Polyurethane vs Lacquer – What Are the Differences?

Lacquer sprayed on wood

Are you looking for a durable wood finish that enhances the appearance and protects the surface? Polyurethane and Lacquer are both good choices for this purpose.

It is obvious that you will need to apply either lacquer, paint or stain if you want to color your wooden surface. However, for colorless protective coats, you might consider polyurethane as an alternative to lacquer. This article introduces and compares both types of finish, highlighting the different characteristics and uses.

Polyurethane

Polyurethane is available in 2 different types: water-based (also known as waterborne or acrylic) and oil-based (or solvent-based) polyurethane. Although both polys have similar protective effects, they differ in their constituents and characteristics.


Oil-Based Poly.
Find oil-based poly on Amazon.

Water-Based Poly.
Find water-based poly on Amazon.

Water-based / Acrylic Polyurethane

Waterborne polyurethane is colorless and comes only with a light smell. It consists of waterborne acrylics with urethane resin.

This type dries rather quickly within 3-6 hours (full curing within 2-4 weeks) and is usually applied with a brush (occasionally sprayed) in 3-5 coats.

Oil-based / Solvent-based Polyurethane

This type is produced through a chemical reaction of natural oil, polyhydric alcohol and disocyanate.

Oil-based polyurethane is also colorless but comes often with an amber hue. In addition, this finish tends to become darker over time. While this changes the natural look of wood, it may be perceived as a “warm” look, e. g. for hardwood floors.

This poly requires only 2-3 coats but takes up to 24 hours to dry between them (up to 4 weeks to fully cure). It comes with a strong smell, so a proper ventilation is strongly recommended when using it inside the house.

Uses of Polyurethane

A very typical use of Polyurethane is (re)finishing hardwood floors as well as other furniture or wooden installations around the house. Polyurethane is durable and offers sufficient protection against tear and wear. Oil-based polyurethane is slightly more resilient, in particular against water and acids. In practice though, many DIYers prefer the almost odorless and faster drying acrylic/water-based type although it is more expensive.

Learn more about the differences between both types of polyurethane in our dedicated article.

Application of Polyurethane

Polyurethane is usually applied with a brush (although some poly products can be sprayed as well, e.g. this one). Sanding the surface is required between coats and – if applied to an already treated piece of wood – before the first coat. Water-based polyurethane requires 3-5 coats with 3-6 hours drying time between coats while oil-based poly needs only 2-3 coats but takes around 24 hours to dry.

If you wonder how much polyurethane you will need for your project, use our free calculator.

Lacquer

Lacquer is also available as waterborne (or water-based) and solvent-based type, the latter is produced with plasticizers and nitrocellulose as ingredients. While lacquer is commonly associated with coloring things, it is also available as a colorless finish or with a light hue. It is not only used in woodworking but also for a variety of other materials and products.


Spray Lacquer.
Find and compare lacquer products on Amazon.

Typical Uses of Lacquer for Wood

As one of the most common wood finishes, lacquer is used on all kinds of wooden products. This may include furniture and cabinetry, floors (not as durable and common as poly though), installations, fences, etc. Lacquer is hard-drying and adds a durable protective layer to the surface. Thanks to its water-resistance and the variety of available colors, it is commonly used for kitchen cabinets, windows and doors, (workshop / garage) shelves and other objects exposed to regular use and/or a certain humidity.

Application of Lacquer

Lacquer is often applied through spraying in 1-3 thin coats. Thanks to its fast-drying characteristic (often < 1 hour), surfaces and objects can be finished with multiple coats of lacquer within only a few hours.

On the other hand, a mask or respirator and certain safety precautions are needed – in particular for the application of solvent-based lacquer – as it is toxic, dispensed through spraying and inflammable.

Comparison of Polyurethane vs. Lacquer

The Differences between Lacquer and Polyurethane

The following table summarizes the different characteristics of water-borne and oil-based polyurethane and lacquer with respect to the appearance, constituents, durability, use, application and drying time.

  POLYURETHANE LACQUER
Appearance Colorless (acrylic) or with amber hue (oil-based poly); Different degrees of sheen available (can be glossy but generally less shiny than lacquer) Available in different colors as well as colorless and in different levels of sheen
Ingredients Water-based: waterborne acrylics with urethane resin; Oil-based: natural oil, polyhydric alcohol and disocyanate Water-based or solvent-based, the latter contains plasticizers and nitrocellulose
Durability Very durable and resistant finish but hard to repair without Not as durable as polyurethane but easier to repair
Typical Uses Durable finish for all kinds of wood; Often used for furniture, floors, wooden installations (interior and exterior);   Hard and durable finish for all kinds of wood; Used to apply a desired color to wood; Offers strong protection, also against water
Application Usually with a brush but spraying is possible; Water-based poly requires 3-5 coats, oil-based poly 2-3 coats; Requires sanding before and between coats Spraying or with a brush, usually in 1-3 coats, can be sprayed on top of existing lacquer coats
Drying Time Water-based poly dries within 3-6 hours, oil-based poly requires 24 hours (for new coating or light use); Fully cured within 2-4 weeks Often < 1 hour; Fully dried within 2-3 days

The Pros and Cons of Polyurethane and Lacquer

Both types of wood finishes come with their respective advantages and disadvantages:

POLYURETHANE LACQUER
 
Pros High protection of the surface; Durability and resistance; natural appearance (if low-sheen poly is used) Easy and quick application (usually by spraying); Variety of available colors and shades (or colorless); Somewhat durable and resistant
Cons Application more burdensome and time-consuming than lacquer (in particular for oil-based poly); Incorrect application can lead to a plastic-like look or other imperfections (e.g. coats too thick, bubbles from shaking the can) Not as durable as polyurethane yet sufficient for many uses; May appear shiny, even some matte lacquers

Is Lacquer or Polyurethane the Better Wood Finish?

The answer to this question depends on your prioritization and the intended look.

To color wood or add a certain shade, lacquer is the first choice in this comparison although you might also want to check out paint and stain as alternatives.

If you prefer a colorless finish, the intended durability and the ease of application are probably your most relevant criteria. Where very high resistance of the protective coat is needed, e.g. when finishing a floor, you might prefer polyurethane although its application will require some time and effort. In that case, read our comparison of acrylic and oil-based poly to choose the right one.

If durability is less important than a fast and convenient application, you will probably prefer lacquer.

Conclusion

As you have seen, there are different pros and cons for each of these types of wood finish. At the end of the day, it mainly comes down to the intended appearance, the required durability and resistance as well as the ease of the application: polyurethane is clearly the stronger finish while lacquer is way easier to apply.

You will find a number of different polyurethane and lacquer products on Amazon and in most DIY stores.

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