Polycrylic vs Polyurethane – Differences Explained

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Are you looking for the perfect wood finish for your next project? Then you should consider these two options, polycrylic or polyurethane. To make the right decision easier, we have gathered some information and all the pros and cons for you.



Polycrylic Wood Finish

So, what is polycrylic? This is a water-based finish, which has many uses and provides an excellent protective layer. Perfect for those who have experience with wood and for the DIY enthusiast. Polycrylic can be purchased in different finishes like gloss or satin.

Application methods are simple, you can either use a paint roller or spray bottle, which is subject to the item you are working on. You might need to get into difficult corners, so having the spray option is effective.

What is polycrylic useful for? In most cases, those who like to DIY would rather choose polycrylic, as it will enhance the appearance of wooden items located inside the house. These include things like your cabinets, tables, and wooden doors. Also, it works great as a topcoat for subtler wood surfaces, such as in the case of birch or maple wood. Lighter surfaces benefit, as the polycrylic finish is clear and does not create a tint. Therefore, it will not alter the wood’s surface appearance.

what is polycrylic

When considering the difference between polycrylic and polyurethane, the water-based polycrylic finish is a more popular option. This is because it dries much faster, not the same as polyurethane which has a longer drying time. You can, therefore, complete your project in a much shorter time frame.

When selecting polycrylic or polyurethane, polycrylic is also on the less expensive side. Also, when using polycrylic, cleaning up is a lot easier. You can also easily purchase the polycrylic from your local hardware store.

Some of the surfaces that will benefit from a coat of polycrylic include table surfaces, desks, and children’s furniture. This is because it creates a hard-wearing surface that is excellent for wood items that are used often.

The finish hardens clear and will not develop a yellow tint, which is what the polyurethane will do. So, if you are looking for a clear coat, especially over lighter wood, or light color paint, polycrylic is the best option.

As mentioned, cleaning is easy with the polycrylic, as you only have to use some soapy water to clean any cloths, brushes, and your hands.


  • Provides a clear finish (especially good on lighter colors)
  • Offers durability
  • Extremely easy to clean-up
  • Reasonably priced


  • If you apply too thick, especially over a darker color paint, you will get a milky finish
  • Fast drying time, so might be difficult to work on larger items
  • Has a fluid consistency, which might make proper application difficult



Polycrylic vs Polyurethane Hazards

Polycrylic is a lot less hazardous than polyurethane. Polyurethane has high VOCs, which can affect the lungs. This means when working with polyurethanes, you will need to wear protective gear and a mask. Also, polyurethane while still wet is extremely flammable and needs to be stored safely.

Polycrylic, on the other hand, has an extremely low odor and is a lot less toxic, so protective gear is not necessary when applying.



Applying Polycrylic

How can you apply a polycrylic finish?


Roll-on Polycrylic

There are different kinds of roll-on polyacrylic, which can be applied with a roller or brush and comes in a can. Unfortunately, using a brush can also leave brush strokes, which means you have to be extra careful when applying.

Another disadvantage is its drying time, which is quick, so you have to work fast to get the look you want. This might also be a problem on larger surfaces. Before application, always make sure to repair and clean your surface. Applying with a brush is simple enough, as long as it is a synthetic brush of high-quality which should help minimize any brush strokes. When applying the finish, always go along with the wood grain.

polycrylic or polyurethane

Another tip when applying polycrylic finish is to apply a thin coat and not to use too much pressure when doing so. A better option is to have two to three thinner coats than a single thick coat.


Spray-on Polycrylic

This might be an easier method of application and is a good choice if you want to rapidly apply a thin coat. The finish comes in a spray can and is simple to use, which is why many choose this option. As it is sprayed in a thin layer, it dries faster. This makes applying a level coat with no air pressure marks a little difficult.

Aerosol cans also have the disadvantage of being bad for the environment. Also, in most cases, obtaining large amounts can be difficult. So, it is best used on smaller wood items.



Does polyacrylic cure fast?

Yes, the polyacrylic finish dries rapidly, more so than other finishes. Although it still takes some time to dry properly, it does not do so straight away. When applying polyurethane, we recommend using 3 coats, as a single coat is not sufficient.

The polyurethane dries to the touch in about 30 minutes and can be picked up and moved around in about one hour. But when adding another coat, wait for two hours, then apply the second coat and follow the same process for the third coat.

Once the third and final coat has been applied, wait a further 24 hours for the finish to cure thoroughly.



Polyurethane Wood Finish

When you look at polyurethane vs polycrylic, polyurethane comes in both a water-based option as well as an oil-based form. This is what makes it useful to use on different surfaces. Many will choose the water-based variety, as it has a low odor, dries quickly, and is a lot less toxic.

On the other hand, oil-based polyurethane dries more slowly, but the finish provides a lot more durability and it can withstand intense heat. The polyurethane has similar properties to melted plastic, when the polyurethane is dry, it forms a strong protective layer. Polyurethane once cured, is difficult to remove, unlike the polycrylic, which means it will protect your wooden surface for a long time.

sanding between polyurethane coats

If you are looking for a glossy and luxurious appearance, polyurethane is the best option. You cannot get this glossy look from other types of wood finish. The polyurethane surface is also scratch-proof, which will keep your wood surface looking great for quite a while.


Polyurethane – Oil-Based

When it comes to durability, oil-based polyurethane is better than water-based. In particular, in cases where intense heat is experienced. The oil-based polyurethane will display the fullness of the wood, but it can also cause a yellow tint to appear.

