It is extremely important to select the right finishes for your project to get excellent and durable results.

Among the options offered, two of the most popular ones are lacquer and polyurethane; but how do you know which one to use?

While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between the two that you should be aware of.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane

Lacquer is like water – penetrating the surface of the wood and forming a strong bond that is difficult to disrupt. Polyurethane acts like a protective plastic coating that shields the wood from scratches.

In this article, we will discuss in detail Lacquer vs Polyurethane for various tasks.

What Is Lacquer?

Lacquer is a clear or coloured coating made from resin extracted from trees and applied to wood to enhance its beauty and protect it from moisture as well as other environmental factors.

The history of lacquer can be traced back to ancient Japan during the Jōmon period when it was used to create ornaments.

Today, lacquer is still widely used in woodworking and its popularity can be attributed to its unique characteristics and versatility.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane

Lacquer is ideal for adding a touch of beauty to your furniture or musical instruments. It amplifies the natural look of wood giving you a range of stunning high-gloss finishes.

Applying lacquer requires proper preparation including sanding and cleaning the wood surface. The lacquer can then be applied using a spray gun – with multiple coats necessary for a smooth finish. HVLP spraying is considered the best method of lacquer application due to its low-pressure and high-volume properties. Proper ventilation and safety precautions should be taken during application.

To keep lacquer surfaces in the best condition, ensure to clean them regularly with a soft microfiber cloth and avoid their exposure to direct sunlight & intense temperatures.

Minor repairs can be made by sanding and applying new coats of lacquer, while major repairs may require stripping and refinishing the entire surface.

Types of Lacquer

Three major types of lacquer are available for use, including:

  • Acrylic Lacquer
  • Water-based Lacquer
  • Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer is a solvent-based finish that can be used on both light & dark wood pieces and enhances the natural colour of the wood. It’s known for its quick-drying time which makes it a great choice in certain finishing applications. Nitrocellulose lacquer tends to become discoloured and take on a yellowish hue.

Water-based lacquers emit little to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful chemicals that can cause health problems when inhaled in large quantities.

They are recommended for people who work in small or poorly ventilated spaces such as home workshops or studios. They are also less likely to yellow over time, ensuring that the original color of the wood remains intact for longer. Water-based lacquers dry faster than oil-based finishes.

Unlike nitrocellulose lacquer, acrylic lacquer does not react with exposure to direct sunlight which means it won’t yellow over time.

Pros & Cons of Lacquer


  • Provides a smooth and shiny finish
  • Can be easily repaired or touched up
  • Penetrates the wood for a stronger bond


  • Need sprayer for application
  • Lacquer coating is not resilient to high temperatures
  • It is not resistant to chemicals

What Is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a type of synthetic polymer extensively used in the manufacturing industry. It is particularly well-suited for wood finishing, thanks to its unbeatable durability, water resistance, and protective properties. Plus, you can get different finishes ranging from matte to high gloss with this material.

Polyurethane made its debut in Germany in the 1930s and soon spread to the United States after WWII. Thereafter, it has been embraced by many industries as it offers numerous advantages over other materials. Currently, it holds significant importance in a variety of industrial settings.

Polyurethane can be applied either by brushing or spraying; however, given its thickness, spraying it on might require adding a thinner to get a smoother and more even finish. Cleaning up polyurethane is not as easy compared to lacquer due to its chemical composition.

To clean the surface, use a cloth damped with a natural cleaning solution. Solutions with an alcohol or ammonia base, although more effective at the start, can deteriorate the finish over time. Hence, it is best to go for milder and more eco-friendly options which are just as effective.

Types of Polyurethane

There are two main types of polyurethane:

  • Oil-based
  • Water-based

Oil-based polyurethane provides a rich, warm appearance but requires more time to dry and can turn yellow with time.

Water-based polyurethane is a great alternative to oil-based varieties because it has minimal toxicity and little to no odour. It does not leave behind any discolouration on the wood and dries much more quickly than oil-based products.

Pros & Cons of Polyurethane


  • Provides a strong and durable finish
  • Polyurethane offers a formidable defence against liquids like water
  • Polyurethane can be formulated to include various hues and shades of colour


  • It is potentially dangerous as it can cause fires, explosions, and various health issues
  • In cold or humid climates, oil-based polyurethanes may take a bit longer to dry than usual

Lacquer Vs Polyurethane: A Detailed Comparison

While these finishes may seem similar, there are significant differences between them that can impact the appearance, durability, and overall quality of the finished product.

Differences in Appearance

One of the most obvious differences between lacquer and polyurethane is their appearance. Lacquer and polyurethane produce different appearances on wood surfaces.

Lacquer gives off a glossy or smooth finish that looks as if the glass was applied. When dry, it provides a hard surface that accentuates the look of the wood grain whereas polyurethane makes it look duller. Polyurethane is a bit more matte and less reflective. It dries to a clear, tough, and durable finish and darkens over time, while lacquer maintains its clarity.

The type of finish you buy will depend on the look you are going for.

