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Conversion Varnish VS Lacquer : Fully Explained

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One of the essential choices you will have to make when refinishing a piece of wood furniture is using lacquer or conversion varnish. Conversion varnish and lacquer used for finishing wood furniture and other wood products.

Both finishes produce durable surfaces that resist moisture, dust, solvents, and oils. This is why it would be beneficial for you to have some knowledge concerning conversion varnish vs lacquer, which would be helpful to you in future projects. 

Both are compatible with most paints and stains. However, they do have some differences. This article will discuss these products’ differences, advantages, and disadvantages, and their best uses. 

What is Conversion Varnish & How Does It Work?

What is Conversion Varnish & How Does It Work

Conversion varnish also called catalyzed conversion varnish or catalyzed varnish, is based on a high-quality two-part post-catalyzed application procedure.

Conversion varnish takes fewer coats for a proper build and satisfactory solid film density & those two parts must have to mix in the correct ratio.

It is a chemical cure and a fast-drying finish that consists of 40-60% solids. The two chemicals are:

  1. The Finish &
  2. Acid Catalyst.

It also consists of an alkyd resin and a curing agent. The resin provides the film build, hardness, and gloss level to conversion varnish.

The catalysts used for post-curing are moisture-reactive resins that crosslink or harden properly when exposed to moisture in the air.

What is Lacquer & How Does it Work?

What is Lacquer & How Does it Work

Lacquer is a type of finish used for wood furniture, wood joint expansion, and other wood products. It is a film-forming finish made up of nitro-cellulose finish, solvents, and plasticizers.

The solvents in this finish are what make it a fast-drying finish. It dries by solvent evaporation. The plasticizers are what give the pre-catalyzed varnish its flexibility and toughness.

This type of finish is then sprayed with a spray gun onto the surface of the wood and dried with a heat gun or infrared lamp.

Conversion Varnish VS Lacquer – Key Differences

Conversion Varnish VS Lacquer - Key Differences

Conversion Varnish is a water-based finish applied by brushing it on, then wiping off the excess with a lint-free cloth.

Lacquer is also a water-based finish, but unlike conversion varnish, it can be sprayed on with a spray gun as well as brushed or wiped on.

Both conversion varnishes and traditional lacquers are finishes used to produce durable coatings surfaces that resist liquids, dust, solvents, and oils.

Both of them are compatible with most paints and stains. But they have some differences, such as:


Conversion Varnish is a brush-on durable finish that must be thinned unless it’s being spray applied. Lacquer is a spray-on wood finish and does not require thinning.

Dry Time

Conversion varnish dries much faster than traditional lacquer, which is why it can be recoated in just a matter of minutes. Lacquer takes several hours to dry.

Brush Marks

When using conversion varnish, brush marks can be removed using a rag and mineral spirits or naphtha. Brush marks can’t be removed from lacquer once it has dried.

Only sanding over those areas will remove them. Most lacquers are formulated to be self-leveling, which will make the brush marks disappear.


Conversion varnish doesn’t have a glossy appearance like traditional lacquer does. Only using a clear topcoat over it will produce this type of look. Lacquer has an immediate shiny appearance when it dries.


If there’s a lot of dust in the air, the conversion varnish will begin to dry and cure faster than it would at standard conditions. This could cause dust marks or other defects to appear on your work if you don’t take precautions.


Conversion pre-catalyzed varnish has more excellent durability than lacquer, particularly regarding resistance to scratches. Lacquer can be scratched more easily than conversion varnish.


Conversion varnish can be cleaned up after application with soap and water, but acetone must be used to clean up lacquer.

Film Strength

Conversion varnish will dry harder and thicker than lacquer, which is why it’s best to use a primer when applying conversion varnish over a previously painted surface.

Lacquer might peel if you were to apply it over a previously painted surface without first priming the area.

In addition, there are numerous advantages and disadvantages to using Conversion Varnishes and traditional Lacquers. 

Advantages of Catalyzed Conversion Varnish

Advantages of Catalyzed Conversion Varnish

Some advantages of using conversion varnish over lacquer include:

  1. Conversion varnishes are water-based, making them easily removable with soap and water.
  2. Conversion varnishes dry faster than lacquer, so you can recoat a surface quickly after finishing a project or a coat of varnish.
  3. One of the most popular benefits of conversion varnish is that there are no brush marks to deal with.
  4. Dry time for conversion varnish is much shorter than lacquer.
  5. The dry film thickness from conversion varnishes is thicker and more complex than lacquer. This provides more excellent protection and a better appearance.
  6. Conversion varnishes, such as oil-based ones, offer more gloss than lacquer does. This makes for a shinier look on the finished project.
  7. Most conversion varnish has a lower VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) value than lacquer which has a high VOC content.
  8. Conversion varnish is a less toxic product than lacquer, so it’s much safer to use for an indoor project without the need to use a mask or gloves.

