Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane

Both polyurethane and polycrylic lend a lustrous finish to your wood object, as well as increase its longevity and resistance to damage. Understanding the differences between polycrylic and polyurethane is critical before deciding which finish is appropriate for your project.

In our guide, we look at comparing polycrylic vs. water-based polyurethane coatings so you can determine which is best suited to offer a durable finish to your home improvement jobs.

While applying polycrylic and polyurethane is often used for the same task, from picture frames to flooring and doors, they also come with confusingly similar names. Yet, both are top protective coatings for wood projects.

Each has good points and bad points, so you can learn the difference between polycrylic and oil-based polyurethane to make sure you use the right one for the protective top coat of your wooden surface. (Read Joint Compound Vs Spackle)

brushing wood

Which is Better Polycrylic or Polyurethane?

When choosing wood finishes, you will most likely hear of the most versatile sealers you can use on wooden flooring and furniture: polycrylic and polyurethane.

Here you can see the differences to find which is better in our polycrylic vs. polyurethane assessment.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based protective coating available in satin and high gloss. It can be rolled on or sprayed on. It’s a quick-drying chemical perfect for wood furniture, hardwood floors, and other wooden surfaces.

Polycrylic is recommended for lighter wood surfaces like birch, maple, and ash because it does not generate a hue.


  • Polycrylic is affordable.
  • Works well with standard latex paint
  • Very durable and long-lasting.
  • It presents a clear finish so suitable on lighter wood.


  • The liquid form is loose and can make the application hard.
  • It dries quickly so that extensive surface treatment can be challenging.
  • Used on darker shades gives a milky coloration.

precaution sign

Additional Precautions

Polycrylic finish works well with latex paint. However, it is best not to apply polycrylic on matte latex paint, as the chemicals here can slow the drying time and make the polycrylic finish wetter, thus leading to o drips.

Care should be taken when applying to vertical surfaces. Use only a very thin coat and gentle brushstrokes as a polycrylic coat can smear and run on a vertical surface.

What is Polyurethane?

Another popular choice for a protective finish is polyurethane. Water-based and oil-based polyurethanes exist. Like polycrylic, it comes in two finishes: satin and gloss. (Read Wood Putty Vs Wood Filler)

Water-Based Poly

Water-based polyurethane is clear and has a mild odor. It is also less harmful. Water-based polyurethane dries faster and is suitable for indoor furniture and surfaces, like picture frames, desktops, shelves, and coffee tables.

Water-based polyurethane contains fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than the oil-based counterpart. (Read Mineral Spirits Vs Paint Thinner)

Oil-based Poly

Oil-based polyurethane outlasts water-based polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane is suitable for external surfaces and furnishings. It can also help bring out the beauty of wood; however, it leaves a slight yellowish tint. It doesn’t lend itself to light woods and is best used on dark-colored paints where the tinge is masked.

Kitchen tables and wooden floors are examples of surfaces that benefit substantially from oil-based polyurethane finishes as they are suitable for areas exposed to dampness.

Polyurethane is available as a wipe-on or spray product and is suitable for outdoor furniture, albeit oil-based polyurethane dries somewhat yellow.


  • It offers a shiny or glossy finish.
  • Very durable.
  • Resistant to Abrasion.

Polyurethane can be seen as a shell protecting your wood surface. It hardens like melted plastic and shines outdoor furniture and flooring.


  • Polyurethane finishes dry slowly and up to 12 hours
  • Polyurethane is hazardous and needs use in a well-ventilated area.
  • It is flammable.

Polyurethane Application

  1. Lightly sand the surface.
  2. Remove dust and debris.
  3. For oil-based polyurethane, dilute the chemical with mineral spirit (white spirit).
  4. With a brush, apply long strokes.
  5. Apply undiluted varnish for your second and third coats.
  6. Let it dry for 24-hours.
  7. The final coat needs to be applied within 48 hours of the first coat.

Can I Use Polyurethane Instead Of Polycrylic?

You can use either protective finish on the same projects, yet the finish you will get differs. A water-based version will be much different from an oil-based version of the finish.

Even if there is a difference between polycrylic and polyurethane, your wood project can dictate which one to use rather than picking one over the other.

Polyurethane Finish

Polyurethane is an excellent polycrylic option for a dazzling wood finish. Also, keep in mind the benefits of each material when comparing them. Polyurethane is a liquid that you can apply to wood surfaces. Polyurethane finishes include satin for a smooth look and glossy for a radiant look.

Polyurethane provides a transparent covering with slight odor and toxicity when used on wet surfaces. It can impart color to painted wood without contributing color itself. This water-based polyurethane finish isn’t as heat-resistant as other treatments.

