Many people assume that polycrylic and polyurethane paints are similar and interchangeable, however, both products consist of distinctively different characteristics that can be adapted to various purposes.

Oil and water-based polyurethane paint is a high gloss coating known for its exceptional durability and superior performance under very high temperatures. Polycrylic paint, on the other hand, is a quick-drying, water-based protective coating notable for its ease of use, clear finish, and low cost.

Both Polyurethane and Polycrylic can cause varying levels of irritation and side effects during handling. It is advisable to consult the user guide on the container and use it according to manufacturer instructions.

Oil and water-based Water-based
Oil-based polyurethane leave a slight yellow tint on wooden surfacesDoes not change the color of wooden surfaces post-application
Oil-based polyurethane requires paint thinner to remove from the paintbrushIt can be cleaned with soap and water
It is formulated to provide a high sheen for surfaces.Provides high-quality sheen and protects and increases the aesthetics of wooden surfaces
Formulated for floors and outdoor useNot ideal for outdoor use and high traffic surfaces.

Polymer-based paint sealers and wood finishes like polycrylic and polyurethane have different chemical compositions that give both materials their specific applications. These unique qualities, such as resistance to high temperatures or quick-drying abilities, are factors that professional painters and DIYers consider when deciding which material to use for their project.



Both paints share similar characteristics, which include the following:

  • Polycyclic and
    polyurethane paint are both polymer solutions.
  • Both paints increase the lifespan of woody surfaces, like desks and picture frames, by providing high-quality shine and protection.
  • You can use both paints on either finished or unfinished surfaces.


Although polycyclic and polyurethane paint is derived from polymers, they have specific differences illustrated in the table below.

Water-based vs .Oil-based polyurethane

In the table below, we will compare the differences in performance, application, and durability between water-based polyurethane paint and oil-based polyurethane paint.

Water-based polyurethaneOil-based polyurethane
ThicknessThinner than oil poly Thicker than water poly
Strength Stronger compoundWeaker and prone to dents
Color after applicationClear Amber/Yellow
SafetyNon-toxicContains toxic chemicals
Coats per application Minimum of 3 coats Minimum of 2 coats
Heat resistanceLowHigh

Water-based polyurethane: is highly popular among DIY painters and people with little or no painting experience. And, it bonds easily to almost all surfaces, including oil stains and picture frames, without extensive preparation. Water-based polyurethane contains fewer quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOC) that cause health issues in humans.

Oil-based polyurethane: This polyurethane finish is a thicker compound with a broader surface coverage. The oil-based version potentially hazardous material, and you need to wear full safety gear to avoid potential exposure during application. The oil-based form has a heat-resistant rating, plus water-resistant properties. It will give your wood surfaces a shiny appearance. 


Polyurethane offers superior durability over polycrylic paint because it dries into a hardened shell resembling solid plastic. This ensures its strength and outstanding performance when exposed to harsh conditions like extreme heat.

Toxins and dangers

Polyurethane paint: contains harmful toxins called isocyanates classified as a hazardous material by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Exposure to fumes from uncured polyurethane can cause irritation, breathing issues, and respiratory diseases. Also, oil-based polyurethane paint is flammable in liquid form. Therefore, you need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), and excellent working knowledge of safety protocols, clean-up, and disposal methods is required when handling polyurethane paint products.

Polycrylic paints: has a lower VOC count, and you have a reduced chance of developing severe short or long-term health issues if exposed to polycrylic paint. However, polycrylic paint still contains a substantial amount of volatile toxins, and experts advise that you follow safety guidelines and consult the manufacturer’s guide when handling polycrylic paint.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane paint

How to use polycrylic paints

  1. Sand and remove dust and debris from the surface. Avoid steel wool as it can lead to rusting. 
  2. Using a spray bottle, slowly apply a thin coat of polycrylic paint to prevent air pockets.
  3. Allow to dry.
  4. Lightly sand the surface with grit sandpaper.
  5. Add a final coat (or a couple) for that smooth finish.

