Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Pros/Cons

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane

No woodworking project or piece is complete without applying a durable top coat or finish. But for many DIYers and woodworkers, the problem comes when they have to choose what to use.

In most instances, you will need to pick between polycrylic and polyurethane. Although the two are the most popular, there are still many other top coat options out there.

Both polycrylic and polyurethane are essential when it comes to finishing your pieces as they will give them that durable finish that you want. And in some workpiece, you can even use both.

However, for many projects, you will only need to pick one. And the only way to ensure that you make the right choice is by understanding what each is all about, its best uses and also the pros and cons of using it on your pieces.

Polycrylic

Polycrylic

Tables, chairs and entertainment centers and consoles are some of the most popular DIY projects. And since most will take a lot effort and significant time to finish you will also want to give them the best top coat.

When it comes to finishing theses, common DIY projects polycrylic is what most DIYers will use. For many, it is because it provides a transparent finish and hence ensuring that it does not change the appearance of the stain or finish.

Polycrylic is a handy water-based sealer or protective coat that will be useful for a variety of applications for DIYers and woodworkers. And it comes in various finishes such as satin and gloss.

When using polycrylic, you get the freedom to apply it with either a spray bottle or roller depending on the piece you are working with, and so it makes it easy to reach the tight corners.

Most DIYers will prefer to use polycrylic to add beauty to interior woodwork pieces from furniture to doors, tables, and cabinets.

And it is always the best choice of finish or top coat when working with light wooden surfaces such as maple and birch. The fact that it is a clear finish with no tint is what makes it ideal for the light surfaces. And so it will not change the appearance of the piece.

When using water-based stain for your wood pieces, polycrylic will be a much better option than the oil-based polyurethane.

Unlike polyurethane, you do not have to wait for ages for polycrylic to dry as it is a quick drying finish and this can speed up your projects significantly.

Also, in most cases, polycrylic is cheaper than polyurethane, and so it is a good choice where cost is a vital factor. Polycrylic will also be more straightforward to clean up than polyurethane.

Pros

  • Dries clear. With polycrylic, you always get a clear finish, and this is more so when working on surfaces with a light shade such as birch, maple, and ash. Polycrylic preserves the appearance of the surface, unlike polyurethane that will have a slightly yellow finish once it dries.
  • Easy cleanup. The ease of cleaning the water based polycrylic finish is one of the things that make it a fantastic finish. Unlike polyurethane, you will only need soap and water to clean the surface.
  • No lingering odor. When using polycrylic, you will not have to leave the windows open for hours because it does not have any lingering odors. And this can be a significant advantage when working indoors.
  • Relatively cheap. If you compare polycrylic to other finishes such as polyurethane, it is relatively less expensive. And this is because it is water-based and hence easy and cheaper to make than the oil-based polyurethane.

Cons

  • Challenging to apply.  The low viscosity or runny consistency of polycrylic makes it a little harder to spread than polyurethane, and this is more so when working on vertical surfaces. Also, compared to polyurethane it dries very fast, and so it can be challenging to apply on large surfaces.
  • May give a white finish. Contrary to what most people think polycrylic is not actually transparent. And so it can leave a milky white finish if you apply it too thickly. This problem is common when working on surfaces with dark colored paints.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane

Some of the woodworking pieces that you make will end up in high traffic place or exposed to elements such as heat. And so with such items, you need to have a hard finish to make them long-lasting.

When you want to give your tabletops, hardwood floors and many other pieces that have to take up a lot of abuse a hard finish, polyurethane is always the best choice.

Polyurethane is available in both water based and oil based forms and this makes it quite versatile as you can use it on a variety of surfaces. The water-based polyurethane is liked for being less toxic, low odor and also for drying fast.

Oil-based polyurethane might not dry as fast as the water-based form or polycrylic, but it provides a more durable finish than both. And it can also handle extreme heat.

Polyurethane has the same properties as melted plastic and so once it hardens it will form a strong protective shell over the wood surface. And unlike polycrylic, this finish is hard to remove and so it will last for a long time.

The shine that polyurethane gives your wood furniture is also hard to get when using polycrylic and other finishes. And so it is always the best choice when you want to provide the pieces with a shiny and expensive look.

The hard shell that polyurethane creates is also scratch proof which further preserves the appearance of the pieces for a long time.

Water-based polyurethane will be best for picture frames, side tables, desks, and bookcases while the oil-based form is excellent for hardwood flooring, kitchen tables and any surface that is prone to getting wet.

Pros

  • Adds a shiny coat. If you are looking for a finish to give your furniture that rich and glossy look, polyurethane is an excellent choice. Unlike polycrylic, the oil-based polyurethane will always leave the wood surfaces with a shiny coat.
  • Highly durable. It is a fact that polyurethane and this is more so the oil-based form will take more time than polycrylic to dry. However, once it dries, it will create a robust shell over the piece which is highly durable. To make things even better this hard shell is also scratch proof. It will be a long time before you need to redo the finishing when you use polyurethane.
  • Ideal for both finished and unfinished wood. In most cases, polycrylic will be handy when dealing with soft wood. However, with polyurethane, you can use it to finish both finished and unfinished wood, and this makes it quite versatile.
  • Best for large surfaces. The slow drying nature of polyurethane makes it perfect when working on large surfaces. And this is because you will not have to worry about some sections drying before you finish applying on the entire piece which can result in an inconsistent appearance.

Cons

  • Takes long to dry. If you are working on tight time frames polyurethane might not be your ideal finish as it takes a long time to dry. And once it dries the curing process takes even longer.
  • Need ventilation. When using oil-based polyurethane, you will need to apply it in a room with enough ventilation. And this is not only because of the odor but also because it is a toxic and flammable finish.

The Bottom Line

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane - infographic-01

If you a seasoned woodworker or DIYer that does different kinds of projects or you tend to build various things with different types of wood, it is a good idea to have both polycrylic and polyurethane.

But, if you want a top coat that is fast drying and provides a transparent finish for your interior wood pieces, polycrylic will be the best option. It is also the best finish to get where cost is a crucial factor as it is more affordable than polyurethane.

For those that want something that provides a more durable and scratch proof finish polyurethane is the best choice.

Polyurethane is also the better choice when you are working with both finished and unfinished wood and pieces that will have to face extreme heat and a lot of traffic.

The bottom line is that both the finishes are ideal for different projects, and so the right idea is to have both around as you cannot be sure when you might need to use either.