How to Apply Polycrylic to Wood and Paint

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There’s nothing quite like a natural wood finish on cabinets, tables, doors, desks, and other types of furniture around the home. Enhancing the beautiful natural grain and protecting wood surfaces is made easy when they’re coated with polycrylic. This clear, water-based liquid dries quickly and provides a durable finish to your projects.

Not only does polycrylic protect interior wood surfaces, but it is also available in both glossy and satin finishes. Either of these will further the highlights and bring out the natural color and grain. We go through how to apply polycrylic to your wood surfaces. 

Applying polycrylic over wood with a paint brush

Why Apply ​Polycrylic?

Although it is a similar product to polyurethane, there are some distinct advantages to using polycrylic instead. These include:

  • Polycrylic dries much faster than polyurethane, which can take as long as 12 hours to dry completely.
  • It is more affordable, making polycrylic perfect for beginners or DIY projects.
  • Polycrylic is completely transparent, unlike many polyurethane products. It is great for bringing out the natural beauty of wood finishes.
  • Polyurethane can be toxic and is also highly flammable. Polycrylic is much safer for interior surfaces, even in poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Using polycrylic is cleaner because it is water-based and can be washed from the hands with soap and water. On the other hand, polyurethane is oil-based and harder to clean up after use, and you need to take a lot more care to get it off your hands immediately.

As with any product that needs to be applied with a brush, it is important to get the technique right. As with any DIY project, preparation is of the essence. Make sure you have everything you need on hand before starting. 

If you do opt for polyurethane, we have a step-by-step guide on how to spray it on your wood.

​How to Apply Polycrylic

We will take you through the recommended steps to achieve the best results with both the liquid and aerosol types of polycrylic. These are the steps on how to apply polycrylic the proper way: 

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Deal With Cracks and Chips

If your wood surface has any cracks, chips, dents, or dings, now is the time to address it. You might actually like the weathered, worn look that this can provide – if this is the case, then you can move on to the next step.

However, if you would like to try to fix up the surface a bit, you might want to go around and apply some wood filler. Opt for a wood filler that accepts stain, so that the polycrylic will still go on well.

Surface Preparation

Aside from preparing the area, you’re working in; it’s also ultra-important to prepare the wood surface before applying polycrylic. Different types of wood, such as pine, birch, cherry, or ash, all have their own unique grain patterns and colors. This makes minwax polycrylic protective finish the perfect product to protect the wood. It will be completely clear when dry.

If you’re working with wooden furniture or doors that have been painted, it’s important to ensure you use the protective equipment. Old paint can generate dust and fumes when sanded that can be hazardous.

Use a good quality synthetic bristle brush when applying polycrylic

Wood surfaces should be dry and free of grease, wax, or polish before you can apply polycrylic. When sanding, start with 100-grit medium sandpaper. Then, switch to a finer 150-grit paper. Finish with 22-grit to remove any deeper scratches left behind.

It’s always a good idea to clean away the dust when sanding so the surface is completely smooth and scratch-free. Wipe the surface down with a lint-free cloth dampened with mineral spirits. Then use a clean tack cloth to ensure it’s completely free from any surface dust and you’re ready for the next step.

​Liquid Polycrylic Use

Stir the polycrylic well. You’ll notice it looks milky in the can. It does dry completely clear, so don’t be put off by that.  

Using a good quality synthetic bristle brush, apply a thin coat of polycrylic. Make sure you don’t overload the brush and apply only a thin coat in the direction of the wood grain.

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If you load the brush with too much polycrylic, you’ll get brush marks and dripping. Remember, this is a water-based product and is less viscose than oil-based polyurethane.

Leave to dry for at least 2 hours before applying the next coat.

​Aerosol Polycrylic Use

The secret of using spray polycrylic is to ensure you shake the can vigorously for two minutes before starting. Then, repeat for 10 seconds after each minute of using the product.

Protect adjacent areas from overspray. Hold the can vertically at around 12 inches from the surface and fully depress the can’s button. Use a sweeping motion. Spray on the polycrylic with slightly overlapping strokes and apply a thin layer to avoid any runs or snags.

If you are working with unsealed wood, ensure you use enough to seal any open joints and edges.

