Choosing the right wood finish is a decision you can’t escape when polishing wooden surfaces. You may think you can use any protective coat to achieve a durable finish, but did you know that not all finishing products can result in the same quality?
To avoid irreversible errors in your wood projects, I’ll be comparing lacquer vs. polyurethane to determine which wood finish fits your needs best.
Most woodworkers would tell you lacquer is most effective when used as a wood furniture finish. However, its thin coats that provide quick-drying attributes make it suitable for a wide range of woodworking projects like wooden floors.
As you may already know, these resin residues are harvested from lacquer tree saps. Once refined, these products offer a glossy and extremely durable finish. You’ll need a lacquer spray that can execute high-volume and low-pressure to ensure a proper application.
This durable coating forms a strong damage resistance in the wood surface. Because of this, you can count on lacquer finishes to make workpieces last a long time.
Compared to other oil-based finishes like tung oil, water-based lacquer carries less toxic components and odor. In fact, its enhanced durability allows it to last five years longer than nitrocellulose lacquers.
This lacquer also dries faster on the wood surface. Thanks to this, it takes less time and cost less money.
Besides its glossy finish, the best attribute acrylic lacquer can offer better than others is its resistance to yellowing. When this lacquer dries, users can expect it to yield a clear coat.
If you want a more flexible product, you can try the more durable option under this category: the CAB-acrylic lacquer. It’s less brittle than typical acrylic lacquers, so it’s not surprising that it’s wear and scratch-resistant.
The only downside of this option is it’s more expensive. It’s also the kind of chemical you need to apply using the spraying method when mixed with thinner.
This requirement eventually adds up to its cost, instead of the cheaper option of brushing lacquer on wood surfaces.
Although not as long-lasting as water-based lacquers, nitrocellulose resins feature evaporative attributes. Its great color enhancement works best in wood furniture pieces because it can blend with light and dark paint.
Once nitrocellulose lacquer is applied over a wooden surface, it’ll form a protective layer to resist damage.
However, it’s crucial to be cautious when using a large amount of this finish since it’s highly flammable. I recommend you avoid over-spraying and always work in a well-ventilated space.
Did you know that catalyzed lacquers are made with nitrocellulose and urea resins? This combination can form a more durable and longer lifespan than other oil-based finishes. You must add an acid catalyst with the lacquer’s liquid form to help it cure well.
If you’re not keen on mixing it, you can buy a ready-to-use pre-catalyzed lacquer. But of course, there’s no harm in choosing post-catalyzed lacquer. I advise you read the labels  and instructions thoroughly to avoid miscalculating the proportions.
Lacquer Finish Advantages and Disadvantages
Before you add any more coats to your kitchen cabinets and other wooden furniture pieces, take a moment to consider the perks and disadvantages of lacquer products.
It’s easy to assume any wood finish will fulfill your woodworking requirements, but here are some things you need to consider:
How to Apply Lacquer
Since it has a thin consistency, the best method to try is to spray lacquer on the surface. It will give you smooth texture and even layers, but it doesn’t yield the best results for wide applications like wood floors.
See Also: What to Do When Lacquer Has Turned White
If you opted for a foam brush, apply it swiftly because this finish dries faster than you think. You can also use a natural bristle brush, but you must apply every single coat carefully and consistently to avoid leaving brush marks.
Before proceeding with the application, ensure that you wear the right protective gear to stay safe from harmful fumes. You must also sand down the material to make it smooth and even. Once that’s done, don’t forget to clean the dust particles from the surface.
Consult the manuals for the correct drying duration. Before adding the next coat, smoothen the area with 320-grit sandpaper and wipe it clean again. Repeat this process until you get the desired result. If you’re not satisfied, you can remove the lacquer from wood again and repeat the steps.
Polyurethane finishes are products made of plastic components in liquid forms. When applied, polyurethane coats surfaces with thick and glossy resin. It’s not the easiest finish to apply on hardwood floors, but you can fix that by mixing some thinning agent.
Its thicker consistency makes it unsuitable for spraying, so a bristle brush your best bet for its application. The drying time for this finish may vary, but it forms a durable coat once dried.
Water-based alternatives are less toxic and faster at drying than oil-based polyurethane. It’s also more environmentally friendly because water-based polyurethane doesn’t leave a yellow tint upon drying and carries no odor.
Some of these finishes also include attributes of oil-based and water-based polyurethanes. You can apply them using a foam roller, bristle brush, or synthetic polymers.
The main issue with water-based polyurethane coatings is their vulnerability to heat. Due to this, I wouldn’t advise using them for outdoor furniture.
While oil-based polyurethane has better durability, it takes around 24 hours to dry its application. Because of this tedious drying time, many woodworkers prefer water-based polyurethane alternatives.
The good news is it can withstand heat exposure, so using oil-based polyurethane for kitchen tabletops is justifiable.
Practice caution when applying multiple coats with oil-based polyurethanes, as an incorrect application may cause the surface not to process the finish well.
Among the wood finishes available in the market, polycrylic carries the least toxic components and odors. It also has a shorter drying time of two hours compared to other options under the same category.
