Polyurethane vs Lacquer (What’s The Difference?)

Polyurethane and lacquer are two great topcoats that you can use on your furniture. Both of these topcoats are durable and easy to maintain. But, what’s the difference between lacquer and polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a thick sealant that produces a thick, strong, and moisture-resistant layer over the surface. Since polyurethane is thick, it doesn’t penetrate the wood fibers. 

On the other hand, lacquer isn’t as thick as polyurethane. Lacquer is a thin sealant that has a light flow. Due to its light flow, lacquer penetrates porous surfaces, such as wood and plaster. 

So which of these top coats is the best? And which do you need for your task? Let’s go into detail about both top coats.


What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a polymer that contains polyol and diisocyanates of isocyanate compounds. The reaction of the polyol (alcohol) with the isocyanate or diisocyanates creates the polyurethane finish. In a way, polyurethane is a plastic-like sealant. 

There are two types of polyurethane; oil-based and water-based polyurethane. Each type of polyurethane has its features, drying time, and strength. But oil-based polyurethane is the most common.

There’s also exterior polyurethane designed to be used on outdoor furniture and walls. Exterior polyurethane has additives that make the finish moisture and UV-resistant.

In terms of durability, exterior polyurethane is the most durable polyurethane. Exterior polyurethane has an oil-based nature and a thick flow. So, you must thin it before applying. 

You can thin oil-based polyurethane with turpentine or mineral spirits. Water-based polyurethane should be thinned with water.

However, polyurethane has one flaw. The sealant tends to yellow over time, which is most common with oil-based polyurethane.


What is Lacquer?

Lacquer is a popular sealant used to finish wood and stains. This sealant has a thin flow, so it’s easy to apply and dries fast.

Lacquer is durable and has a glossy and smooth finish. Unlike polyurethane, lacquer penetrates the surface, giving the finish a stronger grip and increasing its durability.

You can use lacquer indoors where detail is important. This includes shelves, kitchen cabinets, drawers, and the like. What’s common with these areas is that they aren’t heavily used and can be protected with a thin sealant like lacquer.

However, lacquer has one flaw. The sealant isn’t as durable as other topcoats and won’t last long on outdoor surfaces. 

Now, let’s see the difference between polyurethane and lacquer.

Lacquer vs. Polyurethane: Head to Head

Paint Formula

Regarding paint formula, lacquer has a natural formula, while polyurethane has a synthetic formula.

Lacquer is gotten from natural substances like tree sap. Also, lacquers contain shellac, which is secreted by the female lac bug. On the other hand, polyurethane is gotten from catalysts, paint chemicals, additives, resins, and alcohol.

The difference in paint formula makes lacquer thinner than polyurethane. 

Paint Adhesion

Lacquer adheres better to wood than polyurethane. That’s because lacquer has a thinner flow, and it penetrates the surface. This gives lacquer an increased grip.

On the other hand, polyurethane has a thicker flow and doesn’t penetrate wood fibers as much. Polyurethane is known to sit over a surface and produce a thick and durable coat. Since polyurethane doesn’t penetrate wood much, the paint adhesion is not as strong as lacquers. 


Both lacquer and polyurethane are durable finishes and will last about ten years before noticing chipping. However, polyurethane is more durable than lacquer. 

This is because polyurethane is mixed with different additives that give the finish a plastic-like film. This plastic finish is resistant to moisture, dents, and even heat. In addition, polyurethane finish can expand and contract based on temperature changes.

On the other hand, lacquer has a shortage of additives and chemicals, meaning lacquer is easily affected by dents, dust, and chipping. This makes lacquer less durable than polyurethane.

Paint Thinning

You must thin polyurethane before applying it. That’s because polyurethane has a thick consistency, and applying a thick layer of polyurethane takes longer to dry. Plus, un-thinned polyurethane will be uneven and bumpy. 

To thin oil-based polyurethane, use turpentine. To thin water-based polyurethane, use water. 

On the other hand, it’s not recommended to thin lacquer. Lacquer has a thin flow, and you can apply it without thinning it.

Indoor or Outdoor

Lacquer is thinner and less durable than polyurethane, so you must use lacquer indoors only. On the other hand, polyurethane is ideal for outdoor surfaces. This is because polyurethane is durable. 

Exterior polyurethane is formulated with additives that make the paint coating resistant to UV rays. Plus, polyurethane has a thick layer that is resistant to water in case of rainfall.  

Ease of Application

Lacquer is easier to apply than polyurethane. That’s because you don’t need to thin lacquer, which takes time. Also, lacquer is less likely to reveal brush strokes and dries faster. Since lacquer dries faster, it takes less time for you to complete the project.

On the other hand, you must thin polyurethane before applying it, which takes a lot of time. Plus, polyurethane takes longer to dry (several hours), and there’s a higher risk of ruining a polyurethane finish. So, polyurethane is harder to apply than lacquer.

Paint Variety

In terms of paint variety, you have a broader range of paint types and colors to choose from with lacquer. You have acrylic, nitrocellulose, water-based, oil-based lacquer, and other types.

Polyurethane gives you a limited variety. There are two types of polyurethane; oil-based and water-based. But, you can also get a satin, medium, or high gloss finish.

Clarity of Finish

Polyurethane and lacquer are both clear top coats. When applied, lacquer and polyurethane will produce a clear finish. 

But, the clarity of the polyurethane won’t last long. After a while, oil-based polyurethane tends to yellow over time. However, the lacquer will remain clear for several years. 

Paint Cleaning and Maintenance

Both sealers are easy to maintain. You can wipe stains and dirt off both sealants with a rag and soapy water.

However, polyurethane tends to attract dirt and dust while the paint is drying. That’s because polyurethane takes longer to dry, giving dust more time to accumulate over the coating. 


Lacquer finishes tend to cost more than polyurethane. Though both paints have around the same price tag, you’ll need to purchase more quantities of lacquer. This is because lacquer is a thin paint, so you’ll need multiple coats to cover an area.

Also, it’s best to apply lacquer with a spray gun or paint sprayer due to its thinness. But if you don’t have a sprayer, buying one will cost some cash. Also, renting will cost you more than buying a paintbrush for polyurethane application.

Related Read: Can You Paint Over Lacquer?

Do You Need Lacquer or Polyurethane?

The answer depends on a few factors. Before deciding which top coats to go for, answer a few questions.

  1. Budget – Though both paints cost around the same, the lacquer finish requires more paint and money. This is due to the thin nature of lacquer.
  2. Surface – For indoor surfaces, use lacquer. For outdoor surfaces, use exterior polyurethane. 
  3. Protection Level – If you want to seal a high-traffic surface, use polyurethane because it’s more durable. For decorative surfaces, use lacquer. 

Final Words

Polyurethane and lacquer are both good sealers. However, polyurethane is durable and covers more surfaces with one coat. While lacquer is thinner and dries faster. 

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