Two of the most preferred wood finishes are polyurethane and lacquer, and if you’re a beginner in finishing wood, a time will come when you must decide between using lacquer or polyurethane. When that time comes, you must know the pros and cons of using these two wood finishes to decide objectively which wood finish is the most suitable for your woodworking projects.
As you try to raise your level of woodworking a notch, you will soon realize that woods are not created equal. Some wood types are better than others, and a few are better off without a finish. But for many wood types, wood finishing is crucial because it brings out the sterling characteristics of wood. Thus, knowing the wood finish suits your wood projects will be best.
Comparing Every Aspect of Lacquer & Polyurethane in Detail
When choosing between lacquer and polyurethane, you must consider several important factors like cost differences, drying time, formulation, thinning requirements, yellowing properties, ease of application, durability, adhesion, clarity, and other factors. Below is a brief comparison of polyurethane and lacquer based on the abovementioned factors:
One primary consideration when choosing a wood finish is the cost of the wood finish. Between lacquer and polyurethane, lacquer is generally more expensive. However, its price and the price of polyurethane would also depend on the brand, quality, and quantity you would like to purchase. Thus, sometimes, you will find lacquer brands that have almost the same prices as polyurethane finishes.
Polyurethane is durable and versatile. Yet, it dries slowly, and because of this, many woodworkers would rather shy away from using polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane would take up to six hours to dry completely. Nevertheless, you can’t use the wood surface or step on it for twelve to twenty-four hours. Thus, it will usually take up to three days to finish applying all the polyurethane coats.
Lacquer, on the other hand, dries quickly within ten to fifteen minutes. After half an hour, you can apply the next coat. So you can finish every coat within an hour or two. Thus, if you have limited window time, you would favor the use of lacquer.
Formulations and Thinning
Lacquer consists of natural ingredients. It contains shellac, derived from the resin secreted by female lac bugs. Thus, it is almost natural. On the other hand, polyurethane carries a synthetic formulation, including ingredients like paint chemicals, catalysts, resins, additives, and alcohol. Thus, polyurethane is thicker than lacquer and has more harmful chemicals.
You need to thin polyurethane before you use it because it is thicker. If you don’t thin it, it will take much longer to dry, and the resulting application will be bumpy and uneven. Moreover, you can use turpentine to thin any oil-based polyurethane finish. Yet, you should use water to thin water-based polyurethane. On the other hand, you don’t need to thin lacquer because it is consistently thin and ready to apply.
Outdoor or Indoor
Another consideration is whether you will use the wood project indoors or outdoors. You must confine lacquer’s use to indoor furniture and wood. The reason is that lacquer is thinly applied.
On the other hand, you can use polyurethane for outdoor wood surfaces because it is durable. Polyurethane comes with additives that make it more resistant to UV light. Besides, polyurethane is thick and can resist moisture and water.
Tendency to Yellow
Lacquer and polyurethane both have tendencies to yellow over time. So, you can never rely on these two finishes if you want your wood to look good for a long time. Of course, a bit of yellowing would be a welcome change if you use them on oak. Yet, yellowing might not be a welcome sight for other wood types.
Oil-based polyurethane yellows much faster than lacquer. However, water-based polyurethane and lacquer will not tend to be yellowish but will remain clear and transparent over time.
Difficulty of Application
When choosing between lacquer and polyurethane, one consideration you need to bear in mind is the ease of application. Between these two, lacquer is easier to apply, and you don’t need elaborate rituals like thinning the lacquer. Besides, it dries faster than polyurethane, making it quick and faster to use.
On the other hand, you must thin the polyurethane before you apply it. This thinning process may take time and effort. Moreover, it dries slowly, which makes the finishing process longer and more effortful. Thus, it is correct to say that polyurethane is more challenging to apply than lacquer.
When finishing wood, you will notice that lacquer adheres faster and better than polyurethane. The reason is lacquer has a thinner consistency. It also penetrates the wood surface well, allowing for a better grip on the wood surface.
Contrariwise, polyurethane is thicker and will not penetrate the wood fibers deeply. It only sits over the wood surface and forms a thick and lasting coat over the wood. Thus, its adhesion is less than that of lacquer.
Experts consider the durability of polyurethane and lacquer at par with each other. Both could last for ten years or less before they chip off. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that polyurethane offers better durability than lacquer.
The reason is that polyurethane consists of different additives that provide it with a plastic-like property. Thus, this plastic-like film offers better resistance to dents, moisture, and heat. Besides, it can change dimensions based on the level of temperature.
