How to Use Water-Based Paint or Lacquer on Furniture

Written by larry simmons
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How to Use Water-Based Paint or Lacquer on Furniture
Paint or lacquer your wood furniture to provide a more finished look. (wooden furniture design image by araraadt from

Finishing a piece of furniture is a way to emphasise the quality of the piece and the beauty of the wood grain while protecting the wood. Commonly used methods of finishing furniture include painting or applying a layer of lacquer to the piece. Traditionally, paints and lacquers were oil-based, but newer water-based products are available that give solid coverage with depth, without the unpleasant odour and environmental concerns of oil-based products. Using water-based products requires many of the same application steps as with oil-based, but there are a few changes to be aware of in the process.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Wood cleaner
  • Cloth
  • Sandpaper (80-grit and 220-grit)
  • Tack cloth
  • Water-based primer paint
  • Paintbrush
  • Water-based final coat
  • Water-based lacquer
  • Gravity feed HVLP spray gun
  • #0000 steel wool
  • Paste wax

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  1. 1

    Prepare the furniture for the finishing process by cleaning the surface of the wood. Use a wood-cleaning product that does not contain any heavy chemicals or wax. Remove all signs of dirt or debris from the entire piece of furniture. Allow the wood to dry completely for about an hour before continuing.

  2. 2

    Sand the surface of the wood to remove any scratches or imperfections using a coarse sandpaper of 80 grit. Use small circular motions to create a smooth surface on the wood. Switch to a finer 220-grit sandpaper and go over the surface of the wood again to create a surface that's smooth to the touch. Remove any residue from the sanding process by going over the wood with a tack cloth. The wax in the cloth gathers any sawdust while wiping the furniture down.

  3. 3

    Choose whether to paint the furniture or leave it in a natural state, covered only by lacquer. Painting the wood will give a clean overall look to the wood in any colour desirable, but it will cover up much of the natural wood grain. Applying a lacquer finish will maintain the natural look of the wood grain, but it requires more work during the application.

  1. 1

    Paint the surface of the wood by first applying a layer of primer paint. Coat the primer evenly across the entire surface of the furniture, using several light layers to build up a solid coat. Allow the primer to dry for two to four hours.

  2. 2

    Sand the primer with the 220-grit sandpaper to remove any signs of brushstrokes or paint build-up.

  3. 3

    Apply the coats of paint in the colour of your choice. Use even strokes of the brush following the grain of the wood, using multiple layers, as with the primer, to build a solid coat. Water-based paint is slightly translucent, so the primer will likely show through the first coat. Allow the coat to dry for two hours and then sand the surface to remove the brushstrokes. Apply a second coat for solid colouring. Allow this second coat to dry overnight, and then sand a final time to create a smooth finish.

  1. 1

    Apply a coat of the water-based lacquer by spraying the lacquer over the entire surface of the furniture. Place the lacquer into a gravity feed high volume low-pressure (HVLP) air spray gun. Set the pressure of the gun between 20 to 50 psi and, with the gun at a 90-degree angle to the furniture surface, spray the first layer of lacquer onto the furniture. Stewart-MacDonald notes that 20 to 25 psi may work for many lacquers but advises that water-based lacquers could require as much as 50 psi. Cover the surface with an even coating of lacquer, and wait 20 minutes for it to dry.

  2. 2

    Sand the layer of lacquer to smooth the coating and remove any imperfections in the application.

  3. 3

    Repeat the spray and sand process for two more coats until you get a solid covering with the lacquer. The additional coatings are necessary due to the translucent nature of the water-based lacquer. Allow the final coat to dry overnight.

  4. 4

    Finish the final coat by buffing it with 0000 steel wool and paste wax. Apply the wax with a cloth and then buff with the wool, working in small circles to create a glossy finish to the piece of furniture.

Tips and warnings

  • Staining wood furniture before applying the lacquer provides a greater choice of colours without hiding the grain of the wood.
  • Always wear a face mask and gloves during the painting or lacquering process, and use the products only in a well-ventilated area.

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