How and when to use polyurethane Paints

  1. Sand and remove dust and debris from the surface.
  2. Mix the compound with the required amount of mineral oil.
  3. Apply thin coats with a paintbrush.
  4. Apply the next couple of coats using undiluted varnish and allow to dry.
  5. Trim off solidified drips after 24 hrs.
  6. Apply the last coat 48 hours after the previous coat application.
How and when to use polyurethane how it works

Considering specific project when choosing

Materials that are exposed to high temperature and moisture.

Enamel-based polyurethane is an excellent choice for coating surfaces with extreme temperatures. They can withstand extreme temperatures that range from -62°C to 93°C (-80°F to 200°F).

Are you applying sealer to light wood?

Polycrylic paint is most suitable for use in light woody surfaces like maple or birch. Polycrylic preserves its appearance and color integrity after application, providing the wooden surface with a clear, unchanging, and protective finish. But be careful when applying sealant on light woods as some have a faint yellow stain when they dry.

Are you sealing a wooden floor?

Sealing a wooden floor with oil-based polyurethane paint offers exceptional durability and protection against scratches and abrasive marks, which damage wooden floors, reducing their lifespan. Next time you’re working on your wooden flooring project, add a protective top coat to increase durability.  

Do you need to dry quickly?

Polycrylic’s quick-drying qualities are ideal for projects that require a quick turnaround. It dries within 30 minutes after application allowing you to move on to other jobs.

When working indoors without good ventilation

Polycrylic paint generates much less toxic fumes, and it is ideal for use in areas with poor ventilation, such as attics.

Are you sealing a large piece of furniture?

Slow-drying oil-based polyurethane paint is an excellent option for sealing large furniture pieces. Wood projects like outdoor furniture, side tables and kitchen tables are perfect for this.  

Sealing a vertical surface

Oil-based polyurethane paint is suited for projects where sealing a vertical surface is required. It is thicker than polycrylic paint, and it does not drip, nor does it become runny when applied on vertical surfaces. 

Can the budget be a concern?

Polycrylic paint is generally less expensive than polyurethane paint, a deciding factor for budget-minded DIYers.

Top-rated finishes:

Some commercial products

Minwax® Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane.$8.96Semi-Gloss4.6-star rating
Minwax® Fast-Drying Polyurethane$10.96Clear Satin4.1-star rating
Varathane Crystal Clear Water-Based Polyurethane$12.88Semi-gloss4.5-star rating


Oil and water-based polyurethane paints are formulated to provide a quality and long-lasting finish for painted surfaces. Although, they often receive flack for their high level of toxins. This does not imply that polyurethane finishes are all that bad. Here, we will take a look at the pros and cons of the material.



  1. Polyurethane paint offers superior finishing performance and sealing characteristics compared to other paint varnish and sealant types.
  2. You can use polyurethane to finish or seal almost any surface type and material. Examples include wood, metal, masonry, as well as composite.

    Highly durable polyurethane paint offers exceptional protection against weathering and extreme temperatures making it ideal for wood furniture. 


  1. Polyurethane paint can be expensive.
  2. It is highly limited in options.
  3. Polyurethane often alters the look and appearance of surfaces, thus limiting their scope of use for preserving antique furniture and items of historical value.


Although polyacrylic paint is typically considered a second-rate option to polyurethane, it is by no means an inferior product. Below is a list of pros and cons, highlighting its qualities and deficiencies.



  1. Polycrylic products are available in a wide range of options.
  2. Polycrylic clear coat is ideal for preserving antique furniture, expensive wooden objects, light woody surfaces, hardwood floors, and items of historical value.
  3. It is relatively inexpensive and fits most DIY budgets.


  1. Polycrylic paint has a low-temperature rating and will fail when exposed to hot environment.
  2. Polycrylic paint does not provide water-resistant properties to sealed surfaces.


Yes, you can apply polyurethane over a painted surface to ensure a higher quality finish and provide protection.

Yes, you can apply polycrylic over paint, including oil-based and latex paints.

FAQ’s Polycrylic

Benjamin McInerny
Author: Benjamin McInerny - is a qualified arborist with 20 years of industry experience. Ben has a wide knowledge of renovation and DIY projects around the house such as lawns, fencing and painting. Ben shares his skills with DIY and gardening enthusiasts.