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Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which Finish is Best for Your Project?

When it comes to protecting and beautifying wood surfaces, choosing the right finish can make all the difference. Polycrylic and polyurethane are two popular options, each with its own set of characteristics, advantages, and best-use scenarios. Whether you're working on a piece of furniture, a hardwood floor, or a decorative item, understanding the differences between these finishes can help you make an informed decision. Let's dive into the details and see which finish might be the best fit for your next project.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based protective finish that is clear and non-yellowing, making it an excellent choice for light-colored woods and surfaces where maintaining color clarity is essential. It dries quickly, is easy to clean up with soap and water, and emits fewer fumes compared to oil-based finishes.


  1. Quick Drying Time: Polycrylic dries to the touch in about 30 minutes and can be recoated in about 2 hours, making it ideal for projects that need to be completed quickly.
  2. Easy Clean-Up: Being water-based, it can be easily cleaned with soap and water, reducing the need for harsh chemicals.
  3. Low Odor: Polycrylic has a low odor, making it more pleasant to work with, especially in indoor environments.
  4. Clear Finish: It provides a crystal-clear finish that won't yellow over time, preserving the natural look of light woods.


  1. Less Durable: Polycrylic is generally less durable than polyurethane, particularly in high-traffic or high-wear areas.
  2. Not Heat Resistant: It is not as heat resistant, making it less suitable for surfaces like kitchen counters or dining tables.
  3. Application Sensitivity: Polycrylic can sometimes be tricky to apply evenly, and it may show brush strokes if not applied carefully.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is available in both water-based and oil-based formulas, offering versatility for different types of projects. It is known for its durability and strong protective qualities, making it a go-to choice for surfaces that endure heavy use.


  1. Durability: Polyurethane, especially the oil-based variety, provides a tough, long-lasting finish that can withstand heavy wear and tear.
  2. Versatility: Suitable for both interior and exterior applications, polyurethane offers protection against moisture, heat, and chemicals.
  3. Various Sheens: It comes in a variety of sheens, from satin to high-gloss, allowing you to achieve the desired look for your project.


  1. Longer Drying Time: Oil-based polyurethane takes longer to dry (up to 24 hours), which can extend the project timeline.
  2. Stronger Odor: It emits strong fumes during application, necessitating good ventilation and sometimes protective gear.
  3. Yellowing Effect: Oil-based polyurethane can yellow over time, which may affect the appearance of light-colored woods.

Key Differences and Best Uses

- Color and Clarity: If maintaining the original color of the wood is crucial, polycrylic is the better option due to its clear, non-yellowing nature. Polyurethane, particularly the oil-based version, tends to add a warm amber hue and can yellow over time.

- Durability: For high-traffic areas or surfaces subject to heavy use, polyurethane offers superior durability. Oil-based polyurethane is especially robust, making it suitable for floors, countertops, and other heavily used surfaces.

- Drying Time: If time is of the essence, polycrylic's fast-drying formula can be a significant advantage. Projects can be completed in a single day with multiple coats.

- Application and Environment: Polycrylic's low odor and easy clean-up make it ideal for indoor projects where ventilation might be an issue. However, careful application is needed to avoid visible brush strokes.

- Heat and Water Resistance: Polyurethane excels in resisting heat and moisture, making it suitable for kitchens, bathrooms, and exterior woodwork. Polycrylic, while moisture-resistant, does not offer the same level of protection against heat and heavy wear.

Both polycrylic and polyurethane have their unique advantages and are suited for different types of projects. Polycrylic is perfect for light-colored woods and quick indoor projects where clarity and low odor are priorities. Polyurethane, with its robust durability and resistance to heat and moisture, is the preferred choice for high-traffic areas and surfaces exposed to the elements.

When deciding between polycrylic and polyurethane, consider the specific needs of your project, including the wood type, intended use, and working environment. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each finish, you can ensure a beautiful, long-lasting result that meets your needs.

Looking for more woodworking inspiration, advice, and updates? Dive into Byrd Tool Expert's Blog for a wealth of ideas and tips.

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