Polycrylic vs Polyurethane

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: Which One Is Best For Wood?

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Are you wondering what the difference is between Polycrylic vs Polyurethane?

You see, nothing beats the depth and glow of natural wood. But, heavy wear and tear, heat, and moisture are woods enemies. Thankfully, you can increase wood’s lifespan with the proper protective finishing.

Wood sealers like Polycrylic and Polyurethane are excellent for protecting these natural resources.

We get it; both Polycrylic and Polyurethane have similar names, similar jobs, so what’s the difference, and can they live up to the challenge?

We talk about the difference between Polycrylic vs Polyurethane. We also discuss the pros and cons of each and whether you can apply one over the other in your next DIY project.

Polyurethane Vs Polycrylic

What is polyurethane used for?

Polyurethane is either water-based or oil-based, which could either be satin, gloss, or semi-gloss finish.

Polyurethane is also available in a wipe and spray form. Polyurethane is fine if you don’t mind slight surface yellowing. It’s melted plastic that hardens once it’s dry.

Polycrylic is scratch-resistant, durable, and gives a perfect shine to wood surfaces.

Water-Based Polyurethane

This type of poly is popular among woodworkers because it’s less toxic with a low odor. It’s completely transparent compared to oil-based polyurethane. Plus, it dries quicker!

Water-based polyurethane works well for wood that’s not exposed to heat and water. You can use water-based polyurethane on:

  • Picture frames
  • Kitchen tables
  • Drawers and side tables
  • Bookcases

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is scratch-resistant and can withstand extreme temperatures. You can apply oil-based poly to latex and acrylic paints. But, it does give wood a yellowish color.

It costs more than water-based poly, but it’s longer-lasting.

You can use oil-based polyurethane for:

How To Apply Polyurethane

Before applying any protective finish on your project, make sure no water blemishes on the wood. These steps help you clean the wood:

  • Add mineral spirit in oil-based polyurethane to dilute it.
  • Apply to the wood exterior evenly.
  • Check and smooth out any drips as soon as possible.
  • The 2nd and 3rd coats should be completed with the undiluted poly.
  • Give it 24 hours to dry.
  • Use a razor to cut the drips when the surface is dried perfectly.
  • Apply the final coat 36 hours after the 3rd coat.

John from Magic Bristles explains how to apply Polycrylic on wood.

What Is Polycrylic Used For?

On the other hand, polycrylic is water-based and available in satin and high gloss finish. It’s great for interior wooden items like furniture, cabinets, indoor woodwork, etc.

It’s completely transparent, making it perfect for light-colored wood types like birch, maple, ash, etc.

Polycrylic finish is more affordable and easily available everywhere. If the surface is used regularly, like a tabletop, then this protective coat is perfect.

It doesn’t add any yellowish color to the exterior, and it’s easy to clean in the long run.

You must apply a thin coat of Polycrylic because it’ll give a milky finish if you use a thick coat. If you don’t want to remove it and do it again, be sure to pay attention during the first application.

Polycrylic shouldn’t be used over matte latex. The chemicals in matte paints and latex create cracks in the protective finish. If you want to apply a thin layer of poly quickly, then Polycrylic spray works well.

5-Step Process to Apply Polycrylic

  1. Clear the dust off the exterior using a clean cloth
  2. Slowly use sand grit paper to create an even exterior.
  3. Apply thin coats of Polycrylic with a roller or brush and allow it to dry. Use long brush strokes in one direction for a smooth finish.
  4. Use the sand grit paper again.
  5. Repeat the process until you complete three coats because one coat is not enough.

Is polycrylic the same as polyurethane?

At one point, you may have wondered, “Is Polycrylic the same as polyurethane?”, what is the difference between polyurethane and Polycrylic.

Both Polyurethane and Polycrylic have similar names and are used as topcoats for wood projects. They seal, add a shine to wooden surfaces, but they are used in different cases.

Polycrylic and Polyurethane: Pros & Cons

Pros of Polyurethane

  • Extra shiny exterior
  • Scratch-resistant
  • Long-lasting
  • It can be applied with a spray bottle or roller

Cons of Polyurethane

  • Long drying process
  • Flammable
  • Ventilation required
  • Oil-based poly adds a yellowish stain to the wood

Pros of Polycrylic

  • Easy to clean
  • Has far less odor than polyurethane
  • Cost-effective
  • 100% transparent
  • Perfect for interior wooden items

Cons of Polycrylic

  • Difficult to apply
  • Quick to dry
  • Can’t withstand harsh conditions and heavy wear and tear
  • Can get a milky appearance, but only if you don’t apply it correctly

Water-based polyurethane vs. polycrylic

Water-based polyurethane has a less aromatic volatile organic compound than oil-based polyurethane, so less harsh on your lungs and nose and will dry out faster. Polycrylic is water-based, far less malodourous, and toxic than either type of polyurethane, making it easier to work with.

