Acetone Vs Lacquer Thinner: Common Uses & How To Apply

Upgraded Home Team
by Upgraded Home Team
Choosing between acetone and lacquer thinner often comes down to the project you need them for. Lacquer thinner is better if you have hardened paint whereas acetone is ideal for cleaning grease and oil. Whether you need to clean grease or hardened paint, follow along as we compare lacquer thinner and acetone.

If you spent time in your grandpa’s garage, you probably noticed all those cans lining the shelf above his workbench. Those old often dented cans had labels like mineral spirits, acetone, polyurethane, lacquer thinner, spar urethane, latex, and oil-based. The list of painting products is endless.

Acetone has more practical uses than lacquer thinner, but it can be used interchangeably in many cases. Lacquer thinner is better for dissolving hardened paints, and acetone is better for cleaning plastics and oil. It is safer to use lacquer because of the slow evaporation rate.

When it comes to painting, a couple of those compounds are often mistaken for each other, leading to a lot of confusion over their use. Acetone is sold in single-ingredient form, but it’s also an essential ingredient of lacquer thinner. This leads to confusion for many consumers, but they’re not the same product.

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The Smell Of Acetone And Lacquer Thinner

That aroma drifting under the door of a teenage girl’s room as she does her nails is the smell of acetone. It’s commonly referred to as “ fingernail polish remover,” and once you’ve taken in the fumes, you’ll never forget that smell. Acetone is a mainstay in the cosmetics industry. Lacquer thinner has similar prominence in automobile paint, industrial applications, and heavy-duty cleaning.

A generation or two ago, kids were required to build insect collections as part of junior high science class. Teachers instructed them to put a cotton ball dipped in acetone at the bottom of a small glass jar. You put a bug in the jar; the acetone killed the insect while providing a little preservative so you could adequately mount that beetle, fly, or dragonfly in your cigar box bug collection.

Using Acetone

Acetone, also known as Propanone in many industrial applications, is a common solvent used in plastic production. It can be used in the household to dissolve superglue, take stains out of fabrics, and clean spilled paint off carpets.

Industrially it can dissolve a variety of plastic and petroleum-based products. It is used heavily in textile manufacturing to remove grease and oil from fabrics. One of the earliest uses of acetone was in cleaning and degreasing wool before weaving. Silk production relied heavily on acetone in keeping weaving machinery clean of accumulating gum as the silk was processed.

To add a little confusion to the mix, that smell you associate with an auto-body shop is also acetone, but it comes as an ingredient in lacquer thinner. It’s used in mixing paint and mists into the air when painters spray it onto car bodies.

Quick Trick

If you want to dazzle the kids, put a little acetone on a piece of Styrofoam, and watch it disappear. Acetone is used by custodial staff workers to clean keyboards, phones, and common work areas. It not only cleans, but it’s also an active anti-microbial agent as well, leaving a sterilized surface.

Crews working behind construction teams use acetone to remove stickers from windows and appliances. Acetone is one of the few chemicals that can remove permanent marker stains.

Using Lacquer Thinner

The obvious question is, why use acetone at all if lacquer thinner contains it and has nearly identical uses? Acetone beats lacquer thinner in one critical aspect; it evaporates much faster. Fast evaporation rates are essential in prepping surfaces for both oil-based and lacquer-based paints. On smooth surfaces, a fast prep ensures the paint will be applied to a clean, dust-free platform, vastly enhancing the final product.

How does lacquer thinner differ from the acetone? The answer is in the ingredients. There is no uniform recipe for lacquer thinner, but there are several common components. Lacquer thinner often contains toluene and methanol, enhancing its ability to clean paint residue, adhesives, and lacquer-based paints.

Where To Acetone And Lacquer Thinner

If you’re looking to use one of these, your choices may come down to cost and availability. Both are available at home supply stores. In some areas, acetone is more challenging to locate. When you do find it, it depends on the vendor when it comes to which one costs the most. A pint of either one will run you around $8 at most hardware stores.

Lacquer thinner is a ubiquitous product. You’ll find it in the big box home improvement stores, your local lumberyard, and at hardware stores everywhere.

