Choosing the appropriate finish can be time-consuming and pricey when you’re new to woodworking. It’s much more difficult to determine which material has the upper hand in lacquer vs. polyurethane.
Many people mistakenly refer to them as the same thing because of their similar appearance and feel. However, there are some substantial distinctions amongst them, allowing them to be used for a variety of purposes.
So, in order to avoid any additional misunderstanding, we’re going to clarify the air once and for all.
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Polyurethane vs Lacquer Finish
What’s the Difference Between Polyurethane and Lacquer?
What exactly is lacquer?
For generations, lacquer has been a favorite of woodworkers. Lacquer, which was originally made from the secretions of the lac bug, is still a preferred finish for cabinets and high-end furniture, despite the fact that its formula has altered dramatically.
Despite being a very thin finish, it dries quickly and is extremely long-lasting. However, achieving that end necessitates some expertise. A high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer is the ideal way to apply lacquer.
There are four different varieties of lacquer, which we’ll go over in depth later.
Lacquer is manufactured by mixing various solvents and resins together. One type of lacquer could be substantially different depending on the combination. While historical lacquers were environmentally favorable, current lacquers contain more chemicals and produce a lot of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Water-based lacquers, on the other hand, are becoming more popular, however there is some controversy regarding whether they should be classed as real lacquers.
What is polyurethane and how does it work?
Polyurethane is a long-lasting, water-repellent coating that dries quickly. It may be used on a variety of furniture, but it is most commonly used on floors, tables, fences, and other surfaces that require water and scratch protection. Polyurethane is rarely utilized for high-end furniture due to its thickness.
Polyurethane is divided into two types:
- Polyurethane with an oil base
It lasts a long time but takes longer to dry. Expert woodworkers choose lacquer or water-based polyurethane over oil-based polyurethane because it dries slowly. Water-based poly, on the other hand, is less durable than oil-based poly. It’s also heat resistant, which means it won’t burn or blister. Gloss, semi-gloss, and satin sheens are available in oil-based poly, with high gloss being the most durable.
- 2. Polyurethane with a water base
Water-based polyurethane is a form of polyurethane paint in which the principal carrier is water. It offers several advantages in terms of decreasing waste and creating high-quality results on surfaces such as wood, metal, and plastic, in addition to promoting a safe atmosphere for painters.
It dries rapidly, emits no scents, and is simple to remove. It is only suitable for inside use because it cannot resist high temperatures.
While both oil and water-based polyurethanes accomplish the same task, each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Oil-based polyurethane, for example, gives wood a warm glow and yellows over time. Water-based poly, on the other hand, dries transparent and stays clear.
When sprayed and maintained properly, both forms of polyurethane can protect wooden surfaces for over a decade.
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Product Overviews: Lacquer Finish vs. Polyurethane
Let’s take a look at how each of their greatest products performs in the lacquer vs. polyurethane finish showdown.
a) 1906830 Rust-Oleum Specialty Lacquer Spray
1906830 Specialty Lacquer Spray, 11 Ounce (Pack of 6), Clear, 6 Count Rust-Oleum 1906830 Specialty Lacquer Spray, 11 Ounce (Pack of 6), Clear, 6 Count
Use on interior and external surfaces such as plaster, masonry, wood, metal, and unglazed ceramics.
When compared to normal paint, the acrylic recipe provides an ultra-hard, high-luster surface with a quick cure and hardening time.
Covers up to 7 sq. ft. per can and dries to the touch in 20 minutes.
For a greater gloss finish, the durable coating can be sanded and re-coated.
Provides a professional, factory-finish look with a smooth, ultra-gloss surface.
Pros and Cons of Lacquer
- It’s really light and dries rapidly.
- Very long-lasting
- Errors are simple to fix during the application process.
- Wear and scratch resistance
- It can be challenging to apply correctly.
- VOCs are emitted in large quantities.
b) Varathane 200061H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane Varathane 200061H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane Varathane 200061H
Varathane 200061H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane, Gloss Finish, 8 Fl Oz (Pack of 1)
Furniture, windows, cabinets, trim, and other indoor wood surfaces are all protected.
The water-based composition dries quickly and is easy to clean with soap and water.
Recoat after 2 hours, since it dries to the touch in 30 minutes and covers up to 31.25 sq. ft.
The long-lasting solution has great stain and scratch resistance, as well as superb clarity.
