Spray lacquer how to set up equipment

How To Spray Lacquer – Illustrated Guide (equipment, system set-up, technique)

Learning the right way to spray lacquer opens up a whole new opportunity to create a beautiful gloss lacquer finish on your wood bowls, and any other project for that matter.

How do you spray lacquer the right way?

The best way to efficiently spray lacquer is to use a high-quality lacquer with its matching lacquer thinner along with a simple spray gun and air compressor system.

Setting up the air compressor system and spray gun needs to be done first, if not already set up, then you’ll be set up to spray lacquer.

Spray Lacquer Misconceptions

When I first heard about the idea of spraying lacquer, I was immediately reminded of my dad’s escapades of spraying automotive paint in the garage when I was a kid.

I recall the elaborate metal spray gun and all the pieces and parts that needed to be cleaned and cared for constantly. Despite all the attention to these parts, it seemed the gun never sprayed properly.

To add to the whole nightmare, I remember him explaining how all the components were so expensive and delicate.

Spray Lacquer Fast Forward

You can imagine my shock when I learned that the whole process of spraying lacquer, in a professional manner, was not only relatively easy, it’s not that expensive either.

Today, the cost of spray guns is almost “free” compared to the older guns. Competitive manufacturing now produces a spray gun that revivals higher-end spray guns for a fraction of the cost.

A simple air compressor system can be put together in an afternoon and be ready to use immediately.

All we have to do is apply a little knowledge and the process to spray lacquer is simple, easy, and can take a small amount of time.

Let’s continue, and I’ll share with you what you need to get started.

Wood Bowl Finish Choices

Learning to turn in an environment with many different people making many different finishes on their turned pieces is the ideal way to learning finishing techniques. I’m so grateful to have this experience to be able to share with you.

Seeing and experiencing various techniques has helped me realize something about finishes, keep them simple.

I have narrowed down and prefer essentially two different finishes for my turned wood bowls, an oil-based satin luster natural appearance created with Tried and True, and a high gloss lacquer finish for more decorative turned pieces.

Lacquer Sprayed Finished Pecan Bowls

Why do I mainly only use these two finishes? Because the world of finishes can be an endless and confusing pursuit in itself.

The amount of finishing products is plentiful and convoluted, and then the combination of products and personal techniques is genuinely infinite.

I prefer to turn and keep the finishing process efficient and straightforward, and still achieve excellent results.

Don’t get me wrong, I want a good quality finish, but I’d rather be turning and not fussing over endless finishing steps.

Spray Lacquer Shortcut

At this point you might be thinking, why not just use a canned spray lacquer? That’s a good question.

Most canned spray lacquer, or “rattle can lacquer” is not made to the same standards as higher quality cabinet-grade lacquer and will not create a good quality high gloss finish.

If you go to the local hardware store, you will most likely not be able to find a high-quality lacquer product.

However, there is one company that does make a reasonably high quality canned spray lacquer, and that is Mohawk Brand Spray Lacquer, here’s a link, if you’re interested.

From what I understand, Mohawk was a private company that made products for the furniture repair industry, and now they offer these products for sale to the public as well.

While this spray can product is pretty good, we will be using a higher quality lacquer and setting up a system for spray that will produce better and more cost-effective results than a canned lacquer.

Spray Lacquer Air Compressor Set Up

We need air to push the lacquer through the spray gun, and we need to regulate that air.

Let’s start with the air compressor. You don’t need a big colossal air compressor to do the job. As a matter of fact, I use a small Porter Cable pancake air compressor, and it works like a champ.

You will need a regulator on the line coming from the compressor and a hose about 15 to 25 feet long or longer. I’ll explain the hose in a minute.

I also use an inline moisture collector because it allows me to remove water that collects in the air compressor line. The moisture collector prevents the water from blending with the lacquer at the spray gun.

To put this all together, you will need to wrap all the fittings with Teflon tape and attached the appropriate air connectors at each end.

By the way, I’ve provided individual links to each of the products in this article. In addition, all of these items are listed in detail in my Recommended Finishing Gear Guide section.

Air Compressor Order

The items attached to the air compressor need to be placed in a particular order.

Immediately off the air compressor, I attach the water collection fitting and then the air regulator.

The most important part of this set up is having the long (15 to 20 foot) hose be the last element that attaches to the spray gun.

Do not attach the air regulator to the spray gun base. The regulator and any other attachments need to be at the other end of the long hose close to the air compressor.

