Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: What’s the Difference?

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane

As a DIY enthusiast, you’ve heard good things about both polycrylic and polyurethane, but you’re not sure which one to choose.

So what’s the difference between polycrylic vs. polyurethane?

First things first – let’s look at each type of finish.

Then we will talk about what makes these finishes different from each other.

Let’s get started!

What is polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based, clear acrylic finish that is used to protect and enhance the appearance of wood.

It dries quickly and is safe for both indoor and outdoor use. You can use polycrylic over paint, stain, or varnish, and it is available in either a matte, satin or glossy finish.

Polycrylic is an excellent choice for finishing wood projects because it is easy to apply and dries quickly. In addition, it’s non-toxic and emits low volatile organic compounds (VOC) with a maximum VOC content of 275 g/L.

Unlike oil-based varnishes, polycrylic will not yellow over time. Polycrylic is available in matte, satin, and glossy finishes. 

While the manufacturers say the finish can be matte, in our experience, there is a slight sheen to all polycrylic finishes.

What is polyurethane?

Polyurethane is an oil-based durable, and reliable finish. Polyurethane finishes are popular from kitchen cabinets to furniture to doors because they produce a hard surface that resists moisture.

Polyurethane is thicker and more protective than other oil-based varnishes as a more durable finish. However, it does have distinct disadvantages when compared with water-based finishes. 

Polyurethane emits high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to be bad for the environment as well as your health.

Polyurethane is also known to yellow over time in comparison with water-based finishes.

High gloss polyurethanes can create a beautiful shine finish when applied to cabinets and furniture. 

Still, the same high shine may not suit all types of wood – like oak or maple – that require a matte or low-luster finish to show off the wood’s natural grain and beauty.

Main differences between polycrylic and polyurethane

1. Appearance – both of these finishes improve the appearance of wood, but they do so differently. Polycrylic dries quickly and comes in a matte, satin, or glossy finish.

2. Drying -Polyurethane dries slowly and is available with low or high shine depending on the type of wood that it’s used on. Over time, polyurethane will yellow in comparison with polycrylic.

3. Durability – polyurethane is more durable than polycrylic, which makes it a good choice for furniture and kitchen cabinets, outdoor pieces, or pieces that get lots of wear and tear.

4. Toxicity – polyurethane emits high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to be bad for the environment as well as your health. Polycrylic is non-toxic and emits low VOCs.

How to Use Polycrylic?


  • Polycrylic
  • 4inch foam brush
  • Orbit sander with 80, 120, 180 grit sandpaper
  • Water
  • Paper towels

Applying a water-based finish can be tricky, but you can get great results with the proper techniques.

  1. To prepare the surface for the finish, sand it with an orbit sander equipped with 80, 120, and 180 grit sandpaper. This prepares the surface for the finish.
  2. Next, apply the finish with a 4inch foam brush.
  3. Start at one section. Progressively apply the finish on your way to the other side, overlapping strokes as needed. Make sure you cover everything completely.
  4. Next, wait for 2 to 4 hours before applying the next coat. Dry times are affected by humidity, temperature, and ventilation. Expect longer drying times if you live in an area with higher humidity (50%) or lower temps than what’s listed above (77°F)!
  5. Sand the surface again with 320 grit sandpaper to make it smooth because it may get rough after raising the grain.
  6. You don’t want to put too much pressure because you will see scratches underneath the second coat, so lightly sand it so it remains smooth.
  7. You’ll know it’s ready for sanding since it gets chalky as you start to sand it.
  8. If there is still dampness, it will gum up on your sandpaper and, if that’s the case, leave it alone and let it dry.
  9. After sanding the wood, take a paper towel and get it wet. Wipe off the dust until it is gone.
  10. This type of finish is easy to clean. All you need is some water and a soft cloth or sponge to remove excess dust after application.
  11. Now it’s time for coat #2. Use a foam brush to build up your finish with the second coat and make it more robust. Again, focus on building this layer instead of simply sealing the wood with the first application – now you’re starting to really get some excellent film that’ll last for years!
  12. When applying the polycrylic, always start in the middle and work your way out. Never begin at an edge or pull towards yourself because this will create runs along both sides of your board!
  13. Within 24 hours, the second coat will be dry. Next, you’re going to do what worked on my last coat – sand it with 320 grit and make sure not to press too hard when sanding.

Then apply a third layer using the same process.

How to Use Polyurethane?


  • Drop Cloth
  • Lint-free rags
  • Stir stick
  • High-quality synthetic brush

Here is how to use polyurethane:

  1. Remove all dust and debris.
  2. Wipe the surface clean with a lint-free cloth to remove all dust and debris. Any particles left on the surface will be sealed, so you want to make sure the surface is clean.
  3. Apply a thin coat of polyurethane with a high-quality synthetic brush, using long, even strokes and rubbing it in thoroughly. Keep with the direction of the grain.
  4. Be sure to prevent any air bubbles during this process.
  5. It’s best to work in manageable sections (2 feet x 2 feet).
  6. Blend the sections while the polyurethane is still wet.
  7. Let it dry completely (at least 2 hours) and apply another coat if necessary. For the best durability, apply three coats.

Which is better polycrylic or polyurethane?

Each offers its pros and drawbacks. Which one is better will depend upon the use-case.

