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Enamel vs. Lacquer: Which One's Best for Painting Kitchen Cabinets?

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

Kitchen cabinets I sprayed with pre-catalyzed lacquer.

Kitchen cabinets I sprayed with pre-catalyzed lacquer.

Painting Wood Cabinets with Lacquer vs. Enamel

One of the best ways to upgrade your kitchen without spending thousands of dollars on new cabinets is to paint them instead. A professional paint job can truly transform the ugliest cabinets into a stunning showpiece that will make your friends and neighbors jealous.

So if you've decided to jump onto the cabinet painting bandwagon, you're probably researching various paints and how they perform. Two attractive and durable types of coatings to consider for your cabinets are semi-gloss enamel and pigmented lacquer, but which one's best? This article covers the key differences between the two and what I personally use for my cabinet painting projects.

Oak cabinets I sprayed white with pre-catalyzed lacquer.

Oak cabinets I sprayed white with pre-catalyzed lacquer.

Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer for Kitchen Cabinets

Most people think of lacquer as a clear protective coat, but in the pigmented form it's almost identical to paint, with some performance differences. Pigmented lacquer is often referred to as "lacquer paint" because it's solid and available in a multitude of colors like paint, but the two are not the same.

Lacquer is solvent-based, which means it's smelly. Very smelly. That is unless you opt for waterborne lacquer, but then the hardness and durability of the coating suffers. The best way to go when it comes to using solid color lacquer on kitchen cabinets is pre-catalyzed lacquer, which is what I use. I should mention that using solid lacquer on cabinets requires spraying because it dries too fast for brushing and rolling.

Pre-Catalyzed vs. Post-Catalyzed: What Does it Mean?

The name might sound complicated, but all "pre-catalyzed" means is the store adds three to four ounces of a hardening agent, or catalyst, to the lacquer in advance. I add it myself in my shop. Post-catalyzed simply means you add the hardener yourself like I do.

The hardener is what makes the lacquer dry harder and more resistant to chemical stains. Once the hardener is added to the lacquer the clock is ticking and it must be used before its pot life ends. The pot life varies between products, but it's anywhere from three to twelve months. The Sherwood (Sherwin Williams) Hi-Bild lacquer I use has a pot life of three months once the catalyst is added.

There are a number of reasons why I continue using lacquer instead of paint for my cabinet painting projects, but like anything else, there are pros and cons.

Here are some things I like and dislike about using pigmented lacquer on cabinets:

What I like:

  • The durability: Pre-catalyzed lacquer is more durable than non-catalyzed lacquer and even more durable than door and trim enamel you can buy from any paint and home improvement store. After curing, the added catalyst results in a harder and more chemical-resistant finish compared to waterborne enamel. Stain resistance is really important in a kitchen if you cook a lot. The last thing you want to do is ruin your beautiful cabinets wiping off food spills. The durability factor is one of the main reasons I prefer using lacquer on my customers cabinets.
  • The finish: I've sprayed hundreds of cabinet doors with different paints in various colors, but lacquer, by far, looks and feels smoother to the touch. Lacquer is very thin and as a result it lays out smoother on cabinet doors than any paint I've ever used. Paint is a lot thicker and because of that it's more prone to orange peel texture. You can certainly achieve a beautiful finish with enamel, but lacquer will give your cabinets more of a factory finish.
  • The dry time: As a business owner, the sooner I can spray cabinet doors and install them, the better. One thing I love about spraying lacquer is the super fast dry time compared to slow-drying paints. I can spray cabinet doors and handle them in under one hour without marring the finish. When I spray cabinet frames, the fast dry time allows me to spray the primer and top coats all in the same day and clean up the kitchen too. Paint takes hours to dry before you can even move to the next step.

What I don't like:

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  • The VOCs: The worst thing about lacquer is the dreadful smell, but of course, this is easily mitigated with a mask and ventilation. When I spray cabinets I basically wear my painting respirator for the entire day. Waterborne lacquer is an alternative for those who want to cut down the VOCs, but know that you're also cutting down the durability with a waterborne product. The smell is bad, but with adequate ventilation the odor goes away in one day.
  • Touch-ups: The downside of using pre-catalyzed lacquer is the pot life, or expiration date, meaning your leftover can for touch-ups will eventually become garbage. The product I use is good for three months once the catalyst is added to the can. As far as touching-up lacquered cabinets, I don't find it to be any better, or worse, than touching up paint. In general, touching up any glossy finish is difficult. I use a very small artist brush for touch-ups.
A kitchen island I spray painted with enamel.

A kitchen island I spray painted with enamel.

Using Cabinet Enamel Paint in a Kitchen

The most common paint used on cabinets by homeowners and painters is acrylic enamel, or acrylic alkyd (hybrid), to mimic the look of traditional alkyd enamel. In the past, alkyd enamel was sought after the most for its durability and stunning finish when sprayed, but now more people are using hybrid enamel on their cabinets. Although hybrid enamel does offer additional hardness when cured, the sprayed finish and durability of alkyd enamel is superior. Same thing with lacquer.

The problem with alkyd enamel is the extended dry time, but even some of the hybrids dry slow too. A good example is Advance from Benjamin Moore, a popular paint for cabinets. Advance can't be re-coated for sixteen hours! That's a long time to wait between coats and not exactly ideal for anyone trying to make a living as a cabinet painter. In comparison with the pre-catalyzed lacquer I use, I can spray the next coat no more than one hour later.

Painting Cabinets with Enamel

When it comes to cabinet painting, I prefer pre-catalyzed lacquer over enamel for durability and the faster turnaround with install, but that doesn't mean enamel is a bad choice. I still use it on doors and trim and to repaint previously painted cabinets, since lacquer cannot be used over paint.

The product I used for many years is Pro Classic acrylic enamel from Sherwin Williams. I like the semi-gloss finish. There is also an acrylic alkyd version in the Pro Classic lineup. The product I've used the most on cabinets before switching to Sherwood pre-cat lacquer is Emerald urethane enamel, also a Sherwin Williams product. I also used Pro Industrial urethane enamel a couple times to spray paint cabinets black in a basement, as well as for painting staircase spindles black and white. I've also used Behr urethane enamel, supplied by my customer, but I don't recommend that product.

Here are some things I like and dislike about using waterborne enamel on cabinets:

What I like:

  • Less VOCs: Even though the smell is nowhere near as bad as lacquer and other solvent-based coatings, you still need to wear a respirator, even when brushing and rolling. I find the smell of acrylic alkyd enamel to be worse than regular acrylic, but again, less pungent than lacquer for sure. Less VOCs might be important if you're overly sensitive to paint odor and want to reduce it as much as possible.
  • It's sold everywhere: Every major paint manufacturer and paint store sells door and trim enamel. Many of these paints can be tinted to practically any paint color too. Since pigmented lacquer is used mostly by cabinet painters, sometimes it can be harder to find. The product I use is usually available, but has to be shipped in from another store.
  • No pot life: Paint eventually goes bad, but it generally lasts quite a while, so you can hang onto your leftover touch-up paint longer before it's garbage. Pre-catalyzed lacquer, as I explained earlier, does have a pot life of less than twelve months.
  • It self-levels: One of the benefits of using quality enamel on cabinets instead of semi-gloss wall paint is it's more durable and it also levels on its own without adding conditioner. The leveling really makes it look a lot smoother when sprayed and brushed.

What I don't like:

  • It takes too long to dry. Dry time might not matter to someone painting their own cabinets one time, but when you're doing it for a living, it's really important. Most of the products I've worked with cannot be re-coated for at least four hours, but expect an even longer wait if you lay it on too heavy or use a product like Advance from Benjamin Moore. Painted doors usually aren't mar-resistant until the next day, but with lacquer, I can pick up the doors within twenty minutes and spray the next coat in under one hour.
  • More prone to bubbles and cratering. I've had this problem multiple times using mostly acrylic alkyd enamel. I've also run into occasional fish-eye problems spraying lacquer, but I've had more problems with enamel. I think part of the problem is the extended dry time increases the chances of the paint being impacted by humidity and other conditions as it cures.
  • It's less chemical-resistant. Don't get me wrong, you can wipe off food spills and fingerprint marks from painted cabinets, but one of the reasons I switched to lacquer is it's easier to maintain and doesn't de-gloss as easily from cleaning. With paint, if you wipe it too hard, or too many times, eventually you'll start rubbing off the gloss and leaving marks in the finish. Lacquer is way more chemical-resistant to coffee spills and other things that easily ruin paint.

Final Thoughts

So which one's better? They both have their place in the painting world. Premium acrylic alkyd enamel is the best choice for the average homeowner who wants to either brush and roll their cabinets or spray them. The additional hardness of the coating when cured makes it more durable than regular acrylic enamel. These paints also have less VOCs than lacquer and alkyd enamel.

For a painter doing a lot of cabinet painting, or a skilled DIYer who wants to spray their own cabinets, pre-catalyzed lacquer is definitely the better way to go for chemical-resistance, durability and turnaround. There is a reason cabinet and furniture makers use pre-catalyzed lacquer on their products and not paint.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Matt G.

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