How to Apply Polycrylic to Wood and Paint

A brush applying polycrylic to wood

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.

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:

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.

A man holds a can of polycrylic

​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 polycrylic the perfect product to protect the finish. 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.

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.

use a good quality synthetic bristle brush when applying polycrylic

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.

​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.

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

polycrylic finish on wood

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.

​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.

Applying a darker crylic to wood

​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.

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.