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What is a Washcoat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A washcoat is a very thin layer of paint or sealer. Washcoats are used in the preparation of catalytic converters and also in the staining of wood products like cabinets and other furniture. The composition of a washcoat varies depending on where it is being used. Home supply stores usually carry ingredients for woodworking washcoats, while the materials used in catalytic converters are proprietary to the manufacturer.

In the case of a catalytic converter, used to treat exhaust to reduce pollution, washcoats cover the core of the device, with the catalyst held in suspension in the washcoat. The exhaust is vented through the catalytic converter, where a chemical reaction takes place to convert some of the toxins into safer chemical compounds. Catalytic converters were once widely used on vehicles, but have since been replaced by other systems and they can still be seen on tractors, generators, and a variety of other devices.

Washcoats for woodworking are applied before wood is stained if there are concerns that the stain will become blotchy or patchy. For this type of work, the wood is first sanded smooth. A washcoat is applied and lightly sanded before the stain is added. The partial sealing will help the wood resist the deep penetration that results in spotting and blotching, yielding a finished product with a crisper, cleaner look. Other treatments, such as another sealer to protect the wood, can be applied after the stain.

Woodworkers have to mix the sealer before use. It must be diluted so that the wood can still take stain, but it cannot be so dilute that the stain is allowed to move right through the washcoat and into the wood. Since every wood is different, some woodworkers experiment with different dilutions and test patches on scrap wood from the project. This helps them decide where to apply the washcoat and how heavily to dilute it.

Sometimes washcoats are only necessary on the end grain, as it tends to absorb stain more readily. Since the endgrain can be highly visually interesting, woodworkers want to avoid obscuring it with stain that penetrates too deeply. In other cases, all of the wood including the end grain needs a thin coating to prevent overstaining. Woodworkers can decide on the most appropriate application on the basis of their experience with a given wood and the aesthetic goals that they are trying to achieve with the finished product.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ceilingcat — On Jun 29, 2011

@indemnifyme - It was nice of your stepfather to help you with that. I discovered what washcoat was in a slightly less pleasant way.

I decided I was going to take on some home improvement projects, including staining a bench for my front porch. Now, I don't know how to stain to save my life. But instead of looking online and getting directions for how to stain properly, I just threw some stain on it and thought that would be fine.

Not so. The bench look terrible! I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong until a friend came over one day and commented that I must have used sealer that was too diluted. After seeing my blank look my friend explained to me what sealer and washcoat was. My next household wood staining project was much more successful!

By indemnifyme — On Jun 28, 2011

My stepfather recently stained two wooden shelves for me. I had no idea the process of staining wood was so complicated until then! I seriously always thought you just threw some stain on it and then you were done.

First my stepfather went through the process of trying to find the right stain that would match the wood of the hutch the shelves were going in. Then he put the washcoating on. After that, the actual stain. But wait, not done yet! Then it was time for sealant.

This whole process took a pretty long while because you have to wait for the coats to dry before applying another. However the shelves look great so I'm glad my stepfather took his time working on them.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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