Finishing touch

“Our boat was built in the Far East, and the interior has a beautiful lacquer finish. I have a photograph of a worker brushing on the lacquer, and I can see he is using a 1-inch brush. I’ve tried a thick brush, a thin brush, short strokes and long strokes, and I can’t get a finish that looks like the original. Any suggestions?”

Duane Ericson, Oceanside, California

Don Casey replies: The word “lacquer” is often used to describe any high-gloss finish, particularly one that is applied by spraying. In my experience, a hard-gloss coating on interior wood on a sailboat is usually varnish. I should add that some boats made in the Far East could be exceptions.

If it’s really a lacquer finish, you have a hard task ahead of you. The reason is that lacquers are typically composed of resin—usually they are synthetic in the U.S., but could easily be natural in the Far East—and nitrocellulose that is dissolved in a volatile solvent, such as alcohol. Because most lacquers are extremely fast drying, they are hard to apply with a brush; the lacquer doesn’t stay fluid long enough to flow out.

If your lacquer was applied with a brush, it was probably buffed to the polished finish you have. Lacquering in Asia is often a family craft going back generations, so there’s a good chance that the person applying the lacquer in your photo may have been perfecting his or her technique since childhood.

You can try buffing the lacquer to get the finish you want, or you can replace it with a varnish finish, which has better flow characteristics. Sanding the lacquered surface should eliminate adhesion problems so that you can put varnish on top of the lacquer. To be safe, test first in an inconspicuous spot. Rebecca Wittman’s book Brightwork contains good information about getting a varnish finish that is comparable to lacquer.

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