Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Wood Finish Comparison


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Anyone who regularly works on woodworking projects will understand the significance of applying a finish to wood. Once you complete a wood item, you should apply a coating to protect its surface and enhance its looks. Two popular types of finish are lacquer and polyurethane.

Each type has unique characteristics, and as a woodworker, you need to know the difference between the two and where to use each one. In this post, we discuss lacquer vs. polyurethane so that you know how to get the best out of these two types of wood finish.

Lacquer vs. Polyurethane

Choosing a suitable finish for your woodworking project is as important as choosing the wood or the tools you use. Out of the different types of wood finish, lacquer and polyurethane stand out for various reasons. However, we tend to get confused between the two. Here, we attempt to clear all those ambiguities that you may have. Let’s jump right in!

Lacquer

Watco 63041 Lacquer Clear Wood Finish, Quart, Clear Gloss
Watco Lacquer Clear Wood Finish

 

Lacquer is the best option for a clear or transparent finish that highlights the wood’s grain pattern. There is a thin line between lacquer and polyurethane, and many woodworkers club them together. However, there is a distinct difference between the two types of wood finish.

The base material of lacquer is a resin, and we use oils to emulsify it. On exposure to air, it dries to form a hard and transparent layer. You can get a darker finish from some varieties of lacquer.

Wood absorbs lacquer better with a strong and long-lasting bond. It bonds better than polyurethane, thanks to the oils and natural ingredients. Applying lacquer to wood is quick and easy. You don’t have to add anything to lacquer on opening the tin. You can apply it immediately with a brush or a spray gun as it already has thinner mixed into it.

Applying lacquer to wood results in it becoming water-resistant, heat-resistant, and chemical-resistant. You only need to use one coat of lacquer for a suitable finish to wood surfaces in many instances. It makes it a cost-effective wood finish because of the minimal quantity you need to apply as against the multiple layers with other types of finishes.

There are three main types of lacquer:

Water-Based Lacquer

It is the least toxic and most durable of all three types of lacquers. It is long-lasting but tends to yellow in time.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer is also quite durable and used for finishing wood surfaces that are likely to receive a lot of wear and tear. However, this variety of lacquer also tends to become yellow over time.

Acrylic Lacquer

Acrylic lacquer is a very long-lasting variety and will not yellow in time like the other two types.

Pros and Cons of Lacquer

Minwax Brushing Lacquer 155000000, Quart, Clear
Minwax Brushing Lacquer

Like all types of wood finishes, lacquer has its own set of advantages and disadvantages as given below:

Pros of Lacquer

Ease of Application

Lacquer is thinner than most liquid wood finishes, so it is easy to apply. If you use a brush, you can apply it smoothly. Due to its extremely thin consistency, lacquer works well with a spray gun as well

Drying Time

Some wood finishes may take days to dry, but lacquer will dry in 15 to 30 minutes. It is this quick-dry property of lacquer that makes it most favored among all the wood finishes. When you have a tight project schedule, lacquer is the best choice you can make.

Adaptability to Climate

Lacquer adapts to climate change better than polyurethane or any other types of wood finish. It is also compatible with various solvents, so you can add solvents to adjust according to prevailing weather conditions.

Simple to Repair

Lacquer generally lasts a long time. But over time, a lacquered surface will deteriorate with scratches and abrasions. You only have to add a single coat of lacquer to a damaged lacquer surface. The new lacquer will merge with the old coat to form a new, smooth, and continuous layer.

Cons of Lacquer

High Durability

Because lacquer has a low level of solids, it scratches easily. Polyurethane is a more rigid material in comparison.

VOC Emissions

Lacquer tends to emit a high level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making it less environmental.

Polyurethane

Minwax 63010444 Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Finish, quart, Satin

Most woodworking workshops favor polyurethane as their preferred choice for wood finish. Polyurethane is like liquid plastic. You can get different textures that range from satin to glossy and many in-between.

Polyurethane is a polymer that enables it to create a protective waterproof layer on the surface of the wood. But similarly, it will not absorb into the pores of the wood. The protective film of polyurethane offers adequate resistance to wear and tear as well as heat and chemicals.

Due to the tough protective film of polyurethane, it also provides excellent protection in seaside locations’ saline environment. This makes it suitable to use in marine applications in boats and ships as well.

There are two types of polyurethane finishes – water-based and oil-based:

Water-Based Polyurethane

This variety of polyurethane dries faster than the oil-based type, but not as quickly as lacquer. It is also non-toxic, and you can easily clean it with water. A drawback of water-based polyurethane is that it tends to form bubbles while applying, making it difficult to achieve a smooth finish.

Water-based polyurethane does not offer adequate resistance to heat and chemicals. This wood finish type is best-suited for use on furniture that won’t be exposed to extreme conditions, for example, tables, desks, and bookshelves.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

It takes much longer for oil-based polyurethane to dry, which makes it easier to apply. You also stand a better chance of getting a smooth finish with this type of wood finish.

You will find it relatively harder to clean a wooden surface with an oil-based polyurethane finish. Also, this type of finish contains toxic and harmful substances.

Pros and Cons of Polyurethane

Minwax Satin 356050000 One Coat Polyurethane Quart
One Coat Polyurethane Quart

Here are some advantages and drawbacks of using polyurethane as a wood finish:

Pros of Polyurethane

High Durability

Polyurethane offers an extremely durable protective layer to a wood surface on hardening. The film imparts a coating that is permanent and offers adequate mechanical and thermal protection. It also provides sufficient resistance to chemicals.

Suitable for Hardwood Floors

Polyurethane plays a significant role in protecting hardwood floors. It provides adequate protection, and if you choose correctly, you can get the most challenging and longest-lasting wood finish for your wooden floors.

Great Looks

Not only does polyurethane impart a tough coating on wood, but it also creates a fine-looking finish. It highlights the wood grain even better than lacquer.

Cons of Polyurethane

Longer to Dry

Compared to lacquer that needs mere minutes to dry, polyurethane takes at least a day and might even take longer.

Difficult to Repair

In case you need to correct a blemish, you can do it by adding a stroke of lacquer with a paintbrush and blending it into the surface. You cannot add layers onto polyurethane without sanding the surface thoroughly. You also have to smoothen the surface of the wood between layers.

More Time-Consuming

As we use a brush to apply polyurethane, it takes relatively more time than for applying lacquer, which we spray on with a single coat.

Conclusion

Now that you have seen the differences and similarities between these two types of wood finishes, you can use them appropriately. Although there is a thin line between lacquer vs. polyurethane, you can use either depending on the scenario when you know the difference. Each type of wood finish will give you a particular set of results. If you use them correctly, your woodworking projects will stand out from the rest!

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