NC lacquer for kitchen cabinets

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Why shouldn't this old standby be used? March 23, 2003

Someone please tell my why I shouldn't be using a simple, good quality nitrocellulose lacquer for kitchen cabinets. The only argument I can think of is that it scratches easier than some of the more sophisticated two part products and that it is VOC laden and highly flammable, especially compared to water based finishes.

Next to shellac, it's the easiest to touch-up or repair film finish on the market. Film thickness and adhesion is not an issue as it burns into itself, and can be built as heavy as needed and it polishes like glass if desired. It’s quick drying and except in extreme circumstances, finish room temperature is not usually an issue. Thinners and additives are basic and simple to use. It's plenty water resistant enough for the finished vertical surfaces prevalent in kitchen cabinetry.

In the mid to late 80’s, I was finishing mostly furniture (as opposed to kitchen cabinets) and fell for the scare that NCL was on its way out, most certainly by the end of the decade. I swapped to waterbornes and turbine HVLP’s at that time in an effort to get ahead of the inevitable. Two years later, having determined that I was going to lose my reputation for producing fine finishes if I continued with the current water based offerings, I moved back to a NC based product, this time a CAB lacquer, then a few pre-cats, then back to a waterborne product that promised “burn-in” just like NCL. Over the past couple of years, I’ve experimented with several pre and post cat lacquers and now use both a long shelf life post cat and a two part catalyzed lacquer as my standard stain grade film finish. All these products present problems and concerns that I had not had with regular NCL. Are they really “better” than good old NC lacquer, and if so, for who?

Forum Responses
(From WOODWEB's Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
I have never used the old NC lacquers. I have only used SW cab acrylic with vinyl sealer. I have twice gotten a gallon of CV to try but haven't so far.

I get such beautiful results that I just don't have any reasons to change. Repair is simple - I even use cab acrylic on all my high-end entry door repairs and it works great.

I do believe using the vinyl sealer gives greater water protection and I also believe that cab acrylic is not an NC based lacquer, hence the "cab acrylic." I am no expert here, though.

One of the reasons I was hesitant to go to CV was the issue of repairs, but the main reason is I have just never had even one problem over the last 10 years and don't really want to change even though I know CV is a better product as far as wear goes.

I used nitro lacquer in my personal kitchen and after three years of heavy use I have had no problems. I feel if the lacquer is old and how it is applied will affect the overall finish. I used two heavy coats of sealer dried completely before sanding and two topcoats. I agree that it does scratch easily, but has not peeled and looks great.

From contributor M:
To the original questioner: I know just what you mean, and I agree with your thinking. Nitrocellulose lacquers were used for decades for kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities. As with all coatings, there were some failures and problems, some due to the applications, some because of the different conditions. When some of the 'super finishes' were finally developed, they went straight for that business, and for the furniture trades. It was their durability and chemical resistance that attracted these coatings to the factories. (Little did they know what it took to repair these finishes.) Once they got in the big doors, it was hard to go back. The VOC and HAPS factors played a very big part. That was how the water base coatings came into being. There is a place for all these types of coatings, just as there is still a place for NC lacquers, and you're not alone in using them - there are still a lot of lacquer users, including myself.

From contributor I:
I was pouring hot bacon fat into a cup a while back in my own kitchen, which I finished with conversion varnish. The cup spilled and hot bacon fat ran all down the front of the cabinets. I cleaned it up and they were no worse for wear. If it were NC lacquer, I think I would be refinishing them. I have seen many kitchens finished with NC lacquer where the finish was peeling at the sink and all gummy in other places. If I try to tell my customers I am going to use the product that is easiest for me to use and has inferior durability, I'm sure they will be buying cabinetry elsewhere.

I used to use NC exclusively, with excellent results. But when I started using pre-cats and vinyl sealer, I never looked back. In my opinion, they're as easy to use and touch up (see the various touchup products at Mohawk, etc.) with increased durability and scratch resistance. NC is simple to apply well, forgiving, versatile, and clean up. But for commercial purposes I like a more serviceable finish.

I use nothing but Becker Acroma Uniclear or Carat conversion varnish, water white so you can spray over paint, pastels, etc - non-yellowing, the finish is hard as rock and it's self sealing. I don't understand people using all different products when one will do.

From contributor M:
If the coating is gummy, it's not from the NC. It's a buildup of dirt, waxes, polishes. And all pre-cats are not much more durable or chemical resistant than high quality NC lacquers. In fact, in pencil hardness tests, they are comparable.

From contributor I:
Contributor M, you're probably right about the gumminess on the cabinets, but no matter what you say and how you reason it, there is no comparison in durability between nitrocellulose and conversion varnish. Most pre-cats are only slightly stronger than nitro and not nearly as durable as CV.

From contributor M:
I never compared NC to CV on this forum. CV was one of the "Super Finishes." It is not to be compared with NC lacquers when it comes to durability, chemical and moisture resistance, and hardness. CV and NC both have their places in finishing and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Not all furniture or wood products need to be coated with CV; not all finishes want to work with catalyzed coating. Each shop has to decide what types of coatings they need for their work.

