Homeownership is probably the single biggest investment that most of us will make in our lifetime. But, there's also another comparable expenditure that may sometimes even exceed the cost of a home, and that's the acquisition of furniture and its maintenance so that it lasts a lifetime; and hopefully be worth passing on to the next generation. Various protective finishes help us to do just that.
But, for most homeowners, whether they're a "do-it-yourselfer" or a retail customer, there's great confusion as to what kind of finish is best to use or purchase. In fact, there may be more confusion and less knowledge of this subject than even the controversy about solid wood versus veneers. And that's saying a lot.
It can be a real conundrum because if you were to take three identical pieces of furniture and finish one of them in lacquer, one in varnish and one in polyurethane, you couldn't possibly tell the difference. Still, while there are so many variations to furniture finishes, we can begin to unravel this puzzle by dividing them into two main groups: clear and opaque. Clear finishes include lacquer, shellac, varnish and polyurethane. The opaque group would include paint and some lacquers.
Here is a brief summary of the most commonly used furniture finishes along with both their positive and negative qualities.
n Lacquer. A clear finish and best suited for showing off wood grain. It will darken wood grain less than other finishes. It's available from a flat sheen to a high gloss. It dries quickly, doesn't often require a substrate sealer and a damaged finish can usually be repaired without stripping. However, (and this is really important), lacquer is easily scratched and is susceptible to water damage.
Most commercially manufactured furniture featuring a clear finish will have used lacquer. But, some manufacturers (my custom furniture included) will use a catalyzed lacquer that produces a very hard finish. Simply put, a catalytic agent is added to the lacquer in order to make it dry into a more durable finish. And what a difference it makes.
n Varnish. A clear finish as well, but much more durable than lacquer. It's also more slow drying, and like lacquer, minor damages can be repaired without having to resort to stripping the entire piece. But, since it's so slow drying, dust has more of a chance to settle into the product. And on top of that, it really isn't completely cured for about a month. As a finish it's very old school, having been used in Asia centuries ago.
n Shellac. Another clear finish, but hardly used today except in the restoration of period furniture. It will produce a brilliant shine, but it's highly susceptible to damage from most liquids, which is probably why it's chiefly used nowadays as a sealer and undercoat for other finishes.
n Latex paint. So easy to apply and clean up (since it's water-based) but not suggested for heavily used pieces. If used on raw wood, a primer is required and repairs or touch-ups can often present a color-match problem.
n Oil-based paint. Extremely durable and great for heavily used furniture. Its cleanup can be troublesome and then there's the same color-match problem for touch-ups as with latex paint.
n Polyurethane. I've saved the best for last. As a custom designer, I'm well-acquainted with this finish. In fact, it's the most widely used furniture finish for homeowners today, usually in a semigloss that dries to a sheen between gloss and flat. It's more durable than varnish or lacquer, dries faster and is easier to apply than varnish, with a range from simple spray can finishes for smaller projects (probably water-based) to extremely durable and high-gloss two-part finishes (oil-based) for larger ones such as dining tables.
A word of caution here for the do-it-yourselfer. Larger projects that call for a two-part process require very careful mixing. And that's a tricky step best left to professionals. The mixing demands great care and ideal temperature conditions because if the finish and the drying catalyst aren't mixed correctly, the resulting finish may bubble and crack with use. And that's not a pretty picture. Also, proper ventilation is a must because the solvent fumes are so strong. Paper or fabric masks aren't enough to filter the fumes and a canister-style respirator is strongly advised.
Is it a finish worth all that trouble? You bet it is. Because polyurethane's most valuable feature, apart from its beautiful look, is its inherent resistance to water, sun damage, abrasions and chemicals. (That's the part I love.) But, because the finish is so hard and often glossy, great care most be given to be sure that the surface is completely smooth and clean before application. This finish also demands a sanding between each coat to ensure a superbly finished piece.
But whatever its sheen, polyurethane is not a finish that's easily repaired and is certainly difficult to strip. It can be done, though it's very labor intensive; and in my opinion, once again, a process best left to professionals.
Protective finishes are truly a fundamental element in design. Be sure to put some time and thought into the types of finishes you want in your home, especially when dealing with cabinets and furniture that are a focal point. Consider what's important to you, such as durability, beauty and ease of maintenance. A finish that enhances the design of your furniture, whether traditional or contemporary, will go far in helping the overall look of your home and may even help to increase its value.
Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and is a certified professional in green residential design. Questions can be sent to stephen@soleildesigninter national.com.