Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which Is Better for Your Wood Project?

Spoiler alert: It depends on many factors.

<p>Alvarez/Getty Images</p>

Alvarez/Getty Images

You’ve decided the DIY project you want to tackle this weekend involves sprucing up some wood pieces in your home, but before you roll up your sleeves, you should know that the type of top coat you choose to seal your project will make a tremendous difference on how it looks and holds up over time. Specifically, polyurethane and polycrylic finishes are two of the more popular protective finishes we’ve seen pop up all over social media.

But before you just pick one arbitrarily, get to know what the special qualities are for each product type so you’re happy with the end result. We asked experts to weigh in on polycrylic vs. polyurethane to help inform your decision.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Different Types of Wood for Furniture

Meet Our Expert

Why Does Choosing the Right Wood Finish Matter?

According to Karielle Day, a merchant at The Home Depot, selecting the right wood finish is crucial for wood projects. “It directly influences the level of protection, maintenance requirements, and overall appearance,” she explains. The finish is your piece’s first line of defense against moisture, household chemicals, and scratches and abrasions, thus prolonging the life and beauty of the wood, adds Sharad Gaurav, senior product manager for Minwax Clear products.

“Finishes also offer varying levels of sheen (like gloss, semi-gloss, satin, matte, or flat) for the end-user to achieve the desired aesthetics,” Gaurav points out. Various types of wood finishes are available, with the most common options including stains, lacquers, polyurethanes, and shellacs.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based protective finish used on stained wood surfaces. Gaurav says it's ideal for indoor wood projects where a crystal-clear finish is desired.

Pros of Polycrylic

Polycrylic is low-odor, low VOC (volatile organic compounds), dries quickly, and is easy to clean—just use soap and water. It also doesn’t “amber” (or yellow) over time, Gaurav explains, and is best suited for layering over cooler color stains.

Related: How to Clean Wood Furniture to Make It Look Brand New

Cons of Polycrylic

Polycrylic may take a while to cure (products vary but roughly 3 hours for light handling), so touching or placing anything on your freshly-coated wood might leave indentations. Polycrylic doesn’t handle high heat well, as well. Also, depending on the look you’re going for, you might actually want some ambering from the finish—in which case, polycrylic might not be for you.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a synthetic resin that’s also used as a protective finish for wood surfaces, and it’s available in both oil-based and water-based formulations.

Pros of Polyurethane

Both Day and Gaurav agree that polyurethane has excellent resistance to moisture, chemicals, and abrasion. It’s highly durable, especially oil-based polyurethane. And according to Day, polyurethane is easy to apply. (It’s thick, making it less messy—AKA less drippy—to handle.)

Cons of Polyurethane

Polyurethane may have strong odors and can take a while to dry (at least around 6 hours for water-based versions, and even longer for oil-based). On top of that, polyurethanes may yellow a bit, particularly if there’s a lot of sun exposure, says Day.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane

Because polycrylic and polyurethane serve similar functions, it’s important to know how they compare so you can choose what’s best for your project

Durability and Scratch Resistance

Polyurethane wins for high durability and scratch resistance, especially oil-based versions. Day says, “It offers excellent protection against scratches, water damage, and wear thus extending the lifespan of wood surfaces.” So if the item you’re brushing up needs to stand up to a lot, polyurethane is your best bet.

VOC Levels

Oil-based polyurethane ranks highest in terms of VOCs, whereas polycrylic is lowest. Water-based polyurethane stands between the two. If air quality is a major concern for you, or you have a poorly ventilated space, polycrylic is the option you might want to strongly consider.

Application and Drying Times

Gaurav confirms that “oil-based polyurethane grants a better application experience” when compared to polycrylic (remember, it’s less drippy!), and Day adds that polyurethane finishes offer more versatility in application methods like brushing, spraying, or wiping. Polycrylic is typically just brushed on.

But polycrylic has a much faster drying time—roughly 3 hours compared to over six for polyurethane. Keep in mind, both types require multiple coats for optimal results.

Project Types

If you’re coating a large surface that needs to stand up to lots of foot traffic or wear-and-tear, like flooring, oil-based polyurethane is best. Large pieces of furniture are best suited for water or oil-based polyurethane, as polycrylic might dry too quickly to cover the entire surface in one smooth coat. Smaller pieces of furniture or trim are best for polycrylic.

Related: The Right Paint Finish Can Actually Help Your Home Look Cleaner—Here's How

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