Switching to Water-Borne Finishes

Finishers discuss their experiences working with water-borne finishes. October 26, 2005

It's time to buy another 5 gallons of lacquer and I'm considering switching over to waterborne. I have an open account with Frazee and their product is Valspar. All my stains are oil, and I just recently bought another 5 gallons of vinyl sealer. Will a waterborne lacquer adhere to these? I understand that spraying takes a whole new mindset. I can use any tips and tricks (thinning, air pressure, spray techniques, etc.) to spraying waterborne lacquer. I use a gravity feed HVLP gun. Normally, I buy gloss lacquer. When I want a satin finish, I rub out with 0000 steel wool, for a gloss finish. I wet down with water and a little dish soap using a spray bottle and sand with 600 wet/dry, then wipe dry, then use pumice, then rottenstone. Will I need to change all this using waterborne?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor N:
Switching to water-based finishes is not as difficult as it once was. The manufacturers who advertise on this site are all good houses and have developed a complete line of urethanes, lacquers and CVs in the water medium.

One big word of warning - do not use steel wool when rubbing out a WB finish. The steel wool with rust, leaving rust blooms in your topcoat should you have to apply another coat. If you like to rub out your finishes, I suggest you use a synthetic pad such as a Mirka or a 3M rubbing pad. Burgundy, grey or white are all acceptable colors.

As for choosing a water-based lacquer - try a few. Talk with the manufacturers and get to know who they are and how they provide advice and backup support. Some houses such as Target Coatings offer very good telephone and internet support. They also make excellent products. Their Oxford Ultima Lacquer bonds and adheres to solvent/oil-based stains with no issues as long as you follow their instructions. They also make a water-based shellac sealer for difficult adhesion problems. Also, look at their EmTech Production Finishes such as the EM8000cv.

As for spray gun setups - very often you can use your current spray rig. Clean the gun and fluid handling equipment thoroughly with lacquer thinner, then warm soapy water, followed with a clear water rinse. You should be able to switch over to a quality WB for trials and testing without buying new equipment. Once you make the change, you can buy a dedicated pot and/or gun. I did this many years ago when I first made the switch.

From contributor D:
The differences you'll probably have to adjust to most are the ones you may encounter when you start rubbing out the wb. It doesn't rub out as well as other finishes. The longer you can let it cure, the better off you'll be. Go easy on the oil if that's what you use for pumice and rottenstone. I've seen it get under the finish when used excessively on thin finishes. You might also try Abralon pads. You can't beat the stuff when it comes time to clean out the gun, though.

From contributor B:
I have a small amount of experience with Valspar WB lacquers and a gravity HVLP. A few things are different. When you spray the finish, initially it will won't look that great. It will have more orangepeel that you may be used to with a solvent base. However, as it dries down, which will take a little longer than solvent base, the finish will tighten up and level itself pretty well. Also, the finish is very clear, with virtually no ambering that you can expect from solvent base products. Make sure your piece is the color/tone you want it before you topcoat, or add a small amount of WB compatible dye to warm it up a bit. Toning your topcoat, however, gives a pretty good possibility of rubbing through one or two layers of your topcoat in places (corners, etc.), which will of course show because you are removing some of the toning buildup achieved in the multiple topcoats. As mentioned above, do not use steel wool for a scuff sand between coats. You do, however, need to sand between coats (follow directions) to give the succeeding layer a scratch pattern to bite into. I don't believe the WB lacquer will burn into the preceding layer as do solvent lacquers. I think your rub-outs could precede in a similar way. Use water as a lubricant for your pumice/rottenstone.

From contributor A:
While it's true that it's difficult, if not impossible, to rub out most waterbornes, PianoLac rubs out easier than nitro lacquer and has much better properties. You can build up high thicknesses of PianoLac without blue or gray haze, and rub it out without witness lines or streaks.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I like the water-base finishes from Target Coatings, so I'm most familiar with how they work. Their water-base lacquer (USL) does have 100% burn-in between coats and will burn-in to vinyl sealer (or NC lacquer). Their other finishes will "burn-in" if you apply the coats within the re-coat window (don't wait too long between coats).

From contributor M:
Don't compare other types coatings to WB coatings. Every type of coating has its own pros and cons. There is a learning curve to all coatings. Over 20 years ago, there were a few water base coatings that rubbed out and polished up like a mirror. The biggest problem, and the reason it has taken so long for WB coatings to really grow, was that the manufacturers did not have all the companion products to go with the WB coatings. They never had the colorants available to the customers to make their own stains, toners, glazes, or colored base coatings. This was the main reason that delayed and prevented many shops from changing over to WB coatings. There is no doubt in my mind that water base is the coating of the future.

From contributor D:
I didn't mean to imply that it is impossible to rub WB. I just meant that it's different, and to me, not quite the result other finishes give. But very acceptable results nonetheless. WB is the future and the products are getting better every day. I plan on trying Pianolac in the very near future.

From contributor L:
Gemini has a line of waterborne finishes and glazes and stains if you are looking for a complete system. Not on their website, though - you need to call their factory and ask for the Titanium Series.

From contributor T:
Waterbournes are going to be the way of the future, but it won't be because we have a choice. Today, I have the gut feeling that I have shot my last solvent base finish. Before the new VOCs, we tried finishes that had complied. Didn't like them, and went back to using the old standard 550 VOC CV by Valspar. Well, they are in compliance now, and this finish rates right up there with the rest of the garbage. Today I am not applying any finish to anything until we find a better alternative. I have two ruined jobs and this is enough to make me rethink my direction. Yeah, waterbournes are the future all right, and I guess I'll eventually go down that road kicking and screaming all the way.