Lacquer, however, doesn’t have many additives and is less effective in resisting dents, chipping, and dust. For this reason, it is less durable than polyurethane.
Color Variety and Clarity of Finish
You will have a broader range of colors and types if you choose lacquer. You can find nitrocellulose, acrylic, oil-based, and water-based lacquer. With polyurethane, however, you will only have limited options. You can only choose, for example, between oil and water-based polyurethane finishes, though you can select from high-gloss, medium, and satin finishes. Thus, your options are limited.
When it comes to clarity of finish, both types of finishes can provide excellent clarity of the finish. They both produce clear finishes. Nevertheless, the clarity of polyurethane will only last for a short time than that of lacquer. It will make a yellowish transition over time. Lacquer, on the other hand, stays clear after many years.
Ease of Maintenance
Polyurethane and lacquer finishes are easy to maintain. You only need to wipe off dirt and stains using a clean rag doused in soapy water. Polyurethane, however, might attract dust and dirt more while it dries because it takes more time to dry. Thus, the chances of dirt and dust lodging into the wood surface would be higher than that of the lacquer.
Applications of Polyurethane and Lacquer
After reading the comparative analysis of polyurethane and lacquer, you now have a general idea about which to choose between these two wood finishes. Nevertheless, it will also help if you know their different applications:
Banisters and Floors
You can use polyurethane for finishing floors and banisters. One reason why many homeowners want polyurethane finish for their banisters and floors is that polyurethane offers various levels of glossiness. On the other hand, lacquer always provides a high glossiness, which can be disadvantageous sometimes.
A lower gloss finish, for example, will manifest less wear and tear and scratches over time. Thus, polyurethane is a better option when it comes to flooring.
Banisters may not exhibit wear and tear over time. Nevertheless, they are still subject to high traffic daily. As such, you should finish those banisters with polyurethane so that the floors and banisters will have a complementary glossiness.
You can also use polyurethane to finish cabinets like kitchen cabinets. Kitchen cabinets also experience wear and tear over time due to fingerprints and constant closing and opening. You can finish kitchen cabinets with mid-to-low level gloss. This way, the fingerprints will never be evident on the cabinet surface.
If your cabinets got painted with low paint quality, you could apply a coat of polyurethane to stave off wear and tear. You can use water-based polyurethane if the paint is water-based. Refrain from using oil-based polyurethane on water-based paint, for you will only ruin the paint and cause paint flaking.
Most modern designs, however, allow for painting kitchen cabinets instead of staining them. With these design schemes, you don’t need to apply polyurethane or lacquer on the cabinets, especially if the paint is highly durable with a high level of sheen.
Areas with High Wear Possibilities
Within your home, some wooden areas get exposed to high wear and tear, like flooring, banisters, tabletops, and cabinets. The use of polyurethane will be better than that of lacquer when finishing these areas. As mentioned above, polyurethane provides a plastic-like finish that is very durable. Thus, you can get these areas protected from wear and tear if you use polyurethane on them.
Besides, it will be best if you use a water-based polyurethane finish on these areas because this type of polyurethane is more durable than oil-based polyurethane. Nevertheless, it can crack with ease when exposed to high moisture and temperature levels.
With tabletops, however, you can still consider the use of lacquer. You can apply multiple coats of lacquer to provide the tabletop with the utmost protection. Lacquer, when applied in several coats, can form a hard finish. Thus, you can expect your tabletop to be protected from damages brought about by exposure to heat and water.
You can also use polyurethane for your tabletops. Nevertheless, it will help if you exert extra effort in protecting the wood surface. You can provide the tabletop with hot or drink pads to ensure that the polyurethane finish and the tabletop surface will not get damaged.
A final topcoat is necessary to provide your wood project with the utmost protection. Yet, if you’re a beginner in the application of wood finishing, you might get confused about which finish to choose for your wood project. You have several options, but the most popular ones are polyurethane and lacquer finishes.
The use of these two finishing options has both its upsides and downsides. But if you read the abovementioned comparative analysis carefully, you can decide wisely which of the two best suits your project. Lacquer, of course, is easy to apply and dries quickly.
Yet, if you need extra protection for your wood, you can use polyurethane which is thicker than lacquer finish. Besides, polyurethane offers better durability. It will also help if you know the best applications for each type of finish. This way, you can easily decide which finish is best for your project.
Liam is a 37-year-old woodworker and interior designer who loves to make every furniture project an art piece. He is very experienced in furniture design and woodworking project planning.