Any wood requires a coat of sealant to protect its surface from moisture, discoloration, and physical damage. This rule is the same for all wood types, whether you have stained or kept them natural.

Two of the most popular sealants that professionals and DIYers apply to their woods are polyurethane and polycrylic. Both products protect the wood and enhance its aesthetics by giving it a beautiful touch of sheen.

However, is polycrylic the same as polyurethane? Or are they different products? This write-up looks at polycrylic vs polyurethane to help answer the questions regarding these two leading sealants.

Polyurethane vs Polycrylic – Is Polycrylic the Same as Polyurethane?

Even though Polycrylic and polyurethane perform the same roles on wood and other surfaces, they are not the same. The two products have close similarities and glaring differences that make each more suitable for specific applications than the other. For instance, they both add a beautiful sheen to the wood, but one is usable only indoors while the other can be used outdoors.

Knowing these differences and similarities can go a long way in helping you choose the right product for your project, making it a success.

What’s the Difference Between Polycrylic and Polyurethane?

Polycrylic differs from polyurethane in that it is a purely water-based product with an acrylic base in its formula. On the other hand, polyurethane is a water- or oil-based polymer.

The latter is often referred to as liquid plastic and is tougher and more durable than polyacrylic. Both water-based and oil-based poly produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), albeit in different amounts.

Oil-based poly produces more VOCs than water-based polyurethane. Because of these toxic fumes, polyurethane is generally more toxic than polycrylic, which is low in VOCs.

Polyurethane also has a stronger odor than polycrylic, whose water-based formula gives very little, if any, perceptible odor.

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane Image

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a popular wood finish known for its durability and ability to protect the wood surface with a touch, water-resistant and scratch-resistant layer.

The product is available in both oil-based and water-based formulations. Oil-based polyurethane is widely preferred for outdoor applications because of its superior resilience and resistance to extreme weather elements.

However, it tends to have a tint and may turn amber over time, which can be a deal breaker for users who prefer a completely clear coat.

Water-based polyurethane is equally durable but tends to be less resistant to weather elements than its oil-based cousin.

Improvements in manufacturing technology continue to give water-based poly more superior features comparable to oil-based polyurethane.

These differences notwithstanding, polyurethane is an excellent sealant that provides outstanding protection to indoor and outdoor wood and other vertical surfaces.

The two forms of poly are available in various sheen levels ranging from high gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and matte finishes.

Oil-based poly has one more feature that stands out from water-based sealants like polycrylic: it enhances the wood surface by adding depth. This quality makes the grain pop on wooden surfaces coated with oil-based polyurethane.

Polyurethane pros and cons

Pros

  • Polyurethane creates a scratch-resistant coat when dry.
  • It provides superior resistance to water damage.
  • Poly can be used indoors and on exterior projects, for instance, you can use oil-based polyurethane outdoors.
  • It is highly durable and long-lasting.
  • You can apply poly in multiple ways, including a foam brush and a paint roller.

Con

  • Poly is thick and therefore takes longer to dry.
  • It can cause spontaneous combustion.
  • Oil-based polyurethane has a tint and yellows over time.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based sealant by Minwax, available in various sheen levels. Your polycrylic finish can be high-gloss, semi-gloss, or satin.

Unlike polyurethane, polycrylic is fast-drying and low in volatile organic compounds and odor, thanks to a water-based acrylic formulation.

One major limitation of polycrylic is its inability to withstand the elements, so you can only use it for indoor applications and not outdoors. It is also less durable than polyurethane, but you will be happy to know it costs less to buy.

However, like polyurethane, you can apply polycrylic in several ways, including brushing it onto the wood surface and spraying it using a spray bottle.

Polycrylic dries to form a hard-wearing coat on the wood but is less resistant to water and moisture. It is not recommended for use on projects likely to be exposed to heavy water, precipitation, or rainfall.

The product goes on clear and stays that way without yellowing over time. You must, however, apply thin coats to guarantee a clear color. Applying thick coats of polycrylic can typically cause a milky finish.

The water-based formula also means you can easily clean the product off your used brushes and other tools with soap and water.

