Types of Polyurethane Finish: Understanding the Different Options

Types Of Polyurethane Finish

Polyurethane finish is a versatile, hand-applied coating that can provide a variety of surfaces with beautiful protection against scratches and scuffs. Due to its strength and longevity, it is becoming increasingly popular among do-it-yourselfers looking to preserve high-end hardwood floors and furniture. But knowing the different types of polyurethane finish and what you need to consider to make the right decision can be a daunting task. This article will guide you through the various types of polyurethane finish and what to keep in mind when it comes to preparation, recoating, drying time, and maintenance.

Types of Polyurethane Finish: Different Finish Options Explained

Polyurethane finishing is a great way to refresh and protect your home surfaces. With so many types of polyurethane finishes available, it can be difficult to decide which is the right one for you. In this section, we’ll explore the different types of polyurethane finishes, what to consider when choosing one, and how to apply it. Whether you’re looking to give your wood furniture a new glossy finish or protect your walls from day-to-day wear and tear, you’ll find the perfect polyurethane finish for your project here.

What is Polyurethane Finishing?

Polyurethane finishing is a type of finish that is commonly used to protect, seal and enhance the appearance of wood surfaces. It is a protective layer of hardening material, usually plastic resin-based or made up of multiple coats of lacquer, that protects the wood from moisture, wear and tear, and other damage. It is generally considered to be the most durable type of finish available for wood surfaces, offering protection against abrasion and everyday wear.

Unlike other types of finishes, polyurethane finish is highly resistant to cracking, peeling and chipping. This makes it ideal for high-traffic areas and surfaces which see a lot of daily use or exposure to the elements. It is also good at resisting water and other liquids, providing a water-resistant coat that helps protect the wood surface from the damaging effects of moisture. In addition, it is a great option for preserving and enhancing the natural, beautiful look of the wood.

Polyurethane finish is easy to apply and can be applied in a variety of ways. Traditional practices include brush, roller, or pad application, as well as spray application on larger projects. It can be applied to both bare and previously stained or painted surfaces and is available in both oil- and water-based formulas. Its only major downside is that it can tend to yellow with age, making it important to choose a finish with UV protection for outdoor projects.

Types of Polyurethane Finish

Polyurethane is a popular wood finishing option for projects meant to last a long time. Its versatility and durability make it a great choice for furniture, floors, and other hard refinishing projects. There are three main types of polyurethane finishes – oil-based, water-based, and acrylic-based.

Oil-based polyurethane is the most popular choice; it is durable and very resistant to moisture. Its glossy sheen is often favored for furniture refinishing. Its slow drying time means it is a good choice for application on large surfaces and solid woods. The downside of this type of polyurethane is that it requires more maintenance and cleaning than the other types.

Water-based polyurethane is available in a variety of sheens, from satin to glossy. It is known for its superior durability, fast drying time, and ease of application and cleaning. While oil-based polyurethane can yellow surfaces over time, water-based polyurethane does not. Also, water-based polyurethane is better for the environment because it has fewer VOCs- volatile organic compounds.

Acrylic-based polyurethane is a newer choice for wood refinishing. It provides excellent scratch and stain resistance, thanks to its acrylic polymers, and comes in a variety of sheens, from satin to gloss. It also provides superior flexibility, which makes it an ideal choice for floor refinishing. Acrylic-based polyurethane is considered to be the safest and most eco-friendly option, since it has the lowest VOC emissions.

When choosing a polyurethane finish, there are a few things to consider:

• Durability: Depending on the project, you may need to choose a more durable finish. Oil-based polyurethane is often the most durable choice, while water-based and acrylic-based polyurethane are better for lighter-duty projects.

• Workability: Depending on the surface you are refinishing, it might be better to choose an oil-based polyurethane for its long drying time, or a water-based polyurethane for its easy application and quick drying time.

• Stain protection: Depending on the future use of the furniture, you may want to choose a polyurethane that is more resistant to stains, such as an acrylic-based polyurethane.

• Sheen and color: Depending on the desired look, you can choose a polyurethane finish in a variety of sheens and colors.

• Practicability for different surfaces: Depending on the type of surface you are refinishing, it might be more beneficial to choose an oil-based polyurethane for its superior flexibility, or a water-based polyurethane for its superior durability.

Overall, it is important to consider the purpose of the project and the surface being finished when selecting the best type of polyurethane finish.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is a finishing product that has been around for many years. The advantage of oil-based polyurethane is that it provides a hard and durable finish that will last for years to come. It is easy to maintain and is resistant to water and other liquids. It is also good at protecting against wear and tear, making it a popular choice for high-traffic areas.

Oil-based polyurethane is great for adding a natural, glossy finish. It will slightly yellow over time, sometimes giving a slightly aged look. It penetrates the wood deeply and works to protect the wood from damage. As a result, it is an excellent choice for wood floors, furniture and trim.