Leave to dry for at least 30 minutes before applying the next coat.

A man holds a can of acrylic

​Final Steps

Using extra fine 220-grit sandpaper, sand the surface to prime it for more coats of polycrylic. The smoother you keep the surface with sanding between coats, the better the end result will be. Remember to make sure you remove any dust from the sanding so that additional coats adhere to the surface.

Apply a second coat of polycrylic and sand. Then, if you want to add more coats, repeat the process until you’re done.

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After the final coat, leave for 24 hours ​and it should be dry. Note: it hasn’t cured yet. More on that below…

Instances Where You Use Polycrylic

Now that you know how to apply polycrylic, you should also know in which yprojects you can make the most out of it.  It’s important you know the instances on when you should use it because polycrylic dries up so quick, you might scratch or indent the coating if you’re not careful. 

Its oil-based property is versatile so you can apply polycrylic over paint most of the time. 

  • On Painted Objects – applying polycrylic over paint works well if the paint is light colored. It can appear milky if you apply polycrylic in dark color paint. Make sure to apply thinly and evenly for the finish. 
  • Light Woods – light colored painted woods can look great with polycrylic. 
  • Small Projects – polycrylic works well with small projects like decorative furniture and home decor projects. It dries up quickly and protects the surface thanks to its polycrylic protective finish. 
  • Indoor projects – polycrylic is only recommended for indoor use. Its fast-drying property makes it hard to apply coats of polycrylic in outdoor conditions. There is also dust that could blow into the finish. 
  • Polyurethane alternative – polycrylic is a water-based product. Therefore it is less toxic and smelly compared to oil based polyurethane. Although it’s not as highly resistant to heat as polyurethane, it is eco-friendly and less harmful to the environment.  
Polycrylic finish on wood

Common Types of Polycrylic 

Polycrylic still maintains its protective finish no matter what type it is made. There are two common types of polycrylic available in the market. First, there are spray aerosol cans, which are great for applying a slight amount of layer and for quick and easy application. Then, roll-on or Paint, these look similar to a can of paint. They’re great for working over large projects. However, it is hard to apply because it makes noticeable brush strokes. Therefore, you shouldn’t let it dry and work fast to get the first coat right.  

How Long for Polycrylic to Cure?

First, lets clarify one important point – there is a big difference between the amount of time for polycrylic to dry, and for polycrylic to cure. 

Polycrylic typically takes around 2 hours to be dry to to the touch, and 24 hours to completely dry. This can vary depending on how thick of a coat you put on, and temperature and humidity.

However, polycrylic can take several weeks to fully cure. Once cured, the poly will be free of the toxic VOC’s that are present.

While this time frame can be frustrating, it is highly recommend you observe it for health reasons.

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​How to Apply Polycrylic Over Paint

​Polycrylic is a fantastic finisher to apply over painted furniture, especially lighter colored pieces. This is because polycrylic dries clear, unlike polyurethane. 

​Once you’re done painting your wood piece, you might want to apply a finisher to protect it and make the paint last longer. While paint does protect the wood, there are a lot of situations where you could use the extra protection, such as if you’re piece will be sitting outside. 

You can apply polycrylic over paint in the same way you would use it on bare wood. However, there are a few things to watch for:

  • Apply the polycrylic even slower than you would on bare wood. You won’t need to apply as thick of coats, but because there is already paint on the surface, it will be harder to see where you’ve gotten full coverage.
  • Speaking of it being hard to see, pay special attention to bubbles forming as you apply the polycrylic. It will be harder to see these, especially on a white paint. However, once dry, these bubbles will be a lot more noticeable.

Polycrylic provides an added barrier of protection when applied over paint, and is a great choice for high use or outdoor pieces of furniture.

Best Way to Apply Polycrylic

According to Minwax (famous architectural coatings manufacturer), the best way to apply polycrylic is with the use of a synthetic bristle brush. 

Synthetic bristle brush won’t absorb water and don’t lose its shape with prolonged use. Cleaning them up with soap and water is also easy. 

It’s also important that you choose a handle you are comfortable with. Choose a synthetic bristle brush with a handle that gives you better control and less stress on your wrist. 

