Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: What Are the Differences and When to Use Each

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Both polyurethane and polycrylic give your wood piece a shiny appearance, add to durability and help it to resist damage. Knowing the difference between polycrylic and polyurethane is essential to picking which finisher is the best for your project.

This polycrylic vs polyurethane review will help you understand the differences between the two coatings to decide which is the most suitable for your project. Once you’re done building your wood piece and adding a stain, this guide will allow you to protect and preserve the wood for years to come. 

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based coat that can be applied to myriad wood surfaces. Polycrylic is available in a satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss finish. Since it’s water-based, it applies clearly and can be cleaned up easily.

Polycrylic dries quickly and doesn’t emit any annoying odor​, meaning that you don’t have to worry about applying it in non-ventilated areas. Polycrylic can serve as an excellent sealant for indoor or confined use.

A polycrylic coat offers good protection for wood pieces and is an affordable option for​ light wood like birch or maple.

Polycrylic Summary:
  • ​Water-based
  • Fast drying
  • ​No odor
  • ​Easy cleaning
  • Satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss finish
  • ​Best for lighter woods

Be careful when applying polycrylic, though, as it’s a thin coat, so it can be challenging to manage. You have to know how much you are applying, as it is quite runny and can produce a white appearance in places if it’s not applied evenly. This is why it’s best to use a polycrylic coat on light-colored woods where it won’t be that visible.

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When to Use Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is really quite versatile. It can provide good protection for a variety of wood surfaces used indoors. You can apply this on low impact furniture as well as on doors or cabinets.

Because polycrylic goes on clear, it will maintain the appearance of the wood that you are applying it to.

​As we mentioned before, it is available in a gloss, semi-gloss, or satin finish, allowing you some flexibility in the sheen.

Polycrylic is the best choice if you need a fast-drying sealant.

A man holds a can of polycrylic

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a​ sealant that provides exceptional durability on vertical wood surfaces and is available as both a water-based and an oil-based sealant. Polyurethane finish is much more durable than polycrylic finish – some label it as “liquid plastic” because once it dries, it turns as hard as plastic.

The long-lasting finish comes with a price, though, as the application process is a bit more complex, and polyurethane takes longer to dry. Since it’s oil-based, it’s also harder to clean up. On the other hand, it’s durable and resistant to scratching, making it better for outdoors.

Polyurethane comes in a variety of finishes, ranging from matte to satin and glossy.

Polyurethane Summary:
  • ​Water-based or oil-based
  • ​Slow drying
  • ​Matte, satin, glossy, and high gloss finish
  • ​Very durable and resistant to damages
  • Provides a more shiny look

Application and Drying

Polyurethane takes a long time to dry and, unfortunately, needs a well-ventilated area for drying, as it produces a foul odor that can even be dangerous. It’s recommended to apply it outdoors or in a large open area with good air circulation.

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Because polyurethane does take longer to dry, you need to take additional care when using this finish. Some areas may dry faster than others, creating an uneven appearance.

Moreover, when it’s still wet, dust and dirt particles might fall onto and stay on the surface. These can often be sanded out using 400 grit paper if it’s an in-between coat – the final one can’t be sanded.

This can make a polyurethane coat more difficult to master in its application. You have to work quickly on large surfaces to distribute it evenly and maintain the “wet edge.”

​Polyurethane ​Application Tips:
  • ​Work quickly
  • ​Apply outdoors
  • ​Have good ventilation

Finish ​Selection

You have many options when it comes to selecting a polyurethane finish, including matte, satin, semi-gloss, or glossy.

There is no difference in the protective qualities, only in the gloss level. Glossy is exactly as it sounds (it will have a gleaming sheen to it), satin is flatter but still a little shiny, and semi-gloss is an in-between version. Matte will have very little to no shine at all.

No matter what type of finish you select, you’ll find that it can withstand quite a bit of wear without a diminished appearance.

Note that matte, satin, and semi-gloss finish products need to be stirred well before application. This is because the finish is naturally glossy, and additives are used to reduce the gloss. Those must be suspended evenly in the product. 

Polyurethane vs Urethane vs Shellac

Some people think that polyurethane and urethane are the same, but they are actually two different components. When you look at urethane vs polyurethane comparison, you will notice that urethane can be molded into different shapes, while polyurethane is only for hard, flat surfaces like side tables. Both finishes have different compound makeups. Urethane is a toxic solution that can be harmful if not used properly or when ingested.

