varnish

varnish

[vahr-nish]
varnish, homogeneous solution of gum or of natural or synthetic resins in oil (oil varnish) or in a volatile solvent (spirit varnish), which dries on exposure to air, forming a thin, hard, usually glossy film. It is used for the protection or decoration of surfaces and may be transparent, translucent, or tinted. For oil varnishes a hard gum or resin, often a fossilized plant exudation such as kauri or copal, is dissolved in oil (commonly linseed oil or tung oil) and is diluted with a volatile solvent such as turpentine. Spirit varnishes are commonly made of soft resins or gums, such as shellac, dammer, mastic, or sandarac, dissolved in a volatile solvent, e.g., alcohol, benzene, acetone, or turpentine. Enamel is varnish with added pigments. Lacquer may be a cellulose derivative dissolved in a volatile solvent, or it may be a natural varnish made in the East from the sap of trees. Among the varnishes named either for their constituents or for the proposed use are japanner's gold size, cabinet, carriage, bookbinder's, patent-leather, insulating, photographic, shellac, and copal picture varnish. Varnish has been known from antiquity; the Egyptians coated mummy cases with a pastelike form made of soft resins dissolved in oil and applied when warm. Another early use was for coating oil paintings. Stradivarius and other violinmakers used a slow-drying linseed oil varnish on their instruments.

See Oil & Colour Chemists' Assoc., Paint Technology Manual (2 vol., 1961, 1962); C. R. Martens, Technology of Paints, Varnishes, and Lacquers (1968).

or patina

Thin, dark red to black mineral coating (generally iron and manganese oxides and silica) deposited on pebbles and rocks on the surface of desert regions. As dew and soil moisture brought to the surface by capillary action evaporate, their dissolved minerals are deposited on the surface. Wind abrasion removes the softer salts and polishes the surface to a glossy finish. Both high evaporation rates and sufficient precipitation are necessary for desert varnish to form.

Learn more about desert varnish with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Varnish is a transparent, hard, protective finish or film primarily used in wood finishing but also for other materials. Varnish is traditionally a combination of a drying oil, a resin, and a thinner or solvent. Varnish finishes are usually glossy but may be designed to produce satin or semi-gloss sheens by the addition of "flatting" agents. Varnish has little or no color, is transparent, and has no added pigment, as opposed to paints or wood stains, which contain pigment and generally range from opaque to translucent. Varnishes are also applied over wood stains as a final step to achieve a film for gloss and protection. Some products are marketed as a combined stain and varnish.

After being applied, the film-forming substances in varnishes either harden directly, as soon as the solvent has fully evaporated, or harden after evaporation of the solvent through certain curing processes, primarily chemical reaction between oils and oxygen from the air (autoxidation) and chemical reactions between components of the varnish. Resin varnishes "dry" by evaporation of the solvent and harden almost immediately upon drying. Acrylic and waterborne varnishes "dry" upon evaporation of the water but experience an extended curing period. Oil, polyurethane, and epoxy varnishes remain liquid even after evaporation of the solvent but quickly begin to cure, undergoing successive stages from liquid or syrupy, to tacky or sticky, to dry gummy, to "dry to the touch", to hard. Environmental factors such as heat and humidity play a very large role in the drying and curing times of varnishes. In classic varnish the cure rate depends on the type of oil used and, to some extent, on the ratio of oil to resin. The drying and curing time of all varnishes may be sped up by exposure to an energy source such as sunlight or heat. Other than acrylic and waterborne types, all varnishes are highly flammable in their liquid state due to the presence of flammable solvents and oils. All drying oils, certain alkyds, and many single-component polyurethanes produce heat during the curing process. Therefore, oil-soaked rags and paper can literally burst into flame hours after application if they are bunched or piled together, or, for example, placed in a container where the heat cannot dissipate. Spread rags and paper out to dry. As an added safety measure, douse the waste materials with water prior to drying. Alternatively they can be submersed in water in an airtight metal container and kept for later use or disposal. Check with manufacturer for details.

The word "varnish" comes from Latin vernix meaning odorous resin, which etymology comes from Greek Berenice, ancient name of modern Bengasi in Libya, credited with the first use of varnishes. Berenice comes from the Greek words phero (to bring) + nike (victory).

Components of Classic Varnish

Drying oil

There are many different types of drying oils, including linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil. These contain high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Resin

Resins that are used in varnishes include amber, kauri gum, dammar, copal, rosin (pine resin), sandarac, balsam, elemi, and others. The word varnish probably derives ultimately via ancient Greek from a placename of a city in ancient Libya where resins from the trees of once existing forests were sold. In modern English the ancient city is referred to as Berenice; otherwise the existing city in modern Libya is called Benghazi.

