While wood is a durable material, applying a protective coating to your wood furniture or flooring is usually a must. With the right finish, you can reduce the odds of moisture damage while achieving your preferred look. One of the biggest challenges is choosing the right coating. As a result, you may wonder, “What’s the difference between lacquer and polyurethane?
Both lacquer and polyurethane can protect the wood from moisture and give it a nice sheen while enhancing durability. However, lacquer penetrates the wood and is thinner and generally easier to apply. Polyurethane is thicker and sits on top of the wood.
Two wood coatings stand apart in different ways, too. If you’re trying to choose between these two finishes for your wood furniture or flooring, here’s what you need to know about lacquer vs. polyurethane.
- Lacquer vs. Polyurethane: Key Points
- What Is Lacquer?
- What Is Polyurethane?
- Is Lacquer the Same as Polyurethane?
- What’s the Difference Between Lacquer and Polyurethane?
- Which Tools to Use to Apply Lacquer or Polyurethane
- Do You Need to Sand Before Applying Lacquer?
- Can You Apply Lacquer Over Existing Finishes?
- Is Sanding Necessary Before Applying Polyurethane?
- Do You Need to Remove the Existing Finish Before Applying Polyurethane?
- Which Is Better, Lacquer vs. Polyurethane?
Lacquer vs. Polyurethane: Key Points
When choosing a protective coating for your wood furnishings, décor, or floor, lacquer and polyurethane are popular options. Both can offer some protection from wear and tear and water resistance. However, they also stand apart in many ways.
If you’re debating between lacquer vs. polyurethane, understanding the differences is essential. Learning about how they differ makes it easier to choose a product that’s best equipped to meet your needs.
Here is an overview of some of the key points you need to consider when choosing between lacquer vs. polyurethane:
|Finish||Glossy||Flat, matte, satin, semi-gloss, or gloss|
|Color||Clear or red-tinted||Clear or yellow-tinted|
|Ease of Application||Easy when sprayed||Moderately difficult|
|Drying Time||Coats dry in as little as 15 minutes||At least 2 hours between coats|
|Number of Coats||2||2 to 5|
|Toxicity||Can have high VOC levels||Can have high VOC levels|
|Uses||Furnishings, but can work on flooring||Furnishings or flooring|
|Cost||Low to moderate||Moderate|
What Is Lacquer?
Lacquer is a solvent-based wood coating that slightly absorbs into the wood to protect it from wear and tear and moisture. The result is essentially a protective film that integrates with the grain.
Most versions are clear when applied and when dry. However, one type has a reddish tint that can change the look of the wood. With either, the color doesn’t usually change over time, and they don’t tend to get cloudy with age in most cases.
Different Types of Lacquer
In the grander sense, there are three primary types of lacquer: acrylic, water-based, and nitrocellulose. Acrylic is highly resistant to color changes, though water-based is also clear, less toxic, and near-odorless.
Nitrocellulose is often considered a color enhancer and is one of the most durable options. It usually has a reddish hue that’s reasonably stable, so it can bring out different tones in the wood.
Lacquer Pros and Cons
- Thinner, leading to shorter drying times
- Resists scratches and wear and tear
- Fixing mistakes during application is an option
- Dries and stays clear
- May contain higher levels of VOCs
- Less durable than some alternatives
- Blushing can occur if the humidity is high or the temperature is low
What Is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is a synthetic resin or plastic polymer coating commonly applied to wood to protect the underlying material from damage and moisture. It doesn’t absorb into the wood; instead, it adheres to the top to create a protective layer.
Water-based polyurethanes have water as part of their makeup. It usually starts out looking a bit milky but ultimately dries clear.
Oil-based polyurethane features petroleum and mineral solvents. Usually, it has a slight yellowish tint right out of the can, which can alter or augment the look of the wood below. It’s also prone to yellowing over time, further changing the appearance of the furniture piece or your flooring.
Different Types of Polyurethane
Generally, there are two primary categories of polyurethane: water-based and oil-based. Water-based dries quicker and is usually safer to work with in many cases. It’s often odor-free or low-odor, and it’s easier to clean up if spills occur.
Water-based polyurethane also dries clear and typically doesn’t yellow with age. With oil-based polyurethane, there’s usually a soft, golden tint that yellows over time.
Oil-based is longer lasting and incredibly durable but requires far longer to dry. It’s also heat resistant, which makes it worth considering for wood pieces near heat sources that reach high temperatures.