Polyurethane Vs polycrylic over vinyl decal

If you used permanent vinyl decals, apply a polyurethane layer over the board with a medium-sized brush. Add one coat, let it dry for 24 hours or according to the directions. If you need to, add a second coat.

If you’d like to sand after the finish, high-grit sandpaper helps prevent damage to the decal. Polyurethane helps protect the decal from harsh outdoor conditions.

What Is Better? Minwax Polycrylic vs Polyurethane?

When deciding between Minwax polycrylic vs polyurethane for your outside woodwork project, pieces, or areas with a lot of exposure to traffic like floors, polyurethane works best. It’s long-lasting, rigid, and easy to use.

Its oil-based version emits gases while drying, so you’ll need enough ventilation. Minwax’s exclusive range of products is available online and at your nearest hardware store.

Applying polycrylic to wood furniture or DIY projects like kitchen tables, hardwood floors, and even trims are fine. It doesn’t have a harsh smell like polyurethane and cleans easily with water and soap.

But, it’s less durable on wood pieces, unlike polyurethane.

Which One To Use – Polyurethane Or Polycrylic

Most novices often ask which one to use on paints and other woodwork pieces, Polycrylic or Polyurethane? The answer to this question relies on your project requirements.

Both of these finishes are great if you apply them in the right way.

Polycrylic vs. polyurethane on countertops

If the wood is exposed to liquids, you should use oil-based polyurethane. When it comes to frequent-use surfaces or exposure to high temperatures, use a polyurethane finish.

But if you want the wood furniture to dry quickly, applying Polycrylic is the best option.

Another thing to keep in mind is that oil-based polyurethane adds a yellowish color to the exterior. If you want to avoid that, you can use either water-based polyurethane or Polycrylic.

Polycrylic is cost-effective and significantly reduces the overall cost of the product. If you’re making a low-cost product, you should always go for Polycrylic to reduce your spending.

Polycrylic is perfect for light wooden surfaces like maple, ash, or birch because it has no tint. It also works well over water-based wood stains.

Can you put polyurethane over polycrylic for a clear finish?

Let’s say you’re not impressed with the finishes of your DIY woodworking projects. And, you’d like to change the protective coat of the wood surface. The best is to remove the current coat before applying a fresh topcoat.

But this doesn’t mean that you can’t use another type of poly in some instances. You probably wouldn’t have any issues if you apply water-based Polyurethane over Polycrylic.

But, if you’re worried, lightly sand the surface down first. “Oil and water don’t mix” Now, this won’t work if you want to apply oil-based polyurethane over Polycrylic.

If you must do this, lightly sand the surface before you use polyurethane.

How To Remove A Protective Polycrylic Finish

A protective finish, regardless of its type, does its job perfectly. If you have applied it correctly to your project, you don’t need to remove it ever.

But what if you don’t like the final look of the product? What if you want to repair or refinish it after using it for a long time? Is there a way to remove the finish? Yes, there are actually a few ways to remove it.

The first thing you need to do is to remove the previous coat. How do you remove the finish?

It will take a bit more than soap and water to remove, but there are three ways to get this cleared up.

  1. Sand the surface
  2. Use a solvent
  3. Use a chemical

Depending on the finish type, you can use any of these methods to remove the topcoat.

If your finish type is acrylic, lacquer, chalk paint or latex paint, or shellac, the best way is to sand the surface. You can either use sandpaper or a sanding machine, depending on how large the surface is.

If your finish is lacquer or shellac, you can use lacquer thinner or denatured alcohol. It removes the protective coat without harming the wood.

For polyurethane finishes, paints, or varnish, then use chemical strippers. This is an ideal way to remove the topcoat if you’re working on a pricey wood item.

Keep in mind, polyurethane needs ventilation because it’s toxic and highly flammable. Never ever use steel wool on your projects. Steel wool will damage the overall integrity of your project.


A misconception is that Polycrylic and Polyurethane are the same. They’re 2 completely different finishes with the same aim of protecting the wood.

When it comes to using Polycrylic and Polyurethane, it depends on the surface, its future usage, etc. Polyurethane is water-resistant and can bear extreme temperatures.

Polycrylic is suitable for interior wooden things that are not exposed to extreme temperatures and water. It dries quickly, and soap and warm water help you easily clean it up. So, Polycrylic works well on side tables, picture frames, etc.

On the other hand, polyurethane is best for outdoor wooden things and wood that will bear the brunt of heavy foot traffic like flooring.

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