If you’re new to woodworking you can find yourself drawn into some interesting debates, one of which is should you use epoxy or lacquer to seal your projects? We think the question is more complex than this, as there are other options to seal wood. Fortunately, once you understand the differences choosing the right option for your project is child’s play.
Epoxy or Lacquer – what’s better for wood? Some argue that lacquer is the best finish for wood, but we disagree – epoxy is, in almost all cases, a better choice for finishing wood. Epoxy is stronger, less likely to be damaged, more waterproof, and requires less coats to finish the wood.
It’s also important to consider other finishing products though including varnish, polyurethane, and shellac. So, we weigh up the pros and cons of each of them before deciding on the best sealing product for wood, overall. Let’s take a look at each of the sealing products, how they work and their strengths and weaknesses before we put them to the test and make a choice as the best overall wood sealing agent.
Lacquer: The Old School Finishing Product
Lacquer is not a bad product. We need to state that upfront because our decision to opt for epoxy is not based on some perceived failures of lacquer but rather the strengths of epoxy resin.
There are some distinct advantages of working with lacquer:
- The drying time. Lacquer doesn’t cure and that means unlike epoxy, you can apply it, wait 15 minutes and it’s ready to rock. In turn, this reduces the chances of dust getting trapped in the protective layer that’s provided.
- The finish. There’s something lovely about the clarity and color of a lacquer finish. It has that traditional wood vibe and that’s probably because for a very long period of time almost all wood finishing was done with lacquer.
- The smoothness. Lacquer is very thin and if you use a sprayer to put it on with then you can get a wonderfully uniform coat on everything you work with – this leads to a super smooth finish.
- Durability. Lacquer is quite durable and while over long periods of time it may discolor slightly or get scratched, it’s quite good at protecting the wood it covers.
There are also some distinct disadvantages to working with lacquer:
- The flammability. Lacquer is flammable and most people like to spray their lacquer on (though we’d recommend using a brush for larger applications of lacquer) and that means you’re aerosolizing a flammable liquid. That’s a recipe for burning somewhere down.
- The fumes. You can’t safely work with lacquer without a respirator set up of some form and this is a far more serious risk than many people realize. You cannot use an HVLP system to remove lacquer fumes from a workshop unless you’ve already got a spray booth and a fan that is specifically designed not to explode in lacquer fumes. You may find that you have to work with it outside to get the ventilation you need.
- The visibility of coats. Spraying isn’t a hard process to get right but it can be tough to see whether you’ve applied an even coat which means investing in lighting for the work area (make sure this lighting does not give off any sparks).
- The difficulty level of brushing the finish. Let’s be clear about this – we think that there’s been a lot of talk about this being harder than it is. You need a high-quality brush and it’s a little more work than brushing some other finishing products, but it won’t kill you and lacquer can brush up well.
Epoxy: The Advanced Finishing Product
Epoxy, on the other hand, is a great finishing product and it’s our preference when compared to lacquer but it too has its strengths and weaknesses:
The advantages of epoxy are:
- The cost. Epoxy is certainly a cost-effective way to protect wood and it has a lower initial cost than many of the other options for wood finishing products.
- The finish. It may not be quite as pretty as lacquer, but epoxy is great for giving a solid non-reactive finish. If your wood is likely to come into contact with a lot of water or other chemicals, then you’re going to find that epoxy is very well-designed to handle this. You also get a very high level of sheen.
- The depth of finish. You can create a much deeper layer of finish with epoxy than lacquer. (Though you could theoretically keep applying additional costs of lacquer – your patience would run out before you achieved the kind of thickness you can with epoxy).
- Durability. Epoxy is going to last a very long time in most domestic and hobbyist applications – it is a very resilient finish.
- The strengthening properties. Epoxy sinks into the wood and bonds directly with the substrate to some depth. This allows the epoxy to harden the surface of the wood as well acting as a barrier between the world and the wood.
There are also some disadvantages to working with epoxy:
- The cure time. You can’t just pop some epoxy on wood and wait a few minutes. Typically, it’s going to take 12-24 hours for epoxy to cure and that means you can’t move on with any other part of the job until it’s done.
- The fumes. It’s not as bad as lacquer and you can work with epoxy without a respirator, but you still want to be in a well-ventilated place before you start working with epoxy, just in case.
- The possibility of bubbling. You may need to dry a surface thoroughly before using epoxy as too much dampness can cause bubbles in the epoxy preventing it from forming a strong layer.
- The layer limit. You can’t put epoxy on in too thick a layer as its thermosetting properties (it uses an exothermic – heat-releasing – reaction to cure) can interfere with the curing process and result in a weak finish.
- Oily woods. If you want to apply epoxy as the finish to an oily wood, you will need to add a polyurethane layer before doing so as epoxy bonds very poorly to oily wood.
Varnish: An Outdoor Option
You may be wondering why varnish isn’t one of our top options because it’s possibly the best-known finishing product for wood. Well, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of using varnish.
The positive sides of using varnish are:
- Enhances the natural look of the wood. In fact, we’d go so far as to say there’s nothing better for bringing out the qualities of the wood than varnish. It doesn’t stain and it looks great when it’s done.
- Very easy to apply. You don’t really need to work very hard to get varnish on. Grab a tin, grab a brush, and then take them to your wood. Of course, not every job is completely straightforward but that won’t be the varnish’s fault.
