Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane (Pros & Cons)

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When choosing between different types of wood finishes, you will most likely hear a debate about which is better: polycrylic or polyurethaneThe fact of the matter is that each of these chemical finishes has its own strengths and weaknesses. We will be discussing these factors throughout this article to help you make the best choice possible when choosing between the popular wood finishes.

Two of the most versatile sealers that you can use on wooden flooring and furniture are polycrylic and polyurethane. Although the names are similar, each has unique characteristics. If you can understand the difference between the two, you can get the best advantage from each type of finish, offering maximum protection to wooden surfaces in your woodworking projects.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a protective coating that is water-based and available in both satin and high gloss finish. It can be applied to the surface using a roller or with a sprayer. It’s an ideal choice for wooden furniture or surfaces and is also a quick-drying chemical. It is a recommended choice for wood surfaces like birch, maple, and ash due to the fact that polycrylic does not produce any tint.

Advantages of Using Polycrylic

Minwax 63333444 Polycrylic Protective Finish Water Based,1 quart, Satin
Minwax Polycrylic (Image: Amazon)

I have listed a list of polycrylic’s advantages in order for you to get a better grasp of its strengths.

  • Polycrylic is more affordable which makes it a popular choice if you are on a tight budget.
  • It is easy to clean.
  • In terms of durability, you can expect it to be long-lasting.
  • It offers a clear finish which is perfect when used on surfaces with a lighter shade.

Polycrylic products are some of the most affordable and are readily available in most hardware stores. Due to its durability, I highly recommend this type of finish on surfaces that are regularly used such as desks and chairs. As this is a water-based finish, it does not leave any tint like oil-based ones that produce a yellowish color. Cleaning polycrylic finished surfaces is easy as it is water-based. You simply clean the surfaces using a clean cloth. It can also be easily washed off the skin with soap and water.

Disadvantages of using Polycrylic

Of course, it is not always positive, and polycrylic does have its downsides. Some of its known issues include:

  • It has a rather loose consistency which makes the application on the surface a little difficult.
  • It dries extremely quickly which makes the application on larger surfaces challenging.
  • If you apply this finish on darker shades it can impart a milky coloration.

Additional Precautions

As a side note, Polycrylic finish works great when used with standard latex paint. I would suggest that you do not use this finish on surfaces that have matte latex paint as the chemicals used with matte latex can prevent the polycrylic from drying up quickly. This will cause the polycrylic finish to remain wet longer and to drip down from the surface.

As polycrylic is known to have a runny consistency, I advise that you take extra care when applying it to vertical surfaces. Use only a thin layer to prevent it from running down and ruining the finish.

Tips on Proper Polycrylic Application

While using polycrylic is easy enough, there are some rules that you need to remember in order to guarantee that you will do the best job possible.

  1. Clean the surface. Make sure it’s dry, using a moisture meter if you’re not sure.
  2. Make sure that it is free of any dust as any debris trapped underneath the finish will leave visible bumps.
  3. Don’t shake the can of polycrylic – this will also produce bubbles.
  4. Smoothen the surface lightly with sandpaper.
  5. Make sure to apply a thin layer of polycrylic over the surface. You can use a brush with soft bristles or a small foam roller.
  6. Apply it SLOWLY – if you’re trying to get done in hurry brushing back and forth quickly can disrupt the surface and cause air pockets.
  7. Sand it down again lightly once dried.
  8. Repeat the process to add one (or two if needed) more layers

As you might have figured out, polycrylic needs to be applied with care. It is ideal for wooden tables and wood desks as the finish leaves a durable protective coating that will help prevent damage to the surface.

What is Polyurethane?

Minwax 63005444 Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Finish, quart, Semi-Gloss
Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane (Image: Amazon)

Another popular choice when it comes to a protective finish is polyurethane. Polyurethane comes in both water-based and oil-based types. It also comes in two varieties which is satin or gloss finish similar to polycrylic. Let us first take a look at the water-based variation of polyurethane and discover its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Water-based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane is transparent and leaves little to no odor when applied. It is also significantly less toxic. Water-based polyurethane dries faster and is an ideal choice for indoor furniture or surfaces that are not constantly bombarded by extreme temperatures like picture frames, desks, bookshelves, and side tables.

Oil-based Polyurethane

In terms of durability, oil-based polyurethane beats its water-based counterpart. Oil-based polyurethane can withstand extreme temperatures which makes it a good choice for exterior surfaces and furniture. It can also help bring out the beauty of wooden surfaces with the downside being that it leaves a light yellow tint.

Surfaces that are normally exposed to extreme heat and cold will benefit greatly from oil-based polyurethane finish such as kitchen tables and wooden flooring. It is also a good choice for exterior surfaces that are likely to get wet.

You can find polyurethane products in both wipe-on and spray types and is a good choice for outdoor furniture and if you don’t mind the slight yellow tint that it leaves.

Advantages of Using Polyurethane

  • It produces a shiny or glossy finish.
  • Extremely durable.
  • Abrasion-resistant

You can think of polyurethane as a shell that covers the surface of your furniture. It is like plastic once it hardens and offers a reliable protective coating over wooden objects. It also produces a sheen that brings out the glow on outdoor wooden furniture and flooring.

Polyurethane, while considerably durable, has its issues as well. For example, a polyurethane finish can take some time to completely dry. It usually takes about 12 hours for this coating to dry which means you need to make sure that the surface will not be disturbed within this time period. Polyurethane is also toxic and needs to be used in a well-ventilated room to avoid suffocation. It is also flammable in liquid form so keep it away from open flames.

Tips on Proper Polyurethane Application

  1. As usual, make sure to lightly smooth the surface using sandpaper.
  2. Once you have made sure that the surface is completely flat you can now clean and remove any dust and debris.
  3. If you are using oil-based polyurethane you should first dilute the chemical using mineral spirit (aka white spirit).
  4. Take your brush and apply long strokes over the surface while making sure the coating is evenly distributed.
  5. You can apply undiluted varnish for the second and third coats. Let it dry for about a day.
  6. Applying the final coat must be done within 48 hours of the initial coating. Make sure that the coating is evenly distributed on the surface.

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane – Water Based or Oil Based Finish?

When it comes to choosing between polycrylic and polyurethane there is no definite answer. You must take into account the surface you will be using it on as well as how often this surface will be used and under what conditions. A good rule of thumb to go by is if the surface will be regularly exposed to moisture then polyurethane is the way to go. On the other hand, for interior wood that you need to dry quickly, polycrylic is the best option.

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane Comparison




Base Only Water-based Water-based and oil-based
Application Roller or sprayer Brush, roller, or sprayer
Tint No Yes
Cost Cost-effective More expensive
Ease of use Requires skill to apply Easy to apply
Toxicity Less toxic More toxic
Drying time Quick-drying (in minutes) Slow drying (about 12 hours)
Best used on Interior wood Surfaces exposed to moisture
Resistance to temperature Less resistant More resistant


Hopefully, this article has shed some light when it comes to the right protective coating you will use. It is a common mistake to consider polycrylic and polyurethane as the same finish. Although there are similarities, you will now be aware of how different they are from each other.

Once you understand more about the characteristics of each type of finish, you can use them to impart the best finish to your woodworking projects.

Happy Woodworking!