Well, we've done it. Made the switch from old school nitrocellulose lacquer to water-borne lacquer as the finish for our wood boxes, cabinets and actually, all our work. It was getting difficult to buy lacquer off the shelf. Deft has disappeared from Home Depot or paint stores. We THOUGHT we had made the switch a month or two ago when we sprayed our first batch of boxes and were horrified by the results even though we had done some testing...apparently not enough. Had to actually sand down the finish and start over with our old Watco/Deft routine. (Yes, you can apply Deft over Watco. Makes for a beautiful rich finish.)
Anyway, since then we have been testing Target Coatings EMtech EM6000 Series Water-Based Production Lacquer. It's available only in larger cities in the Pacific Northwest. A day's drive for me so I order from The Finishing Zone. Usually $52/gal but if you sign up for specials you recieve fairly discount notices fairly often. Then you have to pay shipping - this is not a cheap finish.
The first thing we decided was to go with gloss over semi-gloss as we had with Deft. Semi-gloss contains a dulling agent that can, well, dull the clarity. I didn't notice this effect with Deft lacquer but, boy, did the water-borne finish obscure the wood. Not only cloudy but a strange tint too.
The reason we used Watco Danish Oil as a first coat was it helped to pop the color and I suppose acted as somewhat of a sealer. To reproduce that effect with the water-borne finish took a while to achieve. We tried Zinsser SealCoat (shellac) instead of oil but the result just wasn't rich enough. We tried a tinted coat of finish but found it is just not the same as "oil enhanced" I guess you could call it.
We finally came up with mixing our own shellac. Shellac.net sells flake shellac in several grades and colors. We mixed up a small batch each of Orange Amber and Garnet in a 2 pound cut. Dewaxed shellac has superior clarity and can be used under virtually finish. We also used Klean Strip Green Denatured Alcohol which is a higher grade denatured alcohol than your big box store carries. Using an old electric coffee grinder we quickly made the flakes almost a powder for faster dissolving in the alcohol. In an hour or so we had a nice amber shellac and a very dark shellac. A 50/50 mix of the two is perfect for us. Applying it with a small cloth to the wood surface takes a bit of practice as it dries very fast. You needn't build a thick coat though. It dries so fast that you can very lightly sand with 800 paper and be ready to spray very quickly. We ran tests on many different woods from maple to bubinga, leopardwood and zebrawood.
And that's it. A very close match to our old finish. Not as forgiving though. EM6000 rubs out about the same although it's not as soft and easy. It can be buffed if needed. Dries quickly and of course cleans up with water. And no more toxic vapors drifting around the neighborhood! No odor either. Doesn't mean you needn't wear your vapor mask. It dries harder than nitrocellulose lacquer and, once dry, repairs to dings or scratches are not easy to make. Acetone and lacquer thinner doesn't touch it.