What Type of Finish Does Your Furniture Have: Lacquer, Shellac, or Varnish?

Curious about what type of finish is on a particular piece of furniture you bought or inherited? Wish you could talk intelligently to your furniture repairman about the piece you have brought to his shop? Then this article is for you.

Furniture is expensive so who doesn’t get upset when they notice water stain or a scratch on their dining room table, kitchen chair, or bedroom armoire? And what about those inherited furniture pieces? Nobody wants to have to hide his or her family heirlooms away in the attic because of damage to the finish. Nevertheless before you try to remove the damage, read on.

Before you begin trying to repair any piece of furniture’s surface, or consider taking a piece to a shop for repair, you should know what type of finish technique has been used. It could save you from choosing the wrong solvents, from being misinformed by antique dealers and even keep you from believing overblown repair estimates from untrustworthy repair shops.

So, how do you determine finish?

Well, you could trust what the dealer told you when you purchased the piece. After all, they’re in the furniture business, right? They must know what they’re talking about, right? For heirloom pieces, you could ask your great aunt Sarah what she thinks it is or what she recalls her mother telling her about the piece when she was a child.

Or, perhaps you could use a more scientific approach. We recommend a more precise method; otherwise, after causing irreparable damage to your piece, you may find yourself arguing with your local antique dealer (and never again getting a “good deal”) or being disowned by your great aunt Sarah.

To determine what type of finish is on your piece, all you have to do is find out which solvent will dissolve it. It’s chemistry. Each type works on a different type of finish.

How do you determine if you are dealing with a varnish finish? The quick answer is that no solvent will dissolve varnish. Various solvents can destroy it but it cannot be dissolved. For example, paint remover and lacquer thinner will both destroy it but not remove it. To test, put a bit of lacquer thinner or paint remover on a hidden piece of the surface and watch what happens. If it’s varnish it will become crinkled and cracked. But when you try and brush or wipe it off, it will not come off. To fix the damage on a varnished piece will take a great deal of time. Your choices are sanding down the piece and refinishing or using a specialty solvent and refinishing the piece.

You can test for a lacquer finish by applying lacquer thinner to a hidden part of the piece. Take a clean cloth, wrap it around the tip of your finger, dip it into the thinner, and rub it on. If the surface begins to smooth out underneath your finger, then the finish is made of lacquer. How does it work? Well the thinner regenerates the lacquer. Essentially it re-liquefies it. After a few minutes the thinner will evaporate leaving a smoother surface behind.

To test for shellac, use denatured alcohol or wood alcohol. Use the same technique used to test for lacquer. Wrap a finger tip in a clean cloth, dip it into the alcohol and begin to rub the surface. If it begins to re-dissolve, then you are dealing with lacquer. Sometimes lacquer will dissolve using paint thinner. However, if it does, and you don’t also test using denatured alcohol, you will not know if you are dealing with shellac or lacquer, something you will need to know to move forward with your repairs.

That’s it. Now you know how your particular piece has been finished. Now that you have educated yourself on finishes, you can be shop for bargains and new pieces with more confidence.

Good luck!

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