Polycrylic pros and cons

Pros

  • Polycrylic is environmentally friendly, as it produces no strong fumes or odor.
  • It is easy to clean with soap and water.
  • It is low cost and can save you money.
  • It is transparent, so it can help you maintain your wood’s color.
  • It creates a durable coat on interior wood surfaces.

Cons

  • Polycrylic is challenging to apply. You must keep the coats thin or end up with a milky finish.
  • It dries quickly, so you must work fast.
  • It is vulnerable to the elements, so you can only use it indoors.

Polyurethane Vs Polycrylic Side by Side

Polycrylic and polyurethane are both popular wood finishes providing much-needed protection against water and physical damage.

However, the two sealants have some significant differences that make them suitable for different applications and unlikely to be used interchangeably.

This section compares these two finishes to help you choose better for your wood projects.

1. Polycrylic vs polyurethane: common uses

Polyurethane is available in both interior and exterior grade formulations. So the product is often used to seal exterior wood surfaces due to its superior resilience and the ability to withstand weather elements like rain, snow, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Due to its durability and toughness, polyurethane is used to coat hardwood floors, countertops, and other high-impact or high-traffic areas that experience a lot of abuse.

On the other hand, polycrylic is used to coat interior wood surfaces that do not experience as much abuse. Its common use areas include interior wooden furniture, woodwork, and cabinets.

Because it goes on clear and stays that way, users love applying it to naturally beautiful woods like maple, birch, and ash to enhance and preserve their beauty.

Verdict: Both products have useful applications; it is a tie.

2. Application

Both polyurethane and polycrylic allow for multiple modes of application. For instance, you can apply the product using a paintbrush, roller, or sprayer.

However, neither product is easy to apply. When working with polyurethane, you want to make sure you do not introduce air bubbles into the wet finish. Additionally, back brushing may be necessary to achieve an even finish.

Furthermore, the long drying time of polyurethane means you must guard it to avoid dust and other particles or flying insects from getting trapped on the newly applied poly.

In contrast, polycrylic has a runny consistency, which makes it challenging to apply with a brush or roller. It can also be messy on large projects. And you must keep each coat thin to avoid ending up with a milky-looking finish.

The thick consistency of polyurethane makes spraying an unsuitable application method, while spraying is the ideal method for polycrylic due to its runny consistency.

Verdict: Polyurethane is easier to apply on larger projects, while polycrylic works better for smaller projects. It’s a tie.

3. Polycrylic vs polyurethane drying time

The runny consistency of polycrylic may make it challenging to apply, but it is a blessing in disguise—it means the product will dry pretty fast. If you are pressed for time and require a fast-drying sealer, polycrylic is your best bet between the two products.

Polyurethane is generally dense, so it goes on thick and takes a while to dry between coats and to cure after drying. This longer drying time can mean a longer project time, which can be a problem where time is at a premium.

Polyurethane also presents the hassle of ensuring the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal for it to dry properly.

Otherwise, the drying time can be much longer, and the finish can end up with an uneven appearance as some parts dry faster than others.

Verdict: Polycrylic dries faster than polyurethane, making it the winner.

4. Toxicity and odor

Oil-based polyurethane emits strong fumes that can cause dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, and other undesirable symptoms when inhaled. These toxic fumes are due to the high level of volatile organic compounds in polyurethane.

Protecting yourself with a respirator mask when working with polyurethane is typically recommended because the fumes are toxic. Short-term exposure to these toxic VOCs can cause headaches, eye irritation, dizziness, etc.

Long-term exposure can be highly dangerous, causing critical organ damage and impairment of the central nervous system.

Water-based polyurethane is low on VOCs, but it still emits a small percentage of harmful fumes. So it is recommended to work outside or in a well-ventilated space when using any type of polyurethane.

In contrast, polycrylic is benign and does not produce significant toxic fumes. The product is very low in VOCs and odor. You can work with it without wearing a respirator and not fall sick, so long as the air circulation is passable.

Verdict: Polycrylic wins the round; it is low in toxicity.

5. Polycrylic vs polyurethane color and sheen

Oil-based poly has a yellowish tint that it transfers to wood. Additionally, the finish tends to take on a yellow tint over time, so it is not ideal for those who prefer their sealant clear-colored.

