The Differences Between Lacquer And Polyurethane

Lacquer and polyurethane are two of the most common finishes used for wooden furniture. Although they are both effective finishes, it is important to know the difference between lacquer vs. polyurethane.


Lacquer is considered the best finish to use for wood because it’s durable and dries quickly. There are three types of lacquer: acrylic, water-based, and nitrocellulose.

Acrylic Lacquer

Acrylic lacquer was made to avoid yellowing problems that other kinds of finishes often left. When applied, it goes on clear and stays that way forever. There are many kinds of acrylic lacquers, but the most commonly one is the CAB-acrylic lacquer. This kind of lacquer is more flexible and less brittle than other kinds of lacquer, but it also costs more. It is usually used on woods with light colors like birch, ash, and maple. For best results, mix it with some lacquer thinner and apply using a spray. CAB-acrylic lacquers are mostly used over other lacquers so that the surface that it’s applied on will be more durable and resistant to wears and scratches.
More Information about Acrylic Paint

Water-Based Lacquer

Because of the toxicity associated with solvent-based lacquers, more and more people turn to water-based ones. These kinds of finishes are not only less toxic, but are also more durable than some solvent-based ones. They also last longer than other types of finishes. For example, a water-based lacquers useful life can exceed that of a nitrocellulose lacquers by at least 5 years. They are also very flexible and dry faster than solvent-based lacquers if used in the right temperature. However, they tend to raise the wood’s grain. Water-based lacquer is cheaper than solvent-based ones though.

Nitrocellulose Lacquer

Nitrocellulose lacquer is an evaporative finish that has been used for many years already. It was first used as a finish for automobiles but later on became the most favored finish for cabinets and other types of furniture. This kind of lacquer gives the surface of your furniture a protective film so that it is more resistant to abuse. It can be used on furniture with light or dark wood because it can enhance its colors either way. Repairs are also easy because of its ability to blend into previous coats.

On the other hand, the film formed on the surface may shrink and yellow over time. The shrinking may cause cracks on the surface of your furniture. Nitrocellulose lacquer can be brushed on but better results are obtained if you choose to spray it on. However, you should make sure not to overspray, as it is very flammable. Blushing, or having a cloudy film finish, may also be caused by the fast dryness of this kind of lacquer. To remedy this, you can add a thinner that makes the drying time slower so that moisture can escape from the film.

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Like lacquer, polyurethane is a finish that you can use for wooden furniture. It can be applied on either by wiping or spraying. There are two kinds of polyurethane: oil-based and water-based. We have already examined the different kinds of lacquer. In order to see which is better in the battle of polyurethane vs. lacquer, let us examine the different kinds of polyurethane.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is easier to apply than water-based ones because of its slow drying time. This allows the finish to become more level and creates a surface that is smooth and glossy. However, because of some of its ingredients, it is quite harmful to your health. Oil-based finishes are also harder to clean because you will need to use different kinds of solvents. However, they are much easier to acquire since they are available in many hardware stores.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane dries more quickly than oil-based ones but it is harder to produce a smooth and level surface because of the appearance of bubbles. However, the finished surface is still as durable as if it was finished with an oil-based finish. It is non-toxic and can easily be cleaned up with water. However, it is usually not available in many hardware stores so you might have to order it somewhere else.

There is no better finish when it comes to lacquer vs. polyurethane. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you to pick which one you are comfortable working with.