Waterborne vs. solvent finish

Professionals tell which they prefer and why. April 11, 2001

Who won't use anything but waterborne finish? And who won't use anything but solvent based finish? Why?

Forum Responses
I run a small shop and I've used solvent base lacquer on the majority of my work (furniture) for 20+ years.

I think solvent base products have better clarity and durability. They also have fewer application pitfalls to deal with. Aside from reasons due to health or tough VOC regulations, there would be next to zero situations I'd consider using a water base product on furniture.

My bias has been reinforced over the years having seen so much marketing hype for water base product, which was long on promise and short on performance. Of course, this sort of marketing hype is no stranger to new generations of solvent base product, either. Any finish may look wonderful going out the door, but what about 6 months or a couple years later? Don't rely on marketing info.

I've been using water-based topcoats exclusively for the past few years on all types of furniture. I originally chose water-based to get away from the fumes and explosion hazards associated with lacquer and other solvent based products. The product I'm using now is as close to hazard-free as you can get and it works great. The last switch I made in coatings was to change to a "system" of compatible stains and coatings.

I am very pleased with the performance, look, feel and production capability of water-based topcoats and have not had a single failure (even with the brands that were more difficult to use).

I'm not certain that the water-based products are as tough as some of the solvent based products, but we haven't had any complaints. I'd estimate that our shop has finished around 5000 pieces of furniture in the last few years. There are water-based products that are rated as more durable than the one I use, but they are more expensive and the added durability is usually not needed. It doesn't need to be bulletproof. I did some benches for a local animal hospital, where the finish must hold up to daily cleaning with a strong anti-bacterial solution. They have had the benches for two years and haven't had a problem yet.

There are different techniques required to use water-based products compared to solvent based products. If you are experienced with solvent based products, these differences can be intimidating. By working with the manufacturer, you can learn and apply these techniques in a short time.

As with any coating, there are learning curves involved. When applied properly, some of the waterborne coatings I have used I've had great success with. They have come a long way in their development. It won't be long before waterborne is the coating of choice.

"It won't be long before waterborne is the coating of choice."

That is a feeling some finishers and manufacturers of waterbase finishing material hold. However, I just don't see the evidence for this wholesale change coming in the foreseeable future.

I realize VOC regulations are having a great impact on solvent finish formulations. But there seem to be more solvent base coatings on the market then there ever have been. For example, NC lacquer, acrylic lacs, pre-cat lac, post-cat lac, conversion varnish, 2 part polyurethanes, polyester, etc.

I prefer the appearance and versatility of a solvent lacquer system.

I was very much anti-water base finishes. I went through the AQMD fiasco in the 80's in southern California, where we were forced to use products that just weren't ready yet. However, I do see a lot of potential in the high solids and very clear qualities of these finishes and decided to try Target Coatings 9000 series super clear polyurethane. I am impressed. It sprayed very nicely, cured beautifully and buffed to perfection. I have finished a few personal projects, which I am living with to test over time. I still don't like using WB products in some production equipment, but for small custom work I would not hesitate to use this product.

When I used waterbornes in the 80s, most were crap! They have come a long way. I use both solvent and water, as they both have their place. All waters are not equal, by a long shot! Some are self-crosslinking and some are not. Some have great wetting and some don't. When shopping for a waterborne, spray a lot of different brands and then test them all. Try to use a company that has a complete system available, i.e. stains, glazes, clear and pigmented systems.

Bob Niemeyer, forum technical advisor