Lacquer: The Etymology, Types, and Common Additives Explained

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 19, 2022
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Lacquer is a material made from resin, which is derived from the secretion of a tree or insect. It’s used to create a shiny finish on a variety of surfaces. It’s a versatile material that can be used to protect and decorate almost anything from musical instruments to furniture to cars.

Let’s look at the history and uses of this unique substance.

What is lacquer

Lacquer- The Ultimate Guide

Lacquer is a type of material that is commonly used as a finish or coating for wood, metal, and other surfaces. It is highly fast-drying and can produce a shiny and smooth surface when applied properly. The key purpose of lacquer is to protect the surface it covers, leaving a solid and durable layer that can last for years.

The History of Lacquer

Lacquer has been in use since ancient times, with production dating back to as early as 5000 BCE. The production of lacquer consists of extracting resin from trees and adding waxes and other compounds to create a proper form. In ancient times, the lacquer was commonly used to create colourful and shiny finishes on furniture and other decorative items.

The Different Types of Lacquer

There are different types of lacquer, each with its own unique properties and uses. Some of the most popular types of lacquer include:

  • Nitrocellulose lacquer: This is the most common type of lacquer used in modern times. It is known for its fast-drying time and easy application.
  • Water-based lacquer: This type of lacquer is low in VOCs and is right for those who want to find a more eco-friendly option.
  • Pre-catalyzed lacquer: This type of lacquer requires a dedicated manufacturer to carry the product, and it is known for its high durability and smooth finish.
  • Post-catalyzed lacquer: This type of lacquer is similar to pre-catalyzed lacquer but requires an additional step to remove the catalyst before use.
  • UV-cured lacquer: This type of lacquer is super fast-drying and maintains a high gloss finish.

The Pros and Cons of Using Lacquer

Like any product, lacquer has its pros and cons. Here are some of the key points to consider:


  • Provides a smooth and shiny finish
  • Protects the surface it covers
  • Dries quickly
  • Can be used on a variety of surfaces


  • Requires proper ventilation and safety equipment during application
  • Can cause health issues if not used properly
  • May require multiple coats for proper coverage
  • Can be difficult to remove once applied

How to Apply Lacquer

Applying lacquer requires some work and attention to detail. Here are some key steps to follow:

  • Sand the surface to be covered with a fine-grit sandpaper to create a smooth surface.
  • Apply the lacquer in thin coats, allowing each coat to dry completely before adding another.
  • Depending on the type of lacquer used, it may require sanding between coats to create a smooth finish.
  • Once the final coat is applied, allow the lacquer to dry completely before using the surface.

Common Uses of Lacquer

Lacquer is commonly used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Creating a shiny finish on furniture and other decorative items
  • Protecting musical instruments, such as maple and ash, from damage
  • Adding a layer of protection to metal surfaces to prevent rust and other damage

The Differences Between Lacquer and Other Finishes

While lacquer is a popular type of finish, it is not the only option available. Here are some key differences between lacquer and other finishes:

  • Lacquer dries faster than other finishes, such as varnish and shellac.
  • Lacquer is more durable than other finishes and can withstand more wear and tear.
  • Lacquer is associated with a higher level of VOCs, which can cause health issues if not used properly.

The Fascinating Etymology of Lacquer

The word “lacquer” has a rich and complex history, with its meaning and material evolving over time. The ancient alternative to modern lacquer was a natural resinous material derived from the secretions of the lac insect. The word “lacquer” is derived from the Persian word “lak” and the Hindi word “lākh”, both of which mean “one hundred thousand”. This is because it takes a certain number of insects to produce a small amount of the resinous material.

The Translation of Lacquer

The word “lacquer” has been translated into many languages over the centuries, including Latin, French, Portuguese, Arabic, and Sanskrit. In Latin, the word for lacquer is “laca”, while in French it is “laque”. In Portuguese, it is “lacca”, while in Arabic it is “lakk”. In Sanskrit, the word for lacquer is “lākshā”, which is derived from the verb “laksha”, meaning “to mark or coat”.

The Enduring Popularity of Lacquer

Despite the many translations and variations of the word “lacquer”, the material itself has remained a constant throughout history. Its enduring popularity is a testament to its versatility and durability, as well as its ability to enhance the beauty of any surface it is applied to. Whether used in ancient times or modern manufacturing, lacquer continues to be a highly prized and sought-after material.

5 Types of Lacquer and Their Unique Finishes

1. Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer is one of the most popular and commonly used types of lacquer among craftsmen and manufacturers. It is a traditional lacquer that has been used for musical instruments for a long time. The key compounds that cause the drying of nitrocellulose lacquer are active solvents that evaporate quickly. This type of lacquer is highly sensitive to certain chemicals and can be easily damaged. The most common sheen names for nitrocellulose lacquer from least shiny to most shiny are: flat, matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.