The oil-based form of polyurethane is more heat resistant and can withstand extreme temperatures better than water-based polyurethane. This form of polyurethane uses the wood’s natural richness to enhance the finishes color, although it can yellow.

This type of polyurethane is used on kitchen tables and wood floors. Because it has a strong odor, use it in a well-ventilated location.

You can also use polyurethane spray to apply it on hardwood surfaces. Your material should be scratch-resistant and durable and can withstand extreme heat in most cases.

Remember that polyurethane is flammable when liquid and hardens slowly between layers. Use undiluted varnish between applications and let them sit for 24 hours.

spray bottle

Polycrylic Spray

A polycrylic spray finish contains some polyurethane and is sometimes referred to as “new polyurethane.” That means, like polyurethane, it can go over water and oil.

You can find the finish in satin, semi-gloss, and gloss sheens from hardware stores, and it is less hazardous than polyurethane.

Polyacrylic paint strengthens the top layer, which is perfect for desks and tables. The paint color dries significantly clearer than polyurethane and with no yellow tint.

  1. To apply polycrylic over paint, clean the surface with a damp cloth and then sand it.
  2. Brush or polycrylic spray paint a thin layer of polycrylic on top of the sanded surface.
  3. Once dried, use a finer sand grit paper and add two more layers.
  4. Remember, your paint drys when solvents in the coating evaporate, whereas paint cures when the paint coating hardens and dries.
  5. Each layer needs drying and hardening before adding more. This shouldn’t take long as the spray dries quickly.
  6. Paint evenly with your spray bottle to prevent cracks from appearing.

Does Polycrylic Yellow Over Time?

Water-based polyurethane, shellac, wax, and epoxy resin all stay the same hue. Water-based polyurethane is tough, protective, and clear. It dries quickly, and many coats can be applied to the bare wood in one day, making it ideal for time-sensitive projects. However, because of adhesion concerns, it cannot be used over oil-based stains.

Minwax Polycrylic is the best clear coat. It’s easy to apply, dries quickly, maybe reapplied many times within 24 hours, and doesn’t yellow with time. It comes in satin, semi-gloss, and gloss sheens.

You must apply thin coats of polycrylic as it can feel tacky when too thick.

Water-based polyurethanes like polycrylic are weather-sensitive. Apply polyurethane on a day that is not too humid, too dry, cold, or has high temperatures.

Oil-based polyurethane can be used for floors, doors, or other large surfaces.

Water-based polyurethane is best used on desks, side tables, bookcases, and more to get a satin finish.

Polycrylic is great for desks and side tables. Polycrylic is liquid and works well on horizontal surfaces.

about to apply wood finish

How to Apply?

Water-based polyurethane and polycrylic compounds raise the grain of raw wood.

Preparing the wood before applying the water-based finish can help prevent this.

  1. Dip a rag in water and wipe it on the surface of the wood.
  2. When the wood is dry, lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper; don’t use steel wool as you can leave metal fragments that cause rust on your finished wood projects.
  3. Remove sanding, then apply the water-based topcoat.

The first step for project preparation for a topcoat is to sand the surface of the wood smooth.


It is necessary to apply polyurethane in a well-ventilated space. It’s also crucial that the space is free of dust. It takes a long time for polyurethane to dry.

This means that dust will have a long time to settle on the object and dry in the finish. Before applying the next coat, sand and remove dust specs.

When applying poly, always use a respirator that should block out VOCs.

Polyurethane can be applied by brushing, spraying, or wiping. Liquid polyurethane should not be shaken. Bubbles will appear if you shake the bottle. Those bubbles will collect on the brush and dry on the wood’s surface. Before applying the next coat, any bubbles must be sanded off.

Three coats of poly are generally required to provide enough protection to projects. The initial coat of polyurethane, often known as the base coat, should be thinned. Two parts polyurethane to one part paint thinner makes up a base coat. The second and third coatings are applied completely.

Allow time for each coat to dry. Polyurethane is a material that does not like to stick to itself. The surface must be roughened to allow the next layer to adhere. 220 grit sandpaper is used between layers, and the dust is cleaned up with a ShopVac.


Polycrylic can be brushed or sprayed. Three coats are recommended for oil-based poly to get the robust liquid plastic effect.

Polycrylic has a runny consistency making it challenging to apply on vertical surfaces. Apply thin layers and brush any drips out with a brush. It also dries rapidly, making a smooth finish on extensive areas difficult.

Unlike polyurethane, polycrylic requires no base coat. Each coat should dry in about two hours. Between applications, lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper and vacuum away sanding dust.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane (2)

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