Can You Apply Polyurethane With a Roller?

Find out if you can roll on polyurethane in this post.

When it comes to applying polyurethane, nothing beats the precision of a fine brush. But when you’ve got a large project like hardwood floors in front of you, it’s understandable to wonder if there is a quicker and better way to do it.

The good news is there is a quicker way, but is it better? You’ll have to read the article to find out.

Can You Apply Polyurethane With a roller?

Yes! You can use a roller to apply polyurethane (and definitely should) when working on floors and large furniture. Applying polyurethane using a roller is easier, and the drying time is short. The roller also removes brush marks and prevents over-application on the surface.

The first thing you need to know is the importance of choosing the best roller for applying polyurethane.

What is the Best Roller for Polyurethane?

One thing you’ll love about using a roller to apply polyurethane is the speed. You can apply the first coat in your living room in minutes instead of hours with a brush. However, you have to be cautious of lint and dust attaching themselves to the wet poly.

In order to avoid this and other catastrophic results, you need to use the right roller.

When doing our research on the absolute best roller to use, we came across many varying responses from seasoned professionals. As a result, there is no general consensus. However, we strongly recommend (and others do too) using a lambswool roller.

Yes, some professionals swear by foam rollers, microfiber, and mohair for finishes using polyurethane, but lambswool absorbs oil-based finish properly, and it doesn’t shed when you prepare it well. Lambswool applicators are arguably the best choice for applying oil-based polyurethane on floors, so it tracks that lambswool rollers are also dependable.

That also points out an essential aspect of choosing the right roller: select one according to the type of poly. For example, while you might be able to get away with using a lambswool roller with water-based poly, you absolutely should not try it with a foam roller.

Of course, I won’t be surprised if someone has a technique that makes it work. But, despite the different styles and devices being used, the only thing everybody agrees on is that you should never use a cheap roller to apply polyurethane. 

If you use a $1 roller, you’re going to see a lot of lint on your floors no matter how well you prepare it. If you make this mistake, the money you spent on polyurethane and the time you took to sand, clean, and apply the finish would have been for nothing.


When you use a good-quality roller, lint won’t be a problem, and any issues with bubbles would most likely be taken care of by the third coat.

But if applying with a roller is risky, should you still use it? Absolutely, and here is why.

Advantages of Applying Polyurethane With a Roller

  • Cover a large surface area quickly – instead of spending days or weeks trying to brush a floor, you can wrap it up swiftly with a roller. Every swipe of the roller can cover a few feet, plus your nostrils won’t be as close to the fumes. This comes in very handy when you are using fast-drying poly which we sometimes advise against using because they’re more prone to bubbles and it may be the only option you have.
  • Yields an even finish – rollers are the preferred tools for painting, so it makes sense that they apply polyurethane smoother and more evenly than a brush. Rollers also deliver a pristine finish on floors that were not even or adequately prepared. However, that is not an excuse to not prepare the wood correctly.
  • No brush marks – it takes a while to master applying polyurethane without leaving brush strokes. Fortunately, rollers don’t leave smears and strokes. As long as you follow the grain and prepare the roller right, you won’t notice any apparent marks.
  • Used with different types of polyurethane – unlike when using a brush, some rollers can be used for both water-based and oil-based polyurethane. Of course, some rollers will perform better, and oil-based poly is best for floors, but at least you have the option.

Disadvantages of Using a Roller for Polyurethane

  • Relatively expensive – a good quality roller costs more than a brush. Given that rollers also don’t last as long as brushes, it makes them even more expensive on a per-project basis.
  • They can’t handle joints and edges – at the end of the day, or rather at the beginning of the project, you will still need a brush. But, of course, you might be able to get away with it on smaller planks you haven’t installed yet.
  • Much harder to prevent bubbles – polyurethane is bubbly by nature. When you use a brush, it is easier to prevent bubbles. Rollers, on the other hand, create bubbles as they lift the polyurethane during the finishing process.

What then tends to happen is you might still need a brush to smooth over your work after using the roller. However, you only need to do this with the final coat.

Can You Put Too Many Coats of Polyurethane?

Can You Apply Polyurethane With a Roller image

Photo credit: Minwax

When it comes to the number of coats, it doesn’t matter whether you are using a brush or a roller. While some professionals will tell you that you can’t put in too many coats of polyurethane, I am not one of them. At some point, you would need to factor in if the additional coats are making a difference or if you are just wasting money.

What we typically recommend is using three coats of polyurethane. If you can’t get the desired result in three coats, you either didn’t sand the wood properly or are using the wrong type of poly.

It is also worth remembering that manufacturers tell you how many square feet the quantity you purchased can cover. This usually maxes out at three coats.

Just in case you are curious, this is what applying 40 coats of polyurethane looks like.

Do I Need to Sand Between Coats?

No matter what you use to apply polyurethane, whether a brush, lambswool applicator, or a roller, you should never apply a second coat of polyurethane without sanding. The only exception is when you are using a water-based polyurethane that does not need sanding – you can apply two or three coats of these with minimal wait time.

You need to sand between coats for all other products so that the following coat will stick to the previous one easily. Unlike lacquer, coats of polyurethane do not ‘melt’ into each other. You also need to sand to get rid of dust nibbles and bubbles.

The worst thing you want is to spend days on a project, only to notice you have dust stuck in the lower coats of poly.

What Happens When Lint and Dust Get Trapped in my Coat of Polyurethane?

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try to sand and clean the wood properly, dust can still end up in your wet polyurethane. When dust gets trapped in polyurethane, it makes it look dirty, and so it will remain until you do something about it.

To get rid of the dust nibbles or lint from your roller, you have to sand that part of the wood and reapply the finish. If you don’t trust the roller, you can use a brush or apply wipe-on poly.

It can be a hassle walking around your floor searching for lint and dust, so you must take every precaution to avoid this situation.

Can you Roll on Polyurethane FAQs

What is the Best Applicator for Polyurethane?

The best applicator for polyurethane on a small project is a brush. It gives you more control, and the application method reduces the number of bubbles that come up. However, for a large project, a lambswool applicator or a microfibre roller will work quicker and better.

Can I get a Smooth Finish of Polyurethane with a Roller?

Yes, you can get a smooth finish with polyurethane even when using a roller. The key is to apply multiple coats. The general rule is to use three coats. Also, ensure you are using a good quality roller, or you’ll end up with lint on your floor.

Can I Apply Water-Based Polyurethane with a Roller?

Some manufacturers of water-based polyurethane recommend using a roller with their products. These types are specifically designed to be used on large projects where a brush is not an option. Always read the instructions before buying polyurethane to ensure it suits your needs.

What is the Best Roller for Polyurethane on Floors?

can you roll on polyurethane on hardwood floors

Lambswool roller

In my experience, the best roller for applying polyurethane on hardwood floors is lambswool. It is a high-quality product that rarely disappoints. The short fibers absorb the finish adequately, and it won’t shed if you prepare the roller correctly.

Ready to Roll on Polyurethane?

I am sure you are relieved to find out that you can apply polyurethane with a roller and are probably anxious to try it. However, remember that it is important to use a high-quality roller, preferably lambswool or a microfibre roller.

Before you start your next project, you should read our review of the best rollers for applying polyurethane. But, seriously, stop reading this and click on that link now.

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