Lacquer vs Polyurethane: When to Use Each

Lacquer and polyurethane are common finishes used for wood projects but differ in properties and applications. While lacquer is quick-drying and provides a glossy finish, polyurethane is more durable and protective. It is important to understand these differences to choose the appropriate finish for your project.

Choosing the right finish is crucial for a successful outcome in woodworking projects.

Lacquer is often the go-to option for projects that require a smooth finish. This water-based product can give furniture pieces a luxe look.

However, if you need a product that can withstand a lot of wear and tear, like wood floors, then polyurethane is the better choice. It creates a plastic-like coating that can stand up to heavy traffic.

This article will compare lacquer and polyurethane by exploring the intricacies of working with these two finishes and helping you make an informed decision.

Difference Between Lacquer and Polyurethane

Lacquer vs polyurethane
Lacquer vs Polyurethane
Applying the FinishSpray, Brush, DipBrush, Roller, Spray
DurabilityLess durableMore durable
Finish QualitySmoothRough
Curing TimeDries quicklyLonger curing time
Coat ThicknessThinThick
ProtectionLess protectiveMore protective
Choice of OptionsLimitedWide variety
Applying Multiple CoatsEasy to recoatRequires more time between coats
ToxicityHigher VOC levelsLower VOC levels
PriceComparatively inexpensiveExpensive
MaintenanceRequires periodic maintenanceRequires periodic maintenance
Indoor or Outdoor useBest for indoor useUsed both indoor and outdoor
Project SizeSuited for smaller projectsSuited for larger projects
A quick comparison between Lacquer and Polyurethane

Applying the Finish

When applying lacquer and polyurethane, there are a few key points to consider.

Lacquer is easy to apply using a sprayer, which helps create an even finish with fewer brush marks and bubbles.

Applying lacquer on wood
Applying lacquer on wood

Also, lacquer dries quickly, making it a great choice for time-sensitive projects.

However, note that lacquer is flammable and requires good ventilation and protective gear.

Applying lacquer with a brush on large projects can be tricky due to its quick-drying nature, but it can be wiped or sprayed.

Lacquer gives a smooth, glossy finish that enhances the beauty of the wood.

On the other hand, polyurethane is usually brushed on in multiple coats to give the desired level of protection and finish.

Applying polyurethane on wood
Applying polyurethane on wood

Polyurethane takes longer to dry than lacquer, which makes it easier to apply. Yet, it can leave behind brush marks or bubbles, affecting the piece’s look.

Lacquer is cheaper than polyurethane and easier to apply but requires special protective gear and ventilation.

Ultimately, the decision between the two will depend on the project’s needs and personal preferences and the level of protection and ventilation that can be provided during application.


Polyurethane is known for its extraordinary resilience and ability to resist scratches, dents, and signs of wear and tear.

This makes it an ideal option for high-traffic areas such as stairways, floors, and countertops, as it can withstand heavy use without showing any signs of damage.

Also, polyurethane is moisture-resistant, making it suitable for outdoor furniture, decks, and other external wood surfaces.

It can withstand rain, snow, and humidity without cracking, peeling, or fading.

In terms of heat resistance, polyurethane can withstand high temperatures without losing its shape or melting.

It is also chemical-resistant, making it an excellent choice for industrial applications.

However, prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause the material to become discolored over time.

Conversely, lacquer has strong adhesion to wood and is thus ideal for furniture and other indoor wood surfaces.

It dries quickly, making it a good choice for projects that require a fast turnaround.

However, lacquer may be less sturdy in the long run than polyurethane and is more likely to chip and peel, especially in high-traffic areas.

It is also less resistant to moisture and heat than polyurethane, so don’t use it on outdoor furniture or other external wood surfaces exposed to rain, snow, or humidity.

Also, lacquer is flammable. Ensure proper ventilation and respiratory protection when applying them.

Finish Quality and Texture

Lacquer vs Polyurethane-coated wood comparison
Lacquer vs Polyurethane-coated wood comparison

Regarding the finish quality and texture, there are noticeable distinctions between lacquer and polyurethane.

Polyurethane creates a strong, plastic-like coating on wood that can withstand scratches and abrasion, making it an excellent option for areas with heavy foot traffic or items that will be used often.

On the other hand, the finish from polyurethane is usually not as glossy or smooth as the one from lacquer.

Polyurethane tends to dry thicker, and if it’s not applied properly, it can leave brush strokes or bubbles on the finished product, affecting the overall look.

On the other hand, lacquer is a water-based product that gives off a smooth, glossy, and flawless finish.

Getting a perfect, even finish without experience or proper tools can be tricky.

Moreover, some lacquer varieties can provide a darker finish, usually more transparent than polyurethane.

This makes it perfect for wood pieces with a beautiful grain pattern you want to show off.

In regards to texture, polyurethane generally has a more textured finish because of its thicker coating.

Lacquer gives a smoother finish that can enhance the organic beauty of the wood.

Some lacquer can produce a slightly rougher finish depending on the technique and product.

Curing Time

Regarding curing time, there are distinct differences between lacquer and polyurethane which can affect your finish.

Lacquer is known to dry quickly, usually in around ten minutes, making it a popular choice for woodworkers who must finish projects promptly.

On top of that, multiple lacquer coats can be applied in one day because of the strong chemical bond between them.

Polyurethane is an oil-based product that takes much longer to dry, sometimes up to 24 hours.

This is because polyurethane needs oxygen to dry, which oil-based finishes tend to do more slowly than water-based ones.

This slower drying time can benefit woodworkers who want to spend time with each coat.

However, the quick-drying properties of lacquer can be a downfall for inexperienced people.

Since it dries so quickly, it can be difficult to achieve a smooth finish without the right technique.

Lacquer is a good choice if you’re in a hurry, as it dries quickly and bonds with previous coats.

On the other hand, if you want to take your time, polyurethane is the better option.

Coat Thickness and Protection

Applying a coat of polyurethane
Applying a coat of polyurethane

When it comes to protection, polyurethane is the preferable option due to its thicker consistency.

This makes it ideal for projects that require a higher level of protection, such as floors, stairs, and countertops.

In addition, the thicker protective layer helps to fill in any imperfections in the wood surface, creating a smooth and even finish.

In comparison, lacquer is a better choice for projects that require a more natural look.

Its thinner protective layer makes the wood’s natural beauty more visible and creates an organic appearance.

Lacquer usually has a high gloss finish. However, a matte or satin finish can be achieved with additional steps.

Also, each finish’s protective layer affects the project’s maintenance.

Polyurethane provides a strong and durable protective layer that requires minimal upkeep.

Lacquer, however, may require more frequent maintenance, especially in areas with high foot traffic.

It may need to be polished or waxed regularly to maintain its appearance and protect the wood surface.

Choice of Options

When selecting the right finish for your project, you have several options between lacquer and polyurethane.

You can choose from a range of sheens, from high gloss to matte, to get the perfect level of shine for your project.

Each of these finishes also comes in various formulas.

For instance, polyurethane is available in water- and oil-based formulas, which can influence the amount of fumes and VOCs released during application.

If you’re looking for something more eco-friendly, water-based polyurethane is the way to go, as it has a lower odor and fewer fumes than its oil-based counterpart.

As a result, water-based poly is ideal for applications where you need to get rid of polyurethane smell quickly.

Lacquer is another option, with nitrocellulose lacquer being the most popular choice for woodworking projects.

Other varieties of lacquer, such as catalyzed lacquer and acrylic lacquer, offer varying degrees of durability and protection.

You have to consider all factors, including shine, durability, and environmental impact when selecting a finish for your project.

This will ensure you get the perfect finish that looks great and meets your preferences and values.

Applying Multiple Coats

When applying multiple coats, lacquer has an advantage over polyurethane.

Lacquer can be applied without sanding between coats because it chemically binds with the previous coat, forming a durable finish.

This is great for furniture, cabinets, and musical instruments.

On the other hand, sanding between coats is needed for polyurethane to adhere properly to the previous coat.

This takes extra effort and time, but it helps to create a smooth and even finish.

The number of coats depends on the desired level of protection and appearance, with two to three coats of polyurethane usually sufficient.

Another factor to consider is the drying time between coats. Lacquer dries quickly and can be recoated in as little as 10 minutes, while polyurethane takes longer, usually 24 hours or more.

This impacts the overall application time and needs to be considered when planning a project.


When it comes to the toxicity of lacquer and polyurethane, both finishes can let off hazardous fumes when applied.

Inhaling these fumes can cause respiratory problems, headaches, and other health issues.

Fortunately, water-based alternatives are available for both finishes, which give off fewer fumes and VOCs, making them a safer option for indoor projects and those more sensitive to chemical odors.

Even water-based finishes can emit some fumes, so it’s best to use them in a place with good ventilation and to wear a respirator mask while applying the finish.

Moreover, it’s essential to correctly discard any rags or materials used during the application process, as they may be a fire risk due to the possibility of spontaneous combustion.

Price Difference

The cost of lacquer is often lower than that of polyurethane.

Their price difference may not always be significant. It depends on the specific brand and formula of the finish used.

While both finishes can vary in cost based on their manufacturer and formulation, lacquer is typically considered the more affordable option.

This makes it a popular choice for those who want a professional-looking finish but has budget constraints.

Conversely, polyurethane can be more expensive due to its oil-based formula, which requires more complex manufacturing processes.

However, there are alternatives available, such as water-based polyurethane, that are similarly priced to lacquer.


Both lacquer and polyurethane finishes offer low-maintenance cleaning options, with only a damp cloth necessary to remove dust and debris.

However, polyurethane generally has a higher durability that requires fewer touch-ups.

Lacquer provides a smooth and glossy finish but is more prone to scratches, dings, and wear and tear, so it may need to be touched more frequently.

On the other hand, polyurethane offers a more durable, plastic-like coating that can withstand more damage.

In terms of maintenance, both finishes may need to be re-applied or touched up occasionally to keep the wood looking good and protected from environmental elements like sunlight, moisture, and more.

Indoor or Outdoor use

Lacquer and polyurethane have benefits and drawbacks, depending on whether they will be used indoors or outdoors.

Polyurethane is a popular option for both indoor and outdoor wood surfaces. It forms a durable, plastic-like coating that can stand up to the elements.

Additionally, its protective properties against ultraviolet rays help to preserve the underlying wood, making it ideal for outdoor furniture and other woodwork that will be exposed to sunlight.

On the other hand, lacquer is best used for indoor projects.

It provides a beautiful and glossy finish but is less durable than polyurethane and more vulnerable to moisture, sunlight, and other environmental conditions.

It is also less effective at protecting the underlying wood from UV rays, which can cause the finish to fade over time. Therefore, lacquer is not fit for outdoor use.

Project Size

Lacquer may be the better choice for small projects such as cabinets or furniture due to its fast drying time and ease of application.

Due to its resilience and flexibility, polyurethane stands out for larger projects such as decks or outdoor furniture.

Brushing lacquer on large projects can be difficult, so keep a wet edge to get a nice finish.

Lacquer can be wiped or sprayed with high-velocity low-pressure equipment for a more even surface.

Unlike lacquer, polyurethane can be brushed on larger surfaces without special equipment.

Pros and Cons of Lacquer

Thin consistency for easy applicationLess durable compared to polyurethane
Quick drying timeHigher toxicity levels and require better ventilation
It can be applied with a brush or spray for a smooth finishLimited resistance against abrasion and heat damage
It may require multiple coats for adequate protection
Pros and Cons of Lacquer

Pros and Cons of Polyurethane

Durable and strong protection against abrasion, heat, and other damaging factorsLonger curing time than lacquer
Versatile for interior and exterior wood surfacesOil-based polyurethane can yellow when applied over lighter colors
Available in various sheensMineral spirits may be required for clean up
Longer curing time
Pros and Cons of Polyurethane

Considering these pros and cons is crucial when deciding which finish to use for your project.

Polyurethane is more durable and protective, while lacquer is easier to apply.

Ultimately, the choice depends on your specific project requirements and personal preferences.

Characteristics of Lacquer

Lacquer coated wood


Lacquer is a clear or colored wood finish composed of natural resins derived from tree sap or synthetic resins dissolved in organic solvents or water.

Shellac and nitrocellulose are two common natural products used to create lacquer, although many modern formulations are based on synthetic polymers like acrylic and cellulose-based substances.


Lacquer is known for its ability to produce a high-gloss finish that gives the wood a polished look.

It also dries relatively quickly. This makes it possible to apply multiple coats within a shorter period.

The thinner consistency of lacquer makes it well-suited for intricate work on smaller projects.

However, when it comes to durability, lacquer falls short compared to polyurethane, as it is more prone to scratches, chips, and wear over time.

On the upside, lacquer is more forgiving regarding application errors, as it can be easily reworked and smoothed.

The finish quality and texture are also superior, resulting in a smoother and more uniform appearance.


Lacquer is popular for finishing furniture, cabinetry, and musical instruments, especially when a high-gloss finish is desired.

Its thin consistency also suits it well-suited for projects requiring intricate detailing or carving, as it is easier to apply and creates less buildup in these areas.

However, lacquer is generally better suited for indoor projects, as it is less resistant to environmental factors and UV rays when compared to polyurethane.

In summary, lacquer is a versatile and high-performing wood finish ideal for achieving a polished appearance, intricate detailing, or quick drying times.

Nonetheless, polyurethane may be a better choice for specific applications when it comes to durability and resistance.

Characteristics of Polyurethane

Polyurethane coated wood
Polyurethane coated wood


Polyurethane is a synthetic wood finish made using a blend of resins and solvents.

It is available in different types, including water-based options that are less toxic and oil-based variants that may turn yellow over light colors.


Polyurethane is known for creating a robust protective layer on wood surfaces, making them resistant to scratches, dents, and general wear and tear.

It is a thicker finish than lacquer, requiring fewer coats for adequate coverage.

However, oil-based polyurethane may cause yellowing over light-colored surfaces.


Polyurethane is a versatile wood finish used for various indoor and outdoor projects, such as wooden floors, tables, and other furniture.

It is particularly useful in handling heat and protecting wood from abrasion and other types of damage.

Final Thoughts

The decision between lacquer and polyurethane as a wood finish relies on various factors, such as the project’s intended use, finish quality and texture, application method, curing time, durability, and coat thickness.

Lacquer provides a smoother, thinner finish, while polyurethane offers a thicker, more protective layer that is more resistant to abrasion and heat.

Lacquer dries quickly and is easy to recoat, whereas polyurethane may take longer to cure and require more time between coats.

Additionally, lacquer has higher VOC levels and needs appropriate respiratory protection during application.

Polyurethane is more versatile and can be used for indoor and outdoor surfaces.

Both finishes require periodic maintenance, such as cleaning and recoating, and are available in different sheens and formulations.

Ultimately, consider the project’s specific requirements and characteristics before deciding between lacquer and polyurethane.

You May Also Enjoy

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use lacquer instead of polyurethane?

Lacquer and polyurethane are not the same products, and it is not recommended to use them interchangeably. Lacquer is a quick-drying, glossy finish, while polyurethane provides a hard, durable, protective coating.

Is polyurethane the same as lacquer?

No, polyurethane is not the same as lacquer. Polyurethane and lacquer are two distinct types of finishes used to protect and enhance the appearance of wood. Polyurethane acts as a type of plastic that creates a hard and durable protective coating for the wood. In contrast, lacquer is more like water and dries quickly, providing a hard and glossy finish. These differences in their properties mean that they cannot be used interchangeably.

Is lacquer or polyurethane better for wood floors?

Both lacquer and polyurethane can be used for wood floors, but polyurethane is generally considered better due to its superior durability and protection against scratches and wear. The final decision depends on personal preference, budget, and specific needs.