A glossy finish gives a sleek and tidy appearance.
Pros and Cons of Polyurethane
- The thick coat keeps you warm for a long period.
- Scratch-resistant, chemical-resistant, and water-resistant
- It dries quickly and can withstand a lot of abuse.
- It can be used in a variety of ways.
- It takes a long time for the paint to dry.
- VOCs are emitted in large quantities.
In-Depth Feature Comparison of Polyurethane and Lacquer
Maybe it’s because I’m old, but I enjoy working with wood. However, it can be heartbreaking to watch a project whither away in a matter of weeks after working on it for days or weeks.
That’s why picking the appropriate finish is so important, especially if you’re working on a paid project.
This detailed comparison of lacquer vs polyurethane can assist you in determining which one to use in practically every situation.
- Ease of Application: Lacquer vs. Polyurethane Finish
The ease with which a wood finish may be applied is one of the deciding considerations. After all, it’s preferable to have a great finish with a poor product than a bad one with a good one.
Lacquer is best applied using a high-volume, low-presser (HVLP) sprayer since it is light, thin, and dries quickly. This results in a silky smooth finish. While various tools can be used to apply lacquer, this is only recommended for much modest works when hiring or purchasing a sprayer is not feasible.
Polyurethane, on the other hand, is thick and should be applied with a brush. Depending on the type of polyurethane, you can also use an HVLP sprayer, roller, or cloth to apply it, but the brush is the preferred method.
The difficulty with this is that brush marks and streaks will appear frequently. A cheap brush will also leave hairs all over your work surface if you use it. Other things to keep an eye out for include bubbles and dust nibs, both of which are fairly frequent.
Another issue with polyurethane application is the requirement to sand between applications. Because lacquer has its own solvent, each layer melts into the one before it, obviating the need for sanding unless an underlying coat is damaged.
As a newbie, all of these factors make applying polyurethane a bit difficult.
Conclusion: Lacquer comes out on top.
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- Safety and Toxicity of Poly vs Lacquer
The hazards of household chemicals are something we hear about all the time, and with good cause. Lacquer and polyurethane produce a lot of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making them dangerous for persons who have trouble breathing.
The majority of the risk is present during the application procedure. Chemicals become more harmful when sprayed in the air, which is the suggested application method for lacquer. As a result, if you work with chemicals, you should always wear a respirator.
The good news is that the VOCs in these items are no longer hazardous once they have dried.
Manufacturers have created water-based lacquer and water-based polyurethane to overcome these issues. Some of these release very low levels of VOCs, making them quite safe. Apart from it,
Given the widespread usage of water-based polyurethane, VOCs from lacquer pose a greater concern.
There’s also the issue of flammability, which isn’t evident.
Lacquer is a very flammable substance. As a result, you should never use it near an open flame source and only do it in a well-ventilated location.
Polyurethane is combustible as well, however it is less sensitive. For example, Rust-Oleum woodcare lacquer/aerosol has a flashpoint of less than 20°F, whereas Minwax Fast-Drying polyurethane has a flashpoint of 102.2°F, which is normal for polyurethanes.
Conclusion: Polyurethane is a safer and less hazardous material.
- Durability of lacquer vs. polyurethane
The goal of a wood finish is to protect the surface from scratches, stains, water, and everything in between, as well as to make furniture look more professional. Lacquer and polyurethane are both excellent at this.
Lacquer is water-resistant, long-lasting, and offers good scratch resistance. Nitrocellulose lacquer, on the other hand, does not handle scratches well.
Aside from that, all lacquers provide minimal resistance to heat and chemicals.
Polyurethane, on the other hand, is scratch and scuff resistant, as well as water, stain, and heat resistance. You can also add UV-resistant polyurethane to the list when it comes to outdoor polyurethane.
It’s not surprising that polyurethane can withstand greater abuse than lacquer, given the many things it protects your wood from. Of course, the fact that it is thicker than lacquer helps.
Instead of permeating the wood, it remains on the surface, making it far more difficult to damage the product over time.
Lacquer, on the other hand, can last as long as or even longer than polyurethane if there is no physical or chemical degradation. But, on the other hand, what are the chances of that occurring?
Polyurethane comes out on top in this round.
- Drying Time of Poly versus Lacquer
One of the most lopsided categories is this one.
