Lacquer vs Polyurethane – Which is Better for Your Woodwork?

When it comes to woodworking, your finish can make or break the final product. It’s not just about aesthetics, but also about protection and longevity. Today, we will delve into two popular choices: lacquer and polyurethane. We’ll explore their differences, how they’re made, and their common uses, helping you make an informed decision for your next woodworking project.

Wood Finishes: Lacquer and Polyurethane

Lacquer and polyurethane are both types of wood finishes used to enhance the appearance and durability of wood. However, they’re quite different in their composition and application.

Lacquer is a clear or colored coating dries by solvent evaporation and can be further polished. It’s traditionally derived from the resin of a specific tree known as a lacquer tree. Modern lacquers, however, are typically synthetic and consist of a blend of nitrocellulose, a resin, and a plasticizer.

On the other hand, polyurethane is a type of polymer made by reacting a polyol with a diisocyanate or a polymeric isocyanate in the presence of suitable catalysts and additives. Polyurethanes are available in various forms, including flexible foams, rigid foams, chemical-resistant coatings, specialty adhesives, sealants, and elastomers.

How are Lacquer and Polyurethane Made?

The production of lacquer involves dissolving the flakes of resin produced by the lacquer tree in a solvent to create a liquid product. This liquid is then applied to the surface of the wood, where the solvent evaporates, leaving behind a hard, protective layer.

Polyurethane, on the other hand, is a bit more complex. It’s created through a chemical reaction between a polyol and a diisocyanate. The resulting product can be manipulated to create various polyurethane forms, from flexible foams to hard, resilient coatings.

Common Uses of Lacquer and Polyurethane

Lacquer is often used on furniture, musical instruments, and other small woodworking projects due to its easy application and beautiful, glossy finish. It’s also favored for its fast-drying properties.

Polyurethane, with its superior durability and heat, moisture, and chemical resistance, is commonly used for floors, doors, and kitchen surfaces. It’s also a popular choice for outdoor furniture, as it provides excellent protection against the elements.

Lacquer: An In-depth Look

Lacquer is a high-gloss finish that’s often used to give wooden furniture and other items a shiny, polished look. It’s a solvent-based product that dries quickly upon exposure to air. Lacquer can be clear to show off the natural beauty of the wood grain, or it can be tinted to add a splash of color.

Benefits of Using Lacquer for Woodwork

Lacquer offers several advantages for woodwork. First, it dries quickly, which can speed up project completion times. Second, it provides a high-gloss, durable finish that can withstand daily use. Third, it’s easy to apply with a brush or a sprayer, making it a good choice for beginners and experienced woodworkers.

Drawbacks of Using Lacquer

Despite its benefits, lacquer isn’t perfect. It’s highly flammable and emits strong fumes, so it must be used in a well-ventilated area. It’s also less resistant to heat or chemicals than other finishes, such as polyurethane. Finally, while lacquer is durable, it can chip or crack over time, especially on high-use items like tables or chairs.

Safety Precautions When Using Lacquer

When using lacquer, working in a well-ventilated area or wearing a respirator to avoid inhaling the fumes is important. You should also wear gloves to protect your skin and safety glasses to protect your eyes. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby, as lacquer is highly flammable.

Cleaning Up After Using Lacquer

Cleaning up after using lacquer is straightforward. Use lacquer thinner to clean your brushes or sprayers. Be sure to properly dispose of any leftover lacquer or lacquer-soaked rags, as they can be a fire hazard.

Best Lacquer for Wood

The best lacquer for wood depends on your specific project. However, a high-quality, clear-brushing lacquer, like the Deft Interior Clear Wood Finish Brushing Lacquer, is a good choice for many applications.

Polyurethane: A Comprehensive Review

Polyurethane is a type of finish that provides a protective layer over wood. It’s available in oil- and water-based forms, and comes in various sheens, from matte to high gloss.