On the other hand, polycrylic is clear, with no tint. It goes on clear and remains clear over time, which can be perfect for naturally beautiful woods that need to retail their natural color.

Verdict: Both products are available in a wide range of sheen levels, from high-gloss, glossy, to satin.

6. Water-based polyurethane vs polycrylic

Water-based polyurethane is low-VOC and low-odor, just like polycrylic. However, its toxicity levels are still higher than that of polycrylic, so you must wear protection when using polyurethane.

The two products are also different in consistency. Water-based poly is thick and takes longer to dry, so you must apply it in a well-ventilated area.

The product is also clear while in the container, unlike polycrylic, which looks like milk while in the container, even though it dries clear once applied to a surface.

Water-based polyurethane will also set you back slightly more money than polycrylic, which generally costs less than poly. The poly is likely to last longer than polycrylic, which is relatively less durable due to its less superior formula.

Verdict: Water-based polyurethane may cost more but is better overall.

7. Clean-up

In terms of clean-up, polycrylic beats polyurethane pants down. The product cleans up easily with soap and water, and the thin, watery consistency makes cleaning it a breeze.

Water-based polyurethane equally cleans with soap and water, but the oil-based version is a bit more challenging to clean from tools and surfaces. You must apply mineral spirits to clean the latter, making the process longer and more challenging.

Verdict: Polycrylic is easier to clean with soap and water; it wins this round.

8. Durability

Polyurethane is generally preferred over polycrylic for woodwork projects exposed to a lot of traffic due to its greater resilience, superior scratch resistance, and long-lasting quality.

Polyurethane dries to form a rigid, protective coat that is far more durable on wood pieces than polycrylic.

Both polyurethane and polycrylic are available in high-gloss, semi-gloss, and satin finish options, but these sheen levels do not influence their durability. Polycrylic is less durable than polyurethane at any sheen level.

Verdict: Polyurethane is the winner

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane Comparison Chart

Polyurethane Polycrylic 
1. Available in water-based and oil-based formulations1. Available only in a water-based formula
2. It is slow drying2. It is fast drying
3. Available in a full range of sheens, including matte, satin, glossy, and high gloss finishes3. The full range of sheens includes satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss finishes.
4. Highly durable4. Less durable than polyurethane
5. Exterior grade formulas are weatherproof5. Vulnerable to the elements, with no weatherproof formula
6. Cleaning oil-based poly requires using mineral spirits6. Cleans easily with soap and water
7. Has some odor and emits toxic fumes7. Has no odor or VOCs

Advantages Of Polycrylic Over Polyurethane

  • Polycrylic finish is generally low-cost and more affordable than polyurethane.
  • It is less toxic and more eco-friendly than oil-based or water-based polyurethane.
  • Polycrylic does not have a string, irritating odor.
  • It is fast drying, ensuring faster project completion.
  • It is clear-colored and does not yellow over time.
  • Polycrylic cleans up easier with soap and water.
  • It is easier to work with polycrylic on small wood projects.

Advantages Of Polyurethane Over Polycrylic

  • Polyurethane is more durable, making it the ideal option for tables, wooden floors, and exterior projects.
  • It holds up much better to moisture and heat.
  • Polyurethane has a longer dry time, making it easier to maintain a wet edge.
  • Polyurethane is easier to work with on larger projects, thanks to a denser, less runny consistency.
  • The sealant dries to form a scratch-proof coat on wood.
  • Poly is available in water-based and oil-based formulas to choose from.
  • Poly is formulated for indoor and outdoor use.

FAQs

Which is better Polycrylic or polyurethane?

Polyurethane is better than polycrylic. The finish is multipurpose, and it can be used on both interior and exterior surfaces. It provides a hard surface finish that is more resistant to scratches and dents. Polycrylic, however,  is limited to interior surfaces considering it’s a water-based coating.

Is polyurethane more durable than Polycrylic?

Yes, polyurethane is more durable than Polycrylic. It provides a highly resistant coating that can stand longer under repeated abuse. Its durability makes it suitable for most applications, including coating. Polycyclic is less durable and does not hold wear and tear.

What is Polycrylic good for?

Polycrylic is good for protecting interior wood projects, for instance, tabletops and furniture. It will protect the surfaces from water damage or minor scratches and add natural beauty. The product is water-based and is not as durable to protect outdoor projects.

