Differences Between Varnish, Lacquer, Shellac & Polyurethane Wood Finishes in Bronxville, NY

Many of us are familiar with paint. Paint is opaque and consists of pigments, a binder and solvents. The solvent evaporates and leaves behind the hardened binder and pigment. It can be flat, glossy or in between. Paint based on polymers is referred to as latex paints in the trade. Oil based paints are resins and are called alkyds or oil-based paints. Paints are generally tough, weather and wear resistant; and by their very nature they cover what they are applied to. But what are the paint’s cousins like lacquers, varnishes and shellac?

Shellac on Wood

We depend to a large degree on manmade synthetics. Plastics, fibers and paints number among these synthetics. But shellac, used over wood is a natural finish. There is this bug, called the lac bug. Secretions from the lac bug are mixed with a solvent, usually alcohol. This provides a safe and durable finish when dried. Shellac provides a warm tone to wood, being light amber in color. The downside is that it is heat sensitive. It is best not to use it on a table top, as hot cups and plates will leave a white ring. But for other furniture it is ideal.

Polyurethane Finish

The synthetic in this group of finishes is polyurethane or essentially plastic-in-a-can. Water or oil-based, it is clear and forms a protective surface that can be either glossy or satin. As with most finishes the water based version is probably the most popular. Easy cleanup and thinning by just adding water and polyurethane dries fast and clear, but does not hold up under heat, similar to shellac. Polycrylic is a trade name for a fortified protective finish and is basically water-based oil-modified polyurethane and this stuff is tough, actually used on floors. The oil-based polyurethane is a bit more durable.


Varnish is the generic term referring to a “top coat”. Containing a high proportion of solids it is very durable. Spar varnish is an outdoor product is used on doors over the raw wood, and furniture that is near water and is a clear finish that provides ultraviolet protection as well. Stains require a clear overcoat, as they are a pigment with no protective qualities and need a clear coat to provide protection. Varnish or polyurethane can be used.

Lacquer Spray

Lacquer is derived from dissolving natural resins and cellulose derivatives in a volatile (easily evaporated) solvent. They work by solvent evaporation and leave behind a tough glossy finish. Originally the sap from a related group of trees was used, but modern lacquers are polymers dissolved in VOCs or volatile organic compounds. Solvent based lacquers are made from nitrocellulose, a nitration of cotton. They were a popular finish for cars for over 30 years. Lacquer is thinned and sprayed over the surface, not brushed or rolled. Lacquers are also made using Acrylic resin, a synthetic polymer. This stuff is transparent thermoplastic and also found in enamel paints. It is naturally glossy and shinny not needing buffing. The process included a primer, a color coat followed by a clear top coat. It is not used in the automotive industry being supplanted by tougher and more weather resistant coatings. Water based lacquers were introduced because of the health risks and environmental impact involved in VOC dependent formulations. Lacquers are popular finished on wood, especially following Asian designed and patterned furniture.

Cabinet Painting, Staining, Refinishing & More in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Yonkers, Tarrytown, Bronxville & White Plains New York

So for wood furniture and cabinets, you have numerous paint finishes that can be tailored to your project from paint to polish. Contact New York Painting Services for all your painting and staining needs!

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