Orange Peel Eliminator
for Lacquer Finishes

Small projects like these can be finished
very easily with a spray finish

Lacquer Overview: This is a very popular finish for woodturnings and I use it frequently in my studio for various projects. It is quite easy to use and virtually foolproof most of the time. It can be sprayed, brushed, or wiped-on (depending on product and viscosity), making it easy to use no matter what type of project you're working on at the moment. When cured, this finish offers good durability, although it's not as durable as some of the more labour intensive finishes like multi-coat oils, polyurethanes, cyanoacrylates, or epoxies.

One of the great features of this finish is the ability to apply numerous coats in a relatively short period of time. Various tints and pigments can be easily added to produce tone sprays, coloured topcoats, or metallic finishes. It also polishes to a brilliant, glossy lustre that begs to be touched. In short, it is a very versatile finish that's a dependable and predictable performer.

Applying Lacquer

Most of the lacquer I use in my studio is sprayed using HVLP equipment, airbrushes, Preval sprayers (small disposable sprayers), or by using it from a regular aerosol can. I also brush it on from time to time, but spraying it is by far my favourite way to apply this finish.

On larger projects I prefer using my HVLP equipment, but when you just want to finish a small project like a writing pen or a bottle stopper, using an HVLP rig is overkill. In situations like these, I typically use an aerosol spray finish, like Master's Magic.

Aerosols are easy to use and store, although they are far from ideal. Many aerosols have spray tips that seem to have been made for applying a textured or sputtered finish.

Some tips are so bad, that they lay down a finish that looks like the surface of a cobblestone street… Master's Magic makes a great high build spray finish and the 50 degree spray tip is much better than you'll find on most spray lacquers.

When I want to spray this finish from a can, Master's Magic is my finish of choice.

Master's Magic is my favourite spray finish
for small projects

Orange Peel Rears Its Ugly Head

However, any aerosol spray finish can leave a bit of orange peel on the surface that must be smoothed to create that glossy smooth surface that we all love so much. While you can easily wet sand any orange peel on the surface of the finish, it's requires extra time and labour. Note: Orange peel is defined as a pebbled like film surface on lacquer or enamel finishes that resembles an orange skin. Orange peel can be caused by the finish drying too rapidly when sprayed, or by a failure or combination of failures to achieve the desired levelling effects.

Years ago, when I was doing a lot of projects for the retail market, I stumbled upon a technique to eliminate much, if not all of the wet sanding I was doing on my lacquer finished projects. I say stumbled upon, because I did not set out to develop this short cut, I accidentally discovered it one day when working on a rush project. Like so many things in life, necessity became the mother of invention when I found a great way to eliminate virtually all of the wet sanding I had been doing on my finishes prior to buffing.

Steve Russell's Orange Peel Eliminator

I was in the studio one day working on a signature piece for a big show and I had just finished spraying the last coat of lacquer when I got a phone call. I stepped out of the studio to answer the phone and whilst I was talking, a wasp flew in the studio and managed to land on the finish I had just applied to the project. Lucky me!

When I returned to the studio, the little bugger was still flopping about in a death roll, as it tried to free itself from the sticky surface. After carefully removing the wasp with a pair of tweezers, I surveyed the damage to the finish. I had applied about seven coats of finish at this point and there was no time to strip if off and start over. There was also no time to spray more on and let it harden enough to wet sand and buff out. I had barely enough time left to allow the finish to harden, so I could buff it.

As I pondered my situation, I considered dropping this piece from the show entirely and moving on to the rest of the work that needed to be done to get ready to leave. However, this piece was a real eye catcher and I needed it as a visual hook for the booth. With no time to apply several more coats, I thought why not spray lacquer thinner on the surface and let it smooth out the damaged area?

If this plan worked, I would not lose much time and I could come back in a few minutes and wet sand the surface to prepare it for buffing.

With nothing to lose, I poured some lacquer thinner into a Preval sprayer and donned my respirator (which was outfitted with an organic vapour cartridge), as I grabbed my finishing turntable.

I applied several light misting coats onto the surface as I slowly rotated the project to insure an even application of the thinner on the surface.

Disposable Preval sprayers are an excellent way to
spray thinner on finished lacquer surfaces


Ka-Ching! Not only did the area damaged by the wasp smooth out entirely, but I also noticed that all of the light orange peel on the rest of the surface was also eliminated. This meant that I no longer needed to wet sand the project at all, saving me even more time. After shooting the surface with inert gas to set the finish, I let it sit on my finishing turntable to dry. Later that night I completed buffing the project and packaged it for the show. As expected the piece was a great eye catcher in our booth and it really helped to make our show a success. The buyer loved it as well and I left the show a very happy camper.

On the way home from the show, I recalled the effect the thinner had on the lightly orange peeled surface. If it worked for light orange peel, it would probably work for heavy orange peel, like you sometimes get with spray lacquers. I did not have long to wait, as I completed a series of smaller projects the next week for another show. All of these projects were sprayed with Master's Magic and all had varying degrees of orange peel on the surface.

Rather than wet sanding them, I tried my orange peel eliminator short cut and every single project responded beautifully. Any existing orange peel on the surface was eliminated and the finish was smooth as glass, ready for buffing.

That was more than ten years ago and I have been using this little short cut ever since… It will not only save you time and effort, but I have found it eliminates virtually every bit of wet sanding I need to do on finished projects prior to buffing.

This thinner is much less expensive to purchase in
one or five gallon sizes

Other Benefits

In addition to removing varying degrees of orange peel on the surface of sprayed finish, I have found this technique beneficial for many other tasks. These include 1) Smoothing out buildup between tightly spaced design elements, like a series of small beads, 2) Blending and smoothing out multiple coats of tone-spray, 3) Allows easy feathering and blending of different colours for fade-in, fade-out effects, and 4) It's great for softening the surface of the finish to apply atomized metallic dusts into specific areas before over-coating with clear lacquer.

Make sure you wear a respirator with
organic vapour cartridges when spraying
these finishes or solvents

There are still a few times when I resort to wet sanding a finished project prior to buffing, but it is a rare case indeed these days. For 99% of my lacquer finishes, this short cut does the trick, very well indeed. Give it a try on your next project and see for yourself!

Remember to wear a respirator (dust masks will do nothing to protect your lungs from toxic fumes) with the proper organic vapour cartridge installed any time you spray finishes, solvents, or thinners. In addition, remember to wear any other safety equipment that may be required. Safety First!

Note: Additional information on my inert-gas trick for helping lacquers to dry quickly can be found here.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.