From contributor D:
To the original questioner: what problems are you experiencing with the MagnaMax and C-Vs you are using? I find it no harder to use C-V than nitrocellulose lacquer. Adding a catalyst doesn't bother me and they spray exactly the same to me. The only difference I find is that I need four coats of NC and only two of C-V. I can't tell any handling differences between the two. That stated, why use something less resistant to abuse that doesn't act any differently to me than something with less resistance? In short, my view is no pain with significant gain (C-V) is a good thing.

I have to chime in here with a word from the WB folks. I have the same reasoning as contributor D. Plus good WB's (Target, Fuhr, Crystalac, etc.) are obviously less toxic for you, your employees, your customer, me and the rest of us sucking up your over-spray. I find very little difference in spraying Target PSL versus Nitro, other than PSL is much more durable and my kitchen isn't off-gassing lacquer fumes for 6 months after I spray it. Have you ever smelled a Nitro sprayed maple drawer a couple of months later? I'm not a tree hugger, but your cabinets, shop, and planet will really stink.

Like everyone else, I've tried tons of different finishes to get that good-as-Steinway look. I used to like nitrocellulose, too. It sure would polish up nice, but a walnut dining ensemble I did was laid to ruin in a short time by the owner's kids. It really does not repair easily and I'm sick of smelling it and lacquer thinner. It also looks like plastic after a while. You guys can laugh, but the most durable, easy to use and repair finish I've ever used is right at the local hardware store, Zip-Guard polyurethane. I have furniture and shop fixtures that I made in the 60s that are a little yellow, that's true, and I was certainly green back then, but after lots of experimenting and more cans of stuff that I can get rid of, nothing else has done a better job. One thing that has me worried about the water based finishes is flammability after drying. That's right! Peal a layer off your spray table and touch a match to it, but be careful - it goes up like it was dipped in kerosene. Now I'm worried about that last kitchen I did. Oh well - kitchens go out of style before they wear out, anyway.

In my line of work I get asked to make a coating recommendation for a particular job on pretty much a daily basis. I make a wide variety of recommendations based on the requirements of the finisher and their customer. I sell a wide variety of products for the same reason.

We have a tendency in this country to select the most blast-proof coating that we are willing to buy. However, practical considerations like reparability are one of several requirements that should be taken into account. There are frequently clear distinctions between the coating requirements for bathroom cabinets, kitchen cabinets, furniture, dining room/kitchen tables, wood floors, etc. Most of these requirements stem from the use of and the environment within which the wooden object will reside.

Just using NC lacquer as an example, there is no such thing as a plain old NC lacquer. In fact, the formulations of NC lacquer vary more widely than do pre-cat formulations. The co-resins employed in NC can be maleic, acrylic, urethane, phenolic, natural resins, alkyds, and so on. Each of the resins used to formulate a lacquer has its strengths and weaknesses.

For the original question concerning kitchen cabinets, a few important considerations are pointed out. The questioner can definitely find a product that passes KCMA testing, is water-clear/non-yellowing if required, and is formulated around NC. Pre-cats, CVs, 2k urethanes, even polyesters could also be used, but they are not necessarily "better" for the work he does.

Russ Ramirez, forum technical advisor

From contributor L:

Russ, are there several good NC choices for such kitchen applications that you'd suggest considering?

Contributor L, I don't want to mention specific products, but lacquers are available from several manufacturers that pass KCMA certification.

Here are a few suggestions with regard to resin types. In the water-clear and non-yellowing category, look for lacquers (clear or pigmented) that make use of coconut alkyd, vinyl, (some) acrylic or aliphatic urethane resins. If the amber color of the lacquer is not an issue, then (some) alkyd, urethane, and phenolic resins offer excellent performance. Some resins to avoid are rosin-modified anything, and some of the alkyds and acrylics found in low-cost lacquers. For the most part, quality is directly proportional to price.

Russ Ramirez, forum technical advisor

From contributor M:
Russ, amen... I wish every finisher would read your explanation. That is why there are so many different coatings available. One coating does not fit everyone's needs. The coating that is good for your shop is just not right for many other shops. Learn to accept this!

From contributor P:
Very interesting comments, Russ. I sure can identify as I have used SW cab acrylic for years with not one single problem or callback - I believe it is NC with acrylic .

I have twice gotten a gallon of CV and I end up throwing it out without ever trying it! Not that it wouldn't be a better coating as far as being more durable, but I use the cabacrylic for everything including high-end door repair, and so reparability is of utmost importance to me (not on my work, as I hardly ever have had to do a repair in over 10 years, but in my other door repair work).

If you have zero problems and wonderful finishes for nearly 15 years, it doesn't make sense to change. I do like the idea of not as much VOCs in WB, but so far haven't been convinced to change till we absolutely are forced to.