Laminar Flow

The reason we need the long hose leading up to the spray gun, besides mobility, is because of a thing called Laminar flow.

Laminar flow is a scientific principle of fluid motion, and it’s really cool. I won’t even begin to explain this concept but there is a great YouTube channel, Smarter Every Day run by Destin and he does a great job explaining Laminar flow in this video.

What we need to know for our purposes is that devices, like air regulators, disturb the flow of air and make it turbulent. This can affect how the lacquer sprays from the gun nozzle.

We want a nice smooth, stable flow of air that comes out the hose and enters the gun. Smooth Laminar flow is created when the flowing volume of air travels down the length of the hose.

Spray Lacquer System Set Up Equipment Layout

Lacquer Spray Gun

The spray gun, in the old days, was the center of all frustrations with spraying. Now it’s crazy how simple, easy and cheap a spray gun can be.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but here is the spray gun I use. Are there better, more expensive guns? Sure, but why do I need one if this does the job?

Spray Gun Details

A spray gun has two passages, one for air and the other for fluid, in our case lacquer. When the flowing air and fluid travel through the gun and out the tiny holes in the spray head, the lacquer atomizes and turns into a fine mist.

The spray gun has essentially three different control knobs: fluid control, air control, and pattern control.

The fluid control knob adjusts how much liquid product flows through the gun.

And the airflow control, you might be guessing, controls the amount of air flow. We will keep the air flow knob opened all the way because, for our purposes, the amount of air will be controlled by the inline air regulator near the air compressor.

The needle removal and adjust knob allows us to remove the fluid needle by sliding it out the back of the spray gun for cleaning or repair. When we pull the trigger we are sliding the fluid needle backward and first opening the air flow, then by pulling farther on the trigger, we allow fluid through the gun.

Because the fluid needle allows airflow first, if the trigger is pulled back just a small amount, only air will escape. This can be used to test the air flow without spraying the liquid.

Lacquer Sprayer Parts Labeled

Adjusting Spray Pattern

The front of the spray gun has a removable nozzle, with two prongs protruding outward which controls the spray pattern.

Adjust the two prongs horizontal for a vertical spray or rotate them up and down for a horizontal spray pattern.

Because I use a left to right spray motion usually with the bowl on the lathe, I typically keep the spray nozzle with the prongs in a horizontal orientation which give me a tall spray path.

Regulated Air Pressure

Because we are using the regulator inline before the hose, we can control the amount of air traveling down the hose and into the spray gun.

Ideally, the pressure needed to spray lacquer is around 20 to 25 pounds per square inch or PSI.

However, we will need to set the air regulator gauge a bit higher than that in order to maintain 20-25 PSI while spraying.

When the spray gun is activated, the air pressure in the system will drop. If the air regulator is set to 20 or 25 PSI and you begin spraying, the gun may only have 12 or 15 PSI of air pressure at that moment.

This will cause the lacquer to spit or dribble from the gun.

Experiment a bit with different settings to see which works best for your set up. I have my regulator set to about 30 to 35 PSI, and this gives me a good spray of lacquer without spitting.

Watch the air regulator gauge as you spray to see what initial setting achieves 20 to 25 PSI when you are actually pulling the trigger.

To Much Pressure

By the way, if you don’t control the air coming from the air compressor, the air flow will be far too much for the gun.

Most air compressors produce at least 90 PSI of air pressure and that amount of pressure, if it doesn’t damage the spray gun, will create a super fine, unusable mist of lacquer.

The overspray or mist of lacquer can actually dry in the air before hitting your wood bowl.

If this happens, you might see white powdery dust on the wood. That is dried lacquer, and of course, it’s not desirable.

Low Pressure Plus

The real advantage of this set up is the low pressure.

Because we are using relatively low pressure to spray the lacquer, two positive things are happening.

First, we are not using a ton of lacquer when we spray and because we are using a controlled amount of product there is less overspray.

This system allows us to spray the lacquer right where we need it without waste and lost finish drifting away in the air. Better for us, less waste, and better for the environment. Win-win-win.

Spray Gun Testing

Add a small amount of lacquer thinner to the holding cup on top of the spray gun to test the set up of the spray gun, just thinner.

You will want to test a few things before you begin to apply lacquer.

First, we want to make sure there is liquid flow. With the gun not attached to the air hose yet, remove the shiny front nozzle and pull the trigger. Do this over something to catch the lacquer thinner.