Can you apply polyurethane over a polycrylic finish?

 Yes, you can apply polyurethane over a polycrylic finish. In fact, both oil-based and water-based work if you use them. Polyurethane is highly resistant and designed to provide optimum protection against moisture, UV damage, and other elements. So, it is perfect for application over a polycrylic finish.

Does polyurethane dry clear?

Yes, polyurethane dries clear. The finish may be slightly milky when wet but dries clear with time. Both types of polyurethane dry clear, but the water-based dries completely clear without signs of yellowing. Oil-based type may leave a slight film on the surface after drying.

Is polycrylic waterproof?

Yes, polycrylic is waterproof. It’s not as high of a waterproof rating as polyurethane, but it will do the trick for most applications. While it can protect surfaces from water damage, it provides minimum protection that can stand up to moderate damage. This is why its application is limited to interior projects.

Will polycrylic yellow?

No, polycrylic does not yellow. No, it does not yellow. Unlike other finishes, which yellow over time, polycrylic is a clear finish and will not change color even after drying. It’s a great option for your home project if you want to keep your wood looking natural and protected.

Is polycrylic toxic?

No, polycrylic is not toxic. The product contains a water-based formula which envisions to be safe. The fumes emitted while the polycrylic is being applied are also not harmful. They are actually quite pleasant. However,  As always, it’s best to avoid inhalation, but there is no danger associated with its use.

I polycrylic food safe?

Yes, polycrylic is food safe if you let it dry for the recommended time of 25 to 30 days after applying all three coats. You need to clean the surface thoroughly before using it for food.

Is polycrylic the same as polyurethane?

No, polycrylic is not the same as polyurethane. The difference is polyacrylic is water-based, yet polyurethane is an oil-based finish. Although polyurethane exists in two forms; water-based and oil-based, polyacrylic is purely water-based. Plus, polycrylic is a less durable finish than polyurethane and will not stand up to intense wear and tear as well.

Is polyurethane heat resistant?

Yes, polyurethane is heat resistant. However, oil-based polyurethane resists more heat compared to water-based. Typically, polyurethane can stand a temperature as high as 200 °F, or even more for special. So, should your finished surface in polyurethane come in contact with flames, it can still last well.

Is Minwax polycrylic waterproof?

Yes, Minwax polycrylic is waterproof. If you use it on your surface, it will resist damage by water or moisture. This feature, however, is only true when you apply polyacrylic on interior surfaces. It will damage and disappoint if you decide to use it in outside projects exposed to too much water.

Is polycrylic flammable?

No, Polycrylic is non-flammable. Whether dry or wet, do not fear polyacrylic storage to prevent fire hazards. The finish is water-based and environmentally friendly, with very low levels of volatile organic compounds.  This means it doesn’t emit fumes that can trigger fire.

Is water-based polyurethane the same as polycrylic?

Yes, water-based polyurethane and polyacrylic are the same because they are used for similar reasons. The two finishes are applied on light surfaces to seal and shine without yellowing. Your surface will remain natural and dry, completely clear. Of course, there are pros and cons for each product.

Can polycrylic be used outside?

No, polyacrylic cannot be used outside. It is not highly durable to stand weather elements outside, such as too much water and sunlight. The finish is great for interior use jobs with minimal tear and wear,  as it can only resist mild damage.

 Does polycrylic smell?

Yes, polyacrylic smells, although with very little odor. The smell is not so strong unless you are keen, and you may even miss feeling it. However, as the rule stands, you must protect yourself from the smell while using chemicals; otherwise, they can cause health complications.

Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: Which is Better?

Clearly, each product between polyurethane and polycrylic has its share of strengths and limitations that determine where it is most likely to be suitable.

As such, there is no clear winner between them. Instead, whether polycrylic or polyurethane is better depends on your project requirements.

That said, use polycrylic when: 

  • Sealing light-colored woods like maple, birch, and ash.
  • Your project is based indoors, away from high-traffic areas.
  • You have little time to spend on the project, and fast drying is essential.

Use polyurethane when:

  • Working on an outdoor project.
  • Sealing a hardwood floor or some other project in a high-traffic area.
  • Working on a large project.

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