Disadvantages of Catalyzed Conversion Varnish

Conversion varnish has some disadvantages, such as:

  1. Being water-based, conversion varnish is not for use over an area exposed to moisture or direct rainfall. You’ll need to apply a sealer over the top first.
  2. Some people determine that conversion varnish is more challenging to apply than lacquer.
  3. You can’t use a high-speed buffer with conversion varnish without the risk of burning the surface.
  4. Conversion varnishes are not great for exterior jobs since they aren’t meant to directly expose elements such as rain, snow, and sun. Lacquer is better at withstanding these types of conditions.
  5. It’s difficult to apply a clear coat with a conversion varnish, which means you’ll need to use another type of product for this step.
  6. Adhesion issues can occur if the surface already has paint or other materials on it before applying the conversion varnish.

Advantages of Traditional Lacquer

Advantages of Traditional Lacquer

Some advantages of traditional lacquer over conversion varnish include:

  1. Lacquer is available in both solvent and water-based formulas so that it can be used on various surfaces such as cabinet doors, countertops.
  2. It cures quickly, which means you can apply additional fewer coats for a high-gloss more durable finish.
  3. Lacquer has a high-gloss finish when it dries, making it great for showpieces or other projects that need to look their best.
  4. It is available in a wide range of colors, so you can find the perfect one to match your project’s theme or style.
  5. This is easy to use and doesn’t require any special or knowledge to apply.
  6. It can be sprayed onto a surface, which is an easy way to apply it without the mess of brushes and rollers.

Disadvantages of Traditional Lacquer

This product has some disadvantages, such As:

  1. You can’t use a high-speed buffer with post catalyzed lacquer because it will burn the surface.
  2. They may be too glossy for some projects, so you’ll need to sand them down before finishing the steps. This can lead to more time and effort spent on the project.
  3. You must follow all safety guidelines while using this product because of its toxic nature. This means wearing gloves, masks, and glasses at all times when using this product.
  4. It can be more expensive than conversion varnish.
  5. For indoor projects, you can’t apply it over surfaces that will be exposed to moisture or direct rainfall without the danger of water damage to your project. You’ll need to use a sealer first over these areas.

When Should You Use One Over The Other?

When Should You Use One Over The Other

The type of surface you are painting will determine whether you should use conversion varnish or lacquer.

Lacquer is for surfaces that need high-gloss shine, such as wood furniture, wood joint expansion, woodwork, cabinet doors, countertops, and glassware.

Catalyzed conversion varnish can be used on projects where water protection isn’t necessary. It offers nearly the same gloss level without exterior durability, including picture frames, bookshelves, and window trim.

However, suppose your project involves heavy moisture contact like artwork hung outdoors in a damp environment next to a pool or patio table set under an umbrella.

In that case, you will need to use either an alkyd oil-based conversion varnish or pre-catalyzed lacquer instead.

Tips for choosing between Conversion Varnish and Lacquer

When deciding between conversion varnish and lacquer, there are a few factors to consider:

  • The type of surface you are painting,
  • How much moisture your project will be exposed to,
  • The finish you want,
  • The time you have,
  • Your budget,
  • Your project’s location, and
  • The level of durability you need.


The following are some frequently asked questions: 

01. Which is Better: Conversion Varnishes or Lacquer?

Many people prefer working with varnish instead of lacquer because it is more forgiving if you make mistakes.

Varnish doesn’t have to be sanded, so you can just reapply new layers over the problem area without concern for losing any of the previous coats.

02. Which Type of Paint Should You Use for a Particular Project?

This depends on the surface you are painting, the items you want to coat, and how much moisture they will be exposed to.

03. Is It Possible to Use Both Products Together On One Project?

Yes, but it isn’t the best idea. If you want to apply both finishes on a single project, make sure they dry for a day in between coats.

04. What is Paint Grade Cabinet Doors?

Paint-grade cabinet doors are cabinet finished with paint typically on flat surfaces and a high gloss or clear finish for the panels.

The Verdict

When deciding between conversion varnish vs lacquer, consider your various options, time constraints, and the type of project you’re doing before making a decision.

This will ensure that your project is completed on time and with excellent results every time. We hope this article has helped you.

2 thoughts on “Conversion Varnish VS Lacquer : Fully Explained”

  1. We recently had our kitchen cabinets, drawers, etc re-finished by the conversion varnish process. Shortly after we started experiencing considerable chipping and peeling…What would cause this

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