The flow of lacquer thinner should be a reasonably clean arching stream that pours from the front opening. If you perform this same test with lacquer in the gun, it should flow less and could even dribble. This is because the lacquer is much thicker, or viscous compared to the lacquer thinner. That’s why they call it thinner. Ha!

Now, attach the air hose and be sure the air compressor is on and let air build up in the system.

Use a scrap piece of cardboard to spray the lacquer thinner as a test. Hold the gun about a foot away from the cardboard.

What we are looking for is an even amount of thinner hitting the cardboard surface as you pass the gun from left to right or vice versa.

Because I make left to right passes to apply the lacquer, I tend to use the vertical spray pattern. To get the vertical pattern, align the from nozzle nubs, left and right.

Spray Lacquer Sprayer Test Flow

Troubleshooting Spray Gun

If you can make a nice rectangular shaped path on the cardboard, you’re set.

However, if the flow from the spray gun is weak, make sure the air control knob to fully open and then check that the air regulator is reading around 20-25 PSI when you are spraying, not when the gun is sitting idle. Remember, the air pressure will rise when you stop spraying, and the system builds up air.

If you tested the spray and a super fine thin mist came out, you probably have too much air coming through. Leave the air control knob on the gun alone, and turn down the air regulator to reach the desired 20-25 PSI while spraying.

If lacquer thinner is not coming out, make sure the liquid flow adjustment is open enough, then if that doesn’t work, be sure the fluid needle is sliding all the way back in the spray gun.

When liquid just won’t flow, you may need to clean the gun. Occasionally, a spray gun will have some manufacturing oil still on the fluid needle, and that can be a problem.

Unscrew the fluid needle knob on the back of the sprayer and wipe the needle thoroughly with a microfiber towel and return the needle to the gun.

Quality Spray Lacquer

Yes, lacquer can be bought in many places. But there is a secret. The government, more specifically, California controls what you can buy in the stores.

Because California is such a large state, chemical manufacturers can’t ignore their rules and regulations and lose the opportunity to sell products within that state. And most manufacturers are not going to make two different sets of products, one for California and the other for everywhere else.

Consumer paint and finishing products bought in most chain stores have been dumbed down to meet these regulations. And as you might guess, while it is great to have safer environmental standards, the quality of these products deteriorate.

However, on the other side of the equation, professionals, such as cabinet makers still need to provide high-quality products to their customers. Clients are not going to accept cabinets which have a hazy, dull final finish.

High-Quality Lacquer Secret

So where do you find high-quality lacquer?

Cabinet maker supply stores carry high-quality lacquer and lacquer thinner, and it’s all legal and meets regulations.

Here’s how they do it.

Each manufacturer creates its own proprietary blend of lacquer with matching lacquer thinner. The lacquer product has various elements removed or altered in such a way that the product meets the California regulations.

The trick is that the manufacturers’ lacquer thinner essentially has the “antidote” to unlock the properties of the lacquer and it retains the high level of quality that professionals need.

Based on the fact that each manufacturer formulates their lacquer and lacquer thinner to match, blend, and compliment each other, you MUST use the same brand lacquer and thinner.

Mixing brand A lacquer with brand B lacquer thinner will not work and the results could be very disappointing.

Check around locally for a cabinet supply store and ask for 90 Sheen Pre-Cat Gloss Lacquer and also ask for the matching thinner. Some well-known brands include Gemini and Mohawk.

I purchase a gallon of each, lacquer and lacquer thinner and they last a long time and will not spoil if stored properly.

Spray Lacquer pre cat with matching thinner

Lacquer Elements To Avoid

Several things may come up based on what you’ve seen, heard, or possibly used in the past.

Remember how I said I want to keep the process straightforward?

Here are several things we do not need, nor need to concern ourselves with: Driers, Retarders, Sanding Sealer, Satin or Matte Lacquer.

Driers can degrade the quality of the lacquer and make working time too short. We will be using lacquer that dries to the touch in minutes.

Retarders, again, add elements to the lacquer that degrade the final quality. Retarders will prolong the drying process, and there really is no need for that, because it gives more time for potential issues to form.

Sanding sealer is basically lacquer with ground glass particles mixed within. These glass particles optically create a layer between the wood surface and the final coats of lacquer, which reduces reflectivity and diminishes the lacquer finish appearance.

Satin or Matte lacquers are essentially gloss lacquer, with other elements added to the mix to dull the appearance, again, reducing clarity.

If a satin sheen is desired, gloss lacquer can be sprayed, and the final coat can be buffed with 0000 Steel Wool. This process maintains the finish coat clarity and achieves a less gloss appearance.