Differences in Durability

Polyurethane is known for its durability and resistance to scratches and moisture. It provides a tough and protective coating that can withstand daily wear and tear as well as resists scratches and abrasions – hence it is great for high-traffic areas. Lacquer is less durable than polyurethane. While the finish is known for its strong bond to the wood surface, it can also be more susceptible to scratching and peeling over time.

Differences in Application

To obtain a professional and smooth finish, proper techniques of preparation and application have to be employed for both lacquer and polyurethane.

Both lacquer and polyurethane require multiple coats for optimal coverage. Nonetheless, there are differences in the application process. Applying lacquer is simpler than the application process for polyurethane. Lacquer is applied in thin layers with a sprayer and each coat must be allowed to dry before the next one is applied. But polyurethane can be applied with a brush or sprayer.

One of the main advantages of using lacquer as a finish is that you don’t have to sand your surface before reapplying a new coat. The previous coat melts into the subsequent one. Lacquer also has a much thinner consistency which allows it to be sprayed directly over existing surfaces – making it a much quicker and less labor-intensive process.

Differences in Cost

The cost of lacquer and polyurethane can vary depending on the brand and quality. Lacquer is generally less expensive than polyurethane making it a more cost-effective option for those on a budget. However, the cost of the finish is only one aspect to consider as the cost of the required equipment and tools required for the application process should also be taken into account.

Applying lacquer instead of polyurethane can be costly as it requires a sprayer to apply the finish. Renting or buying a sprayer is needed – thus adding an extra expense to the cost of a can of lacquer finish.

Polyurethane is a thicker material than lacquer and it, therefore, requires fewer coats for complete coverage. Conversely, lacquer needs multiple layers due to its thin texture. Considering this, it may cost you more since you have to purchase extra supplies for a satisfactory result.

Differences in Quality

While lacquer is known for its high-gloss finish, it can also be prone to cracking, chipping, and yellowing over time. Polyurethane as an alternative is known for its long-lasting durability, high quality, and resistance to scratches and abrasions. It also tends to resist yellowing better than lacquer.

Lacquer can provide a glossy polished finish however it’s not quite as long-lasting as polyurethane.

Differences in Dry Time

The time taken for lacquer and polyurethane to dry differs too. Lacquer dries much faster than polyurethane so it allows for quicker multiple-coat applications and turnaround time for projects. Polyurethane requires more time between coats and a longer overall curing time. Water-based polyurethanes will dry quicker than their oil-based counterparts, so if you’re looking for a quick solution, this is the way to go.

What Happens if You Apply Polyurethane Before Stain is Dry?

If polyurethane is applied when the stain is not completely dry, it may lead to various drying problems. The finish may not bind to the surface properly or may even start to flake off. Inappropriate timing results in moisture being trapped beneath the polyurethane and causes the stain to become discolored or cloudy.

Applying polyurethane over a stain can be tricky if the stain is still wet or tacky; this can cause an uneven or blotchy finish because the polyurethane may not spread evenly over the surface.

To ensure a secure adhesion of the finish to your stain, it’s vital to give the finish ample time to dry. Oil-based polyurethane must be applied 8 hours after the finish has dried while water-based polyurethane should be applied 24 hours after.

Safety and Toxicity

Both lacquer and polyurethane can be hazardous to work with. They contain potentially harmful chemicals that can be toxic if inhaled. If you are planning to use oil-based polyurethane or lacquer, it is advisable to wear a respirator and ensure the area is well-ventilated due to its emission of fumes.

Differences in Versatility

Lacquer and polyurethane are widely-used finishes for a range of surfaces. Polyurethane is especially beneficial for floors, furniture, and cabinets due to its many versatile qualities. Polyurethane is usually not suitable for outdoor conditions due to its vulnerability to UV rays & moisture. Lacquer coatings are often preferred for furniture and cabinets but may not be ideal in heavily-used areas like floors.

Lacquer Vs Polyurethane: Yellowing

One common issue with both lacquer and polyurethane is yellowing over time. Oil-based products are more prone to yellowing. Water-based lacquer and water-based polyurethane are formulated to dry clear and stay transparent so they do not yellow after some time. They are made with water as the primary solvent instead of oils that can oxidize and cause discoloration.

Lacquer Or Polyurethane For Indoor Furniture?

Polyurethane is the ideal finish to use when making indoor furniture like bookshelves or tables; its long-lasting finish and superior quality make it perfect for any inside area. And once applied, it can be enjoyed without needing any further treatment for many years to come.

What’s Best For Outdoor Furniture?

Selecting the right finish is imperative to secure it from unfavorable weather conditions and keep its shine. Polyurethane may be both popular and suitable for indoor wood furniture yet it might not be the most suitable choice for outdoor application.

The Limitations of Polyurethane

Polyurethane can not handle the fluctuating temperatures and moisture levels that outdoor furniture is exposed to. When exposed to the elements, it can crack, peel, and discolor, leaving your furniture looking worn and damaged. It also requires regular maintenance to keep it looking its best which can be time-consuming and costly.

The finish acts as a strong plastic coating, providing an extra layer of protection to the wood surface. Conversely, lacquer penetrates the wood and sets quickly to form a glossy finish that emphasizes the natural beauty of the material. Because it is absorbed into the wood, it creates a stronger bond that is less likely to peel or flake after a while.