Benefits of Using Polyurethane for Woodwork

Polyurethane is known for its durability. It’s resistant to heat, chemicals, and wear, making it a good choice for high-traffic areas like floors or kitchen tables. It also provides excellent protection against moisture, so it’s often used for outdoor furniture.

Drawbacks of Using Polyurethane

While polyurethane is durable, it’s more difficult to apply than lacquer. It dries slowly, which can extend project times. If improperly applied, it can also bubble during application, leading to an uneven finish.

Safety Precautions When Using Polyurethane

When using polyurethane, you should work in a well-ventilated area or wear a respirator to avoid inhaling the fumes. You should also wear gloves to protect your skin and safety glasses to protect your eyes.

Cleaning Up After Using Polyurethane

To clean up after using polyurethane, use mineral spirits or paint thinner for oil-based products or warm soapy water for water-based products. Clean your brushes thoroughly, as dried polyurethane can ruin them.

Best Polyurethane for Wood

The best polyurethane for wood depends on your specific project. However, a high-quality, clear polyurethane, like the Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane, is a versatile choice for many applications. It’s available in several sheens and can be used on finished and unfinished wood.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane: Key Differences

When it comes to durability, polyurethane takes the lead. It’s highly resistant to heat, chemicals, and wear, ideal for high-traffic areas and outdoor furniture. Lacquer, while still durable, is more prone to chipping and isn’t as resistant to heat or chemicals.

In terms of safety, both lacquer and polyurethane require precautions. Lacquer is highly flammable and emits strong fumes, necessitating good ventilation and careful handling. Polyurethane is less flammable and emits fumes, though not as potent.

As for appearance, lacquer typically provides a high-gloss, polished finish that can make the wood grain pop. Polyurethane, while it can also achieve a glossy finish, is available in a range of sheens from matte to high gloss, offering more versatility.

Which Dries Harder: Lacquer or Polyurethane?

Polyurethane generally dries to a harder finish than lacquer. It forms a tough, plastic-like coating that’s highly resistant to scratches and wear.

Is Lacquer Shinier Than Polyurethane?

Lacquer is typically shinier than polyurethane. It’s known for its high-gloss finish, although it can be buffed to a lower sheen if desired. Polyurethane can achieve a high-gloss finish and is often used for its satin or semi-gloss sheens.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane: Application Areas

Lacquer or Polyurethane for Wood

Both lacquer and polyurethane can be used on wood, but the best choice depends on the project. Lacquer is often used for furniture and small woodworking projects, while polyurethane is typically used for floors and outdoor furniture.

Varnish or Polyurethane for Furniture

For furniture, the choice between varnish and polyurethane depends on the desired look and level of protection. Varnish can provide a beautiful, hand-rubbed finish, but polyurethane offers superior durability.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane for Kitchen Cabinets

Polyurethane is often the better choice for kitchen cabinets due to its resistance to heat, moisture, and chemicals. However, lacquer can provide a beautiful, glossy finish if durability is less concern.

Lacquer or Polyurethane for Table

For a table, especially a dining table or coffee table that sees a lot of use, polyurethane is typically the better choice for its durability and resistance to heat and moisture.

Polyurethane vs Lacquer for Guitar

For guitars, lacquer is often preferred. It’s less likely to dampen the instrument’s resonance and provides a beautiful, high-gloss finish.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane for Doors

Polyurethane is usually the better choice for doors, especially exterior doors due to its superior durability and resistance to the elements.

Polyurethane or Lacquer for Hardwood Floors

For hardwood floors, polyurethane is almost always the best choice. It provides a hard, durable finish that can withstand the heavy foot traffic that floors typically see.

Lacquer and Polyurethane: Drying Time

Lacquer Drying Time

One of the main advantages of lacquer is its quick drying time. Depending on the specific product and the conditions in which it’s applied, lacquer can dry to the touch in as little as 15 to 30 minutes. However, waiting at least 24 hours before applying another coat or using the finished item is generally recommended to ensure the lacquer has fully cured.