Mixing Spray Lacquer

Mixing the lacquer and thinner is surprisingly simple. I pour the lacquer directly into the holding cup on the spray gun.

How full I fill the cup depends on how much spraying I will be doing. An inch or two in the spray container can efficiently finish a ten-inch wood bowl or perhaps a couple bowls.

After I pour in the lacquer, I will then pour in the lacquer thinner.

The proportion of thinner to the lacquer can vary, but I usually keep my mix around 10-20 percent of the amount of lacquer in the cup.

Believe it or not, I eye-ball this step, and it’s always worked for me. If you’d like, you can take the time to measure out the lacquer and thinner.

The biggest thing to remember is that you want to apply several thin, light coats and slowly build up the finish. Applying a couple thick coats of lacquer will not make the best looking results.

Mixed Lacquer Storage

When I’m finished spraying sometimes, I will have leftover mixed lacquer. Do not put mix lacquer back in with the pure lacquer or thinner.

Pour any remaining mixed lacquer in a clean glass jar and label as “mixed” before storing it away.

When you come back later, this mix can be poured right back into the spray gun cup.

Over time the mixture might thicken, if so just add a bit more lacquer thinner to get the right consistency.

Spray Lacquer Safety

When you spray lacquer, you need to make sure you have plenty of ventilation. Create a cross flow of air through your workspace and make sure clean air is being introduced thoroughly to your work area.

Safety glasses and a respirator are required as well. I have been using my main “turning” respirator which seems to work, but I’m considering using a dedicated VOC respirator, like this one, while spraying lacquer.

An interesting note about using a VOC respirator. Because the respirator uses charcoal filters and is designed to capture particulates in the air, even if it’s not on your face it is absorbing containments. Because of this, it is essential to store it within a sealable plastic bag when not in use.

A simple rule is if you can smell it you’re not blocking it. A basic paper dust mask is useless with chemical sprays. If you can smell it, you’re inhaling it.

Protect your equipment too. I use painters masking tape to cover my four jaw chuck and prevent overspray from coating the metal.

I also drape a drop cloth over the bed rails and the headstock. Be careful to not allow material to be wound up in the headstock.

Spray Lacquer Techniques

The best technique for moving the spray gun while applying lacquer is pretty straight-forward.

The distance between the spray gun nozzle and the bowl surface can vary, but I find that about 10 to 12 inches from the bowl surface works well for me.

You don’t want to be too close and apply so much lacquer that it quickly runs. And you don’t want to be so far away that the atomized particles actually dry in mid-air and create a powdery film.

I usually spray a bowl while it is sideways on a four jaw chuck mounted to the lathe. In this orientation, I spray the outside of the bowl first.

Position the spray gun on the left side of the bowl, pull the trigger until lacquer begins to spray and move the gun to the right across the bowl and release the trigger when the spray has covered that path.

Using my left hand, I rotate the hand wheel to reveal an adjacent area of the bowl side and repeat the process until the entire outside of the bowl is coated and appears wet.

Maintain a wet edge. This means let the new layer being sprayed slightly overlap the wet edge of the previous layer. This also means moving quickly, but not rushed, and be sure to not let the last area dry before applying the next area.

This process is repeated for the inside of the bowl. It’s also important to be sure the rim of the bowl is evenly coated in the process. If not, touch it up where needed.

Spray Lacquer Finishing Wood Bowls

Before spraying lacquer, finish sanding your wood bowl to about 220 or 320 grit and stop before applying the spray lacquer. The lacquer actually does better attaching to a bit of a “tooth,” and the 320 grit works well.

Wood sanded to a super smooth finish doesn’t hold the lacquer as well. After applying the lacquer coats, we will be able to sand the lacquer surface to an elegantly smooth finish instead of the wood surface directly.

If the wood bowl has very porous end-grain, you may want to coat the bowl first with high-quality shellac before spraying lacquer. Be sure to read my article that explains why and how to make your own shellac.

Applying the shellac first will reduce the amount of lacquer the end-grain continuously soaks up in the finishing process.

When you begin spraying, patience and thin, light coats of lacquer are the best way to build up an amazingly shiny gloss finish on a wood bowl.

Take your time and realize that the bowl will not look great for a while, several coats actually.

Once each coat has been applied, immediately turn the lathe on the slowest speed and let the bowl slowly rotate as it dries. The rotation allows the lacquer to settle and even out as it drys.

