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

What's the difference between polycrylic vs polyurethane

When you are completing a woodworking project, you want it to look its very best and last a lifetime. This is where you need to add a finish coat of polyurethane or polycrylic to the piece to give it a shiny appearance that is durable and resistant to damage. Knowing the difference between polyacrylic and polyurethane can help you create a woodworking piece that looks its best and stands up to the demands placed upon it.

This polycrylic vs polyurethane review will help you understand the differences in the two coatings and help you decide which is best for the application of your wood project. Once you are done building your wood piece and getting it ready for finishing, this guide will allow to protect and preserve it for years to come. 

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based coating that can be applied to a myriad of wood surfaces. It is available in satin and high gloss finishes. It applies clear and can be cleaned up easily based on its water-based makeup.

​Polycrylic dries quickly and doesn’t emit any annoying odor when you are applying in​, meaning that you don't have to worry about applying it in a non-ventilated area. It is a good sealant for use indoors or in confined areas.

This clear coating offers good protection on wood pieces and is an affordable option to use for ​ light woods like birch or maple.

​Polycrylic
Summary:
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    ​Water-based
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    Fast drying
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    ​Satin and high gloss finish
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    ​Best used on lighter woods

You do have to be careful when applying polycrylic, as it is a thin coating that can be challenging at times to manage. You have to watch how much of the coating you are applying as it can produce a white appearance if it is not applied evenly. This is why it is best to use the coating on light-colored woods, where this would not be as apparent or noticeable.

Related: ​We Share a Step By Step Guide to Building a ​Farmhouse Dining Room Table

When to Use Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is really quite versatile. It provides good protection on a variety of wood surfaces that will be used indoors. You can use this on low impact furniture as well as on doors or cabinets.

Because it 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 it offers.

You want to use polycrylic when you need a fast-drying sealant. Polycrylic dries very fast and seals quickly.

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What is Polyurethane?

Conversely, polyurethane is a​ sealant that provides exceptional durability on wood surfaces, and is available as both a water-based sealant and an oil-based sealant. Polyurethane is much more durable than polycrylic - some label it as "liquid plastic" while its still in the tub, because when it dries it will turn as hard as plastic.

The application process is more involved than with polycrylic, and it takes a lot longer to dry. But, you will get a much stronger and longer lasting finish.

It is harder to clean up because of its oil-based makeup. But, it is much more durable and resists scratching much better.  It is better than polycrylic for outdoors​.

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

​Polyurethane
Summary:
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    ​Water-based or oil-based
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    ​Slow drying
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    ​Matte, satin, glossy, and high gloss finish
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    ​Very strong sealant
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    Provides a shiny look when dry

​Application and Drying

Polyurethane does require additional time to dry and unfortunately needs a well-ventilated area for drying. It does produce a foul odor that can be dangerous if proper ventilation is not provided. It is best if this product is applied outdoors or in a large open area with good air circulation.

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

The longer time it stays wet can allow dust and dirt particles to fall onto and stay on the surface.  These can often be sanded out using 400 grit paper between coats.  The final top coat cannot be sanded however.

This can make polyurethane coatings more difficult to master in their application. You have to work quickly on large surfaces to get an even coat that dries evenly and without degradation. The reason for working quickly is to maintain a "wet edge" while applying the product.

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

Finish ​Selection

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

With a satin vs semi gloss polyurethane, there is no difference in the protective qualities of the coating, only in the gloss level with semi-gloss providing more shine. Satin will the be least shiny finish, resembling more of a "dull", flat finish.

Glossy is exactly as it sounds: it will have a "shiny" sheen to it. Semi-gloss is an in-between version of satin and glossy.

This holds true for the other gloss types you can select as the base of your polyurethane. You also might have an option to select between matte vs satin polyurethane. A matte finish has very little to no shine to it while satin offers some shine. 

Both are equally durable and will provide the same level of protection on your wood surfaces. No matter what type of finish you select for your poly, you’ll find that it is 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 when is is used.

​Finish Selection Overview
  • ​Glossy = very shiny
  • ​Satin = some shine
  • ​Matte = no shine

​Polyurethane vs Urethane vs Shellac

You may also think of polyurethane as urethane, but they are actually two different components. When you look at urethane vs polyurethane, you will notice that urethane can be molded into different shapes while polyurethane is only for hard, flat surfaces. They both have different compound makeups. Urethane is a toxic solution that can be harmful if not used properly or is ingested.

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

Shellac is not as durable as polyurethane. It can easily wear away and show scratches unlike polyurethane’s rugged and tough resistance to this type of wear.  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?

You will want to use polyurethane on surfaces that have high impact or high traffic.

Flooring, countertops, tables, or surfaces that will get wet are all good candidates for polyurethane. Because this sealant acts as a plastic coating on any surface it is applied to, it resists water and can prevent damage from heavy use.

