Waterborne finishes have been around for decades now, but they still don't seem to have caught on with painters in parts of the country where regulatory rules don't mandate their use. Early formulations are partly to blame for this lack of popularity: Temperature sensitivity, incompatibility with additives like tints and flow enhancers, sanding problems, and unfamiliar application methods have all made waterbornes unattractive to production-oriented painters. However, the good news is that the technology has evolved, driven in part by the EPA and states like California that place restrictions on VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in paints and stains. Waterborne finishes are now in their fourth generation — at least — and have reached a point where their advantages could make them attractive to even the most production-minded contractor.

I'm a remodeling contractor who prefers to do his own painting. My own move to waterborne lacquers, specifically for finishing interior trim on remodeling jobs, was driven not by state environmental regulations, but by the desire to cure the headaches — both figurative and literal — that other products were giving me. Solvent-based lacquers, for...

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