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If you have ever gone to purchase a can of top coat or finish coat, you most likely have been confused by the words varnish, polyurethane, lacquer and shellac. How do you know which one to get for your specific project? Aren't they all basically the same? The answer is that, no, they are not the same. Each one has a distinct purpose and is not recommended to be used in place of another one. Here is how to finally tell the difference between them all.


1) Varnish

          Varnish is a transparent and durable protective finish or top coat. Traditionally, varnish is a mixture of a drying oil, a resin and a thinner. It is very strong because it is comprised of a higher ratio of solids than the other products. Its durability therefore makes it great for outdoor projects. Spar varnish, also known as marine varnish, has a waterproofing quality that makes it your best choice for use on items near the water. You can use spar varnish on wooden boats, decks and chairs. The best brush to be a natural-bristle brush. Varnish is also a natural protector from UV light, so it will keep the colors from fading on your outdoor projects.


2) Polyurethane

          Basically, polyurethane is a plastic in the form of a liquid until it dries. There are two types of polyurethane available – water-based and oil-based.


          Water-based polyurethane is a frequent choice because it does not have a strong odor and is low in toxicity. It dries very fast as well. Unfortunately, water-based polyurethane does not do well when exposed to heat and chemicals. It can be used on common items such as bookcases, desks and picture frames, to name a few.


          Oil-based polyurethane is a bit more enduring than water-based. Unlike water-based polyurethane, oil-based will add some slight color or darkening to the wood, but is most likely not a problem. Dining room tables make perfect projects to use oil-based polyurethane on. Oil-based also withstands heat better, too. Apply oil-based polyurethane to your projects using a natural-bristle brush or a clean, dry rag.


3) Lacquer

          Lacquer is a wood finish that is clear or colored. When it dries, it creates a remarkably vivid glossy finish which is also rather strong and durable. Most Asian-inspired or contemporary décor features this type of finish. You can also polish lacquer as much as you want to create the specific look you are going for, anywhere from ultra matte to high gloss. Lacquer is also thinner than the other finishes you can choose from. It's best applied with a sprayer because of this. When you use a sprayer, you will not be able to see any brush strokes, which will give it an extremely smooth surface.


4) Shellac

          Shellac is made by combining a secretion from a bug (the female Lac bug) with a solvent (like alcohol) which makes it a natural product. Once it has dried, it is safe and non-toxic. It does not dry clear, but instead adds a soft amber color to the wood. You have probably seen furniture that has been finished with shellac. It can leave white rings on tables if you place a hot bowl or mug on it, therefore it is affected by heat. Elegant furnishings can look even more striking with a coat of shellac. You can apply it with a natural-bristle brush or a clean, dry cotton rag.

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