Polyurethane Pros and Cons
- Thicker coating lasts longer
- Scratch, water, and chemical resistant
- Stands up to wear and tear
- Multiple application methods
- Water-based versions dry and stay clear
- Longer drying time
- May contain high levels of VOCs
- Oil-based versions yellow
Is Lacquer the Same as Polyurethane?
No, lacquer and polyurethane are not the same. Polyurethane is a non-penetrating finish that functions as a top coat. It creates a protective layer above the wood, making the underlying material less susceptible to damage or moisture.
Lacquer penetrates the wood, causing the protective layer to absorb slightly into the material. Lacquer is also thinner than polyurethane, which impacts durability and drying times. As a result, while the lacquer is tough, it isn’t typically as durable as polyurethane, but you can add more coats quicker.
What’s the Difference Between Lacquer and Polyurethane?
While lacquer and polyurethane are durable coatings that protect wood furnishings and floorings, they each come with unique advantages and disadvantages. As a result, it’s critical to understand how the two stand apart.
Though the information above can serve as a starting point, taking a closer look at how the two differ is wise. Here’s a deeper dive into the difference between lacquer vs. polyurethane.
Lacquer is generally available in a glossy finish. While you can alter the finish by sanding the surface or applying a flatter top coat, that’s often time-consuming or costly. As a result, you may want to go with another coating if you prefer something other than a glossy finish.
With polyurethane, you get far more options. Flat, matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss sheens are available if you choose polyurethane, allowing you to avoid a shiny look if you prefer or get a lot of shine if that’s what you’d like instead.
When it comes to color, lacquer and polyurethane can stand apart. Lacquer is typically clear, though one version has a slight reddish tint that alters the tone of the wood. However, all of the versions aren’t prone to yellowing over time.
Water-based polyurethane dries and stays clear. With oil-based polyurethane, there’s typically a slight golden tint that alters the look of your flooring or furniture. Plus, oil-based polyurethane gets yellower over time.
When it comes to durability, polyurethane outperforms lacquer. Once polyurethane cures, the resulting coating is incredibly hard. That makes it exceptional at standing up to wear and tear, fighting off scratches, and preventing other types of damage.
If you’re using an outdoor polyurethane, you’ll also get some extra protection. For example, many versions designed for outdoor use have UV resistance, which can help keep the underlying wood from fading.
Lacquer is still tough, but it’s a thinner coating than polyurethane. As a result, it’s less durable by comparison. Additionally, lacquer is more prone to chipping or cracking over time.
You also don’t get the same degree of protection against chemicals or heat with lacquer, regardless of the type. Finally, nitrocellulose lacquer is likely the least durable option overall. It’s more prone to scratching, which can dull the finish.
Ease of Application
When it comes to ease of application, lacquer is often simpler than polyurethane. With oil-based polyurethane, you usually need to thin it with mineral spirits before application. For water-based, you may need a compatible water-based paint thinner.
Whether thinning is required can vary by polyurethane product. As a result, you need to review the manufacturer’s instructions to see if thinning is recommended.
Once you’re ready to apply the polyurethane, using a brush or microfiber cloth is the most common approach. Brushes work well for very flat surfaces, while microfiber cloths are a better choice if there are contours.
Using a roller is also an option, though you want to stick with a denser paint roller over a squishier one. Also, be mindful of the roller texture, as too much can lead to unevenness or bubbles. You can also go with a sprayer-based approach.
If you make a mistake when applying polyurethane, you can potentially correct it. However, you might have to wait for it to dry, sand over the error, and reapply an entire new coat.
Generally, lacquer is easy to apply. You can find it in spray cans, eliminating the need for other tools to handle the job. Plus, since spraying is the application method, most experts recommend, that increases the convenience of the spray can products.
Lacquer is also immediately ready to use, even if you brush it onto your wood furnishings or flooring. You don’t have to thin it, and it goes on reasonably flat. As a result, brush or stroke marks aren’t typical.
If you see brush or stroke marks, fixing them is also simple. Usually, a little lacquer thinner is enough to tackle any unevenness.
The only application issue you may see with lacquer is blushing. If the temperature is too low or the humidity is high, you might experience blushing. With blushing, there’s some milky white blotching in the finish, so it’s critical to only apply lacquer when the conditions are right.
It is important to note that lacquer is often highly flammable. Oil-based polyurethane is also a fire risk, while water-based typically isn’t especially flammable.
When it comes to drying times, lacquer dries far more quickly than polyurethane. With lacquer, a coat can dry in as little as 15 minutes, though some may take closer to 30 minutes. In either case, the fast drying time allows you to get a second coat in less time.