Applying a darker crylic to wood

Using Polycrylic with a Foam Brush

Generally, you would not want to use foam brush to apply your polycrylic. It tends to hold too much of the polycrylic. This could end up with applying too much of the polycrylic into the surface. 

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Especially if you’re a beginner, you could push the brush too hard and end up with a puddle of polycrylic on what was supposed to be a smooth coating. 

Using Polycrylic with a Roller

Generally, you don’t want to use a roller to apply polycrylic. Using rollers can create air bubbles into your finish. Air bubbles can sometimes make bumps on your finish ruining it. 

You will have to sand it out and then add another layer of coating. This means additional costs for you. Therefore, you should avoid using a roller. 

Applying Polycrylic on Raw Wood

If you use polycrylic on raw wood, it raises the grain of raw wood because of its water-based properties. The raw wood will no longer smooth when you apply finish to it. 

To avoid this, you should prepare the wood beforehand. You can do this by using a rag dipped with water to wipe the surface of the wood. When the wood dries, sand it lightly with a 220 grit sandpaper. Remove any sanding dust and it should be ready for polycrylic application. 

Applying Polycrylic on Stained Wood

Stained wood often becomes botchy. To prevent blotchiness and even out stains, apply a pre-stain conditioner. 

Also, keep in mind that water-based finishes could react with oil-based stains and even water-based stains. Therefore you should test it out first on a spare stained wood before applying.

Applying Polycrylic over Chalk-Type Paint

It is okay to apply polycrylic over chalk-type paint. Some people even claim that chalk-type paint contains additives that can prevent polycrylic from drying fast. 

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However, you need to ensure the surface is completely smooth if you also want the polycrylic to be smooth. Any streaks or visible brush strokes from your chalky paint are noticeable even after polycrylic is applied.  

For that, you need to lightly sand the painted surface with 220 grit sandpaper. Afterward, clean up and remove any sanding dust and clean with a tack cloth. 

Fixing Streaks and Brush Strokes 

There’s really no better way to fix streaks and brush strokes than sanding and reapplying the coating. First, let the coating of streaks and brush strokes dry. 

Afterward, lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper. It will remove the streaks and brush strokes. Clean up the sanding dust and remove all dust. 

Then, reapply the polycrylic properly this time. 

How to Apply Polycrylic Without Brush Strokes

Brush strokes on your finished product are really frustrating. Here are a few tips to apply polycrylic without having brush strokes on your wood piece:

  • Don’t shake the can of polycrylic – this will produce bubbles, which can lead to brush strokes.
  • ​Thin the polycrylic a bit by adding water and stirring. Don’t add very much water – you’re looking to get it to roughly a 90% poly / 10% water mix. 
  • Apply the poly with a small foam roller instead of a brush
  • Apply very slowly. The slower you brush, the lower the chances of brush strokes.
  • Don’t press the brush as you apply the polycrylic – let the brush do the work.
  • Buy a good brush. Don’t skimp on this – a good brush is worth its weight and will minimize brush strokes.
  • Sand in between coats with a very, very light grit sandpapper.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it Necessary to Sand Between Coats of Polycrylic?

It is essential that you lightly sand between coats of polycrylic. Make sure you dry the coating for at least 2 hours. 

Afterward, lightly sand using 220 grit sandpaper between each coat. Remove any sanding dust to maintain a smooth coat. Make sure you don’t sand the last coat. 

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How Long Does Polycrylic Dry?

Polycrylic dries on average for about two hours. After that, you should let it dry for at least 24 hours before it is ready for regular use. Not following it may end up with unwanted scratches or dents. 

What Number of Coating You Should Use?

It is recommended to do at least 2 to 3 coatings of polycrylic. The second coat is for an added protective finish. The third coating is for added insurance. 

Conclusion

Polycrylic makes protecting wood easier, cleaner, and safer! As you learn how to apply polycrylic, you’re learning how to protect your wood while simultaneously keeping it cleaner and more attractive.

All-in-all, there are many advantages of water-based polycrylic over oily polyurethane. It’s not flammable, it’s easy to clean up after use, and it’s cheaper, too.

Importantly, you also get that crystal-clear finish that draws out the beautiful natural grain of the wood, while adding protection so you breathe new life into your décor in the most elegant way.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.