2. Water-Based Lacquer

Water-based lacquer is a newer type of lacquer that is becoming increasingly popular due to its environmentally friendly properties. It is similar to nitrocellulose lacquer in terms of its drying process, but it contains water instead of solvents. Water-based lacquer is a great choice for those who are sensitive to certain chemicals and want a quick drying time. The sheen levels for water-based lacquer are fairly standard and include flat, matte, satin, and gloss.

3. Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer

Pre-catalyzed lacquer is a type of lacquer that is commonly found in professional woodworking shops. It is a two-part product that begins to cure as soon as the two parts are mixed together. This type of lacquer is meant to carry a solid level of protection and is a good choice for those who want a superior finish. Pre-catalyzed lacquer is available in different sheen levels, including flat, satin, and gloss.

4. Acrylic Lacquer

Acrylic lacquer is a unique type of lacquer that offers a smooth and easy to clean finish. It is commonly used on metal and is a great choice for those who want a nice, clean finish. Acrylic lacquer allows for a variety of effects to be added to the finish, including color and texture. The sheen levels for acrylic lacquer include flat, matte, satin, and gloss.

5. Conversion Varnish Lacquer

Conversion varnish lacquer is a type of lacquer that is located between traditional lacquer and modern polyurethane. It is a two-part compound that is meant to protect and prevent damage to the wood. Conversion varnish lacquer is highly durable and is a great choice for those who want a long-lasting finish. The sheen levels for this type of lacquer include matte, satin, and gloss.

What’s in the Mix: The Nitty-Gritty of Common Lacquer Solvents & Additives

Lacquer is a popular wood finish that has been used for centuries. It is a versatile and durable finish that can be used on a variety of surfaces, from furniture to musical instruments. However, the process of creating lacquer involves the use of solvents and additives that can be harmful to human health. Here are some of the most common solvents found in lacquer:

  • Toluene: This solvent is commonly used in lacquer because it evaporates quickly and leaves a smooth finish. However, it is also highly toxic and can cause headaches, dizziness, and even unconsciousness if inhaled in large quantities.
  • Xylenes: These solvents are similar to toluene and are often used in combination with it. They are also highly toxic and can cause respiratory problems, headaches, and dizziness.
  • Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK): This solvent is commonly used in industrial lacquers because it is highly effective at dissolving resins and other materials. However, it is also highly flammable and can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems if inhaled.
  • Methyl Isobutyl Ketone (MIBK): This solvent is similar to MEK and is often used in combination with it. It is also highly flammable and can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems.
  • Formaldehyde: This additive is used in some types of lacquer to help it dry faster. However, it is also a known carcinogen and can cause respiratory problems if inhaled.
  • Methanol: This solvent is commonly used in lacquer because it evaporates quickly and leaves a smooth finish. However, it is also highly toxic and can cause blindness, liver damage, and even death if ingested.

The Additives Used in Lacquer

In addition to solvents, lacquer also contains a variety of additives that help to improve its performance and appearance. Here are some of the most common additives found in lacquer:

  • Plasticizers: These additives help to make the lacquer more flexible and resistant to cracking and peeling.
  • UV Stabilizers: These additives help to protect the lacquer from the damaging effects of sunlight and other forms of UV radiation.
  • Driers: These additives help to speed up the drying process and improve the hardness and durability of the finish.
  • Pigments: These additives are used to give the lacquer its color and can be made from a variety of natural and synthetic materials.
  • Resins: These additives help to bind the other ingredients together and improve the adhesion and durability of the finish.

Is Lacquer the Right Wood Finish for You?

  • Lacquer is a versatile finish that can be used on a variety of wood types, from hardwood to cypress.
  • Applying lacquer is easy and requires little equipment. You can apply it with a brush or spray it on.
  • Lacquer dries quickly, which means you can apply multiple coats in a short amount of time.
  • The fast drying time also means you can walk on the finished floor within hours after applying it.
  • Lacquer is a low-cost option compared to other finishes, such as oil-based finishes.
  • Lacquer is widely available and comes in thousands of options, depending on the type of wood and the desired finish.
  • Lacquer creates a tough and durable finish that can last for years.

Choosing the Best Finish for Your Wood

  • Consider the type of wood you are finishing and the desired look you want to achieve.
  • Check the moisture content of the wood before applying any finish to prevent issues down the line.
  • Test different finishes on a small area of the wood to make sure you are happy with the result.
  • Depending on the wood and the finish, you may need to apply multiple coats to achieve the desired look and durability.
  • Always let the finish fully dry before applying additional coats or walking on the finished floor.
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each finish option before making a final decision.


So, that’s lacquer for you- a material used to coat surfaces to protect and decorate them. Lacquer has been used for centuries and has a rich history dating back to ancient times. 

You should now know the differences between lacquer and varnish, and why lacquer is a better choice for a finish. So, go ahead and give it a try!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.