When you’re new to woodworking, choosing the right finish can be time-consuming and costly. Deciding what gets the upper hand in lacquer vs polyurethane is even more complicated.
Given their similarities in look and feel, many people erroneously refer to them as the same thing. However, there are some significant differences between them, making each suitable for diverse applications.
So, to prevent further confusion, we are going to clear the air once and for all.
Interesting Read: Wood stain versus varnish
What’s the Difference Between Lacquer and Polyurethane?
What is Lacquer?
Lacquer has been a fan-favorite of woodworkers for centuries. Initially derived from the secretions of the lac bug, lacquer remains a popular finish for cabinets and high-end furniture, even though its formula has changed drastically.
Despite being a very thin finish, it dries hard and is very durable. However, to get that finish, you require a fair bit of skill. The best way to apply lacquer is with a high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer.
There are four main types of lacquer, which we will discuss in detail further down.
Lacquer is made by combining different solvents and resins. Depending on the combination, one type of lacquer could be drastically different. While ancient lacquers were eco-friendly, modern ones include more chemicals and emit a high amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
However, manufacturers are increasingly making the less toxic, water-based lacquers, although there is some debate about whether they should be classified as true lacquers.
What is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is a durable, water-resistant finish that dries very hard. It can be used on a wide range of furniture but mainly on floors, tables, fences, and other surfaces that need protection from water and scratches. Given how thick polyurethane can be, it is rarely used for high-end furniture.
The two main types of polyurethane are:
- Oil-based polyurethane
- Water-based polyurethane
While oil and water-based polyurethane do the same thing, each one has its unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, oil-based polyurethane gives a warm glow to wood, and it yellows over time. On the other hand, water-based poly dries very clear and remains clear.
Both types of polyurethane can be used to protect wooden surfaces for over a decade when applied and maintained correctly.
Lacquer Finish vs Polyurethane Product Overviews
It’s the battle of lacquer vs polyurethane finish — let’s look at how each of their best products performs.
Rust-Oleum 1906830 Specialty Lacquer Spray
- Ideal for use on interior/exterior surfaces including plaster, masonry, wood, metal and unglazed ceramic
- Acrylic formula offers an ultra-hard, high luster finish with fast cure and hardening time compared to regular paint
- Dries to the touch in 20 minutes, covers up to 7 sq. ft. per can
- Durable coating can sanded and recoated for a higher gloss finish
- Provides a smooth, ultra gloss coating for a professional, factory finish look
Lacquer Pros and Cons
- Very thin and dries quickly
- Very durable
- Easy to fix errors during application
- Resistant to wear and scratches
- It can be difficult to apply properly
- Emits high quantities of VOCs
Varathane 200061H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane
- Protects indoor wood surfaces such as furniture, windows, cabinets, trim and more
- Water based formula dries fast and cleans up with soap and water
- Dries to the touch in 30 minutes with coverage up to 31.25 sq. ft., recoat after 2 hours
- Durable formula provides outstanding stain and scratch resistance with excellent clarity
- Gloss finish creates a polished and clean look
Polyurethane Pros and Cons
- The thick coat lasts for a very long time
- Scratch, chemical and water-resistant
- Dries hard and can handle a lot of wear and tear
- It can be applied in different ways
- It takes a long time to dry
- Emits high quantities of VOCs
Lacquer Vs Polyurethane: In-Depth Feature Comparison
Maybe I’m an old-timer, but I love wooden projects. But after working for days or weeks on a project, it can be heart-breaking to watch it wilt away in a matter of weeks.
That is why choosing the right finish is critical, most especially when it is a project you were paid to execute.
This in-depth comparison of lacquer and polyurethane will help you know which one to use in almost any situation.
1. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Ease of Application
One of the determining factors when choosing a wood finish is how easy it is to apply. After all, it’s better to have an excellent finish with an inferior product than a terrible one with a better product.
Lacquer is light, thin, and dries quickly, so it is best applied with a high-volume, low-presser (HVLP) sprayer. This yields a smooth finish. While lacquer can also be applied with other tools, that is only recommended for much smaller jobs when hiring or buying a sprayer is impractical.
On the other hand, polyurethane is thick, so it is best to apply it with a brush. Of course, you can also apply it with an HVLP sprayer, roller, and cloth depending on the type of polyurethane, but the brush is the recommended tool.
The problem with this is you will often see brush marks and streaks. And, if you use a cheap brush, it will leave hairs all over your work surface. Other things to watch out for are bubbles, which are very common, and dust nibs.
Another problem when applying polyurethane is the need to sand between coats. Lacquer is its own solvent, so each coat melts into the previous one, thus eliminating the need for sanding unless there is a problem with an underlying coat.
All of these make applying polyurethane, as a beginner, a bit challenging to use.
Verdict: Lacquer is the clear winner
2. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Safety and Toxicity
One thing we hear about constantly is the dangers of household chemicals, and with good reason. Lacquer and polyurethane emit high quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making them unsafe for people with breathing difficulties.
The bulk of the danger is during the application process. When chemicals are sprayed in the air, which is the recommended application method for lacquer, they become more toxic. That is why you should always use a respirator when applying any chemicals.
The good thing about the VOCs in these products is that they are no longer dangerous when they dry.
To combat these problems, manufactures have developed water-based lacquer and water-based polyurethane. Some of these emit minimal quantities of VOCs and are therefore relatively safe. Besides these
Given that water-based polyurethane is more commonly used, the VOCs from lacquer is a more pressing threat.
Besides the invisible threat, there is the issue of flammability.
Lacquer is highly flammable. Therefore, you must never apply it near any open flame source, and you should only use it in a well-ventilated area.
