Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane – What’s the Difference?

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane

Every piece of furniture or wood project needs a certain type of top coat or finish. Usually, this polish is not only used to give the wood a particular outlook but to also make it durable. Although there are different types of finish that can be used, polycrylic and polyurethane are the most common. While doing some woodwork, you may have to decide on which top coat to use between polycrylic and polyurethane. Given that both of them share some similarities, choosing the best could be a daunting task.However, picking the right one is easy when you are armed with all the relevant information. This means that you should at least be able to differentiate one from the other. Moreover, it would help if you knew how each one of them works. This article seeks to furnish you with all the necessary details to help you make a perfect choice.



Photo: diynetwork.com

Whether you are working on a sleek wooden table or floor, you will have to give it the best finishing touch. A polycrylic top coat is one of the best water-based polishes for wood. With this finish, you are not limited as it comes in several varieties, including glossy and satin.

Apart from being a water-based finish, polycrylic is also clear. For a woodworker who is always working on furniture, you can either use a roller or spray bottle with this top coat. Further to that, it is particularly ideal when working on light surfaces, especially when you want to maintain the natural appearance of the wood you intend to use.

Some of the advantages of a polycrylic finish include affordability, durability as well as not leaving any kind of tint on the wood.However, it has some downsides. One of these is that its speed of drying makes it unsuitable for large pieces of furniture. Also, if you make a mistake of applying a thick layer on the wooden surface, you risk leaving a milky finish, which is extremely undesirable.If you want to get the best out of the polycrylic finish, you should ensure that the cracks and chips are removed. This can be achieved by using the appropriate filler. As soon as you have a friendly surface, you can proceed to apply the coating. Nevertheless, you may sometimes want to achieve a somewhat rugged look on your project. If that’s so, you wouldn’t need to use the filler. Always use a wood filler that is compatible with stain to get the best results.



Photo: cydneypugh.co

Different kinds of furniture are used for different purposes, and hence the need for varied care and maintenance. For instance, a wooden cabinet that sits in your bedroom is not exposed to the same conditions as a front desk in a busy office. In other words, the desk may need a more durable finish than the cabinet. This is why it’s better to use polyurethane on any type of furniture that is either used by many people or exposed to stringent conditions.

Polyurethane is a common protective top coat that is available in both the glossy and satin option. Additionally, there is an oil-based option as well as water-based polyurethane. With the water-based polyurethane, you can avoid the strong odor that comes with most oil based topcoats. Oil-based polyurethane is even much better for some projects. One of its superior qualities includes durability and is more resilient to a hot environment than its counterpart.While polyurethane has very good qualities, some of them can work against you during a project. The odor is definitely a concern, especially when you have to work in a workshop that is not sufficiently ventilated. You may need to give it a whopping 12 hours to dry, which might be too long for an urgent project. Finally, you may want to keep it away from fire, lest it burns down your workshop.Luckily, you can get a very shiny, attractive piece of furniture from it. Moreover, this type of finish is almost scratch proof. In fact, the wooden surfaces may look as good as new even after years of service.Typically, oil-based polyurethane is easier to apply in comparison to the water-based counterpart. Also, you may just get the job done with 2-3 coats. Water-based polyurethane may need up to four courts, which makes it more labor-intensive.

Table of comparison


It is water-based​​​​It has an oil-based as well as a water-based option
Dries quickly after application finishDries much slower in comparison to Polycrylic
It is completely clearHas a somewhat yellowish tint
It is mild and safeIt is much stronger and flammable
Best suited for small projectsGood for larger projects which need uniformity
Easy to clean since it is water-basedHard to clean up, especially the oil-based version
Has low viscosity, making it challenging to applyThicker and easier to apply
Cheaper, since it’s water-basedMore expensive, especially the oil-based option

How to Choose Between Polycrylic and Polyurethane

As you embark on a woodwork project, there are a number of factors that can help you determine the best type of finish to use. Here are a few pointers that could help you.

1. Ventilation

Polyurethane is a hard finish with a strong odor. You might want to use it in a well-ventilated area. This is because your health could suffer as a result of the odor, especially when you have to use it for long periods of time. On the other hand, a Polycrylic coating can be used in poorly ventilated areas without any serious health ramifications.

2. Size of the project

Whereas it is much easier for small pieces of furniture to be evenly painted, it becomes much more difficult for the larger ones. Uniformity is something that every woodworker strives to achieve while applying the finish. Therefore, polyurethane works best for bigger pieces of furniture as well as projects. For example, when applying the finish of a wooden staircase, you will be dealing with numerous pieces of wood. A polycrylic will be the most reasonable choice of finish. Nevertheless, when polishing a large wooden ceiling board or floor, polyurethane will definitely be a better choice for the sake of uniformity.

3. The frequency of use

Like many other materials, wood is subject to wear and tear. Although this is inevitable, there are a few actions you could take to safeguard wooden surfaces. One of them includes using an appropriate topcoat.Be it a dining table or a wooden chair, the frequency of use varies. In most cases, a wooden chair in your office is likely to be used more than a dressing table in your guest room. This means that the piece of furniture that is likely to experience more traffic needs a tougher finish. Polyurethane will easily withstand a harsh environment than a polycrylic coating.

4. Exposure to heat or water

An oil based finish is considered to be water resistance and that is why it suits a surface that is likely to be exposed to water more frequently. It is also well suited for any wooden surface or furniture that may be exposed to heat. This could be sunshine or a kitchen table that has to put up with plates of hot meals from time to time.

5. Budget

Your budget also matters. Since polyurethane costs more, you may require a bigger budget for your project. Nonetheless, when you have to keep your costs relatively low, a polycrylic coating would do just fine.

6. The urgency of the woodwork

Sometimes, a client may need a wooden table urgently for an oncoming function. In such a case, you need to use a finish that can dry fast so that you meet the deadline. Polyurethane will not make the cut in this circumstance. Therefore, you may have to settle for a polycrylic coating as it will dry within no time.

7. State of the wood being used

Normally, a polycrylic coating works really well on a smooth and soft surface. This is why you should use it to polish pieces that are made with finished wood. For the unfinished wood, you would need a more versatile finish. Rest assured, a polyurethane topcoat excels in both scenarios.

8. A shiny look

If you want a particular piece of furniture to look shiny, then you are better off using oil-based glossy polyurethane coating. This is because it leaves a prominent shiny look on the wood that lasts longer.

Polycrylic and polyurethane coatings undoubtedly have their advantages and flaws. However, this does not make any of them an inferior product. If you are keen on maintaining the natural color of the wood, nothing would beat a polycrylic finish.On the other hand, you would have to use a polyurethane polish to give a piece of furniture the much desired shiny look. What makes an excellent woodworker knows when and where to use one of these topcoats.


Therefore, it is important that you have both polyurethane and the polycrylic finish within reach at all times. This is because you may never know when you will need either of them to complete a project. With the above information, you can make the right decision when it comes to choosing the right coat for your project.