The downside of oil-based polyurethane is that it is a bit difficult to apply. It needs to be applied with a brush, it is quite smelly and it can take a while to dry (up to 24 hours between coats). Additionally, it is not easy to remove, so when it is applied it is there to stay.

Finally, it is important to consider that oil-based polyurethane is toxic and flammable. Use caution when applying the product and be sure to ventilate the area. Make sure to read the instructions carefully and wear protective gear when using it.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane finishes are some of the most popular types of polyurethane finishes on the market. They offer increased protection for hardwood floors, furniture, and other surfaces without the strong smell and yellowness that comes with oil-based polyurethane.

Water-based polyurethanes are typically constructed of synthetic materials that helps to provide extreme resistance to water damage, scuffing, and a long lasting finish. Because of the synthetic materials that are used to make water-based polyurethanes they are usually much less prone to yellowing and can be easily cleaned up with soap and water.

Water-based polyurethanes are also available in a variety of sheens, which can be a great way to customize the finish of certain pieces of furniture or hardwood floors. From a high-gloss finish to a low-sheen, water-based polyurethanes allow for a lot of flexibility when it comes to finding the perfect finish for any project. It is also easier to apply than most other types of polyurethane because it can be cleaned with soap and water and quickly dries.

It is important to note that water-based polyurethanes require more coats than traditional oil-based finishes and a coat of a water-based finish will usually not last as long as an oil-based finish. It also doesn’t provide the same levels of protection as oil-based finishes, but it is still a good option for projects that require a softer, more natural finish.

Acrylic-Based Polyurethane

Acrylic-based polyurethane is a type of finish that is great for low-traffic surfaces. It is known for being more flexible and breathable than other varieties. It is also more tolerant to heat and sunlight, making it a great choice for items exposed to changing weather conditions.

As the name implies, acrylic-based polyurethane is based on acrylic resin, which is a synthetic material derived from acrylic acid. This type of finish is often found in aerosol cans, making it easy to apply without complicated equipment. The aerosol can makes it especially convenient for DIY projects.

This type of finish is also fast-drying and doesn’t require sanding between coats, which makes it a great option for busy people or those who lack the proper tools. Acrylic-based polyurethane can be applied in a single step, making it very convenient. It also has excellent adhesion, so it won’t crack or peel with regular use.

Due to its fast-drying feature, acrylic-based polyurethane is also a good choice for projects where speed is of the essence. It’s ideal for spaces with limited airflow, since it won’t saturate the air with fumes.

Overall, acrylic-based polyurethane is a great choice for DIY projects, as it is easy to apply, fast-drying, and provides a high level of protection. It is also very versatile and can be used on a variety of surfaces. However, it may not be the best choice for high-traffic areas or areas that need a lot of protection.

What to Consider When Choosing Your Polyurethane Finish

When choosing which type of polyurethane finish to use, there are several factors to consider. Durability, workability, stain resistance, and sheen and color are all key elements to consider when selecting the best finish for your project. Let’s take a look at each of these things in more detail.


When it comes to durability, oil-based polyurethane finishes offer the most protection from abrasion, scuffing, and scratching. Water-based and acrylic-based finishes offer a good level of protection for everyday wear and tear, but oil-based finishes are the most durable.


Water-based finishes are generally easier to apply than oil-based finishes. They dry quickly, and generally need fewer coats to achieve a good finish. Water-based finishes are also easier to clean up and are considered to be more eco-friendly since they don’t contain petroleum products.

Stain protection

Oil-based finishes offer the most protection from stains. They form a tougher film and can handle spills, while water-based finishes can be moderately resistant to staining but can’t handle prolonged exposure to spills.

Sheen and Color

All three types of finishes offer a range of sheen levels, from very glossy to flat. Acrylic-based finishes offer the most color options, as they can be tinted to match any color. Oil-based and water-based finishes are available in a limited range of colors.

Practicability for different surfaces

Oil-based finishes are the best choice for woods that require a hard, durable finish such as oak, cherry, and walnut. Water-based and acrylic-based finishes are best for softer woods like pine. They apply easily and provide a good sheen and protection.

When selecting the right type of polyurethane finish, it’s important to consider your project’s level of wear and tear, the stain protection needed, and the look you’re trying to achieve. Choosing the right finish will ensure a durable and beautiful finish for your project.


Durability is a key factor when choosing a polyurethane finish. All three types of polyurethane will offer some degree of protection against wear and tear, but will vary in their efficacy. Oil-based polyurethane is the most durable, resistant to scrapes and scuffs, and will last for years with even minimal maintenance. Water-based polyurethane won’t last as long as oil-based, but is a good trade-off between the two if you want an easy to clean finish. Acrylic-based polyurethane is the least durable of the three, but is still an effective way to protect surfaces, offering everyday protection against minor damage.

