What Is Conversion Varnish? Everything You Need To Know

February 24, 2021

Conversion Varnish is one of the best (if not the best) finishes that can be applied to cabinet doors and wood in general.

But what makes it so great? Let's take a closer look at what exactly it is and the advantages and disadvantages of using it.

What is conversion varnish and how is it different from traditional lacquers?

When looking for the right finish, many cabinetmakers/finishers will usually pick one of two options: varnish or lacquer. The results may look similar, but there are some key differences to these two materials.

Conversion Varnish is a chemical-cured, fast-drying finish that consists of 2 parts: the finish and an acid catalyst that's added just before spraying. The catalyst creates a chemical reaction (cross-linking) in conjunction with added heat-curing that creates the hardest, most durable finish available on the market. It's a pretty delicate process because the mixture has to be the correct ratio of the two chemicals in order to harden properly.

Drawer box with conversion varnish

A closer look of one of our drawer boxes with conversion varnish.

Traditional lacquers, on the other hand, consist of a pre-catalyzed, nitro cellulose finish that's air-cured. Because it's pre-catalyzed, there's no need to mix any hardeners - making it a single component finish. They have a pretty low solid content (about 12-18% solids per volume), which means they often have to be reapplied many times for proper build and solid film density.

The advantages of conversion varnish

More durable. Conversion varnish has twice the dry film thickness as lacquer. This makes it more durable and less likely to scratch over time.

A painted HDF 5-piece door with M.L. Campbell's Turino Pigmented Catalyzed Conversion Varnish.

More elastic. CV is slightly more elastic than lacquer. Elasticity is an advantage for wood joint expansion and reduces the chance of cracks at the joints.

Fewer coats. Conversion varnish has a higher solid content (about 40%-60% solids by volume), which means it doesn't need as many coats to build an appropriate film build.

Easy to clean. Because it applies smoother and is a more durable finish, CV is pretty easy to clean, making it a perfect finish for cabinet doors that can often get food stuck on them.

Any disadvantages?

The biggest problem you may encounter with conversion varnish will most likely be because of bad application. CV requires a greater skill in spraying and must be applied by a professional. On top of that, the shop temperature must be in the upper 60s for the first 2 days after application.

It's also important to note, conversion varnish tends to be a bit more expensive - most lacquers cost around $25 per gallon, whereas conversion varnishes are usually around $60-$80 per gallon.

Ask yourself this question

When you're trying to decide whether to use conversion varnish or just go with a traditional lacquer, you need to consider your application and ask yourself this question: "What am I putting it on and where is that finished product going?"

Here at RCD, we use conversion varnish on all of our products and have found it to be the best finish that gives you a beautiful and extremely durable product, especially for cabinet doors (they tend to withstand a lot of abuse).

And P.S. we're here to help.

If you ever want a break from spraying, we can help with that. We have the equipment and materials to make finishing a breeze (see us in action here). And a dedicated finishing department that cares about your doors just as much as you.

Paint? Stains? Pre-primed doors? You name it. Check out our finishing page to see what we can do.

Finishing your doors? Read more about it here:

The doors are ready when you are.

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