Anytime you want to apply a sealant to something outdoors, opt for polyurethane. The strong, protective finish will extend the life of your furniture, deck, or other material.

Because polyurethane will also provide a clear, glossy shine to it, you can use this coating on both light and dark woods as well as soft and hardwood surfaces. It provides a strong protective barrier and is an ideal choice for any home surface you may be using.

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

The only thing to be mindful of is how you apply it - because it will probably be indoors, take care of the toxins that this type of finish puts off (and the poor ventilation you'll probably have inside).

When applying a urethane outside, you'll have better ventilation, so it isn't quite as large of a concern.

​Water-based Polyurethane vs Oil-based Polyurethane

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

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

Use water-based poly on darker wood indoors, on surfaces that don't get a lot of contact. Shelves, picture frames, book cases... these are perfect candidates for a water based polyurethane.

Use oil-based poly on heavily used surfaces, both indoors and outdoors. ​Dining room tables, kitchen countertops, and anything outdoors... you'll want the stronger sealant for these surfaces. Also, if the area gets wet frequently, use oil-based polyurethane.

Water-based Polyurethane
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    ​Suited for darker wood
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    ​Best for indoor surfaces
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    ​Low use items
​Oil-based Polyurethane
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    ​Suited for all wood
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    ​Indoor or outdoor surfaces
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    ​High use items
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    Areas that get wet

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane

When comparing polycrylic finish vs polyurethane, you will find there are many similarities as well as differences. Both products 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 ​types of poly offer good protection for your wood surface, helping to elongate the wood's life and preserve it. ​And, both polyeurthane and polycrylic can be applied to either a finished or unfinished surface.

Both polycrylic and polyurethane offer a 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.

If you don't want that sheen to be visible on your wood, then you'll want to avoid both.

That is where the major similarities stop, believe it or not. While both are a protective wood finish that applies a sheen, they don't have a whole lot else in common.

Lets dive into the differences now, as that is really where you'll learn which is best for the specific wood and environment you're working with. 

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

​Differences

For products that sound so similar, there are quite a few differences. Lets start with some of the biggest (and most important) ones as you consider polyurethane vs polycrylic.

Water based vs Oil based

In our opinion the biggest difference between polyurethane and polycrylic centers around water based options vs oil based options.

​Polyurethane comes both as a water-based sealant and as a oil-based sealant. In other words, you have your choice. Polycrylic, though, is only water based. You can't buy a oil-based polycrylic.

Oil based polyurethane is the most potent and dangerous, and also the most effective. It holds up really well to heat and water, making it perfect for outdoors and flooring. 

Water based polyurethane is less toxic but also less durable. It dries quicker than its oil based relative, and has a lot of the same characteristics as its oil equivalent.

Polycrylic is virtually toxin free and dries fast (although it takes a long time to cure). It does not stand up well to heat or water, so you need to use it indoors only.

Durability

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

Beyond that, it is really up to you. The later 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, or VOCs, that are very damaging to your lungs. It is also flammable while in liquid form, so it takes some care when you store it.

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

Water based urethane is a lot less dangerous, and polycrylic has hardly any of the VOC toxins mentioned.

Application

Polyurethane is a lot easier to apply - you can spray it or apply with a brush. And, while it can take a bit longer to dry than polycrylic, it doesn't need a substantial amount of time to cure.

Polycrylic can be quite the challenge to get an even application, and requires slow going. Apply in very light coats to make sure you don't get runs, drips, or heavy patches.

​Differences
  • Poly​urethane comes as both oil and water based (your choice) whereas polycrylic only comes water based
  • Polycrylic lacquer is much ​​less durable than polyurethane
  • Polyurethane is ​easier to apply and 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 has VOC toxins that are very dangerous whereas polycrylic is far safer

​Situations and Solutions

Here are a few common situations you might run into, and our recommendation for whether polyurethane or polycrylic would work best:

  • Will the wood be outside? If so, then use polyurethane - it is far more durable to water and sun. Opt for oil-based urethane.
  • Is the wood going to be flooring? If so, use an oil-based polyurethane. This will hold up a lot better over time to the foot traffic. Be careful 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. It matters a lot less with darker woods.
  • How big is the wood piece? ​For larger furniture pieces where you need precise finishing, you'll probably want to opt for water based polyurethane because it is easier to apply and doesn't dry quite as quick. This will allow you to get a more even finish.
  • How much can you spend? Polycrylic is cheaper, 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, 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 a lighter wood. You have to be able to apply the sealant quickly, because it dries so fast. If you can do all of this, polycrylic just might be the best option.

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

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

Bonus: Using Polyurethane Over Paint

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

Use quick, up-and-down strokes when applying.

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 or your surface. While water-based poly doesn't go on and dry as thick as oil-based, we just recommend applying an extra coat or two to make up for it. 

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