Shellac vs Lacquer: What’s The Difference?

Shellac vs lacquer? The most popular types of finishes used on furniture include Shellac, Lacquer, and Polyurethane. You may have come across them while purchasing furniture for your house in the past. While they all offer the same goal of making your furnishings appear stunning with an added shine, there are some distinctions between these finishes that you should be aware of before choosing them for your furniture.


The main distinctions between shellac and nitrocellulose lacquer are their ease of use and their capacity to obstruct issues in the wood. Both are evaporative exteriors, as they dry completely by solvent evaporation; there is no relation with catalyzed or varnish finishes.

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Both shellac and lacquer are more prone to being damaged by rough or sharp objects, solvents,  heat, acids, and alkalis as a result of their different chemical compositions. Shellac is significantly more susceptible to being harmed by alcohol spills than lacquer; nevertheless, keep in mind that alcoholic beverages are often very watered down, thus the risk is far less than a straight alcoholic spill.

Choosing the proper finish for your wood project is crucial to obtaining the results you desire, but knowing where to begin might be perplexing—until you understand a few fundamentals.

Let’s start by discussing what they have in common:

  • The wood is defended by these finishes.
  • All of them are used as a topcoat.
  • The smooth, clean finish of the wooden surface is provided by all three.

Despite the fact that these items have a lot in common, they are not to be used interchangeably. Take a look at the differences between Shellac, Lacquer, and Polyurethane Finishes and their similarities below.


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Natural, in its purest form, is a resin produced by female lac insects. It’s made from the dried secretions of the Lac Beetle. You may dissolve them in a solvent such as alcohol after they’ve been dry, collected, and processed. Then it has potential as a finish.

Shellac dries by the process of evaporation of the solvent. However, shellac has the benefit of being able to block off issues in wood, like silicone which causes fish eyes, various kinds of oils, the resin in wax, oily woods, and so on. Shellac is best utilized as a sealer coat if you have one of these issues, which is why it’s such an essential component in the process. Almost all refinishing professionals will agree that shellac is a great tool for silicone difficulties, but it offers virtually no benefit to wood finishing.

The term “varnish” is derived from the old English word varn, which referred to a sort of resin used in carpentry. The first coating of shellac on furniture was probably done in the late 1500s, and it coincided with the emergence of a distinct class of work known as a “Varnisher.”

Shellac was, prior to the 1960s, probably the most popular type of topcoat. Shellac is also appealing because it can be tinted or colored. It also maintains its hue well. Shellac is quite beautiful and provides a high-gloss finish that has a long-lasting effect.

It does, however, have downsides. If you set a hot cup or pan on a shellac finish, a white ring may appear around it. It’s also soluble in alcohol. As a result, if you dropped an alcoholic beverage on it, the finish will begin to dissolve. We don’t recommend using shellac for tabletop surfaces due to these factors.


For almost 7000 years, lacquer has been used. Chinese Lacquer-Ware dating from the Neolithic Period has been discovered. It was originally produced from the tree of Vernicifluum Toxicodendron tree. Today, it’s commonly known as the Chinese lacquer tree, after its species name.

Thinners are also used to produce a better user experience with lacquer than is provided by shellac. Because of the various thinners, lacquer is more forgiving than shellac. Finishers use different solvent mixtures (usually about six, except in jurisdictions where VOC restrictions apply) to evaporate at various speeds, allowing them to regulate the drying rate of the finish and avoid blushing and runs and sags. Shellac can also be applied successfully in cold conditions with the appropriate lacquer thinner. Shellac’s drying rate is largely unaffected by the solvent used.

In the 1920s, modern lacquers were developed, and they are now created entirely chemically. It’s quite long-lasting and one of the toughest topcoats available. It’s stronger and more lasting than shellac or varnish. (Debatable as to whether or not it’s harder and more durable than polyurethane). The higher the gloss, the more durable and scratch-resistant a paint is. With a high gloss finish, you can utilize lacquer to make furniture or other items that may endure several years of usage. Lacquer is resistant to most household liquids such as alcohol and other chemicals.

There are two types of lacquer. Those that dry with solvent evaporation (like those from Deft, Behlen, or Rust-Oleum). And those that cure via a chemical reaction. These are called catalyzed lacquers. They’re typically found in a paint store specializing in unique paints and have a short shelf life.

Lacquers come in a variety of finishes, from matte to high gloss. It has the quickest drying time of any topcoat and can be completed in one afternoon with three to four applications.

Lacquer is the most forgiving of all topcoats when it comes to sanding and patching. A run is simple to remove. Or, in order to repair a scuff or a spot that wasn’t adequately coated, you may simply sand away the old coat and apply a new one. It’s simple since the application of another coat partially re-dissolves the preceding coating, allowing them to adhere well and blend together seamlessly.

The purest of all topcoats is lacquer. When you want the natural beauty of the wood to come through, it is ideal. Lacquer, on the other hand, may remove some of the depth and 3D quality from certain species when used with amber-toned polyurethane color warmth.

Spraying is the most effective technique to utilize lacquer. This may be performed with a sprayer. Alternatively, aerosol cans can be used. Lacquer may also be brushed on. Note: brushing lacquer sprays works well! Spray lacquer, on the other hand, dries too quickly to be brushed onto anything.

However, there are disadvantages to using lacquer. Lacquer may fade with time. Because lacquer has a high VOC content, it is hazardous to use without a respirator that includes an organic vapor cartridge. You won’t be protected against the vapors of lacquer if you don’t wear a dust mask.

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