Waterborne vs. solvent based

Advantages and disadvantages of water-based finishes

We build all high-end custom furniture items for mostly residential applications in FL. Currently we outsource finishing, but would like to do our own. We are looking into using water-based products and would like to know if anyone has any information on their advantages and disadvantages. The idea is to avoid huge set-up costs with filtration systems, etc. and to also avoid environmental regulation problems. Is it to our advantage to try water-based finishes? Can superior results be achieved with these products?

Forum Responses
We have tried a number of water based finishes in the last six years, and believe that we have found the hardest one on the market - Sherwin Williams Kem-Var W. It is a catalyzed conversion varnish. The VOC's are 1.02 lb. It comes in a five gallon container which we then move to one gallon milk jugs for easier use. We use Binks respirators with charcoal filters, as we have always used on all water based, and in the old days, oil based finishes. We use a Binks 2201SS cup gun with 66SD tip at about 40 psi. Before the 2001 model we used a Binks Model 18 and it worked just fine, but it was beginning to rust because it was not updated to Stainless Steel. I think that any SS gun would work so you should not have to change systems other than changing fluid needle, nozzle, and tip to SS.

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.