This finish is perfect to use on kitchen tables, surfaces that could get wet, and flooring. Can also be used on both unfinished and finished surfaces.


Polyurethane – Water-Based

Great to use if you are looking for a finish that has minimal odor and toxicity. The water-based polyurethane offers a clear finish unlike the oil-based option, which can have a yellowish tint. Also, this finish dries much quicker and is best used on surfaces that are not subjected to major temperature changes. It is best used on bookcases, desks, picture frames, and small tables.



Common Pros and Cons for Polyurethane


  • Perfect for larger surfaces
  • Can be used on unfinished and finished surfaces
  • Extremely durable
  • Provides a glossy layer


  • You need to use in a room with good air circulation
  • Drying time is long


Applying Polyurethane – The basics

  • Use a fine-grit sandpaper to begin with
  • Once done and any blemishes have been removed, clean the surface thoroughly with a vacuum and then wipe with a soft cloth dampened with mineral spirits
  • Dilute the polyurethane with some mineral spirits, then apply with even strokes
  • Look out for drips and even these out
  • For the second and third layers, use undiluted polyurethane
  • Sand between applying layers
  • Allow drying thoroughly for 24 hours
  • Once dry, cut any drips away using a blade
  • Sand again using a 320-grit to 600-grit paper
  • Add the final layer within 48 hours of preceding layers. Apply carefully as you have done previously




It is best to have both polycrylic and polyurethane products around if you are an experienced woodworker and you are regularly doing different kinds of projects. However, if you just want to add a topcoat and spruce up your interior furniture, then polycrylic is the best option as it dries quickly and is easy to apply. Also, it offers a great clear finish, and is less expensive.

When it comes to polyurethane vs polycrylic concerning durability, polyurethane will always be the more reliable choice. Also, it is better on unfinished and finished surfaces that have to endure intense temperatures and high usage.

When it comes to wooden items that might be exposed to humidity or get wet, then again, the oil-based polyurethane should be chosen over the polycrylic finish. When applying a seal coat, it might be a good idea to use polycrylic instead of oil-based polyurethane. This is because the polyurethane can leave a yellow tint.

difference between polycrylic and polyurethane

If you are looking to do a wooden floor, the oil-based polyurethane works best because of its durability and smooth finish. The polyacrylic is better suited for smaller wood items like a desk, as it dries fairly quickly and provides a shorter work time so you can use the item in next to no time. Polycrylic is also less toxic and can, therefore, be used inside, unlike polyurethane.

Since polyurethane has a longer drying time, it is better used on larger surfaces. You can cover the surface with more of an even coat without having to rush around. When it comes to vertical surfaces like walls, polyurethane works better, as it is thicker. Polycrylic is thinner and will drip too much, causing a bit of a mess, making it difficult to apply.

You only need some soapy water to clean up polycrylic, which makes it easier to work with. And if money is a major concern, polycrylic is the more affordable option compared to polyurethane. When considering polycrylic vs polyurethane, the main thing is to decide on your project. This will determine which finish is best suited for the job. However, having both types of finish available could come in handy, as you never know when you might need one or the other.



Questions and answers


What is the better choice polycrylic or polyurethane?

There are different benefits to each, and it depends on your project. Oil-Based Polyurethane: this finish is durable and is best used on surfaces that have high usage, like wooden floors or your kitchen table. Polycrylic: Water-based finish, which has a minimum odor and is not as toxic as polyurethane. It is also easier to handle and dries quicker.


What finish offers the best durability – polycrylic or polyurethane?

Polycrylic does provide a durable finish, but not as good as polyurethane, which can withstand varying temperatures and high traffic volumes.

Polyurethane is the best choice for durability and is best used on wooden floors or wooden surfaces in the kitchen.

Polycrylic has a fluid consistency and can be problematic when applying, particularly on vertical exteriors. It also dries quickly and, therefore, can be difficult where large surfaces are involved. However, it is less toxic and smells less than polyurethane.


Is Minwax Polycrylic similar to polyurethane?

Minwax polycrylic is a strengthened polyurethane that is water-based. This product can, therefore, stand up against tougher conditions. Polyurethane is basically a liquid plastic that hardens when it dries and comes in an oil-based or water-based variety that has either a glossy or satin finish.


Does it take long for polycrylic to harden?

No, it takes only 30 minutes to dry to the touch and in 60 minutes it can be handled. Once the final coat has been applied, let it dry a further 24 hours before using it.


Can the polycrylic form cracks?

Yes, cracks can become visible as the layer dries and occurs because the coat has been applied too thick. Also, it can be because a subsequent coat has been applied too soon. To fix this, you will need to sand the coat down and then reapply another layer when properly dry.


Can polycrylic produce a smooth finish?

Yes, as long as you sand between layers, you can get a smooth finish. If the wood has been painted, the grain will not be raised, so it may not be necessary to sand after each polycrylic coat. But if it feels rough, even after the applied polycrylic, use some 400-grit sandpaper to smooth it out.


Can polycrylic be wiped-on?

No, wiping is not appropriate. Once the first layer has been applied, sand with 220-grit to 320-grit paper. Use the same grit sandpaper between layers. The polycrylic dries fast, so you can easily do many coats during a single day.


Is it possible to layer polyurethane over polycrylic?

Yes, if the surface has not been used, sand the polycrylic down to remove any gloss and then add a layer of polyurethane. However, if the surface has been used, it would be advisable to clean the surface with some mineral spirits. This is to get rid of any grease or oily marks.