Waterborne vs. solvent based
We spray three coats of finish on all projects, and use W for all three coats, which simplifies the whole process. Our finish room is simply a room with an 18" fan that exhausts out side. Since the VOC's are so low and the finish is not flammable, there is no concern with harming the environment. After using oil-based products for about 19 years, it was affecting my health. Now I only feel tired after spraying a set of kitchen cabinets, and not stoned out of my mind!
Moving to water based finishes is scary. There are stories about how the water base does not hold up to abuse as well as oil base, I disagree. Once the W is set up good, and it has been applied in the correct mill thickness, lacquer thinner will not hurt it. Heat will soften water base finishes but once the surface cools off it returns to normal. With environment regulations getting tighter, water base finishes will be the only way to go unless you have a healthy bank account that will allow you to put in a spray booth that will meet those new regulations.
My views are that the newer topcoats are fairly good. The stains (this applies only to those I have tried so far subject to an update as I'm going to shortly try out the ICA products which many consider to be the best in the world) are inferior.
I recommend a hybrid system. Solvent based stains and glazes with waterborne topcoats.
I have used WB finishes in a refinishing business for a couple of years, and as such I have experimented and used at least 4 different brands of topcoats. While some have given satisfactory results, in my opinion, none achieve the subtle beauty of solvent lacquer. Using NC lacquer is new to me, and I have been completely taken in by its ease of application, quick drying, and resulting finish. I just today sprayed 3 coats of satin lacquer on a walnut veneer dresser. I would challenge any WB finish to look this good on walnut, especially on the edges of the open grain, where WB tends to build and round over the edges and looks like plastic. On high-end furniture, I can't imagine using anything other than a solvent finish, particularly on the open grain woods.
I wish there was a way to put this challenge to the test. I use water-base finish exclusively and consistently get a beautiful look and feel on all types of wood.
There was an article at www.targetcoatings.com written by a guy using water-base to finish musical instruments. If the article is still there, you can see for yourself the stunning finish that water-base finishes can achieve once you master the proper techniques.
I am seldom 100% satisfied returning a WB finished project to its owner. Though they always seem happy with the finish, I usually think it could look better.
I used to use Gemini pre-cat and conversion along with Old Masters stains but now have switched totally to water products from a company called SDA-Craft Technologies. They have several finishes including a post-catalyzed waterborne varnish that I love. When used with their water-based stains it doesn't raise the grain like some do. Regarding adding life to the topcoat, you can have a little fun experimenting with adding amber trans-tint dye to the sealer coat or even sealing with dewaxed clear shellac. The trick is to visualize what you want to achieve and use your creativity to combine the products needed make it happen. Then spend the 40 grand you saved on explosion-proof this and that and insurance and take a vacation.
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