A Comprehensive Comparison of Lacquer and Polyurethane Finishes
When it’s about finishing wood surfaces, two of the common kind of polishing include lacquer and polyurethane (PU). Both offer unique advantages and characteristics that cater to different preferences and needs. In this detailed comparison, we will talk about the lacquer and polyurethane finishes, exploring their composition, application methods, durability, appearance, and environmental considerations. By the end of this article, you'll have a clear understanding of which finish is the best choice for your specific woodworking project.
Lacquer Vs Polyurethane- Quick Differences
The wooden table mentioned below provides a quick and comprehensive overview of the main differences between polyurethane and lacquer finishes regarding composition, application, appearance, usage, durability, environmental impact, etc.
Synthetic polymer-based coating
Nitrocellulose, Water-based, Acrylic
Brilliant resistance to moisture, chemicals, and wear
Good resistance, but require some maintenance
It comes with easy application
Quick drying process
How To Apply
Apply using brush
Apply using HVLP lacquer spray
Takes hour to dry
Available in many sheen options
Classic glossy finish
Can be sanded and refinished easily
It can be repaired by reapplying more coats
Water-based options have lower VOC emissions
Solvent-based options emit higher VOCs
What is Lacquer?
Lacquer is the most preferred choice among woodworkers for centuries. Initially obtained from the secretions of the lac bug, lacquer remains a popular finish for cabinets and high-end wood furniture, even though its formula has changed drastically. Despite being a very thin finish, this finishing dries hard and is very durable. However, in order to get the desired finish, skills of an expert are needed. The best way to apply lacquer is with a high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer.
Lacquer is made using the combination of different solvents and resins. Based on the combination, the kinds of lacquer differ from each other.
What is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is a durable, water-resistant finish that comes with a quick drying feature. This kind of finishing is used on a wide range of wood furniture but most of it is used on floors, tables, fences, and other surfaces that need protection from water and scratches.
Lacquer Finish Advantages
Lacquer finish is very thin and dries quickly.
It is more durable.
It is easy to fix errors during application
Resistant to wear and scratches
The thick coat lasts for a very long time
Scratch, chemical and water-resistant
Dries hard and can easily stand wear and tear
It can be applied in different ways
Detailed Comparison of Lacquer and Polyurethane Finishes
Lacquer- Lacquer is a traditional style finishing that has been used for centuries. It is typically composed of nitrocellulose, which is dissolved in a solvent like acetone or lacquer thinner. When applied to a wood surface, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind a thin film of solidified lacquer.
Polyurethane (PU)- Polyurethane finishes, on the other hand, is a modern invention which is made combining polyurethane resins with various additives and solvents. The resulting mixture forms a protective coating when applied to wood.
Lacquer- Lacquer is known for its ease of application and can easily be sprayed using a spray gun or applied with a brush. The fast-drying time of lacquer allows for quick recoating, making it a favourite among professional woodworkers for its efficiency. Lacquer dries to the within a few minutes only and you can do another coat in half an hour.
Polyurethane (PU)- Polyurethane finishes can be applied using various methods, including brushing, spraying, or wiping on with a cloth. However, PU finishes tend to have a longer drying time compared to lacquer, which can be a drawback for those who require a fast turnaround.
PU takes an hour to fry and is not ready for another coat for a minimum 12-24 hours. Given that most projects require a minimum 3 coats, it might take up to three days as well to apply water-based polyurethane alone.
Lacquer: Lacquer offers good durability for indoor applications. It forms a hard and glossy finish that resists moisture, chemicals, and moderate wear. However, it can be prone to chipping and scratching, making it less suitable for high-impact areas or outdoor use.
Polyurethane (PU): Polyurethane finishes are renowned for their exceptional durability. They create a tough and resilient surface that withstands abrasion, impacts, moisture, and chemicals. This makes PU ideal for high-traffic areas and outdoor projects where longevity is a key concern.
Lacquer: Lacquer provides a high-gloss, clear finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood. Its transparency allows the wood's grain and color to shine through, giving a classic and elegant look. Lacquer also tends to age gracefully, developing a beautiful patina over time.
Polyurethane (PU): Polyurethane finishes come in various sheen levels, from high-gloss to satin and matte. They can be customised to achieve the desired level of shine. PU finishes have a more plastic-like appearance compared to lacquer, which can make the wood appear slightly less natural. However, this is a matter of personal preference.
Lacquer: Traditional nitrocellulose lacquers contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contribute to air pollution and pose health risks during application. However, there are low-VOC and water-based lacquer alternatives available that are more environmentally friendly.
Polyurethane (PU): PU finishes also contain VOCs, especially the solvent-based versions. However, water-based polyurethane finishes have significantly lower VOC levels, making them a greener option. Water-based PUs are also easier to clean up and emit fewer harmful fumes during application.
Repair and Maintenance
Lacquer: One of the advantages of lacquer is its ease of repair. Scratches and small damages can often be fixed by simply applying a new layer of lacquer and buffing the surface. This makes it a practical choice for furniture that may experience wear and tear.
Polyurethane (PU): Polyurethane finishes can also be repaired, but the process can be more involved. Sanding and recoating are often necessary to address scratches or damage. While PU is durable, it may require more effort to maintain its appearance over time.