You don’t want toluene on your forehead when you remove the adhesive holding a wig in place for a theatrical production. Acetone is much less caustic. The smell of acetone is the smell of theatre.

Okay, so you’re not likely to be on the makeup crew of an off-Broadway hit, but that old desk you bought at an auction 15 years ago is a different story.

Which One To Use For Furniture Restoration?

The finish on the old desk is a bit weathered, it might be slightly battered in spots, but it’s well worth trying to restore it to its original brilliance. You can use the brute force method. Hit it with caustic paint remover, then sand away with 80 grit, followed by 100, 120, and finally 220 grit sandpaper to remove the finish. Or, you can use a little science for a much more elegant solution.

Some restoration is done with essential oils, a process that can allow the furniture or surface to be enhanced without removing the finish. Pour a little denatured alcohol on a rag. If the finish liquefies, it’s shellac. If it softens but doesn’t liquefy, it’s a mixture of shellac and lacquer.

If it doesn’t’ pay much attention to the alcohol, put a little lacquer thinner on a rag, put it on the surface, wait a few minutes, and observe. If the finish liquefies, it’s a lacquer finish.

How To Apply Lacquer Finish

Once you’ve established the finish, the real work begins. Apply the lacquer finish to a small section of the desk, wait for 5 to 10 seconds for it to work, then start removing the finish with a brush or a rag. In a few minutes, you will have stripped the entire desk.

The flat surfaces on any restoration project are easy; they’re the ornate grillwork and appliqué that post a challenge. Use lacquer thinner on the intricate patterns in the old desk, wait a few seconds, and you’ll wipe away decades of decaying finish.

Sanding & Final Steps

When you’ve removed all the finish, sand the flat areas with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. Do the last sanding with 400 grit. Don’t sand the ornate areas, it will ruin the design. Just keep applying lacquer thinner until the appliqué takes on the appearance of your sanded surfaces.

The delicate designs commonly found in antique furniture give it a unique quality. Damaging or outright destroying those designs eliminates the need for restoration. Some attempt sand or bead blasting to remove the old finish from delicate designs, but lacquer thinner is a much more elegant solution.

Is One Better Than The Other?

Overall, it’s better to use lacquer thinner because of its slow evaporation rate. When applying the acetone, you may find yourself using a lot more because of how quickly it evaporates. Whereas if you were use to using nail lacquer, you would need a less amount because the evaporation time is very slow. This allows you to remove all of what you need to without the need to reapply continually.

However, if you need just a little bit to remove polish, then you can use acetone. Acetone is good to use in smaller quantities for lighter jobs, while lacquer thinner is better to use for much larger removal jobs.

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Related Questions

Is acetone the same as lacquer thinner?

No, acetone and lacquer thinner are not the same things. Lacquer thinner is blended with two or more solvents, while acetone is made up of either amyl or ethyl acetate. These components are mixed with ketone and toluene to create lacquer thinner.

Can I thin lacquer with acetone?

Yes, you can thin lacquer thinner with acetone. This will help to quicken the drying process because it evaporates quickly. Lacquer thinner takes a long time to dry, so adding acetone will help to make that a quicker process.

Use Them Safely

Acetone and lacquer thinner have many commonalities. If you spill it on bare wood, neither one does any damage. It evaporates so quickly that the wood, no matter how porous, can’t absorb it. Both chemicals are highly flammable, especially the fumes in a closed setting.

Extended exposure to acetone or lacquer thinner can cause tissue damage, brain damage, and respiratory problems. It is imperative to work in a well-ventilated area when using either chemical. The same can be said of the paint, plastic, or other applications you’re working on.

Outdoors is best, but grandpa had a good solution when he painted or restored furniture with the garage door wide open on a sunny afternoon. The key to success in any application is a little information. Knowing what you’re using, how it is to be used and at what levels to apply it is the key to success on any project.

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Upgraded Home Team
Upgraded Home Team

We are a team of passionate homeowners, home improvement pros, and DIY enthusiasts who enjoy sharing home improvement, housekeeping, decorating, and more with other homeowners! Whether you're looking for a step-by-step guide on fixing an appliance or the cost of installing a fence, we've here to help.

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