Turpentine or solvent

Traditionally, natural (organic) turpentine was used as the thinner or solvent, but has been replaced by several mineral based turpentine substitutes such as white spirit or "paint thinner".

Types

Violin

For violin varnish, walnut oil and linseed oil are most often used in combination with amber, copal, rosin or other resins. The oil is prepared by cooking or exposing to air and sunlight. The refined resin is typically available as a translucent solid and is then "run" by cooking or literally melting it in a pot over heat without solvents. The thickened oil and prepared resin are then cooked together and thinned with turpentine (away from open flame) into a brushable solution.

Resin

Most resin or "gum" varnishes consist of a natural, plant- or insect-derived substance dissolved in a solvent. The two main types of natural varnishes are spirit varnish (which uses alcohol as a solvent) and turpentine or petroleum-based varnish. Some resins are soluble in both alcohol and turpentine. Generally, petroleum solvents, i.e. mineral spirits or paint thinner, can substitute for turpentine. The resins include amber, dammar, copal, rosin {pine resin}, sandarac, balsam, shellac, and a multitude of lacquers. Synthetic resins such as phenolic resin are typically employed as a secondary component in certain varnishes and paints. Over centuries, many recipes were developed which involved the combination of resins, oils, and other ingredients such as certain waxes. These were believed to impart special tonal qualities to musical instruments and thus were sometimes carefully guarded secrets. The interaction of different ingredients is difficult to predict or reproduce, so expert finishers were often prized professionals.

Shellac

Shellac is a very widely used single component resin varnish that is alcohol soluble. It is not used for outdoor surfaces or where it will come into repeated contact with water such as around a sink or bathtub. The source of shellac resin is a brittle or flaky secretion of the female lac insect, Kerria lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand and harvested from the bark of the trees where she deposits it to provide a sticky hold on the trunk. Shellac is the basis of French polish, a difficult technique that produces an inimitable sheen, and which for centuries has been the preferred finish for fine furniture. Specified "dewaxed" shellac has been processed to remove the waxy substances from original shellac and can be used as a primer and sanding-sealer substrate for other finishes such as polyurethanes, alkyds, oils, and acrylics.

Shellac varnish is typically available in "clear" and "amber" (or "orange") varieties. Other natural color shades such as ruby and yellow are available from specialty pigment or woodworker's supply outlets. "White pigmented" shellac primer paint is widely available in retail outlets, billed as a fast-drying interior primer "problem solver", in that it adheres to a variety of surfaces and seals off odors and smoke stains. Shellac clean-up may be done either with pure alcohol or with ammonia cleansers.

Alkyd

Typically, modern commercially produced varnishes employ some form of alkyd for producing a protective film. Alkyds are chemically modified vegetable oils which operate well in a wide range of conditions and can be engineered to speed up the cure rate and thus harden faster. Better (and more expensive) exterior varnishes employ alkyds made from high performance oils and contain UV-absorbers; this improves gloss-retention and extends the lifetime of the finish. Various resins may also be combined with alkyds as part of the formula for typical "oil" varnishes that are commercially available.

Spar Varnish

Spar varnish (also called marine varnish) is high quality, waterproof, and sunlight-resistant varnish named for its use on ship or boat spars and other woodwork where a glossy finish is desired. Modified tung oil and phenolic resins are often used. Better grades of spar varnish have substantially higher amounts of uv-absorbers added.

