Lacquer thinner and paint thinner are powerful thinners and solvents for oil-based paints, lacquers, stains, and varnishes. While they do share some properties, lacquer thinner and paint thinner are different products that address mostly different needs.
What Is Thinner?
A thinner is a liquid that is added to another, thicker liquid, such as paint, to make it less viscous and easier to roll, spray, or brush on.
What Lacquer Thinner Is
Lacquer thinner is a strong liquid thinner and solvent. Containing up to ten ingredients, lacquer thinner is a compound with mixture ratios that vary between manufacturers.
Lacquer can sometimes be too thick to brush on or spray. If thick lacquer is applied, the resulting finish may be bumpy, pitted, or have an orange-peel effect. In the same way that water thins out the molecules in water-based products, lacquer thinner has the right chemical properties to separate (or thin) the molecules in lacquers.
At $20 or more per gallon, lacquer thinner is an expensive thinner/solvent that should only be used sparingly. Lacquer thinner should never be poured down the drain, as it is considered a household hazardous waste and it can contaminate the local environment when not properly disposed of. Research responsible disposal options in your area.
When to Use
- Clean up lacquers
- Improve viscosity of thick lacquers
- Clean tools
- Clean paint sprayer
- Clean off inks and adhesives
What Paint Thinner Is
Paint thinner is any liquid product that thins or acts as a solvent for oil-based paints and other coatings.
The term paint thinner describes the product's function, not the ingredients. So, even eco-friendly products derived from citrus, soy, pine (for turpentine), or other organic materials technically fall under the paint thinner category.
Most often, though, paint thinner is made from pure mineral spirits. Or paint thinner might be produced from mineral spirits, with additives such as benzene.
Paint thinner is clear and has low or no odor.
When to Use
- Thin out oil-based paints, varnishes, or stains to make them less viscous
- Help paints flow better through paint sprayers
- Clean brushes
- Wipe off oily surfaces
- Clean oily tools
- Run through paint sprayers to clean hoses and internal workings
Are Lacquer Thinner and Paint Thinner the Same?
Compositionally, lacquer thinner and paint thinner are not the same. In fact, they share no ingredients. A visual scan of all ingredients making up more than 5 percent in both products shows the sharp contrast:
|Lacquer Thinner||Paint Thinner|
|Methanol||15% to 40%||0%|
|Acetone||10% to 30%||0%|
|Hydrotreated light distillate||10% to 30%||0%|
|Toluene||10% to 30%||0%|
|Ethyl acetate||3% to 7%||0%|
|Mineral spirits||0%||80% to 100%|
|Benzene||0%||3% to 7%|
Lacquer thinner or paint thinner work equally well for cleaning oily surfaces, including oily tools. But lacquer thinner is highly preferable for cleaning off tough substances like inks and adhesives.
Generally, it's best to avoid substituting lacquer thinner for paint thinner or the other way around. Manufacturers do not recommend lacquer thinner for use as a paint thinner or solvent. Conversely, paint thinner isn't designed for dissolving lacquers. Its composition just isn't right for this use.
Lacquer Thinner vs. Paint Thinner Strength
Lacquer thinner is more powerful than paint thinner. Lacquer thinner is so powerful that it will even soften cured, dried lacquers and other oil-based coatings. Lacquer thinner can damage plastic and rubber and it can even strip car paint. Lacquer thinner acts quickly and aggressively to dissolve lacquers.
Relatively milder and slower-acting, mineral spirits–based paint thinner is mainly effective on wet coatings. Paint thinner can damage cured coatings—but not with the speed and strength that lacquer thinner can.
Safety and Environmental Concerns
Both lacquer thinner and paint thinner are considered hazardous. Wear chemical-resistant goggles and gloves and breathing protection when working with either product. Work with these products only in well-ventilated areas.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are gasses that are emitted by chemicals, including lacquer thinner and paint thinner. VOCs have negative health effects, both immediately and in the long-term. Both products produce VOCs, but lacquer thinner produces less than paint thinner.
Lacquer Thinner and Paint Thinner Similarities/Differences
Effective with oil-based coatings
Composed of many ingredients
Around $20 per gallon
Fast acting, aggressive
Less VOCs than paint thinner
Cleans oily tools
Effective with oil-based products
Often just one or two ingredients
Not as strong as lacquer thinner
Around $10 per gallon
Slower acting, less aggressive
Flammable, but less so than lacquer thinner
Low or no odor
Cleans oily tools
"Facts About Hazardous Waste Program: Household Hazardous Waste Products." Maryland Department of the Environment, 2009.
"Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality." United States Environmental Protection Agency.