Another consideration these days is film thickness. Not all NC lacquers can be sprayed on forever. Many nowadays have a 2 mil thickness max! And CV is 5 mil max and God help you if you go over. So I have to consider who is installing my cabinets. If they are wood butchers and they are going to trash the cabinets while installing them (nail holes everywhere, sand-throughs to bare wood, etc.), my fine CV finish, which is just below the 5 mil limit, becomes much more difficult to repair. From years of experience, most lacquer kitchens I have done wear through in wet areas, around sinks, etc. Some lacquer kitchens have held up very well for many years, mostly due to the people who owned them taking proper care of their cabinets. Lacquer furniture can last 100 years if properly cared for. Like Russ said, every job is different and you must consider the entire scope of the job before coming up with a finish schedule.

From contributor P:
I would sure agree with the post above. You obviously have lots of experience.

I am very careful to have a lengthy experience with my customers after the job is done, explaining that they cannot clean all cabinets everyday, but only occasionally use a very damp cotton cloth followed by a dry rag, etc. I used to put laminate counters with a matching wood edge and that edge around sink did deteriorate faster. I don't do counters anymore and 95% of my customers use granite.

I have no doubt that CV is the best finish for durability - I just haven't in my own small operation seen the need yet.

From contributor M:
Finishing is a big industry with lots of shops doing all kinds of different finishing. Most feel their coating is right for their work. Sometimes, when someone tells you about a coating that sounds great, they don't mean it will be great for you and your kind of finishing. Listen up - it costs nothing, but you make the decision. From my experience, five years ago, there was more lacquer being sold than any other coating.

From the original questioner:
The diversity of stains and coatings, application schedules and requirements, finish application environments, and end use requirements add complexity to our desire to provide a beautiful and lasting, yet simple to use (and understand) film coating. When I ponder the good old days, maybe they weren’t all that good after all. Maybe they were just simpler times because the options were so much less complicated, at least in the world of finishing as I knew it then. There's a lot of wisdom in this thread and I'm going to keep it handy for when I get a hankering to revisit the good ol' days!

From contributor C:
I am spraying conversion varnish at owner's request. I hear much about the problems of repairing it. What exactly is involved in repairing scratches, etc? The installation is going to be a bear, and there is no question that nicks and scratches are inevitable.

After using CV, I can't use anything else. One product for everything. As far as touchup, I just sand with 320 grit spray again.

From contributor C:
So basically, the difference is that you have to go through the whole catalyzing and cleaning of equipment, etc. for touchup? How visible are these "witness lines" I hear about? Or do they even show up in a 4-0 wool satin finish? Only in gloss?

My advice would be not to use CV on this project if this is the first time you have used it. Get some experience with repairs and touchups first. You can repair some CVs with pre-cat lacquer spray cans on site. Depends on type/brand used. Also, there are spraying windows you have to observe and some are critical. Not a product to learn on with this project, in my opinion. Look at Campbell's Magnamax for a good product that can be repaired like a lacquer on site.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Many years of finishing have brought us through many trials of different types of finishes - conversion varnishes, polyurethanes, NC lacquer, and water-based finishes. Each finish, having its own characteristics, has offered its own solutions and problems.

After these years, we have consistently reverted back to NC laq. It seems to do well atop most all stains and dyes and, if applied correctly, can be quite tough.

First, you need to remember that the more satin (or dulling liquids) that are added to this product, the more apt it is to scratching easily and also less durable. Thus, through the 65 years of our business, we have always used a semi-gloss sheen.

As far as protecting the "below" cabinets, consider making your countertops 25 1/2" to 26" deep. I know it has been the norm to make them at 25", but I wonder why that has been? Considering that a normal base cabinet is 24" deep, plus the depth of a standard 3/4" door, makes it 24 3/4" deep, plus the bumper and hinge outlay, 1/8", making a total of 24 7/8" deep. No wonder water plays havoc on cabinet faces.

Consider the mondern construction methods of the measurements mentioned above and build your countertops to these specs (25 1/2" - 26" deep), sometimes a little more. This extra depth will not only prevent the juices from dripping onto the finished faces of the cabinets, but will also look great next to the normal depth of a floor range or ref.

If you try this, after awhile you will discover that NC laq, converstion, or others will do just as well, whatever your desires may be.

Comment from contributor S:
One reason kitchen cabinet manufacturers do not use nitrocellulose lacquer formulations in kitchens and bathrooms is so they can offer a more durable cabinet that will pass the KCMA (Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association) requirements.

Most nitrocellulose formulas will not pass the water soak tests and will fail under some chemical resistance tests. High moisture content areas such as kitchens and baths are not ideal end use situations for nitrocellulose lacquer applications.

Many of the larger kitchen cabinet manufacturers today are looking toward the protective coatings of:

1. Precatalyzed lacquer formulations
2. Conversion varnish formulations
3. Water borne formulations
4. 100% solids UV formulations

UV is becoming more and more desireable due to instant cure and zero waste generated, as well as durability and overall film performance.