Polyurethane vs Polycrylic: Which Wood Finish Should You Use in Woodworking?

Polyurethane vs polycrylic, two popular wood finishes. But which one should you apply to your finished wood project? After all, you’ve just spent hours crafting a beautiful piece of furniture, cabinet, table, chair, or another item. And so, you want to preserve the natural beauty of the wood and its grain for many years.

In a nutshell, which is best: polyurethane or polycrylic? The answer depends on two things. First, the type of finish you hope to achieve. And second, how the wooden item will be used. Of course, other factors come into play.

Polyurethane vs Polycrylic which to use for outside door

However, learning which type of finish to use — Polyurethane vs polycrylic — requires finding out about these products.

Of course, wood is a beautiful, natural product. But if not appropriately sealed, moisture, heat, and excessive use can damage it. Therefore, applying a few layers of wood finish adds a protective layer to raw, stained, or painted wood is crucially important.

Most professional woodworkers, craftspeople, joiners, and cabinetmakers use polyurethane or polycrylic finish. While the two names sound almost the same, there’s a big difference between the two. And this can cause confusion for many beginner DIYers or hobbyists.

What type of finish is better for sealing wood? Does polyurethane or polycrylic affect the color of the wooden surface? If you had to choose between them, which is best: polycrylic or water-based polyurethane? If you’re unsure how to answer these questions, this article is for you.

Choosing the right finish for your furniture is crucial because it affects its longevity and overall appearance. In this guide, we compare the two finishes and show you why you should consider using either one.

Polyurethane vs Polycrylic — The Primary Difference

The key difference between polycrylic and polyurethane is the number of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) they contain. Oil-based polyurethane contains more VOCs and synthetic chemicals. This means that it gives off a stronger odor but provides better protection against humidity and wear and tear.

What Is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a type of polymer or synthetic resin that creates a resilient, transparent, waterproof coating to protect the wood. The liquid finish contains oil or water solvents that evaporate as the finish dries. This leaves behind a hard protective layer on the wood. Polyurethane finish can be gloss, semi-gloss, satin, or matte.

However, the choice of which type of finish to use gets confusing when you find out that polyurethane varnish or finish can be oil-based or water-based. What does that mean?

Oil-based polyurethane finish

Oil-based polyurethane uses a petroleum solvent in the wood sealer. This could be mineral spirit, turpentine, or white spirit. These solvents allow manufacturers to use a wide range of natural or synthetic resins to create a highly-durable sealant. When polyurethane cures, it creates a hard, protective finish, ideal for sealing wooden floors, tables, and furniture.

Water-based polyurethane finish

Water-based polyurethane uses water as the solvent and acrylic resins. This means that fewer VOCs are used in the formula. The resulting protective layer is hard and water-resistant. However, more applications are required to achieve a water-resistant protective seal, and it’s not as durable under lots of wear and tear as a water-based finish.

When Would I Use Polyurethane to Protect Wood

Polyurethane is applied to wood surfaces when high protection against humidity, abrasion, and moisture is required. This makes oil-based polyurethane finishes the sealant of choice for parquet and wood floors, tabletops, kitchen tables, cabinets, ship decks, and pieces of furniture. The hard, scratch-resistant protective coating can be achieved with one or two coats.

Therefore, an oil-based polyurethane could be the perfect solution if you want to protect your wood from moisture, heavy wear and tear, and scratches. However, it is essential that you know how to apply this product correctly. This is because it contains flammable materials and potentially toxic chemicals.

What Is Polycrylic

Polycrylic is a water-based protective wood finish that contains acrylic resins and fewer VOCs than polyurethane. In addition, because the formula uses water as a solvent, fewer noxious chemicals are in the mix.

Applying polyurethane on the wooden board with roller.

Therefore, polycrylic doesn’t have the pungent smell of oil-based products. However, it still produces an excellent protective coat on wooden surfaces.

Because polycrylic doesn’t have petroleum solvents and many synthetic resins, it’s not as robust as polyurethane. This means that it’s not as moisture and heat-resistant as oil-based finishes, varnishes, and sealants. It also doesn’t enhance the wood grain like oil-based polyurethane.

Here are a few things to consider when using polycrylic:

·        You need to apply at least three coats of polycrylic to achieve suitable wood protection.

·        Polycrylic dries faster than oil-based polyurethane because it has a fluid consistency.

·        It has fewer chemicals, making polycrylic better for the environment.

·        It can be trickier to apply polycrylic without leaving brush marks.

It’s important to know that Minwax Polycrylic is a trading name for wood finish. Polycrylic isn’t an ingredient or type of polymer or natural resin in the formula.  

When Would I Use Polycrylic to Protect Wood

Polycrylic wood finish is suitable for all types of woodworking and interior DIY projects where light to medium protection is required. Once the water-based product cures, it leaves a hard, waterproof protective covering. Polycrylic is suitable for bookcases, picture frames, desks, home décor projects, furniture, and cabinets.

However, polycrylic isn’t recommended for outdoor projects. This is because it won’t withstand extreme weather conditions and will crack and peel over time. In addition, it’s less resistant to scratches, heat, and heavy foot traffic than oil-based polyurethane. Therefore, you should use polycrylic indoors on small projects that don’t require strong protection.

Difference Between Polyurethane and Polycrylic

The level of protection and resistance to abrasions and moisture are the main differences between polyurethane vs polycrylic finishes. Because oil-based polyurethane contains synthetic resins, it results in a harder finish, suitable for outdoor and indoor use. On the other hand, polycrylic offers good moisture resistance but isn’t as hard.

