Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane — Which is Better for Furniture?

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As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in the workshop, I’ve come to know a thing or two about finishes. When you’re looking at Polycrylic and polyurethane, you’ve got to dive into what makes each one tick to really get which one will be the best fit for your projects.

So, let’s walk through the ins and outs of these finishes together. I’ll share from my experience the strengths of each and the situations where one outshines the other in protecting and bringing out the beauty in wood.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based protective finish used to seal and protect wood surfaces. It provides a clear, durable coating that helps prevent damage from moisture, UV rays, and general wear and tear. 

polycrylic and paint spray

What Are the Benefits of Using Polycrylic?

When it comes to protecting and enhancing wood surfaces, Polycrylic emerges as a favored choice among craftsmen and DIY enthusiasts alike. 

This water-based protective finish offers various advantages that make it a versatile and practical option for various projects.

Clarity and Transparency

Polycrylic is renowned for its ability to provide a crystal-clear finish that allows the natural beauty of the wood to shine through. 

Unlike some other finishes that may impart a yellow or amber tint, Polycrylic maintains the wood’s true color, making it an excellent choice for preserving the appearance of light-colored or pale woods.

Quick Drying Time

I’ve always appreciated how Polycrylic can save me a lot of time in the shop with its quick drying time. It’s a real standout compared to oil-based finishes that have you waiting around for hours, sometimes even days, to dry completely. With Polycrylic, I can apply a coat and be ready to add another or move on with the project in just a couple of hours.

applying Polycrylic with paint roller

This quick drying time is a significant advantage, as it allows for multiple coats to be applied in a single day, reducing overall project completion time.

Low Odor and Easy Cleanup

Using Polycrylic is a relatively odor-free experience compared to oil-based finishes, which often emit strong and potentially harmful fumes. This makes Polycrylic a more pleasant option for indoor projects or enclosed spaces. 

Additionally, its water-based composition means that brushes and tools can be easily cleaned with water, minimizing the hassle and mess associated with cleanup.

UV Protection

Wood surfaces exposed to sunlight are vulnerable to fading and discoloration over time due to UV radiation. 

Polycrylic provides a protective barrier that helps shield the wood from these harmful rays, preserving its color and integrity for an extended period. 

coaster with polycrylic finish

In my experience, Polycrylic really shines when it comes to outdoor furniture or any projects that will spend time basking in the sunlight. This quick-drying feature makes it an ideal choice because you can finish your work fast and have it ready to brave the elements in no time.

Flexibility and Durability

Polycrylic boasts a level of flexibility that allows it to expand and contract with the wood as temperature and humidity fluctuate. 

This attribute helps prevent cracking, peeling, and other forms of damage that can occur when wood contracts or expands. 

Moreover, Polycrylic forms a strong and durable finish that provides resistance against scratches, water, and general wear and tear.

What is Polyurethane?

I’ve used polyurethane countless times to coat and protect wood surfaces. It comes in both water-based and oil-based varieties, and each type brings its own set of characteristics to the table. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know these differences intimately, which has been crucial in deciding which one to use on a project.

close up view Varathane 200241H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

Polyurethane forms a tough, durable layer that shields wood from moisture, scratches, and general wear.

What Are the Benefits of Using Polyurethane?

When it comes to providing robust protection for wood surfaces, Polyurethane stands as a stalwart choice, offering a range of advantages that cater to different finishing needs. 

Its versatility, durability, and customizable finishes make it a popular option for preserving the integrity and aesthetics of wood in various applications.

Durability and Longevity

From my bench to yours, I can tell you that polyurethane has earned its reputation in my shop for exceptional durability. It creates a hard, resilient layer that can take a beating — whether that’s heavy use, the occasional impact, or the scuffs and scrapes that come with daily life. It’s my go-to when I need a finish that can stand up to a challenge.

Oil Based Polyurethane

This durability translates to a longer lifespan for wood surfaces, making it an ideal choice for high-traffic areas, such as floors, tabletops, and cabinets.

Moisture Resistance

One of the key benefits of polyurethane is its ability to provide a barrier against moisture. This moisture resistance helps prevent the wood from swelling, warping, or rotting, especially in environments prone to humidity or dampness. 

This makes polyurethane a suitable choice for outdoor furniture and wooden structures.

Versatile Finishes

Polyurethane offers a spectrum of finish options to match different aesthetic preferences. From matte to glossy, polyurethane can be tailored to achieve the desired level of sheen. 

dining room furniture made of walnut wood

This versatility allows woodworkers to choose a finish that complements the overall design of their project, whether it’s a rustic piece or a modern creation.

UV Protection

Wood surfaces exposed to sunlight can experience fading and degradation over time due to UV rays. Polyurethane shields wood from these harmful rays, helping to preserve the natural color and appearance of the wood. 

This makes it a suitable choice for interior furniture placed near windows or outdoor structures exposed to the elements.

Ease of Application

I’ve found that applying polyurethane is pretty straightforward, whether I’m using a brush or a spray gun. It self-levels nicely, which is a lifesaver because it smooths out those little imperfections and minimizes the appearance of brush strokes, giving the wood that flawless finish we’re all after.

Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane and brush

While oil-based polyurethane requires more time for drying and curing, water-based options offer quicker drying times and lower odor levels, making them more convenient for indoor projects.

Enhances Wood Grain

Polyurethane can enhance the wood’s natural grain and character. This can give the finished piece a warm and inviting look while protecting it at the same time. 

The transparency of polyurethane allows the beauty of the wood to shine through while benefiting from its protective qualities.

How is Polycrylic in Comparison With Polyurethane?

When it comes to choosing the right protective finish for your wood projects, the options can sometimes be overwhelming. Two commonly used finishes, Polycrylic and Polyurethane, offer distinct features and advantages. 

polyurethane oil based

Below are the characteristics of each finish, their differences, and the scenarios in which they excel.

Composition and Base

Polycrylic is a water-based finish, while Polyurethane is available in both water-based and oil-based formulations. 

Polycrylic’s water-based nature gives it several advantages, including quick drying times, minimal odor, and easy cleanup with water. 

On the other hand, Polyurethane’s oil-based version tends to have a longer drying time and a stronger odor, though water-based Polyurethane offers a quicker drying time and lower odor levels compared to its oil-based counterpart.

(More comparison about oil vs water-based polyurethane here!)

Clarity and Color

Polycrylic is known for its exceptional clarity and ability to maintain the natural color of the wood. It imparts a crystal-clear finish without adding any noticeable color or tint. 

Minwax Polycrylic

Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, can often have a slightly amber tint, which can deepen the color of the wood. 

This can be an advantage if you’re aiming for a warmer, more traditional look, but if you want to preserve the wood’s original color, Polycrylic might be the better choice.

Sheen Options

Both Polycrylic and Polyurethane offer a range of sheen options, from matte to glossy. Polycrylic tends to maintain a clearer appearance across all sheen levels due to its water-based composition. 

Polyurethane’s oil-based version can sometimes appear slightly cloudier in higher gloss finishes. However, water-based Polyurethane usually provides a consistent, clear appearance across different sheens.

Protection and Durability

I’ve always leaned towards polyurethane when I need a finish that’s as tough as nails. In my line of work, it’s the durability that really makes it a favorite. It holds up like a champ against scratches, abrasions, and the usual wear and tear that comes with time. It’s like a protective shield for wood that keeps it looking good through thick and thin.

applying polyurethane to table

Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, forms a thick and strong coat that can withstand heavy use and exposure to the elements. 

While Polycrylic offers a reasonable level of protection, it may not be as robust as Polyurethane, particularly in high-traffic areas or outdoor applications.

Application and Ease of Use

Both Polycrylic and Polyurethane can be applied using brushes, rollers, or sprays. Polycrylic, being water-based, tends to have a smoother application with minimal visible brush strokes. It’s also easier to clean up with just water. 

Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, may require more attention to detail during application to avoid brush marks, and cleanup usually requires solvents.

UV Resistance

Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, provides better UV resistance compared to Polycrylic. This makes Polyurethane a suitable choice for outdoor projects or wood surfaces that will be exposed to direct sunlight. 

chair spray painted with Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane Spray

If preserving the wood’s color and preventing fading due to UV rays is a priority, Polyurethane might be the more effective option.

Flexibility and Expansion

Polycrylic has a certain level of flexibility that allows it to expand and contract with the wood as temperature and humidity change. This property helps prevent cracking or peeling over time. 

Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, can sometimes become brittle as it ages, leading to cracking in extreme conditions.

Project Types

The choice between Polycrylic and Polyurethane often depends on the specific project at hand. 

Polycrylic’s water-based composition, quick drying time, and minimal odor make it ideal for indoor projects like furniture, cabinets, and decorative items. It’s also a good option for surfaces that won’t be subjected to heavy wear.

using foam brush

Polyurethane’s durability, especially the oil-based version, makes it a better choice for projects that will endure more use or exposure to the elements, such as outdoor furniture, decks, and floors.

Should You Use Polycrylic Or Polyurethane?

Deciding whether to use Polycrylic or Polyurethane depends on your project’s requirements and priorities. 

If you value a quick, water-based application with minimal odor, Polycrylic might be your preference. It’s well-suited for indoor projects where preserving the wood’s natural color and clarity is vital. 

On the other hand, if your project demands superior durability, UV resistance [1], and the ability to withstand heavy wear or outdoor exposure, Polyurethane, especially the oil-based version, could be the better choice. 

Teak furniture

It offers a robust protective layer but may involve longer drying times and more involved cleanup. 

Ultimately, your decision should be based on factors such as the project type, desired finish appearance, level of protection needed, and the environment in which the finished piece will be placed.

Conclusion

In the realm of wood finishes, the choice between Polycrylic and Polyurethane boils down to priorities. Opt for Polycrylic’s ease of use and clarity for indoor projects. 

For enhanced durability and outdoor protection, particularly with oil-based Polyurethane, you’ve got a reliable option. Your decision hinges on project demands and finish requirements.

robert headshot

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.

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