Polyurethane Drying Time

Polyurethane, on the other hand, dries much slower. It can take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours to dry to the touch, depending on whether it’s oil-based or water-based. Full curing can take up to a month, especially for oil-based polyurethane. This slow drying time can extend the duration of your project, but it also allows for a more self-leveling finish, which can result in a smoother final product.

Can You Mix Lacquer and Polyurethane?

Mixing lacquer and polyurethane is generally not recommended. While they’re both finishes, they have different compositions and curing processes. Mixing them can lead to unpredictable results, such as a cloudy or cracked finish, or a finish that fails to cure properly.

Moreover, lacquer and polyurethane have different solvents. Lacquer thinner, a strong solvent, can damage or even remove a polyurethane finish. Conversely, applying lacquer over polyurethane can cause the polyurethane to bubble or crack due to the solvents in the lacquer.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane: Which is More Durable?

When it comes to durability, polyurethane generally comes out on top. It forms a hard, plastic-like coating highly resistant to scratches, heat, and moisture. This makes it an excellent choice for high-traffic areas like floors or furniture pieces that see heavy use.

While still providing a protective finish, Lacquer isn’t quite as tough as polyurethane. It’s more prone to chipping and scratching and doesn’t hold up to heat or chemicals. It’s still a durable finish that can protect your wood pieces and give them a beautiful, glossy shine.

The durability of lacquer and polyurethane can be affected by several factors, including the thickness of the application, the conditions under which it’s applied, and the specific product used. For example, a thick application of polyurethane can provide a very durable finish. Still, if it’s applied in conditions that are too cold or humid, it may not cure properly, affecting its durability.

Lacquer vs Polyurethane: Safety Considerations

Is Polyurethane Safer Than Lacquer?

Neither polyurethane nor lacquer can be considered “safe” without precautions. Both emit fumes that can be harmful if inhaled, and both are flammable to varying degrees. However, lacquer is generally considered more hazardous due to its high volatility and the intensity of its fumes.

How to Use Lacquer Safely

When using lacquer, it’s important to work in a well-ventilated area to prevent the buildup of fumes. A respirator should be worn to avoid inhalation of the fumes. Additionally, because lacquer is highly flammable, keeping it away from open flames and sparks is important. Gloves should be worn to prevent skin contact, and safety glasses can protect your eyes from splashes.

How to Use Polyurethane Safely

Like lacquer, polyurethane should be used in a well-ventilated area, and a respirator should be worn to avoid inhaling the fumes. While it’s less explosive than lacquer, it can still catch fire, so keep it away from open flames and sparks. Gloves and safety glasses should also be worn to protect your skin and eyes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Use Polyurethane Over Lacquer?

Applying polyurethane over lacquer can be tricky due to the different solvents and curing processes they use. While it’s not impossible, it’s generally not recommended without careful preparation. If you apply polyurethane over lacquer, ensure the lacquer is fully cured and lightly sand the surface for better adhesion. Always test a small, inconspicuous area first to check for compatibility.

What Does Lacquer Do to Wood?

Lacquer enhances the appearance of wood by providing a clear or colored high-gloss finish. It also offers a layer of protection against minor scratches and spills. However, it’s less durable or heat-resistant than other finishes, such as polyurethane.

Is Lacquer Oil-Based?

Traditional lacquer is not oil-based. It’s a solvent-based product typically made from the lacquer tree’s resin or synthetic substances. However, oil-based products that mimic the look and feel of lacquer are often called “oil-based lacquer” or “lacquer finish.”


Choosing between lacquer and polyurethane for your woodwork project largely depends on the project’s specific needs. Lacquer, with its high-gloss finish and quick drying time, is ideal for furniture and small woodworking projects. However, it’s less durable than polyurethane and more prone to chipping and cracking.

Polyurethane, on the other hand, is known for its durability and resistance to heat, chemicals, and moisture. It’s a great choice for high-traffic areas like floors and outdoor furniture. However, it dries slower than lacquer and can be more difficult to apply.