Polyurethane vs Lacquer

Stain on a piece of wood with a brush.
What You'll Need
Proper respiration equipment per manufacturer's precautions
Adequate ventilation in the work area
What You'll Need
Proper respiration equipment per manufacturer's precautions
Adequate ventilation in the work area

Polyurethane and lacquer are two of the most popular finishes for wood. They are both relatively easy to apply and clean up. However, there are distinct advantages to using each. Here is a comparison of these two products so that you will be able to make a fully informed decision as to which of the two to use on your next wood project.


Polyurethane, being a polymer, is more of a coating for the wood. Lacquer, on the other hand, will absorb into the wood and create a better bond with the wood.

Ease of Application

Lacquer is a thinner coating when straight from the container and because of this property it’s much easier to apply lacquer to your wood projects than it is to apply polyurethane. This is especially true when attempting to apply the product using a spray gun. Most lacquers will be able to be sprayed straight from the can, while most polyurethanes are going to require the use of a thinning agent in order to spray well.

You may also find that when using a brush to apply polyurethanes it is much harder to apply the product without the appearance of brushstroke lines in the finished product because of the consistency of the finish. This can be remedied by the use of a high-quality soft bristle brush for application.


paint brush in a can of stain

Since polyurethane doesn’t absorb into the wood during the curing and bonding process, it’s quite a bit more susceptible to cracking and peeling in high heat environments. Since polyurethane is more of a protectant than a penetrant, the finish supplied by a polyurethane stain or finish will, under normal circumstances, be much more durable and resilient than the finish supplied by a lacquer coating.


Polyurethanes can take quite a long amount of time to fully cure, whereas most lacquers will often take less than an hour to fully dry. Once a polyurethane coating has dried, that’s it. It can’t be reconstituted like a lacquer can by application of a solvent.

This means if a mistake is made with a lacquer, in order to fix the mistake, you’ll have to apply some solvent or thinner and you’ll be able to fix the mistake. If you make a mistake with a polyurethane coating, you’ll have to wait for it to dry then sand it out in order to fix it.

Because of the long drying times involved, this will often mean a one day project can turn into a two or three-day project with polyurethane coatings. If applying multiple coats, lacquers will be time savers since they won’t need sanding between coats, whereas polyurethane coatings will.


Since polyurethanes are most easily applied by brushing and lacquers are most efficiently applied by spraying, using a polyurethane wood coating will cost you much less, unless you already own a high-volume, low-pressure spray gun, and pump.

Hopefully, this article made it easier for you to decide between polyurethane and lacquer. Now that you know which finish you should choose, all that is left to start the project!