Polyurethane vs Lacquer

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Among wood finishes, polyurethane and lacquer are two of the most popular ones. In fact, armature and season woodworkers tend to recommend them a lot for wood finishing.

Deciding which one of them to use can be pretty confusing, especially if you’re not an expert.

We’ll walk you step by step through their pros and cons, so you can decide which is the best option for your project.

What is Polyurethane?

Before we can compare polyurethane and lacquer, we need to know what they do and what their chemical properties are.

Person brushing polyurethane to a piece of wood

Polyurethane is a synthetic resin. It’s a wood finish for furniture, wood floors, and cabinets. It’s usually applied to furniture by spraying or wiping. The reason for its usage on wood is its transparency and water-resistance.

As most polymers are, polyurethane is either oil-based or water-based. Each has different properties, so let’s check them out!

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Water-based Polyurethane

Its biggest advantage is that it’s not toxic and doesn’t emit a strong odor. It also allows the wood to be easily cleaned with water. However, it costs much more than oil-based polyurethane, and it requires a lot more coats for it to offer protection. It’s also less available at hardware stores.

The most prominent difference between both types is appearances. Water-based polyurethane won’t add the amber tint that usually appears with oil-based ones. It just slightly highlights the wood’s color and gives it a high gloss.

Oil-based Polyurethane

It’s easier to apply oil-based polyurethane, not to be confused with varnish or shellac, than water-based ones because it doesn’t require many coats. Besides, oil-based polyurethane dries in much less time.

It can be a bit harmful to human health, though, because of the chemicals used in its making. Furthermore, it has a strong smell and it’s hard to clean because it requires solvents.

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer is widely known for its ease of application and fast drying time. It’s the most used wood finish commercially. Its primary component is the resin of varnish trees, similar to shellac. After harvesting and refining, the resin is mixed with thinner to create lacquer.

There are three types of lacquer that have different usages; water-based lacquer, Acrylic lacquer, and Nitrocellulose lacquer. The most known type in the market is Nitrocellulose.

Water-based Lacquer

Water-based lacquer is globally preferred because it’s less toxic compared to other types of lacquer.

Not only that, but it’s also more durable and lasts longer. However, it sometimes causes the wood fibers to swell, causing the grain to rise, which makes the texture a bit rough.

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Furthermore, it’s the cheapest type of lacquer. However, it’s not always available at hardware stores.

Acrylic Lacquer

Acrylic lacquer was manufactured to avoid the yellowing that affects the woods from other finishes. It mostly appears on light-colored woods.

Moreover, acrylic lacquer is more flexible than the other types and costs a lot more. It’s often applied to light-colored woods, and a coat is highly resistant to scratches and marks.

Lacquer stained wood

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer was a clear finish for automobiles at first, then people started using it for furniture later on. In fact, it’s now the most used type of lacquer.

A coat of this lacquer offers high levels of resistance, and it works well on both light and dark wood. It can blend into the previously applied coats, which makes it easier to repair.

The downside to it is that it’s very flammable. It also forms a yellowish color on the wood over time.

Also see our comparison of Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer vs Polyurethane.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane Overview

Analyzing the properties of products before buying them is a must. Especially when comparing two different ones. You should get a comprehensive view of the properties of polyurethane and lacquer to make the best choice.

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In this case, there are a few factors that can be used to compare these finishes.

Speed of Drying

  • When you apply lacquer, the coat dries in a short amount of time. It starts drying after exposure to air, which means the surface will be ready after approximately 15 minutes of the coating.
  • Polyurethane finishes’ drying depends on the evaporation of the liquid base, which means you’ll wait a long time before it’s dry and ready to use.

Application Method

  • The best way to apply lacquer is by spraying it on. Make sure you get all the spray equipment it needs if you decide to use this to apply lacquer.
  • On the other side, polyurethane is nearly always brushed on or wiped on, due to its crystalline nature.