Polyurethane is also highly flammable, but it is not as sensitive. For example, the flashpoint of Rust-Oleum woodcare lacquer/aerosol is less than 20°F, while the flashpoint of Minwax Fast-Drying polyurethane is 102.2°F, which is typical for polyurethanes.
Verdict – Polyurethane is safer and less toxic.
3. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Durability
The aim of a wood finish is not just to make furniture look more professional but also to protect the surface from scratches, stains, water, and everything in-between. Both lacquer and polyurethane do this excellently.
Lacquer is water-resistant, durable, and provides decent protection from scratches. However, nitrocellulose lacquer does not handle scratches properly.
Besides that, all lacquers offer little protection from heat and chemicals.
On the other hand, polyurethane is scratch and scuff-resistant, water-resistant, stain-resistant, and even heat-resistant. When it comes to outdoor polyurethane, you can also add UV-resistant to that list.
Given the many things polyurethane protects your wood from, it is not surprising that it can handle more abuse than lacquer. But, of course, it also helps that it is thicker than lacquer.
Instead of penetrating the wood, it stays on the surface, making it a lot harder to damage the project, even after several years.
However, if there is no physical or chemical damage, lacquer can last as long as or even longer than polyurethane. But then again, what are the chances of that happening?
Verdict – Polyurethane wins this round.
4. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Drying Time
Here is one category that is overwhelmingly one-sided.
Despite how durable, versatile, and rich polyurethane is, the one thing people despise is the long drying time. It is so bad that it has almost single-handedly caused most woodworkers to switch to water-based polyurethane.
So how long does it take polyurethane to dry? In summary, oil-based polyurethane dries to the touch in about 4 to 6 hours but isn’t ready for the next coat in 12 to 24 hours. Given that most projects require at least 3 coats, it could take you three days just to apply water-based polyurethane alone.
Water-based polyurethane does a much better job, as it can be recoated in as little as two hours. However, as impressive as this is, it is nowhere close to lacquer.
Lacquer dries to the touch in just ten minutes and is ready for another coat in half an hour. So, you could apply 4 to five coats before you would’ve applied the second one of even the fastest drying polyurethane.
Verdict – Lacquer hands down
5. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Versatility
Finally, we come to what is probably the most important factor. As mentioned earlier, lacquer is very common for high-end furniture or any wooden surface that won’t see much action. On the other hand, polyurethane is best for high-traffic areas such as floors, tables, countertops, and bars.
Another factor to consider is the size of the project. Given how quickly lacquer dries, it is not suitable for large projects. So, even though you could technically use lacquer on hardwood floors, the drying time makes it impractical.
Polyurethane does not have that problem. Ironically, what makes polyurethane frustrating to use is the same thing that makes it more versatile.
Verdict – Polyurethane wins again.
6. Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Yellowing
Oil-based finishes have a notorious habit of yellowing or ambering over time. While this can add a nice pop of color to oak and many other types of wood, not everybody is a fan, which is understandable.
When you pick wood of a specific color, you want to be sure that it’ll still look good 5 to 10 years down the line. Unfortunately, neither polyurethane nor lacquer stands the test of time.
Both of these products will yellow, though polyurethane yellows much quicker. However, water-based lacquer and water-based polyurethane will not yellow over time. They dry clear and remain transparent.
Given that water-based lacquers are not as common, and some argue they shouldn’t be referred to as lacquer, it is tempting to give polyurethane the edge.
Verdict – Tie
Different Types of Lacquer
Far removed from its eco-friendly beginnings, modern lacquers are made by dissolving synthetic polymers in lacquer thinner.
Although all lacquer finishes share some of the qualities mentioned above, significant variances give some edge over polyurethane.
1. Nitrocellulose lacquer
This is the most common type of lacquer and the one with the most defects. It possesses all of the unsavory characteristics above: it is not heat resistant, is highly flammable, yellows, and is highly toxic.
As a result, it is gradually being phased out of the market in favor of more efficient options.
2. Acrylic Lacquer
First created in the 1950s, acrylic lacquers were made to prevent the yellowing issues common with nitrocellulose lacquer. They are also more durable and scratch-resistant, thus boosting their advantages versus polyurethane.
These added benefits come with the downside of being more expensive than nitrocellulose lacquer.
3. Water-Based Lacquer
Water-based lacquer is another step in the evolution process. While acrylic lacquer solved the yellowing issue, water-based lacquer tackles the toxicity problem. These emit significantly fewer VOCs and are not as flammable.
While this is an improvement in many ways, it is not as durable as catalyzed or acrylic lacquers.
4. Catalyzed Lacquer
This is a hybrid lacquer with nitrocellulose resins and urea resins, making it more resistant to water, scratches, and chemicals. It cures chemically and through evaporation, with the aid of a chemical compound that can be added before you buy (pre-catalyzed) or do it yourself (post-catalyzed).
Despite the advancements in durability, it will still yellow over time, and the VOC count is still high.
Polyurethane vs Lacquer Verdict
In determining the winner of the duel – lacquer versus polyurethane, there isn’t just one answer. Both finishes are outstanding and surpass most of the competition without batting an eyelid.
While it is hard to draw a firm line between the two, there are instances in which one will outperform the other.
Use Lacquer When:
- Working on a project that won’t see a lot of traffic
- You have a short time-frame
- You want an easy-to-use finish
- Working on small projects
Use Polyurethane When:
- Working on high-traffic areas
- You value durability over ease of application
- When working on floors and other large surface areas
On the off chance that you’re not convinced either of these finishes is suitable for you, read our guide to wood finishes, including varnish, shellac, tung oil, and many more.