People dislike polyurethane because of its slow drying time, notwithstanding how durable, versatile, and rich it is. It’s so awful that most woodworkers have switched to water-based polyurethane as a result of it.
So, how long does polyurethane take to dry? In summary, oil-based polyurethane dries to the touch in 4 to 6 hours but takes 12 to 24 hours to be ready for the next coat. Given that most projects require at least three coats, applying water-based polyurethane alone might take three days.
Water-based polyurethane is far superior because it can be recoated in as little as two hours. But, as impressive as it is, it’s no substitute for lacquer.
Lacquer dries to the touch in ten minutes and can be re-coated after half an hour. So, even with the fastest drying polyurethane, you may apply 4 to 5 coats before applying the second.
Lacquer wins hands down.
- Polyurethane vs. spray lacquer – Versatility
Finally, we get at what is most likely the most critical aspect. Lacquer is highly typical for high-end furniture or any hardwood surface that will not see a lot of use, as previously stated. Polyurethane, on the other hand, is ideal for high-traffic areas like floors, tables, countertops, and bars.
Another thing to think about is the project’s scale. Lacquer is not ideal for huge tasks due to how rapidly it dries. So, while lacquer may theoretically be used on hardwood floors, the drying time makes it impracticable.
This is not a problem with polyurethane. Ironically, what makes polyurethane so difficult to work with is also what makes it so adaptable.
Polyurethane triumphs once more.
- Yellowing of brushing lacquer vs. polyurethane
Oil-based paints have a reputation for yellowing or ambering over time. While this can give oak and other types of wood a lovely flash of color, not everyone is a fan, which is understandable.
When choosing a specific hue of wood, you want to be sure it will still look nice in 5 to 10 years. Polyurethane and lacquer, unfortunately, do not withstand the test of time.
Both of these materials will yellow, but polyurethane will do so more faster. Water-based lacquer and polyurethane, on the other hand, will not yellow over time. They dry clear and stay that way.
It’s tempting to choose polyurethane over water-based lacquers because they’re less widespread and some claim they shouldn’t be called lacquers.
Result – a stalemate.
Lacquer Comes in a Variety of Forms
Modern lacquers are manufactured by dissolving synthetic polymers in lacquer thinner, a far cry from their environmentally friendly origins.
Although all lacquer finishes have some of the attributes listed above, there are important differences that give lacquer a leg up on polyurethane. Find out how to apply polyurethane to lacquer.
- Lacquer made of nitrocellulose
This is the most frequent lacquer type, as well as the one with the most flaws. It has all of the following undesirable qualities: it is not heat resistant, highly combustible, yellows, and is highly poisonous.
As a result, it’s being phased out of the market in favor of more cost-effective alternatives.
- Lacquer made of acrylic
Acrylic lacquers were first developed in the 1950s to combat the yellowing concerns that plagued nitrocellulose lacquer. They’re also more scratch-resistant and durable than polyurethane, which adds to their advantages.
These advantages come as a cost, as it is more expensive than nitrocellulose lacquer.
- Lacquer with a Water-Based Base
Another step in the evolution process is water-based lacquer. Water-based lacquer addresses the toxicity issue, while acrylic lacquer addresses the yellowing issue. These produce far less VOCs and are less combustible.
While this is a significant improvement, it is not as long-lasting as catalyzed or acrylic lacquers.
- Lacquer Catalyzed
This is a hybrid lacquer that contains nitrocellulose and urea resins to increase resistance to water, scratches, and chemicals. With the help of a chemical compound that can be added before you buy (pre-catalyzed) or do it yourself, it cures chemically and by evaporation (post-catalyzed).
Despite the improvements in durability, it will still yellow over time and have a high VOC content.
Conclusion on Polyurethane vs. Lacquer
There isn’t a single answer to the question of who will win the duel between lacquer and polyurethane. Both results are amazing and easily outperform the majority of the competitors.
While it’s difficult to establish a clear distinction between the two, there are times when one will outperform the other.
When to Use Lacquer:
Working on a project that won’t get much attention
You only have a limited amount of time.
You want a finish that is simple to use.
Small projects to work on
When to Use Polyurethane:
High-traffic locations are being worked on.
Durability is more important to you than convenience of use.
When working on huge surfaces such as floors and other large surfaces,
If you’re not sure if any of these finishes is right for you, check out our guide to wood finishes, which includes varnish, shellac, tung oil, and more.