Drying Oils

By definition, drying oils, such as linseed and tung oil, are not true varnishes though often in modern terms they accomplish the same thing. Drying oils cure through an exothermic reaction between the polyunsaturated portion of the oil and oxygen from the air. Originally, the term "varnish" referred to finishes that were made entirely of resin dissolved in suitable solvents, either ethanol (alcohol) or turpentine. The advantage to finishers in previous centuries was that resin varnishes had a very rapid cure rate compared to oils; in most cases they are cured practically as soon as the solvent has fully evaporated. By contrast, untreated or "raw" oils may take weeks or months to cure, depending on ambient temperature and other environmental factors. In modern terms, "boiled" or partially polymerized drying oils with added siccatives or dryers (chemical catalysts) have cure times of less than 24 hours. However, certain non-toxic by-products of the curing process are emitted from the oil film even after it is dry to the touch and over a considerable period of time. It has long been a tradition to combine drying oils with resins to obtain favourable features of both substances.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane varnishes are typically hard, abrasion-resistant, and durable coatings. They are popular for hardwood floors but are considered by some to be difficult or unsuitable for finishing furniture or other detailed pieces. Polyurethanes are comparable in hardness to certain alkyds but generally form a tougher film. Compared to simple oil or shellac varnishes, polyurethane varnish forms a harder, decidedly tougher and more waterproof film. However, a thick film of ordinary polyurethane may de-laminate if subjected to heat or shock, fracturing the film and leaving white patches. This tendency increases with long exposure to sunlight or when it is applied over soft woods like pine. This is also in part due to polyurethane's lesser penetration into the wood. Various priming techniques are employed to overcome this problem, including the use of certain oil varnishes, specified "dewaxed" shellac, clear penetrating epoxy sealer, or "oil-modified" polyurethane designed for the purpose. Polyurethane varnish may also lack the "hand-rubbed" lustre of drying oils such as linseed or tung oil; in contrast, however, it is capable of a much faster and higher "build" of film, accomplishing in two coats what may require multiple applications of oil. Polyurethane may also be applied over a straight oil finish, but because of the relatively slow curing time of oils, the emission of certain chemical byproducts, and the need for exposure to oxygen from the air, care must be taken that the oils are sufficiently cured to accept the polyurethane.

Unlike drying oils and alkyds which cure, after evaporation of the solvent, upon reaction with oxygen from the air, true polyurethane coatings cure after evaporation of the solvent by a variety of reactions of chemicals within the original mix, or by reaction with moisture from the air. Certain polyurethane products are "hybrids" and combine different aspects of their parent components. "Oil-modified" polyurethanes, whether water-borne or solvent-borne, are currently the most widely used wood floor finishes.

Exterior use of polyurethane varnish may be problematic due to its heightened susceptibility to deterioration through ultra-violet light exposure. It must be noted, however, that all clear or transluscent varnishes, and indeed all film-polymer coatings (e.g. paint, stain, epoxy, synthetic plastic, etc.) are susceptible to this damage in varying degrees. Pigments in paints and stains protect against UV damage. UV-absorbers are added to polyurethane and other varnishes (e.g. spar varnish) to work against UV damage but are decreasingly effective over the course of 2-4 years, depending on the quantity and quality of UV-absorbers added as well as the severity and duration of sun exposure. Water exposure, humidity, temperature extremes, and other environmental factors affect all finishes. By contrast, wooden items retrieved from the Egyptian pyramids have a remarkably new and fresh appearance after 4000 years of storage. Even there, however, fungal colonies were present, and mildew and fungus are another category of entities which attack varnish. In other words, the only coat of varnish with near perfect durability is the one stored in a vacuum, in darkness, at a low and unvarying temperature. Otherwise, care and upkeep are required.

Lacquer

The word lacquer refers to quick-drying, solvent-based varnishes or paints. Although their names may be similarly derived, Lacquer is not the same as Shellac and is not dissolved in alcohol. Lacquer is dissolved in Lacquer Thinner, which is a highly-flammable solvent. Lacquer is typically sprayed on, within a spray booth that evacuates overspray and minimizes the risk of combustion.

Outside America, the rule of thumb is that a clear wood finish formulated to be sprayed is a lacquer but if it is formulated to be brushed on then it is a varnish. Thus the vast majority of wooden furniture is lacquered.

Acrylic

Acrylic varnishes are typically water-borne varnishes with the lowest refractive index (highest degree of clarity) of all finishes. They impart little or no color. Acrylics have the advantage of water clean-up and lack of solvent fumes, but typically do not penetrate into wood as well as oils. They sometimes lack the brushability and self-levelling qualities of solvent-based varnishes. Generally they have good UV-resistance.

In the art world, varnishes offer dust-resistance and a harder surface than bare paint – they sometimes have the benefit of ultraviolet light resistors, which help protect artwork from fading in exposure to light. Acrylic varnish should be applied using an isolation coat (a permanent, protective barrier between the painting and the varnish, preferably a soft, glossy gel medium) to make varnish removal and overall conservation easier.

Two-Part

Various epoxies have been formulated as varnishes or floor finishes whereby two components are mixed directly before application. Often, the two parts are of equal volume and are referred to as "part A" and "part B". True polyurethanes are two-part systems. All two-part epoxies have a "pot-life" or "working time" during which the epoxy can be used. Usually the pot-life is a matter of a few hours but is also highly temperature dependent. Both water-borne and solvent based epoxies are used.

See also

References

  • Bob Flexner (1993). Understanding Wood Finishing: How to Select and Apply the Right Finish. Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA. ISBN 0-87596-566-0

External links

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