Water-based and widely ignored

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Water-based and widely ignored
The need to adjust
Manufacturers' role
What can be done?
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Water-based finish and HVLP spray-gun technologies owe their existence to the clean-air legislation passed since the 1960s. Both technologies made their commercial appearances in the late 1980s — each with a goal of reducing solvent emissions into the atmosphere.

HVLP (high volume low pressure) technology showed up originally in the form of portable turbine-air-supplied spray guns that produce a soft spray with up to a third less bounce-back (and resulting waste) than high-pressure guns. By the mid-1990s, manufacturers of high-pressure, compressed-air-supplied spray guns had modified their guns to produce the same soft HVLP spray and still atomize as well as turbine and high-pressure guns.

Thus, with both turbine and compressed-air HVLP guns producing the same high quality results as high-pressure guns, there was every incentive for finishers to switch because of the significant cost savings in finish materials. Almost everyone now uses HVLP, and even among those who don't, there's no vocal resistance.

HVLP has won the day, and we, as finishers and manufacturers, should be proud of ourselves for adopting this pollution-reducing technology.

But the same can't be said for water-based finishes. There's still a lot of resistance in small and medium size shops, even though there are some clear incentives to adopt these finishes. These include health benefits (avoiding the noxious fumes produced by lacquer thinner), lower insurance costs and protection of the environment.

It's clearly possible to make the switch. If you doubt this, simply read any of the numerous stories in trade magazines about shops that have done it.

A comfort level
So why is there still so much resistance to water-based finishes when there is essentially none to HVLP technology? Why, for example, do so many shops in the most strictly regulated part of the country, Southern California, go to such great lengths to avoid switching — even to the point of bootlegging non-compliant solvent finishes in from neighboring states at the risk of heavy fines?

I believe there are several reasons, starting with the basic conservative nature of finishers who resist any change when what they're doing is working. Then, there's the less-than-helpful marketing practices of some of the water-based finish suppliers.

Getting consistent results in a production situation is tough. It's not the macro differences in finishes that are the problem: whether to use nitrocellulose lacquer or conversion varnish, wiping stain or non-grain-raising (NGR) dye, glaze or toner. It's the micro differences in products of the same type that can drive finishers crazy.

Even the smallest formulation changes by a manufacturer or a change from one brand of stain or finish to another can result in days of adjustment to get everything working right again. Weather changes also cause problems that need to be resolved.

Bottom line, it takes a great deal of time and effort to become familiar enough with a finishing system and a set of products to minimize problems. Once a finisher has achieved a level of comfort, it takes an awful lot of prodding to get him or her to change anything voluntarily.