Additional coats can be applied when the lacquer is still a bit tacky. I usually only wait 10-15 minutes between coats of lacquer.

After three or four coats of lacquer, let the bowl dry until it is not tacky, this is usually at least 30 minutes. Drying times will vary depending on your climate.

Once the lacquer is thoroughly dry to the touch use 0000 steel wool or fine sandpaper (like 500 or 600 grit or higher) and smooth the bowl sanding with the grain of the wood. This sanding knocks down and smooths any imperfections.

With the sanding complete, apply another one or two coats of lacquer. At this point, the bowl should be looking pretty glossy and fabulous.

Keep in mind, the lacquer will not fully cure for several days, depending on the particular lacquer and other conditions. Be careful not to scratch or bump the bowl surface as it will be a bit soft until its cured.

Spray Lacquer Troubleshooting

So what do you do if you get a run or drip while you’re spraying? Start over and turn a new bowl. Ha. No, I’m only kidding.

If you get a drip when you spray, take a clean cloth, or the edge of your finger (I’ve done this dozens of times at least) and wipe the drip away while it’s wet.

Yes, there will be a smudged area, but don’t worry about that. If you just sprayed a coat and the lacquer is still wet, just spray a light coat on the smudge. If the previously sprayed coat is tacky, then spray another full layer on the entire piece, including the smudged area.

Lacquer Properties

Lacquer is a film finish which means it sits on top of the wood surface and does not soak into the wood.

The exciting thing about lacquer is that dissolves into itself. As you apply a new layer, that layer partially dissolves and integrates itself into the previous layers.

This is also why we need to rotate the bowl as it dries because we don’t want the lacquer to flow and build up on one side or another.

Because the lacquer bonds into itself, we can easily make touch-ups and repairs. When new lacquer is applied it blends in and combines with the existing lacquer.

If a bowl gets a scuff or scratch, just smooth it off with 0000 steel wool and spray a new coat of lacquer.

Spray Lacquer Dont’s

Don’t spray with lathe running.

Even at a low speed, the surface is moving too quickly to efficiently apply lacquer. More lacquer will be lost in overspray and is used to finish the bowl.

Also, the overspray mist can dry and land on the bowl making a dull white film appears.

Don’t sand until the lacquer surface is dry.

If you begin to sand when the lacquer is still a bit tacky, it can gum up and smear on the wood bowl surface.

If this occurs, let the smeared area dry thoroughly, then sand it down with fine sandpaper and reapply a lacquer coat.

Don’t apply lacquer over wax or silicone.

Silicone is impossible to apply lacquer over. The best example of silicone is Pledge. If a surface has silicone applied it’s nearly impossible to remove the silicone.

You may need to try sanding all the way down to the wood surface, and even this doesn’t always work.

Spray Lacquer Gun Cleaning

When you are done spraying, pour any remaining lacquer mixture in a separate clean glass jar labeled “mixed lacquer.”

I like to then pour a minimal amount of lacquer thinner into the spray gun cup and spray that through the system to clear out any remaining lacquer.

Using a separate clean glass jar, I unscrew the nozzle and place it in the glass jar covered with lacquer thinner. This cleans the little nozzle openings and prevents any lacquer from harding in these orifices.

Lacquer Sprayer Nozzle Thinner

If lacquer does dry or harden in the spray gun, soak the nozzle and front element of the gun in lacquer thinner for awhile and work the residue out of the gun until it smoothly sprays again.

Spray Lacquer Summary

There you have it, from setting up your air system, spray gun, obtaining quality lacquer and applying the lacquer to your wood bowl, we’ve covered the full spectrum.

Spray Lacquer how to equipment set up use

I want to thank Barry Reiter for all his help and for sharing his vast knowledge of chemicals and the inside industry information that helps explain why some of the processes and products are the way they are. It is because of Barry’s insight and knowledge that I was able to write this article.

We covered a lot in this article, but the overall process is really pretty straightforward. After you’ve sprayed a few bowls with lacquer, you will most likely get hooked on the look and method of spraying lacquer the right way.

Even though we covered most everything about spraying lacquer, I’m sure there must be questions. Leave me a comment below, and I’ll be happy to answer your questions.


You’re gonna want to see these other wood bowl finishing articles:
5 MAGICAL EBONIZING WOOD TRICKS
MAKE SHELLAC – HOW TO – WOOD BOWL FINISH
3 AMAZING TURQUOISE INLAY TECHNIQUES – ILLUSTRATED GUIDE


Happy Turning (and Finishing),
Kent

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