First, the main guiding principle determines which finish you should use.

  • If you’re using an oil-based stain, use an oil-based polyurethane.
  • If you’re using a water-based paint product, then choose polyacrylic.
  • It’s best not to mix oil-based stains with water-based based finishes (or vice versa) as the results can be unpredictable.

Therefore, if you’re going to stain an outdoor piece, make sure to use an oil-based stain before applying an oil-based polyurethane.

If you’re planning to finish an inside piece, use a water-based stain or product upfront so you may follow up with an acrylic finish like polycrylic.

Polyurethane offers more durability

Since polyurethane is a more durable option that can withstand heavier use, it’s best for outdoor projects (especially if there is sunshine involved!). 

It also makes sense for high-traffic areas in your home that receive lots of wear and tear. Polyurethane is flexible, so it will adjust to and seal over the wood without cracking. 

Polycrylic does not turn yellow over time

What color is the stain? If the stain is a light color such as white, it’s best not to put polyurethane over a white surface because it would make the surface yellow over time.

This is why polycrylic would be the better option for protecting a light-colored surface.

Polycrylic can be trickier to apply (but easier to clean up)

It takes some care to brush on water-based polycrylic because you have to keep a wet edge. However, it dries more quickly than an oil-based product, which can be an advantage in other ways.

When applying polycrylic over a large surface area, it’s harder to get an even finish.

Polycrylic is less toxic

It’s also non-toxic and non-flammable, making it a good choice for young children or pets’ families.

However, polycrylic doesn’t offer much protection against scratches or wear and tear, so it’s best suited for light use items like furniture or trim work.

Polycyclic dries faster

Polycrylic also dries very quickly and is usually ready to use in an hour or less.

On the other hand, polyurethane requires you to dry it for 12 hours or overnight before putting another coat.

Should you sand polycrylic between coats?

Yes, you should. Light sanding (#220) is the best way to remove any fine dust that settles on your finish while it’s still wet and can also help abrade away surface problems with paint adhesion.

Can I use polycrylic over paint?

Yes, you can use it over latex and oil-based paint.

Can I use polyurethane over paint?

Yes, you can use polyurethane over paint. You may use either water-based or oil-based polyurethane on any paint as long as the paint has fully cured and is clean. 

However, if you use oil-based polyurethane, be careful of discoloration, especially from the outdoor elements.

How long does polycrylic take to cure?

You should wait for at least 24 hours to fully cure after applying the third and final Polycrylic coat.

When the polycrylic cures, it will form a clear, hard finish that will protect your project from scratches and wear and tear.

How to cure polycrylic faster?

The steps to curing polycrylic faster are as follows:

  1. Clean the surface before you start. Remove all contaminants (dirt, dust, etc).
  2. Apply thin layers in even strokes.
  3. Every separate coat should dry completely. Then apply the next one.
  4. Don’t apply in hot or humid conditions

Will polycrylic seal wood?

Polycrylic will seal the wood, but it is not as durable as polyurethane. Polycrylic is a water-based sealant, while polyurethane is an oil-based sealant. 

The oil in polyurethane makes it more durable and resistant to wear and tear, while the water in polycrylic can cause it to fade over time.

What is polycrylic good for?

Polycrylics have many qualities that could make them your first option – fast drying time (usually 3 hours), easy cleanup, fast re-coating within 2 hours. These coatings also dry to a transparent water-shedding finish allowing paint colors to remain vivid. 

Unlike polyurethane, they don’t become yellow over time. Polyacrylic is very easy to clean. You need to fill up a bucket of water, wash your materials, and you’re done.

What is polyurethane good for?

Polyurethanes are durable coatings that can last up to 5 years or more before re-coating. In addition, polyurethane has superior “scratch & mar” resistance properties, thicker films, and is less likely to drip during application. 

They also offer a wide array of gloss levels and flow attributes. Polyurethane is known for its durability. To get the durability of two coats, you will need five to six coats of polyacrylic.

Is polycrylic water-resistant?

It is slightly water-resistant, but it’s still not recommended for outdoor use. For example, you could use polycrylic on a dining room table and it would resist small spills so long as you clean them up. But don’t let the spills sit long!

The water-based polycrylic and oil based polyurethane both claim to be waterproof, but I wanted an answer from science. So first thing’s first: I let them dry for about a week before sprinkling some water on top!

The polyurethane showed no signs of damage from the water. The polycyclic, on the other hand, showed signs of absorption (it produced a white tint where the water was).

What is the hardest clear coat for wood?

Polyurethane is the most complex clear coat for wood. Polyurethane is a type of plastic applied as a liquid and then dries to a hard, protective finish. 

It is resistant to water and alcohol, making it ideal for use on kitchen cabinets or other areas that might come into contact with moisture. 

However, it can be difficult to apply evenly, and it often produces a strong odor while drying.

Can you put too many coats of polyurethane?

In general, more than three applications of poly aren’t beneficial. It’s not necessary nor recommended in most cases. That’s because it can cause too much build-up and become cloudy.

Three applications should be enough for most projects. However, if you’re using poly as a topcoat, it’s best to use two coats instead of three or four — just to be safe.

Although four applications are recommended, doing so may be challenging due to the polyurethane’s thickening and gloppiness (and propensity to peel). With subsequent coats, the project acquires a yellow appearance that also fades with time.