Why Lacquer is the Better Option for Exterior Wood Surfaces

Lacquer penetrates the wood and provides long-lasting protection.

Resistance to Temperature Fluctuations: Unlike polyurethane, it is more resistant to temperature changes and fluctuations. It is less likely to crack or peel in response to changes in temperature.

Waterproof and Moisture Resistant: Lacquer protects wood items from rain, snow, and other sources of moisture that can cause damage over time.

What’s Best for High Traffic Areas?

High-traffic areas like tables, countertops, and flooring in entries, kitchens, as well as hallways experience a lot of wear and tear due to frequent use. Opting for the correct finish for these items is important to guarantee their longevity and reduce maintenance costs.

Taking into account the areas in your home which receive more wear and tear, it could be wise to opt for a polyurethane finish. If your home receives heavy foot traffic or if you have pets/kids, consider using polyurethane. This is because it’s more resistant to wear and tear and offers a long-lasting solution for your flooring. It creates a hard, protective layer over your flooring that can help resist scratches and scuffs.

The gloss level of a polyurethane finish impacts its ability to show wear and tear over time. The higher the gloss level, the more visible scratches, scuffs, and other signs will be on the surface of the flooring. For places with heavy foot traffic, go for a paint finish with less shine as this can help conceal any signs of wear & tear.

Matte finishes are good options for flooring in high-traffic areas because they have a lower gloss level and are less reflective than higher gloss finishes. They are better at hiding scratches and they also tend to be easier to maintain since they don’t show dirt and dust as easily.

Lacquer & Polyurethane Alternatives

While lacquer and polyurethane are some of the most popular finishes for woodworking projects, other alternatives can offer unique benefits and finishes – some of these include:

Shellac: This is a natural resin secreted by the lac bug and is dissolved in alcohol to create a finish. For many years, shellac has been the go-to finish for wooden furniture and floors thanks to its unparalleled quality. Both classic pieces and modern furnishings can be treated with shellac to add an attractive shine that lasts. It dries quickly and provides a surface that is resistant to water.

Varnish: People often mistakenly refer to any type of wood finish as varnish, when it is a specific type of finish. The finish is made by mixing oil, resin, and solvents. Varnish forms a glossy and transparent layer over surfaces. You can find it in different sheens. It not only safeguards wood products but also enhances the wood’s unique grain & natural beauty.

Tung Oil: This is a natural oil derived from the nuts of the tung tree – easy to apply, penetrates the wood deeply, and cures into a glossy and transparent film. It is popular for its natural look and is also perfect for those who want a more rustic finish.

Lacquer & Polyurethane: Comparison of Alternatives

  • Oil-based polyurethane and lacquer offer the highest level of durability against scratches and wear. Shellac and tung oil are more susceptible to wear and may require more frequent maintenance
  • Shellac and tung oil offer a more natural and rustic look and feel. Lacquer has the best clear finish
  • A varnish is an ideal option for exterior uses as it has a high oil content and gives greater flexibility. It is also great at shielding against UV rays and fluctuating temperatures
  • A minimum of 6 coats of Tung oil are required to ensure effective saturation into the wood. Varnish and polyurethane require multiple coats to achieve a durable finish
  • Polyurethane and sprayed lacquer are easy to apply to wood surfaces


Polyurethane may not be suitable for outdoor protection due to its susceptibility to damage from temperature fluctuations. It is important to note, however, that not all polyurethane coatings are unsuited for furniture used outdoors. Some manufacturers do add UV inhibitors and other features that benefit the furniture’s long-term performance. Lacquer-based products may be the best choice for you. Just make sure the product you get is low VOC and does not contain any hazardous chemicals.

Water-based products have made their way into the market and are easily accessible, which is beneficial in eliminating exposure to toxins. Nonetheless, they aren’t necessarily the best at safeguarding against harsh conditions. If you’re looking for maximum protection, oil-based finish products remain your best bet.


Polyurethane is the superior choice when it comes to durability and longevity.

While both produce a hard finish, polyurethane is much more long-lasting than lacquer. Its protective coating shields objects from various environmental elements and keeps them looking like new for much longer.

It is often used as a protective coating for wood and offers a glossy and shinier finish.

While enhancing the appearance of wood, lacquer is resistant to water which makes it popular for use in furniture, cabinetry, and other woodwork. It can also be used to seal and protect paintings, ceramics, and other artwork.

The lifespan of lacquer can vary depending on factors like the quality of the finish, the application process, the conditions in which it is stored, and how it is used.

Generally speaking, lacquer coatings can last for at least three years if they are stored in a cool, dry place and protected from direct sunlight.

Nitrocellulose lacquer which is commonly used in guitar finishes and other musical instruments can last indefinitely if it is stored properly.

Lacquer can be susceptible to scratches and other forms of damage – particularly if it is applied in thin layers or exposed to abrasive materials. While it provides a durable and glossy finish, it may not be as resistant to scratches as some other types of finishes like polyurethane.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *