Perhaps a never-ending debate among amateur and professional woodworkers is lacquer vs. polyurethane. Finishing your woodworking with a product that can enhance the beauty of wood is paramount for the success of the project.
Yet, how can you decide which product to use from the dozens of options on the market?
Before getting into the debate, I must say it’s hard to tell which product is best. Both lacquer and polyurethane come with pros and cons. Amateurs tend to prefer polyurethane, as this substance is less temperamental than lacquer.
However, the latter is often employed by professionals. It can be harder to apply flawlessly, but it dries quickly and leaves an attractive, polished finish.
Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s take an in-depth look at both products and compare their advantages and drawbacks.
Table of Contents
What is Lacquer?
Lacquer is a broad term comprising a host of paint products. In the general understanding of the term, wood lacquer is a product obtained from nitrocellulose dissolved together with plasticizers and pigments in a solvent-based mixture.
Lacquer is also a very glossy substance that provides a shiny finish to the surface.
In reality, however, there are multiple types of lacquers out there. The one described above is nitrocellulose lacquer.
Other solvent-based lacquers include shellac lacquer, polymer lacquer, and acrylic lacquer. Manufacturers now also produce water-based lacquers that compromise on glossiness, but come without the downsides of the volatile organic compounds present in all other products.
Lacquer also comes in a variety of finishes, from ultra-matte to ultra-gloss.
The main benefit of lacquer is its consistency. The product has a watery viscosity, and it is easy to apply with a low-pressure sprayer. This leaves a flawless finish on your workpiece.
On the downside, the product starts to discolor over time, and it’s easy to scratch.
What is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is another broad term that comprises a variety of products. Not all of them are paints or varnishes. In fact, polyurethane is a plastic material that exists in a variety of forms, from liquid to solid.
In its solid form, it is employed in the manufacture of insulation, mattresses, car parts, and adhesives, just to name a few.
In its liquid form, polyurethane is used as a coating for a variety of products.
Woodworkers usually work with polyurethane varnish available in both oil-based and water-based varieties. You can also choose the polyurethane finish you like, from satin to glossy.
If woodworkers prefer solvent-based lacquer for a variety of reasons, things are slightly different with polyurethane.
This product is preferred in its water-based variant due to a smoother and more accurate application.
However, this varnish doesn’t withstand heat and chemicals. It is great for furniture, but it’s not recommended to apply it near sources of heat, such as a radiator or fireplace.
On the bright side, polyurethane adheres well to most surfaces and can be applied over oil-based coats.
Lacquer vs. Polyurethane
Now that you know the basics let’s get into the true difference between lacquer and polyurethane is. To make things simple, we’re going to compare the two products using the following criteria: application, permanence, and cost.
When it comes to application ease, the absolute winner is lacquer, for more than one reason.
The first reason is the consistency of the product. Lacquer has a watery consistency, which can be temperamental, but it’s easy to handle. Yes, you might make mistakes, but all you need is a bit of solvent, such as white spirit, to solve your problem.
Polyurethane, while liquid, is still plastic. This varnish is rather thick and hard to handle. Many amateurs prefer it because it produces fewer drips, but at the same time, it’s quite hard to apply a flawless coat that has no brush strokes.
Speaking of brush strokes, you can avoid them altogether if you use lacquer because itcan be applied with a paint sprayer.
Polyurethane is just too thick to use with a sprayer. You can thin it, but the quality of your finish might suffer.
Then, there is drying time. Lacquer is a solvent-based product that requires a ton of time to dry, but it still dries faster than polyurethane.
If you have to apply more than one coat, you could end up spending much more time on your project if you opt for polyurethane.
To understand permanence, you must first understand absorption.
Whether you’re an amateur or expert, you should know that wood is an absorbent material. Pour water on it, and it will penetrate the material sooner or later. Due to its viscosity, lacquer acts like water.
This product is often employed in treating weathered wood because it absorbs into the surface. Through absorption, lacquer forms a stronger bond with the wood that is harder to break.
On the other hand, polyurethane is a polymer. This varnish acts as a coating for the wood that doesn’t absorb.
For this reason, polyurethane is more susceptible to peeling and cracking when exposed to heat or the elements.
Nevertheless, when applied as instructed and on objects that are not exposed to heat, polyurethane provides an overall much more durable and resilient finish than lacquer.
Lacquer is known to peel, discolor, and lose its glossiness over time, so you’ll face more frequent maintenance.
We won’t discuss the products’ price here, but rather their application cost. Both lacquer and polyurethane varnishes come at various prices, depending on the quality of their formula and name of the brand.
Regarding the application costs, polyurethane beats lacquer without a doubt.
As explained above, polyurethane is thicker than lacquer. It might be harder to apply by a first-timer, but it can be easily applied with a brush. Due to its thickness, it also requires fewer coats to achieve full coverage.
Lacquer, on the other hand, is thinner. It gives its best results when applied with a sprayer, but if you don’t own such a tool already, you may have to invest a rather large amount of money into buying a reliable tool.
Lacquer also requires more coats to achieve full coverage, which potentially means having to invest in more of the product itself.
And the Winner Is
Beating lacquer two to one, polyurethane is our winner based on these criteria.
However, as I already told you, it’s hard to decide which product is best in every situation. If you have to treat the skirting near a radiator, for instance, lacquer is undoubtedly your best bet.
For furniture though, polyurethane is safer, cheaper, and easier to maintain.
What Are Your Other Options?
Now that we’ve settled the lacquer vs. polyurethane debate, you might want to know if there are other options. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that there are other paint products you could consider.
Without describing the characteristics of lacquer and polyurethane again, let’s see how they compare with our winner.
Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane
The names of polycrylic and polyurethane sound so similar that amateurs and beginners may be confused. However, the two are very different, so you’d better learn which is which before buying.
Polycrylic can be defined as the antagonist of polyurethane. This water-based wood coat is a clear protective product that comes in various finishes, from satin to high gloss. It has a very watery and runny consistency, and it can be applied with either a roller or sprayer.
Brush application is so difficult that anyone in their right mind would avoid it.
Polycrylic is ideal for interior wood, such as furniture, doors, and woodwork. Being a clear coat, it highlights the natural beauty of wood, although it adheres well over water-based wood stains.
This wood coat is very affordable and easy to clean, but it is very hard to apply. Furthermore, it provides a cloudy finish over dark colors.
Shellac vs. Polyurethane
While all of the products mentioned thus far have been synthetic, shellac is a natural product. It is obtained from the secretion of the female lac bug with a solvent, usually alcohol. This makes shellac a very safe option for households with kids or pets.
However, since it is a natural product, shellac is not completely clear. It often has an amber shade that shows on wood.
The product is also affected by heat; even a hot bowl or mug placed on a surface treated with shellac can alter the product’s properties. However, it is a great option for most pieces of furniture, and it can even be used as a protective coating on non-wood items.
Shellac is typically available in ready-to-use formulas. However, you can find it in solid form too. In this case, you’ll have to dissolve it before use.
Varnish vs. Polyurethane
Lastly, we have varnish. This is a generic term used for top coats consisting of a higher ratio of solids. This product is perfect for raw wood and particularly suitable to use on exterior wood including garden furniture, fences, sheds, and decking.
Varnish not only protects wood from moisture and chemical agents, but also provides UV protection, preventing weathering.
Varnishes are typically easy to apply and come in both water-based and oil-based formulations. They are best applied with a natural-bristle brush and, when applied correctly, they provide a long-lasting finish that requires little to no maintenance.
Now that you know which is the winner in the lacquer vs. polyurethane debate and what other products are available, all you have to do is pick the coat that best suits your needs and get started on your woodworking project!