- Dries quickly. Varnish won’t need a day or two to cure. It will be dry in an hour or so after you’ve applied it. You don’t want any coating product to dry immediately as you put it on because then you wouldn’t be able to fix any errors without a lot of hard work.
- Forgiving during application. You can easily change any issues with varnish while you work with it, it’s one of the most forgiving coatings.
The negative sides are:
- Discolors dramatically over time. There’s no getting around this disadvantage it might bring out the wood’s natural color, to begin with, but varnish almost always ends up a bit yellow and unattractive in the long-term particularly if it’s exposed to natural light.
- Mixing requires real caution. It’s really to introduce bubbles when mixing varnish, never shake it, always stir it.
- Harder to clean up spills. Sometimes, at least. Water-based varnishes are easy to clean up (you can use water) but other varnishes need to be removed with lacquer thinner or mineral spirits.
- It can react badly to humidity, heat, or acid. Varnish doesn’t offer great levels of protection for the finished item when it comes to water, temperature or acidic substances.
- It can be very dull in the final appearance. This is only true of water-based varnishes, mind you but it can come up very dull.
Polyurethane: Expensive But Durable Finishing Products (300)
Polyurethane delivers a tough and flexible coating to wood. It’s not as strong as epoxy but there are some occasions when it might do a better job.
The upsides of using polyurethane are:
- Superb look. The clean transparent sheen of polyurethane finishes is the stuff of legends this is how to ensure that your project looks a million bucks.
- Great levels of protection. Polyurethane may be the most durable resin of them all and that means you won’t need to do as much maintenance when you choose polyurethane.
The downsides of choosing polyurethane are:
- You need to brush big jobs. Polyurethane really needs to go on in individual coats to build up to a finish, which means you shouldn’t spray it on to the wood.
- It takes an age to dry. Polyurethane doesn’t take quite as long as epoxy to cure but it’s certainly not as fast as some of the other finishing products, either.
- You need a very well ventilated area to work in. Polyurethane is usually very flammable in liquid form and you don’t want to burn down your work area.
- They are toxic. We’d recommend using a face mask or respirator and gloves when working with polyurethane.
- They’re expensive. Polyurethane products aren’t the cheapest and you may find that the initial cost is more than you want to shell out, though you may end up spending less on polyurethane over time thanks to its low maintenance appeal.
Shellac: The Problematic Finishing Product
Shellac is a natural product that is extracted from lac insects in Southeast Asia and it is one of the oldest products for finishing wood known to man. There are some real pros and cons to using shellac though:
The pros of using shellac for finishing wood include:
- Completely non-toxic. If you like your products safe for everyone to be around – shellac is the win.
- Completely natural. If you prefer natural products to synthesized ones then shellac is probably going to be the top pick.
- Decent durability. It’s not as hard as the other coatings but it’s not bad, either.
- Very easy to repair. Touching up problems with shellac is straightforward just spray or brush a little over the top.
- Easy to remove. Want to get rid of a shellac finish? Just use some alcohol and it will come right off.
The cons of using shellac for finishing wood include:
- Easy to scratch. It’s probably the least effective finishing product when it comes to preventing scratches. This can mean a lot of maintenance is required.
- Lots of coats. Most shellac applications require a lot of coats and that can add time to your project.
- Hates heat and water. Shellac isn’t particularly waterproof, and it blisters off easily when exposed to any real heat.
- Dries too quickly. You can’t fix mistakes easily with shellac because it dries almost as soon as it hits the surface.
- Very prone to blemishes. Almost any liquid product that comes into contact with shellac will stain it.
Given the number of drawbacks of working with shellac, most people will only use shellac to repair or update antique or previously shellacked furniture and as a primer beneath a coat of a different finishing product.
So, What’s The Best Sealing Choice For Wood?
Well, it depends on the project we’d recommend the following:
|Finishing Product||Project Type|
|Lacquer||– When you want a super glossy finish – as in many ultra-modern looking projects or those with a little Oriental influence|
|Epoxy||– Big projects where a hard finish is essential|
– When water resistance is important
– Tabletops and counter tops
|Varnish||– Outdoor projects including exterior doors and trim|
– Items used near the water (like deckchairs or docks)
– Kitchen furniture
|Polyurethane||– When you want an ultra-clear finish|
– Tabletops, floors, countertops
– When the end product may be exposed to chemicals that react with other finishing products
|Shellac||– Antiques, Period Pieces|
– As a high-quality primer for the staining process
– As a priming product when using polyurethane
– To repair de-waxed shellac surfaces
Nobody can decide what’s right for your projects except for you. You may not just need to consider the properties of a finishing product but also the costs. If you have a particular product already laying around – it can really help to use that, it at all possible, rather than going out to buy something new.
The table above and the pros and cons list are there to serve as a guide to help you make your decision rather than to be a prescriptive list of instructions. Part of the joy of woodworking is learning new techniques and making a few mistakes along the way.
If in doubt, try and find a test piece of wood to experiment on before you tackle the final project.
Epoxy Vs Lacquer: What’s better for wood? For us, that’s an easy choice to make. Epoxy is simply better for sealing wood. It benefits from being new technology designed, at least in part, for sealing as opposed to lacquer (or shellac, for that matter) which is what people used before there were labs to create perfectly tailored products.
That doesn’t mean that using lacquer is always a bad idea, mind you, after all, you might have some laying around the house already – in which case, you may decide to save your self a little money and use it anyway.
You should also consider polyurethane for projects when you are tempted to use epoxy resin. It can have a higher upfront cost but, in the long run, it can also last longer.