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Polyurethane is also sometimes compared to shellac. When you look at the differences between shellac vs polyurethane, you’ll notice that shellac contains alcohol and insect secretion base, and it comes in a variety of colors. This is a departure from polyurethane’s clear, transparent coating.

Shellac is not as durable as polyurethane. It can easily wear away and show scratches, unlike polyurethane. Shellac also imparts a color to the wood.

coating countertops with polycrylic vs polyurethane
Photo credit: John Loo on Flickr / CC BY

When to Use Polyurethane?

Because of its resistance and durability, you will want to use polyurethane on surfaces that have high impact or high traffic, such as flooring, countertops, kitchen tables, and so on. Moreover, because it resembles plastic so much, this sealant is also resistant to water and can prevent heavy use damage.

Anytime you look for a sealant for outdoors, opt for polyurethane. This strong, protective finish will extend the life of your furniture, deck, or other material. As polyurethane also provides a clear, glossy shine to it, you can use it on both light and dark woods as well as soft and hardwood surfaces.

When it comes to the debate over polycrylic vs polyurethane on countertops, side tables, and flooring, the polyurethane will undoubtedly give you a much stronger, long-lasting finish.

When applying a urethane outside, you’ll have better ventilation, so it isn’t quite as large of a concern, but when it comes to indoors, you should be careful or simply use polycrylic.

Water-based Polyurethane vs Oil-based Polyurethane

​Water-based polyurethane is ​much less toxic than its oil-based counterpart and produces significantly less odor. ​It is also virtually transparent, whereas oil-based polyurethane has a slight yellow hue to it.

Water-based polyurethane dries faster than oil-based, but, as you can imagine, it isn’t nearly as strong.

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Use water-based poly on darker wood indoors and on surfaces that don’t get a lot of contact, e.g., shelves, side tables, picture frames, or bookcases. Oil-based, on the other hand, will be best for heavily used surfaces, both indoors and outdoors, e.g., dining room tables, kitchen tables, countertops, and anything outside, and those that get wet frequently.

Water-based Polyurethane
  • ​Suited for darker wood
  • ​For indoor surfaces like picture frames
  • For low use items or side tables
​Oil-based Polyurethane
  • ​Suited for all kinds of wood
  • ​For indoor or outdoor surfaces
  • ​For high use items like kitchen countertops and tables
  • For areas that get wet

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane

When comparing polycrylic vs polyurethane, you will find that both finishes provide a protective barrier with varying degrees of protection. Depending on the wood surface you are coating, one may be better than the other.

Similarities

​Both polycrylic and polyurethane offer good protection for your wood surface, helping to prolong its life. ​Additionally, both finishes can be applied to either a finished or unfinished surface.

They also add an equally nice glossy appearance to your wood surface. With each type of finish, you​ will easily be able to tell that a finish was applied because of the sheen.

While polycrylic and polyurethane are both protective wood clear finishes that add a bit of sheen, they don’t have a lot more in common.

Similarities
  • Both offer a nice glossy appearance​
  • Both offer relatively good protection for your wood
  • ​Both are suitable for finished or unfinished surfaces
What's the difference between polycrylic vs polyurethane

Differences

Considering how similar they might sound, there are quite a few differences between these products. Let’s start with some of the most significant to help you decide between polyurethane and polycrylic.

Water based vs Oil based

In our opinion, the most significant difference between polyurethane and polycrylic centers around water options vs oil options.

​Polyurethane comes both as a water sealant and as an oil sealant for you to choose the more suitable one. Polycrylic, on the other hand, is only available as water-based.

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Oil-based polyurethane is the most potent and toxic of all but also the most effective. It can withstand extreme heat and water, making it perfect for outdoors and flooring. 

Water-based polyurethane is less toxic but also less durable, especially against extreme heat. It dries quicker than oil-based but shares a lot of other properties with it.

Polycrylic is less toxic (virtually toxin-free) and dries faster (although the drying and curing process might take long nevertheless). It does not stand up well to extreme heat or water and has a runny consistency, so you need to use it indoors only and be careful with its application.

Durability

Hands down, oil-based polyurethane is the most durable. For anything that gets heavy foot traffic (hardwood flooring) or going outside, it is what we recommend.

