When Lacquer Goes Bad...

Finishers explain why a lacquer finish would fail after prolonged exposure to moisture, and suggest how to go about refinishing the affected cabinets. April 18, 2006

I built some kitchen cabinets five years ago for a customer out of cherry and finished with a Minwax cherry stain with minimum of six coats of sprayed lacquer (Home Depot's nitrocellulose satin). Everything looked great when I installed them... now the cabinet finish looks terrible. A white haze has developed where water has contacted the cabinets and the finish is very rough overall. Customer is not happy. What are my options? Sand, restain and spray with a better lacquer? What are my chances of having a visit from the local fire department if I were to seal off the kitchen and respray the cabinets? This is why I stick to cabinetmaking... not finishing!

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
A better lacquer? The Home Depot sold Parks lacquer. There is nothing wrong with Parks lacquer. There is and was something wrong with your selection of that finish. Lacquer should not be used as a finishing system for kitchen or bathroom cabinetry. It lacks durability and performance as you are now finding out.

Onsite refinishing is done all the time. Will a fire marshal allow such an activity? No. If you are incorporated or if you have employees, will OSHA allow such activities? No. Can you or your company get away with such activities? It is done all the time. You need proper safeguards, common sense and care. For example, do some companies spray finishes without taping over electrical outlets? Yes, even though this common source of spark is easy to deal with. Door and drawer fronts can be refinished in your shop or wherever you want to set up for that. Cases and side panels can be refinished onsite.

Begin by washing everything down with TSP and water. Don't strip dirty surfaces. Onsite stripping is done either by sanding off the original finish or by using chemical strippers. Obviously, sanding is safer. But chemical stripping does not create sand throughs in veneers. To sand off a finish, start with those very nice Sandvik scrapers. Then, finish sand using your random orbit and final sand using a sanding block and the right grit sandpaper. Wash and rinse with lacquer thinner.

This response is not a primer on onsite finishing. It is a grand overview of what faces you should you go ahead with that option. Choose a topcoat/finish system that matches the intended use of your projects. Kitchen and bath cabinetry deserves to have either catalyzed lacquer, conversion varnish, polyester, 2k polyurethane or a precatalyzed lacquer that is tried and true in terms of performance. The subtitle of Bob Flexner's "Understanding Wood Finishing" is "How to Select and Apply the Right Finish." What a great book. It opened my eyes and it still does.

From contributor V:
Nitrocellulose lacquer is not made for cabinetry that may come in contact with water for prolonged periods. I spray all my kitchen cabinets with lacquer, but I use a pre-cat lacquer otherwise known as acrylic conversion coating. This has a linking agent that is mixed in the finish, so when it dries, it hardens to a very durable finish. It is unlike nitro lacquer, where every time you lay down a new coat, it melts into the previous coat. Catalyzed lacquers have a window of opportunity for each subsequent coat, usually from 30 - 60 minutes.

After 5 years, do you still feel it's your responsibility to refinish these cabinets? Or is the customer paying you to re-do these units? Is it just the doors and drawer fronts that are bad or is it the face frames as well? You could do some hand sanding with 220 till you get it smooth again and seal it with a dewaxed shellac to act as a barrier, then apply some new finish on top of that.

From contributor L:
I have seen this problem before.. Is the finish lifting? Did you spray a coat of Home Depot lacquer right after you stained? Also, were the cabinets sanded to 120 grit before finishing? And has the color changed since you installed it?

From contributor M:
Nitrocellulose lacquers were used for decades on kitchen cabinets and held up very well. Many kitchen cabinets from the 50's are still around and looking good. As the years passed, and other coatings came out that were more durable and chemical resistant, they became the coatings of choice. (These newer coatings also have their problems - just read some posts on this forum.)

Since 5 years ago when you did these cabinets, they looked fine, and now they look terrible, I would not be so fast to condemn the lacquer. I would blame the customer for not caring for her cabinets. I bet the bottom cabinets and those not near the sink or oven are still in good condition. Also, the customer could have caused the problem by using some harsh cleaners or polishes that created or added to the problem.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for the suggestions. I should have added a little more to the original post. Doors and some drawer fronts are solid recessed cherry wainscoting. There is no veneered plywood used. Sanding this wainscoting down to bare wood is a daunting task. I could actually make new doors and draw fronts quicker. Yes, much of the cabinetry is holding up just fine. Finish is not lifting, but turning a hazy white where it continually is subjected to water drips and steam (around the dishwasher). Would re-spraying with a pre-cat lacquer require complete sanding, or can I 220 the affected areas and clean up the rest?

By the way, customer is my in-laws. As long as I am married to their daughter, I "own" the cabinets!

From contributor L:
Get a can of no blush, or put some lacquer retarder in a cup gun. Spray a light mist in the area that has water damage. If it goes away, that is good. Sand all the cabinets with 320 - scuff them good. Do your touchup and finish with a cat lacquer.

From contributor M:
If you always will own it, then do it right. Strip all the effected pieces, and then wash off with lacquer thinners, and then allow to dry, re-stain (atw), apply vinyl sealer (atd). Then follow the directions using conversion varnish. You may want to remove the pieces that can be removed, and do them in the shop.

From contributor V:
If you're going to use a pre-cat lacquer, check with your supplier about compatibility issues. The product I use (Sherwin Williams) can not be applied over any nitrocellulose sealers or lacquers. That's why I suggested maybe sanding with 220 and then applying a dewaxed shellac as a barrier coat, then applying your precat lacquer. Take one of the doors back to your shop and do a test on it. If it works, great. That beats the heck out of re-sanding all that wood and starting from scratch. Contributor L is on the right track by telling you to spray some no blush on the wood. The white you are seeing is trapped moisture under the lacquer. Nitro lacquer does not have the ability to keep prolonged moisture content out, like around a dishwasher or splashing from a sink area. The precat will because its crosslinking system cures the surface much harder, blocking the moisture out.