Polyurethane vs Polycrylic — What’s the Difference?

Knowing which is better, water-based polyurethane vs polycrylic, can be confusing. In essence, both products do a similar job. They both provide good protection against light use and medium moisture levels. In addition, they don’t emit potentially harmful fumes like oil-based varnishes.

One of the differences between polycrylic and water-based polyurethane is the type of finish. Polyurethane with a water base dries completely clear. This makes it ideal for protecting light woods without leaving a yellow tint. However, polycrylic tends to leave a milky sheen on painted or dark woods.

Is Polyurethane Similar to Polycrylic?

Polyurethane and polycrylic wood finishes are entirely different products. Most polyurethane products are oil-based and are used to form a hard protective layer on wood surfaces. This makes it highly resistant to scratches and abrasions. On the other hand, polycrylic is water-based and protects wood well. However, it’s not as durable as polyurethane.

Here are a few ways that polycrylic and polyurethane differ:

·        Both provide excellent moisture resistance, but oil-based polyurethane is better for high-foot traffic areas.

·        Polycrylic is less toxic and dangerous.

·        It is trickier to apply polycrylic without leaving drips or brush marks.

·        Polycrylic dries faster than polyurethane — usually around six hours quicker.

·        Oil-based polyurethane leaves a yellowish hue on treated surfaces.

·        Polycrylic is better for interior surfaces that don’t get a lot of wear and tear.

·        Polyurethane is better for outdoor and indoor use to protect wood surfaces from heavy use.

Which Is Better – Polyurethane vs Polycrylic?

Choosing between using polycrylic or an oil-based polyurethane finish depends on the type of finish you require. Both products have their advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, it’s challenging to say that one is better than the other.

Here are some pros and cons of polyurethane vs polycrylic.

Polyurethane: Pros

·        Durable, robust protection for wooden surfaces

·        Protects against regular wear and tear

·        Suitable for wooden floors at home or on commercial premises

·        Fewer coats are required to achieve a hard coating

·        Self-leveling because it has a thicker consistency

When Would I Use Polycrylic to Protect Wood

·        It’s easier to apply, making it ideal for larger surfaces

Polyurethane: Cons

·        You must use it in a well-ventilated area and ensure good respiratory protection

·        It takes a long time to dry and cure

·        It leaves a yellowish tint on wood

·        Mineral spirits or turpentine is required to clean equipment

·        Remains sticky while drying, meaning dust spots are a common problem

Polycrylic: Pros

·        Virtually odor free and doesn’t produce harmful fumes

·        Low VOC content

·        Easy to clean brushes and rollers with warm water

·        It provides an excellent level of moisture protection and is suitable for light wear and tear

·        Fast drying time

Polycrylic: Cons

·        Faster drying time makes it tricky to work on large surfaces

·        It has a runny consistency, making it challenging to apply

·        It may result in a milky finish if too many coats are used on dark colors

·        Not suitable for exterior applications or heavy foot traffic

·        Raw wood needs treating to prevent the grain from rising

When discussing which is best, polyurethane or polycrylic, it’s crucial to mention the dangers of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are present in oil-based varnishes and paints. According to the EPA, inhaling VOCs can result in respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and more serious consequences. Therefore, it’s crucial to keep exposure to a minimum.

Which Is Harder – Polyurethane vs Polycrylic?

Do you need a durable, highly-resistant wood finish? In that case, polyurethane is the best choice. It has excellent resistance to heat and moisture, making it ideal for outdoor applications such as decks, fences, and exterior wooden furniture. However, if you want something more flexible for interior work, polycrylic is an excellent choice.

Can I Apply Polyurethane Over Polycrylic?

It is possible to apply polyurethane over polycrylic if you prepare the surface appropriately. And it doesn’t matter if it’s water-based polyurethane or an oil-based product. Here are step-by-step instructions to apply polyurethane finish over polycrylic:

·        Ensure the polycrylic surface is completely dry.

·        Gently sand the surface with 150-grit sandpaper.

·        Wipe dust off the surface using a tack cloth.

·        Apply the appropriate oil-based polyurethane finish as usual and leave for at least 24 hours to dry.

·        Once dry, gently sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper, tack the surface with a lint-free cloth, and apply another coat.

·        You can repeat the process with one more coat if desired.

·        After the finish is cured, buff with #0000 steel wool to bring a shine to the surface.

What Is the Better Choice – Polyurethane vs Polycrylic?

Polyurethane and polycrylic are great choices if you want to protect wood with a clear, moisture-resistant finish. However, they have different properties. Polyurethane is more durable, longer lasting, and has better moisture-resistant properties. On the other hand, polycrylic is less toxic and provides excellent surface protection for interior wooden items.

Oil-based polyurethane is always the best choice to finish wood products that will be used outdoors or be subjected to heavy use. Otherwise, choose polycrylic for finishing your woodwork projects.

Polyurethane vs Polycrylic– In Conclusion

Polyurethane and polycrylic are great options for protecting wood surfaces, and both products have their uses when working with wood. The type of finish you choose greatly depends on how the wood product will be used.

Go with polycrylic if you’re looking for something to protect wooden items that will be used indoors. It’s easier and cheaper to use than polyurethane and gives you a good clear finish.

On the other hand, polyurethane provides the most durable finish compared to polycrylic finishes. It is best suited for outdoor use where it must withstand extreme weather conditions or heavy foot traffic indoors.