Polyurethane Finish Advantages and Disadvantages
While it’s true that polyurethane durability levels are impressive, it doesn’t mean you can grab any product on the shelf. You must consider these perks and drawbacks to determine if it’s worth your money.
How to Apply Polyurethane
When applying these products, you can choose between natural-bristle and nylon-bristled brushes. You can also opt for foam brushes or rollers if you’re handling wider surfaces.
Like the previous method, you must sand the material first. Ensure that the wood-grain filler is layered properly and the surface is free of residues.
After that, apply the polyurethane in long and big motions. Let the first coating dry according to instructions before sanding it lightly to enhance adherence to the next application. You can repeat the process until the desired result, but two coats should suffice.
Polyurethane and Lacquer: In-Depth Comparison
Here is a detailed polyurethane vs. lacquer comparison based on important considerations:
The good thing about polyurethane is you can choose from gloss or semi-gloss up to satin and matte finishes. Meanwhile, lacquer is only limited to extreme gloss and matte options.
Ease of Application
If you inspect the options closely, you’ll notice that lacquer has a lighter consistency. Thanks to this, it’s an easier product to apply than polyurethanes. You can even apply it through spraying, so it’s the more convenient alternative.
Toxicity & Safety
Believe it or not, both lacquer and polyurethane carry high levels of volatile organic compounds or VOCs. The good thing is both options have less toxic variations like water-based lacquer and polycrylic.
Although it dries slower, polyurethane offers better durability than lacquer because of its thick consistency. And while the latter penetrates through the wood to make it long-lasting, it can develop discoloration and visible scratches over time.
Since polyurethane is thicker, it takes longer to dry than lacquer. You’ll have to wait a few hours before polyurethane is dry to the touch. Meanwhile, lacquer often takes only ten minutes.
Both finishes can develop a yellowish hue over time, but I’ve noticed that polyurethane products often exhibit this discoloration sooner.
Fortunately, there are water-based options available for both types. Given these nuances in the lacquer vs. polyurethane comparison, I’d say it’s a draw for this aspect.
(But here are the top-rated non-yellowing polyurethanes I highly recommend!)
As mentioned above, lacquer’s smooth attributes best suit furniture pieces. On the other hand, polyurethane’s durability works best for surfaces with frequent usage and traffic, like wood floors.
Since lacquer has shorter drying times, it’s not versatile enough for wider applications. And even though polyurethane dries slower, it can work better in different projects.
Number of Coats
Lacquer has a thinner consistency, so adding multiple coats won’t take as long as applying polyurethane. Although the latter requires fewer coats because of its thickness, it’s hard to deny that it’ll take longer than the other option.
If you want to know how many coats of polyurethane you need to apply, read this article next!
Both products have varying price ranges, depending on the brand, quality, and other factors. However, lacquer’s cost is added to the need for a spray tool. You may not know, but sprays are more costly than regular brushes.
Poly and Lacquer Comparison for Exterior Wood Surfaces
When I applied these finishes to outdoor surfaces and pieces, it became evident that polyurethane tends to crack and peel in fluctuating weather conditions. On top of that, lacquer holds an edge as it resists water more effectively than poly.
You must consider the most durable option if you apply finishes on high-traffic surfaces like wooden floors.
Banisters and Floors
Since lacquer has an extremely glossy finish, it will show scratches on high-traffic areas, like floors.
Because of this, you may need to opt for polyurethane because they offer more matte effects. You’ll also need to use the same finish on banisters to show consistency.
Since tabletops are frequently used and exposed, it’s great that both options offer adequate resistance against heat and moisture. Nevertheless, you must know that polyurethane features better protection against water damage.
When finishing cabinets, the product you’ll need depends on the material’s paint quality. And because some cabinet types are covered with high-sheen paints, applying wood finishes isn’t necessary.
However, you can opt for a thin coat of polyurethane for added durability if the cabinet has low-quality paintwork.
How to Apply Polyurethane Over a Lacquer Finish
First off, the likelihood of polyurethane adhering to a lacquer finish is quite slim. However, if you find yourself needing to combine them, adding some alkyd-resin varnish to the poly mixture can help them bond.
(How about painting over a lacquer finish? It is advisable? Read next!)
How water-resistant is lacquer?
It depends on the type of lacquer finish you’ll use. If you’re keen on solvent-based coats, add acrylic lacquer thinner to enhance their water resistance.
Can you use a brush to apply lacquer and polyurethane?
You can use brushes to apply lacquer and polyurethane. Since the latter has a thicker consistency, applying this product with tools like spray cans can be hard.
When using a brush, it is important to choose one with bristles suitable for the specific finish being applied. For lacquer, I usually lean towards a brush with natural bristles. On the other hand, when working with polyurethane, I often opt for a brush with synthetic bristles.
Also Read: Can You Roll Polyurethane On Wood?
Is it recommended to apply only one layer of lacquer?
You must apply it in many thin layers to form a durable finish because this product doesn’t have a thick consistency.
Do you need to sand between coats of poly?
In this head-to-head polyurethane vs. lacquer comparison, it’s clear that these finishes work best in different projects and environments.
So rather than comparing these products based on what they can and can’t do, my recommendation is to focus on your particular needs. Take a step back and assess which option will truly serve your purpose best.
Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.
Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.