What’s the Difference? Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane
Don’t let their similar names fool you: Polycrylic and polyurethane are not one and the same. Learn about the pros and cons of these two popular wood finishes so you can choose the right one for your project.
By Michelle Ullman and Phillip Tinner | Updated Dec 15, 2023 12:39 PM
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Choosing wood for its natural beauty, depth, and glow over furniture that’s made of manmade materials is an easy decision for some; weighing whether to seal it with polycrylic vs. polyurethane may be a more difficult decision. When left unsealed, wood is prone to damage from moisture, heat, and heavy usage. To prevent that, most woodworking projects—from newly refinished flooring to raw-wood, handcrafted benches—culminate with a protective top coat.
Two such wood sealers are polycrylic and polyurethane. Their similar names and functions can confuse do-it-yourselfers who head to the hardware store and see them side by side. Which of the two is best for sealing furniture? Will either affect the color of the wood to which it is applied? And which is easier to apply? Ahead, learn about the differences between these two wood finishes so that you can make a quick, easy decision on polycrylic vs. polyurethane without slowing down your project.
Polycrylic is water based, but polyurethane can have an oil or a water base.
There are both water-based and oil-based varieties of polyurethane from which to choose, but polycrylic sealers are strictly water-based. Here’s are some pros and cons of each type:
- Oil-based polyurethane is durable and scratch-resistant, which makes it the best choice for refinishing wooden floors or furniture that gets a lot of use (kitchen table, we’re looking at you). Oil-based polyurethane also handles high heat like a champ, which water-based polyurethane and polycrylic do not. It’s also more tolerant of water, making it the best choice for sealing outdoor furniture or other wooden objects that are likely to encounter moisture.
- Water-based polyurethane finishes for wood contain less odorous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than their oil-based counterparts, and are thus less hard on your lungs and your nose. It dries faster, as well. However, it’s not as resistant to high temperatures or water, and it’s more susceptible to scratches than oil-based polyurethane.
- Polycrylic is a water-based product that is far less smelly and toxic than either type of polyurethane, which makes it easier to work with. Though it dries very quickly, the downside is that it can take a long time to fully cure. Does polycrylic scratch easily? Because it’s not as scratch-resistant as oil-based polyurethane, resting anything on a surface covered with polycrylic that has not fully cured can scratch or indent the clear coat. Polycrylic doesn’t tolerate high heat as well as oil-based polyurethane, either.
You’ll get a choice of sheens with both polyurethane and polycrylic, but polyurethane wood finishes will also tint.
Both polyurethane and polycrylic come in satin, gloss, and high-gloss sheens, so you can go as shiny as you’d like to emphasize your wood’s character and craftsmanship. There are a few questions you may have about the aesthetics of these tints—chief among them, do polycrylic and polyurethane turn yellow over time, or do they dry clear? There are a few aesthetic differences to note between these finishes.
- Oil-based polyurethane tends to dry with a slight yellowish tint. You should only use it over wood that’s dark enough or warm enough to hide the yellow cast.
- Water-based polyurethane is the nonyellowing polyurethane. It dries completely clear, so you can use it over light woods like maple without worrying about tinging the wood yellow.
- Polycrylic is generally said to dry clear, too, as long as you apply it carefully. It can take on a milky appearance if it’s applied heavily over dark wood or paint.
Though they’re all very strong, oil-based polyurethane is the most durable.
Whether you’re using polyurethane vs. polycrylic, you’re sure to get a durable, hard finish that will protect your wooden furniture or floor from mild-to-moderate abuse. But if you really need a sealer that can handle stronger stuff—such as daily, vigorous use or lots of foot traffic—oil-based polyurethane is your best bet. And if your finished piece will be exposed to high temperatures or moisture on a regular basis, oil-based polyurethane is definitely superior.
It’s more difficult to apply polycrylic evenly than polyurethane.
You’ll be presented with several application options at most hardware stores, but is it better to roll or brush polycrylic and polyurethane? Stick to a brush or spray and avoid rollers and foam brushes when applying these finishes. Polycrylic’s runny consistency makes it somewhat challenging to apply: You’ll need to apply thin coats and keep an eye out for drips, then wait the recommended dry time so that you don’t end up with a sticky finish. Whether it’s sprayed or brushed on, polycrylic dries very quickly to the touch, which makes hard to get an even finish over a large surface area. If you’re covering a smaller surface, consider using a polycrylic spray (Minwax polycrylic, which was the Best Bang for the Buck selection in our researched guide to the best polyurethanes for floors, comes in an aerosol version that’s ideal for use on things like furniture and cabinet doors).
While both polyurethane and polycrylic can be applied over water-based or oil-based paints and finishes (including chalk paint), you may find that polycrylic doesn’t dry quickly over matte latex paint due to additives in the paint.
Polycrylic is far less dangerous and toxic than polyurethane.
Polyurethane is very flammable while it’s wet, and should be stored carefully to prevent a fire. As mentioned earlier, it also has a high VOC count that can irritate your lungs. Always wear PPE, including a respiratory mask, while applying it. (That said, water-based polyurethane is far less potent than the oil-based version.) Is polyurethane toxic to humans in all its forms, even after it dries? Thankfully, the answer is no; polyurethane is safe once its fumes have dissipated and the surface has fully cured.
Once it cures, polycrylic isn’t toxic, either. In fact, its fumes are not nearly as toxic and odiferous as polyurethane’s are as you’re applying it. Although we always think donning protective gear while painting and sealing is a good idea, it’s less crucial when applying polycrylic.
Still deciding between polycrylic and polyurethane? Ask yourself these questions.
As it is, polycrylic and polyurethane can be used on many of the same types of projects, including desks, side tables, picture frames, and dressers. If you’ve weighed the pros and cons we’ve discussed and still aren’t sure which product is best for your project, ask yourself these questions:
- Will the wooden piece be exposed to high temperatures or moisture? If your answer is “yes,” oil-based polyurethane is your best bet.
- Are you applying sealer to a light wood, or over wood that’s painted white or another light color? Avoid oil-based polyurethane, which can dry with a yellow tint. Use water-based instead, which is a non-yellowing polyurethane.
- Are you sealing a wood floor? Oil-based polyurethane provides the most durable finish in high-use situations like flooring.
- Do you need a product that dries quickly? Polycrylic dries much faster than polyurethane does.
- Are you working indoors, without good ventilation? You’ll want to use polycrylic, which is less toxic than polyurethane, especially when working in a poorly ventilated area.
- Are you sealing a large piece of furniture? Because polycrylic dries very quickly, achieving a smooth finish over a large area can be difficult. Go with polyurethane.
- Are you sealing a vertical surface, such as the sides of a bookcase? Polyurethane is easier to work with on an upright surface. It is thicker than polycrylic, and is less prone to dripping.
- Is an easy cleanup your top priority? If so, polycrylic is for you. You need only soap and water to remove it from your hands, paint brushes, and other surfaces where it might spill during application.
- Is budget a big concern? Polycrylic is generally less expensive than polyurethane.