Lacquer: Lacquer is generally more affordable than polyurethane, making it an attractive choice for budget-conscious woodworkers. However, the lower cost may be offset by the need for more frequent maintenance and reapplication in high-wear areas.
PU: Polyurethane finishes tend to be more expensive upfront, but their durability can result in long-term cost savings since they require less frequent recoating and maintenance.
Lacquer/Polyurethane for Table Top
Lacquer is an ideal choice for table tops as compared to polyurethane. Table top polyurethane is more prone to scratching, on the other hand lacquer is less likely to scratch. Moreover, lacquer helps enhance the overall appearance of wood grain, while polyurethane dulls the appearance of wood grain. Lacquer polish dries quickly as compared to polyurethane.
Lacquer/Polyurethane for Kitchen Cabinets
Lacquer improves the overall protection for your cabinets as it forms a hard, glossy finish making it more durable. By applying just two coats of lacquer, you can keep your cabinets protected.
On the other hand, Polyurethane can also keep your cabinets protected but it will not be so easy to clean as compared to lacquer. With time, polyurethane can yellow, and might make the furniture look dull. So if you look for a finishing that remains colorfast over the years, then lacquer is an ideal option.
How To Choose A Right Finish: Lacquer Vs Polyurethane
Selecting between lacquer and polyurethane for your finishing project is based on your priorities and project requirements. Lacquer offers a high-gloss, clear finish that enhances wood's natural beauty but is less durable and susceptible to damage from moisture and chemicals. It dries quickly and is easier to repair, making it suitable for those seeking a glossy appearance with a fast turnaround.
On the other hand, polyurethane offers excellent durability and resistance to wear, moisture, and chemicals. It comes in various types and is more versatile in terms of finish customization. However, it takes longer to dry between coats and can be challenging to repair, often requiring extensive refinishing.
Based on your project's specific needs, like appearance, durability, and application time, you need to make the final selection. If you give priority to a glossy finish and quick drying, then lacquer is an ideal option. If durability and versatility are key, polyurethane is a better choice. Additionally, factor in your skill level and environmental concerns, as water-based options for both finishes are more eco-friendly and easier to work with for beginners.
In summary, the choice between lacquer and polyurethane finishes depends on your specific project requirements, preferences, and environmental considerations. Lacquer offers a classic, high-gloss look with easy application and repair but may be less durable and have higher VOC content. Polyurethane provides exceptional durability, a range of sheen options, and environmental-friendly choices but may require more effort during application and repairs.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to balancing aesthetics, durability, ease of maintenance, and environmental concerns. Whichever finish you choose, proper preparation, application, and maintenance are essential for achieving a long-lasting and attractive wood surface.
To know more about both these kinds of finishing and which one will suit the most, get in touch with the experts at Khaticraft, a leading wooden furniture store in Delhi.
What is the main difference between lacquer and polyurethane finishes?
Lacquer is a traditional finish made from nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent, while polyurethane (PU) finishes are more modern and comprise polyurethane resins mixed with solvents and additives. The main difference among both of them lies in their composition and characteristics.
Which finish is easier to apply, lacquer, or polyurethane?
Lacquer is generally considered easier to apply due to its fast-drying time, making it a preferred choice for professional woodworkers. Polyurethane, while still manageable, tends to have a longer drying time, which may require more patience during application.
Which finish is more durable, lacquer, or polyurethane?
Polyurethane finishes are typically more durable than lacquer. They offer excellent resistance to abrasion, moisture, chemicals, and impacts, making them suitable for high-traffic areas and outdoor use. Lacquer is durable but can be prone to chipping and scratching.
I want a glossy finish, which one should I use, lacquer or polyurethane?
Both lacquer and polyurethane can be used to achieve glossy finishes. Lacquer often provides a naturally high-gloss appearance, while PU finishes offer various sheen levels, including high-gloss, depending on your preference.
Which finish is better for outdoor usage?
Polyurethane is considered an ideal choice for outdoor projects as it is more durable and resistant to moisture and UV exposure. It can withstand the harsh outdoor conditions better than lacquer.
Can I repair scratches and damage from lacquer and polyurethane finishes?
Scratches and damage in lacquer can easily be repaired by applying a new layer of lacquer and buffing the surface. Polyurethane repairs may involve sanding and recoating the damaged area. Both finishes can be restored with proper care and maintenance.
Is there any major difference in price among lacquer and polyurethane?
Generally, lacquer is more affordable upfront compared to polyurethane. However, the long-term cost may vary depending on the project's maintenance needs, as polyurethane's durability can reduce the need for frequent reapplication.
I want to enhance the natural look of the wood furniture, which kind of finishing is better?
If you prefer a finish that enhances the natural appearance of wood, lacquer is often favored for its transparent, glossy finish that allows the wood's grain and colour to shine through. Polyurethane finishes can be more plastic-like in appearance.
Can I use lacquer and polyurethane interchangeably on the same project?
While it's possible to use both finishes on the same project, it's essential to consider compatibility and proper application techniques. Test on a small, inconspicuous area before proceeding to ensure the desired results.