Beyond that, it is really up to you. The latter two options are both water-based, which is why they aren’t quite as durable. Polyurethane is a lot harder to apply but also a lot more toxic.

Sheens and Coloring

Both water-based polyurethane and polycrylic dry clear. However, oil-based polyurethane dries with a dull yellow tint to it.

​Darker woods don’t show this sheen very much, so make sure you have the correct wood color when opting for an oil-based poly coating.

Toxins and Dangers

Polyurethane is actually a pretty dangerous product. It contains a lot of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful to your lungs. Additionally, it is flammable while in liquid form, so it takes some care when you store it.

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When you apply polyurethane (especially oil-based), you need to wear a respirator mask. If at all possible, try to make sure you’re doing it in a well-ventilated area.

Urethane based on water is a lot less dangerous, and polycrylic has hardly any of the VOCs.

Application

Polyurethane is a lot easier to apply – you can spray it or apply it with a brush. Moreover, while it takes longer to dry than polycrylic, it doesn’t need a long time to cure.

Polycrylic can be quite the challenge to get an even application, though, as it has a runny consistency and requires attention. Apply it in very thin coats to make sure you don’t get runs, drips, or heavy patches.

Differences
  • Polyurethane comes as both oil and water-based, whereas polycrylic only as water-based
  • Polycrylic lacquer is much ​​less durable than polyurethane
  • Polyurethane is ​easier to apply – it can be done with a brush or by spraying
  • Polycrylic dries clear, but polyurethane (especially oil-based) dries with a slight yellow tint
  • ​Since polyurethane is more durable​ and holds up better to sun and water, only use it when working with outdoor surfaces
  • Polyurethane contains VOC toxins that are very dangerous, whereas polycrylic is far safer

Situations and Solutions

Here are some of the most common situations you might find yourself in followed by our recommendations for whether polyurethane or polycrylic would work best:

  • Will the wood be outside? If so, then use oil-based polyurethane – it is far more durable and can withstand exposure to water or sunlight.
  • Is the wood going to serve as flooring? If so, use an oil-based polyurethane. This will withstand a lot higher traffic without getting damaged than other finishes. Be careful while applying this, as you’ll be indoors and the VOCs in the urethane are dangerous.
  • What color is the wood? If you’re working with a lighter wood, be careful with polyurethane (especially oil-based) as it can leave a dull light tint that changes the color of the wood. Opt for a water-based urethane or polycrylic. However, the finish type matters a lot less with darker woods.
  • How big is the wood piece? ​For larger furniture pieces, when you need precise finishing, you should choose a water-based polyurethane because it is easier to apply and doesn’t dry quite as quickly. This will allow you to get a more even and durable clear finish.
  • How much can you spend? Polycrylic is cheaper, and oil-based polyurethane is more expensive.
  • How much time do you have? While it is a little harder to apply, polycrylic dries fast and is super easy to clean up. In the end, it takes less time to work with.
  • Are you concerned about toxins? Polycrylic is far safer to use. If you need something more durable but don’t want to use the toxic oil-based polyurethane, then a water-based urethane is somewhere in the middle.

Final Verdict

While your woodworking project will do well with either polycrylic or polyurethane, ​if we could only pick one sealant after this polycrylic polyurethane debate, it would have to be polyurethane.

Polycrylic works wonderful for specific situations. The piece you are sealing must be an indoor item, and it ​should be made of lighter wood. You have to be able to apply the sealant quickly because it dries fast. If you can do all of this, polycrylic just might be the best option.

Polyurethane, however, is much more versatile and stronger. It comes in both water-based and oil-based form and can be used indoors and outdoors. It creates a longer-lasting seal that can withstand water and the sun.

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Polyurethane is more expensive and takes longer to apply and dry. However, it will last you a lot longer over the course of years.

Bonus: Using Polyurethane Over Paint

Believe it not, applying polyurethane over paint is incredibly easy to do and creates a smooth, durable clear finish. You can use either a brush or roller to apply, and it goes on the paint a lot smoother than when applied on bare wood.

For the most optimal process and the best effect, use quick, up-and-down strokes.

When applying polyurethane to paint, we recommend a water-based poly product. Oil-based polyurethane can yellow as it ages on paint, changing the color of a surface. Since water-based poly doesn’t dry to be as thick as oil-based, we recommend applying an extra top coat or two to make up for it. 

Using polycrylic over paint is also possible but a little bit more tricky.

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.