  • Lacquer coating forms a protective layer against scratches and scrapes. It’s not as resistant as polyurethane, but it works pretty well in average temperatures.
  • The reason polyurethane wins here is that the coats don’t absorb into the wood during bonding. Besides, coats have high resistance against high temperatures, which prevents the wood from peeling or cracking.


  • Lacquer’s method of application costs a lot because spraying equipment is expensive. If you already own a low-pressure sprayer or a spray gun and pump, then the cost will be average.
  • Polyurethane coats cost much less and they’re easy to apply because it just requires you to brush. Buying it won’t cost you nearly as much as buying a spray gun.


  • Lacquer’s bonding properties make it easy to restore after any damages done to it.
  • Polyurethane finish is very difficult to restore or repair; it’s almost impossible to do so due to its structure.


  • Lacquer finish has better bonding with wood; the coats get absorbed into it after they applied.
  • Being a polymer, polyurethane won’t bond well with wood, which means its coat absorption is lower than lacquer.


  • Due to its absorption rate, lacquer doesn’t require sanding between its coats. Each finish coat bonds to the previous one.
  • Each finish coat of polyurethane is separate from the one after, which means it requires sanding between them.
Person applying polyurethane to a piece of wood


  • Lacquer contains thinner in its structure, so it doesn’t need a thinning agent, which means it’s easy to apply because it’s taken right from the container.
  • Polyurethane finish will require a thinning agent when you use a low pressure sprayer. It’s not as easy to apply by brushing because the bristle brush strokes will appear, so you need to get a high-quality natural bristle brush or one that has soft bristles.


Lacquer vs Polyurethane Pros and Cons

Now that you know all the different properties of lacquer and polyurethane, you need to learn the pros and cons of both. It’ll help you understand the uses of each one.

Pros of Lacquer

Cons of Lacquer

  • It has low resistance to chemicals.
  • You have to apply it again year after year.
  • If it gets contaminated, defects will appear on the wood.
  • If the room’s temperature is too warm, bubbles will appear.
  • It’s harmful to the environment.

Pros of Polyurethane

  • It has a high load-bearing capacity.
  • It has a high resistance against tears
  • It doesn’t allow the growth of fungus due to its chemical structure.
  • It has better color stability in outdoor settings.
  • It’s more convenient for floors.

Cons of Polyurethane

  • It’s very flammable when in liquid form.
  • It can be toxic if breathed in.
  • It requires good room ventilation.

How to Recognize Lacquer and Polyurethane

It’s important to learn how to recognize the type of wood finish, it can come in handy if you need to recoat or repair something.

It’s impossible to know just by looking, though. You’ll need to carry out a few steps to test the wood finish.

Let us walk you through them.

Step 1: Test The Wood

Pick a hidden spot on the back of the furniture piece. If you’re testing the wood floors, pick a spot that’s hidden under a rug or a table.

Testing out whether the wood flooring was stained with lacquer vs polyurethane

Step 2: See If It’s Lacquer or Polyurethane With a Coin

Pick up a coin, press its edge firmly against the hidden area and rub it back and forth.

If the wood isn’t affected, the coating is lacquer or polyurethane. Other wood finishes like varnish would cause the wood to flake.

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Step 3: Rub it With a Cloth

Get a soft old piece of cloth and dip it into lacquer thinner, then rub it softly over your chosen spot.

If the wood remains intact, it’s polyurethane coating over it. If the upper surface dissolves, the finish used on it is lacquer.

Alternative Method

If you don’t have lacquer thinner at the moment, you can use acetone instead. Dip a piece of cotton in the acetone and rub it softly over the wood.

If the upper surface beads, it means polyurethane was used on it. If it dissolves, it’s probably lacquer on it.

Final Thoughts

Polyurethane and lacquer both form a protective layer over the wood, and both add a nice glow to it. They pretty much do the same job.

However, when it comes to lacquer vs polyurethane, choosing the right one depends on the level of protection you need, the color you’re going for, and how often you’re willing to recoat it for a durable finish.

Once you have all that covered, it’ll be easy to decide now that you have all the input. The only thing you have left is to get started on your project!

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.