added to stains to help the pigment particles adhere to the surface of the wood. 

Man wearing blue gloves applying stain on wood
  • If you want a transparent or semi-transparent coloring that does not obscure the character of the wood grain, you’re looking for a dye-only stain, or one with minimal pigmentation.
  • For a more opaque finish, choose a pigment-heavy stain. These are usually marketed as ‘solid’ or ‘semi-solid’ stains. 

You can apply stain with a brush or rag, although it is faster to spray the stain on with a spray gun. Stains are used to alter the aesthetics of the wood rather than to offer protection.

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However, pigments can help block UV rays, protecting the wood from fading under exposure to the sun. A clear, film-forming finish such as polyurethane is often used as a top coat to protect stained wood. 

Read more about the differences in stain and danish oil, a popular wood finishing oil.

Lacquer vs Stain

Lacquer and stain can usually be found in the same section of the hardware store – sometimes even on the same shelf. They have many foundational similarities, but there are important differences as well. 

Similarities

Stain and lacquer are similarly viscous liquids, easily accept colorants, and are used to treat wood. 

Use

Both stain and lacquer are applied to wood with the goal of providing protection and enhancing the appearance. 

Colorability 

While clear lacquer is available, this kind of finish easily accepts pigments or dyes, and can result in the most vibrant colors of any wood finish. Stain is purpose-built to deliver color to wood. 

Viscosity

Stain and lacquer are both viscous liquids suitable for application with a brush. When thinned, either product can be sprayed on. 

Lacquer can be thinned with mineral spirits to shorten the dry time, often when applying in cold weather.

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Stain can be thinned to extend the product across more of the wood piece. This will result in less stain being applied, which is desirable if you want more of the wood grain to show through.

Differences

The application process and mechanism of action for these two finishes are very different, despite their other similarities. 

Penetrating vs Film-forming

Stain penetrates below the surface of the wood, soaking into the pores.

Similar to polyurethane, lacquer adheres to the outer surface of the wood, forming an inflexible, impermeable film. 

Ease of Application

Stain application is DIY-friendly, especially thicker gel stains that do not drip as much as more watery versions. You can easily apply stain with a brush or cloth.

There are many variables that go into applying lacquer properly, with little room for error. The best way to apply lacquer is to spray it. Because it dries so fast, you have to work quickly, and there isn’t much time to correct any mistakes.

For this reason, it can often be frustrating for amateurs to apply lacquer. 

Major Differentiating Factor

Lacquer is a type of wood finishing product, whereas stain is merely a coloring product. Stain provides no protection to the wood piece, whereas lacquer does.

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Man brushing lacquer on a piece of wood

In the simplest of forms, you would apply lacquer over top of stain on a wood piece.

As such, the biggest difference between these two products is the level of protection they provide. 

As mentioned above, lacquer forms a barrier on top of wood, protecting the wood underneath from decay, fungus, dents, scuffs, and scrapes. The impermeable barrier of lacquer repels moisture and blocks mold and mildew from growing inside the wood. 

Stain forms no such barrier, and as such does not offer the same protection. However, the pigments in stains can offer protection against UV-related fading. Tinted lacquer can also offer UV-blocking protection. Clear lacquers do not.  

When to Use Lacquer

Use lacquer to finish the surface of wood, achieve a super high-gloss finish, and provide protection from moisture and impact damage. 

Lacquer is commonly applied to MDF in the manufacture of kitchen and bathroom cabinets. It’s super smooth and shiny surface is extremely wipeable and easy to keep clean, while offering robust protection against moisture damage. 

If you’re looking for a more robust and hearty finish, you might want to opt for varnish over lacquer.

Clear lacquer is used to feature the natural color and texture of wood, while also offering some protection. 

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When to Use Stain

Use stain to change the color of wood.

If you plan to keep the wood piece inside and not use it heavily, then you might not need to add a finish like lacquer after applying stain.

Otherwise, top the stain with a film-forming finish to use it on anything else. When you want to feature the grain of the wood, choose dye-heavy stains labeled ‘transparent’ or ‘semi-transparents’. 

For richer, more intense color at the cost of some grain definition, choose ‘semi-solid’ or ‘solid’ stains, which tend to have more pigments than dyes. 

For wood that must be stained vertically, recently developed gel stains are much more viscous than liquid versions, which helps to combat dripping and pooling. 

Which Is Better, Lacquer or Stain?

Lacquer is better than stain at protecting wood. Stain is easier to apply than lacquer.

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.