With polyurethane, the minimum drying time between coats is typically closer to 2 hours for water-based polyurethane. With oil-based polyurethane, even quick-drying versions may take 4 hours of drying time between coats. For traditional oil-based polyurethane, 10 to 24 hours might be necessary.
When it comes to fully cure, timelines vary between products. Some may take a few days, while others can take weeks. As a result, you’ll want to review the manufacturer-provided information to see how long any finish takes to cure.
Number of Coats
If you’re trying to limit the number of coats you’ll need to apply; then lacquer could be your better bet. With lacquer, two coats are commonly enough to create a nice coating and achieve an even sheen. Since it dries quickly, you can usually get both done in less than an hour, depending on the amount of time required to apply each coat.
With polyurethane, two coats might do the trick. However, some projects may require more, particularly if you go with water-based polyurethane.
Even with oil-based polyurethane, you might want at least three coats for high-traffic floors or high-touch furniture. If you go with water-based, four or five coats could be a must.
When it comes to toxicity, both lacquer and polyurethane can contain relatively high volatile organic compound (VOC) levels. With both, water-based versions are usually less toxic than the alternatives. However, none of them are VOC-free.
In most cases, the most significant risk is during the application process. If you use a sprayer, the material ends up in the air, so wearing a breathing mask or respirator is essential with either coating.
VOCs are also released as lacquer and polyurethane dry. With water-based polyurethane or lacquer, fewer VOCs are released during the drying process. If you go with other versions of the products, the levels are higher by comparison.
When it comes to uses, polyurethane and lacquer are similar, and are commonly used on wood furniture or décor pieces. Additionally, you can use either on wood flooring.
However, polyurethane is typically the favored option for flooring. It generally stands up to wear and tear better, so it’s more likely to stand the test of time on a floor when compared to lacquer.
Overall, lacquer is less expensive than polyurethane. While the two products are comparable in price on a per-can or per-coat basis, lacquer usually requires fewer coats.
For most projects, two coats of lacquer are enough. With polyurethane, you may need three to five, and that dramatically increases the cost of the project.
Which Tools to Use to Apply Lacquer or Polyurethane
When applying lacquer, using a sprayer or spray can is the most common approach. It helps keep each layer even and appropriately thin without issues like brush strokes. However, you can use a brush if you prefer.
With polyurethane, you have a slew of application options. Using brushes or rags is the typical method, but you can also use rollers or sprayers if you’d rather go that route.
Do You Need to Sand Before Applying Lacquer?
Generally, it’s best to sand before applying lacquer. Sanding makes the surface as even and smooth as possible. Plus, it can lead to better adhesion and remove issues like splinters.
The only time you might be able to skip sanding is if the current finish is the same type of lacquer you plan on using for the fresh coats. Lacquer melds well if it’s the same type. However, sanding is the better choice if there are multiple existing layers of lacquer.
Can You Apply Lacquer Over Existing Finishes?
The only time you can safely apply lacquer over an existing finish is if the current protective coating is the same type of lacquer. Lacquer melts into itself well if you’re using the same kind, so sanding to remove the existing finish might be unnecessary.
However, if you aren’t sure what finish is there or can’t confirm it’s the same type of lacquer, you’ll want to remove the finish. Usually, sanding it away is the simplest choice, though you may be able to use a stripping product instead.
Is Sanding Necessary Before Applying Polyurethane?
Sanding is recommended before applying polyurethane. Since polyurethane doesn’t penetrate the wood, you need to ensure any existing finish is removed. By sanding first, you can get the existing finish off, leading to better adhesion.
Sanding also removes imperfections from the wood. Again, this leads to a better overall result.
You could try a stripping product if the wood underneath is even and scratch, dent, and ding-free. However, most experts would still recommend sanding after that’s done to ensure all of the existing finish is gone.
Do You Need to Remove the Existing Finish Before Applying Polyurethane?
It’s generally recommended to remove any existing finish before applying polyurethane. If you don’t, adhesion issues can occur. Plus, any unevenness in the surface isn’t addressed unless you sand.
Unlike lacquer, polyurethane doesn’t melt into any existing layers, even if they’re the same type of polyurethane. Since that’s the case, you’re more likely to experience issues if you don’t properly prep the surface.
Which Is Better, Lacquer vs. Polyurethane?
Generally, both lacquer and polyurethane have their place. However, if you’re looking for amped-up durability and more finish options, polyurethane is a better choice. If an easier application or simpler mistake correction is your top priority, then going with lacquer is potentially your best bet.
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