Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which Should You Use?

Updated: Apr. 25, 2024

From safety and durability to clean up and color tone, here's how to choose whether polycrylic or polyurethane is right for your project.

One of the more complex wood-restoration projects we’ve taken on has been a sorely neglected Victorian-era loveseat and rocking chair combo. We even had to partly rebuild the winged cougars on the arms (we figure a bored dog had been chewing on them for some years). When it finally came time to stain them, we were faced with a dilemma: polycrylic or polyurethane? Given the uniqueness of the furniture, we didn’t want to mess it up the finish. So we took a deep dive into the subject.

“The most common misconception about these products is that they are interchangeable,” says Brandon Walker, Superintendent at ASAP Restoration. “Choosing between polyacrylic and polyurethane for a project depends on various factors, such as the type of surface, the desired finish characteristics and color, the ultimate application method, environmental considerations and even personal preferences.”

We ultimately went with polycrylic for the loveseat and rocking chair, but here’s how to determine which is best for your project.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based finish used to protect wood, metal and concrete surfaces. It comes in liquid and aerosol forms and is generally viewed as less toxic than oil-based polyurethane for both people and the environment.

“Polycrylic finishes provide a durable and protective layer that helps to enhance the appearance of the underlying material by adding depth, richness and a glossy or satin sheen,” says Walker. “They are often used as an alternative to traditional oil-based varnishes or lacquers because they dry faster, have lower odor and are easier to clean up with water.”

How Many Coats of Polycrylic Do You Need?

Two to three coats, depending on the amount of wear and tear the surface will receive. “More coats means more protection against the effects of the elements,” says Walker.

How Much Does Polycrylic Cost?

Between $10 and $30 per quart, depending on the brand and quantity purchased. For a baseline, Minwax’s polycyclic stain is $24.48 per quart at Lowe’s. “Larger quantities can bring down the price, but special formulations can increase it,” says Walker. “There is also a wide range of prices in store vs. online and on sale vs. off the shelf.”

Polycrylic Pros and Cons


  • Low odor
  • Low volatile organic compounds (VOC)
  • Easy water-and-soap cleanup
  • Clear finish amplifies natural look
  • No ambering over time
  • Best for cooler color stains
  • Fast drying for quick project turnaround.


  • No warm, amber look
  • Less protection from scratches, moisture and chemicals than polyurethane

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a protective finish for wood made from synthetic resins. It comes as either an oil-based or water-based stain. “It offers excellent durability and protection for whatever it is being applied to, and it will last for years to decades in the right conditions,” says Walker.

Oil-based polyurethane finishes usually take longer to dry and leave a slight amber or yellow tint on the surface, whereas water-based polyurethane has fewer VOCs and usually dries faster.

How Many Coats of Polyurethane Do You Need?

Two to three coats. Oil-based polyurethane generally requires fewer coats than water-based for total protection and its protection lasts longer.

How Much Does Polyurethane Cost?

Again, it depends on the brand and quantity you’re purchasing, but for a ballpark, Minwax’s polyurethane stain runs $16.48 a quart at Lowes. “Water-based polyurethane is typically more expensive than oil-based,” says Walker. “It will also likely require more coats, which will not last as long and require additional applications. So water-based is not only more expensive in the short term, but the long term as well.”

Polyurethane Pros and Cons


  • Durable, with excellent moisture, chemical and abrasion resistance
  • Easy to apply
  • Best for warm color stains


  • Ambers over time
  • Not suitable for cooler color stains
  • Higher in VOCs (especially oil-based)
  • Harder to clean up (especially oil-based)
  • Harder on the environment (especially oil-based)
  • Highly flammable

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which is Right for My Project?

Polyurethane is best for projects that need long-lasting durability, while polycrylic is easier to work with and safer, especially if your workspace is poorly ventilated, says Jay Sanders, owner of Castle Dream Construction. “Polyurethane is very toxic. It has twice the VOC content of polycrylic,” he says.

Walker says that for most projects polycrylic is a good choice. “Lots of the time, choosing between these two options will also come down to which one you prefer working with, as the results are very similar, and most people will have trouble telling the difference between them once everything is dry,” he says.

Whichever you choose, sand between coats to create a smoother surface on the finished project, says Walker.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which is more food-safe?

Neither are rated as food safe, according to Sharad Gaurav, Senior Product Manager for Minwax Clear products. However, both are commonly considered non-toxic once they’ve fully cured.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which is more waterproof?

Neither is rated as waterproof, but they are both moisture-resistant. “Both are waterproof in the short-term, but over longer timelines, polycrylic and water-based polyurethane will degrade faster than an oil-based polyurethane formulation,” says Walker.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which costs less?

Since the cost of both is similar, which to choose shouldn’t come down to price, but rather which is a better fit for the project at hand.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane: Which lasts longer?

It depends on its exposure to moisture, chemicals, abrasions and other wear and tear factors, but, generally, oil-based polyurethane lasts the longest.


Can you paint over polycrylic and/or polyurethane?

Walker has had success painting over both, so long as they are prepped with a thorough cleaning and a slight sanding. However, Gaurav recommends against it, since both are considered topcoats. “The top coat can be applied over paint, but the user needs to test before application as polyurethane is an oil-based product that will amber over time,” Gaurav says.

Can you put polyurethane over polycrylic (and vice versa)?

Neither Walker nor Gaurav recommends doing so. “There may be issues with adhesion, chemical mixing, chemical degradation and long-term durability of both products,” says Gaurav.

Can you spray polycrylic and/or polyurethane?

Yes, but Gaurav recommends against it. “Pros may be able to thin the product [in order to spray it, but] DIYers should be more careful.” Instead, opt for the aerosol versions of either product.

Are there safety concerns with polycrylic and polyurethane?

Whichever you use, make sure your work area is well-ventilated to avoid inhaling VOC toxins and wear protective clothing. It’s also recommended to wear a respirator, especially with polyurethane. Do not use near ignition sources, and store in cool, dry areas away from children.

About the Experts

  • Brandon Walker is Superintendent at ASAP Restoration in Tempe, Arizona. He has been a professional painter for more than 20 years and dubbed a “paint nerd” by his colleagues.
  • Sharad Gaurav is Senior Product Manager for Minwax Clear products, where he’s worked for a decade.
  • Jay Sanders is a licensed contractor and owner of two Baltimore-based businesses: Maryland Contractors home remodeling specialists and Castle Dream Construction deck building specialists.