Telling The Difference Between Polyurethane and Lacquer

There are a lot of things that we can use in woodworking in order to get the most gorgeous finish for our projects. This is ideal since you can make any project truly look like your own.

Of course, having too many options can also be a struggle too. It means that it can be hard to choose between polyurethane or lacquer coats. If you are stuck with which of these two options you should use, you should keep on reading for our take! 

Should I Have a Lacquer or a Polyurethane finish?

The main thing to note is that both of these finishes are designed to put a film on the object and this can be gradually built up as you add more and more coats.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are a lot of differences between the two that you should be aware of before you make your selection.

Here’s a deep dive into both of these finishes, and a couple of the advantages and disadvantages

All You Need to Know About Lacquer

First of all, this isn’t exactly a new product. In fact, it has been used for a number of centuries. This is because it is durable and water resistant but it still allows the original look of the material to shine through. In the event that it gets damaged, you can repair it without too many troubles.

All you need to do is add a little bit of extra solvent and it will look like it was never damaged at all.

This is the main reason why it’s generally agreed to be one of the sturdiest finishes for a top coat that exists in the woodworking industry.

You can get this finish in a number of different styles, namely brush on and spray versions.

You will get fast results from using the spray and you aren’t going to need to have any additional skills in order to use it. You can be a total beginner and you still won’t have a problem using a lacquer spray.

Brush on lacquer, on the other hand, is better if you want a polished and clean look. It looks more refined than the spray, but it does unfortunately take a lot more time to apply.

It’s also a good idea to remember that lacquer sometimes gets mixed up with Shellac. Shellac comes from the lac beetle, and some people think that both products are the same.

In reality, they are both different in a number of different ways. Lacquer finish comes from resin taken from a particular tree.

As you can see, this is very different from coming from a lac beetle. Not only that, but resin is refined in a lacquer finish and it is then mixed up with thinner. When this is done, you will then have the lacquer finish.

This kind of finish has one other crucial benefit - the drying time is incredibly fast. You can apply a coat of this finish and you will see it drying within around 15 minutes or so. If you wish, you can even apply another coat in the same hour.

A lot of woodworkers especially like this kind of product as they won’t need to deal with dust problems because the finish dries so quickly. It’s the main reason that it tends to be used for projects that are easy and need to be done quickly, but they need to be protected right away.

There are a number of lacquer finishes on the market today, such as the following: 

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

You will usually find this finish used in the music and car industries. The finish has a reddish tone to it, and it means that the wood looks brand new and lush.

Unfortunately it is known to start to crack and splinter as time goes on.

Urushiol Based Lacquer

This is probably the best kind of finish to get if you want something hardy. This water based finish can take some time to dry, but it’s worth it for the added durability.

You will also need to ensure that you allow it to polymerize and oxidize after you apply it.

Acrylic Lacquer

This is probably the most popular kind of lacquer finish on the market. This is because it’s the one more commonly used with the types of wood that we see on a daily basis, including cedar and oak.

This kind of finish will generally last a long time, hold up well against scratches, and you won;t need to worry about any ugly yellow staining later down the line.


  • You don’t need to do anything in specific to keep it well maintained
  • It’s good for the environment and less bad for your physical health
  • It dries incredibly quickly
  • It is water resistant


  • It can be very difficult to remove scratches from it

All You Need to Know About Polyurethane

This kind of finish is best when you want something super durable. You will find it much easier to see the natural beauty of the wood when using polyurethane too. The finish will create a coating that’s like a hard shell, and it will look good for a longer period of time.

You can expect your projects to look fantastic for many years.

Now you may be curious as to how polyurethane will create such a durable coating. Basically, the material consists of a few miniscule resin molecules. These will then bond together in a tight fashion and they create a hard shell as the finish begins to dry.

This is the most water resistant option, and it also holds up well against solvents and abrasions.

This is also sometimes known as a curing finish. This is because you can’t reverse the chemical reaction in it. This is the key reason that it has such great durability. This finish is used by a lot of people who do woodworking, especially big manufacturers. 

The other good thing about this finish is that it will give your projects a shiny look that appears to be similar to plastic.

The furniture looks sleek and will look fantastic in a home. Of course, you will sometimes find professional woodworkers that will instead use a satin version of the finish as it helps projects to not look so much like plastic.

You can expect an extra classy look when using polyurethane on woodworking projects in comparison to lacquer. 

The best thing to do when applying is to look at the surface and work out if all the dust has gone. Make sure that the room is well ventilated when applying the finish, especially if you struggle to deal with fumes. 

Do not under any circumstances shake polyurethane. The bottle should always be kept stable. You will bring bubbles into the product if you move it around too much, and the bubbles can result in little bumps on the project which will not look good.

There are a number of different types of polyurethane, including:

Oil Based

This is the main version that’s used, and arguably the best. It can result in perfect looking wood surfaces.

It will create a hard film when it dries after applying just a couple of coats. It does take a while for the coat to dry though.

Water Based

This is best for keeping the wood color intact, and it dries rather quickly. Can be cleaned with water and soap.


  • Ideal for flat surfaces
  • Sleek look with lots of depth
  • Can handle chemicals, heat and scratches
  • Won’t change the wood color


  • Takes a while to dry


These products are both great for different projects, so you need to think hard about which one will be best.

One thing is for sure - you can get great results with both finishes.