It is important to consider the environment surrounding the polyurethane finish, as well. Any polyurethane applied in a space that sees heavy foot traffic, outdoor exposure, or exposure to solvents or other harsh chemicals will need to be regularly maintained, as these conditions can cause deterioration in the finish. On the other hand, if the polyurethane finish won’t be exposed to these harsh conditions, you can expect it to last for a very long time with minimal maintenance.

Above all, it is important to understand the limitations of your polyurethane finish and be realistic about its longevity. With careful selection and proper maintenance, you can ensure your polyurethane finish will last for many years.


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When looking for the right type of polyurethane finish, workability is an important factor that must be considered. The workability of the finish will determine how well it coats, spreads, and levels the surface it’s applied to. Oil-based polyurethane finishes are known for the level of workability they provide. They are generally easy to apply, spread, and level, and provide a smooth surface. Water-based polyurethane is known for its quick drying time, and offers excellent workability on most surfaces. However, it can be more difficult to apply and may require multiple coats to achieve a smooth finish. Acrylic-based polyurethane is a relatively newer product, but offers outstanding workability on a variety of substrates. It dries quickly and can be applied with a brush, roller, or even a spray gun.

Another thing to consider when it comes to workability is the durability of the finish. A finish that is more workable may not always be the most durable. Oil-based polyurethane has excellent workability but can be prone to yellowing, cracking, and peeling over time. It can also be difficult to repair if it does become damaged. Water-based polyurethane has a very good level of workability, but also offers good durability that will last for many years. Acrylic-based polyurethane blend is a great option for those looking for a durable and workable finish, as it is known for its excellent workability and superior durability.

Ultimately, the type of finish you choose will depend on the level of workability you need and the desired outcome. There are a variety of options available, so be sure to consider all aspects when making your decision to ensure the perfect finish.

Stain protection

When it comes to stain protection, polyurethane finishing stands out among other finishes. It is an especially good choice for wood surfaces such as floors, furniture, and cabinets because it will help to protect the wood from staining and other damage. Polyurethane is an effective way to prevent stains from penetrating the wood, making it much easier to keep your wood surface looking its best.

Polyurethane is a waterproof finish and it can also provide some protection against UV damage, but its best feature is its ability to protect against staining. The finish will form a barrier between the wood and liquids and other substances that might cause staining. This barrier will keep the wood safe from any kind of staining.

Here are some of the benefits of using a polyurethane finish for stain protection:

  • It provides an effective barrier between the wood and liquids and other substances that might cause staining.
  • It is a long lasting finish that will protect the wood for many years.
  • It helps to prevent staining and other damage from occurring.
  • It is easy to apply, and it can be applied to most surfaces.

When it comes to protecting wood surfaces from staining, a polyurethane finish is definitely a good choice. It is an effective way to keep wood looking its best, and it will last for many years. It is a durable finish that is easy to apply, and it can be used on nearly any surface. With a polyurethane finish, you can be sure that your wood surfaces will be protected and remain looking great for years to come.

Sheen and Color

Adding a layer of polyurethane finish to your flooring or furniture might seem like a simple task, but there are subtle nuances to it that can make a huge difference in the overall appearance of the room or area. The sheen and color of the polyurethane finish you choose can dramatically affect how the piece of furniture or flooring looks in the room.

When choosing a polyurethane finish, there are many factors to consider, such as durability, stain protection, and practicability for different surfaces, but sheen and color of the finish should be taken into account as well. There are several types of polyurethane finish that have varying levels of sheen, from matte to high gloss, so it’s important to choose a finish that complements your overall design and style.

In addition to the sheen, the color of the polyurethane finish is just as important. The color can range from clear to a range of hues, such as amber, pine, walnut, etc. Depending on the type of wood and desired effect, different colors may be used to enhance or complement the underlying wood or material. For example, a dark finish can be used to add depth and a flare of sophistication to the piece, while lighter finishes often give a more modern or bright look.

No matter the sheen or color, polyurethane finishes can enhance the overall appearance of your furniture or flooring while protecting it from daily wear and tear. It’s important to choose the right polyurethane finish for the project at hand, ensuring that both sheen and color provide the desired look.

Practicability for different surfaces

When it comes to safeguarding and beautifying different surfaces, the practicability of polyurethane finish must be taken into account. Using the right kind of polyurethane finish for a particular surface could make all the difference in its effectiveness. Here is a list of few surfaces that could benefit from polyurethane finish:

  • Wood Surfaces: Polyurethane finish gives wooden furniture, floors, and trim a tough and satisfactory protective coat, protecting them from wear and tear and exposure to the elements.
  • Concrete Surfaces: Concrete can be particularly susceptible to breakage, cracking and staining, which is why a polyurethane coating can make a huge difference in helping to make them last many years.
  • Metal Surfaces: Polyurethane finish helps protect metal surfaces from corrosion and oxidation while also providing a pleasing aesthetic look.
  • Glass Surfaces: Polyurethane finish can help protect glass surfaces from scratches, abrasion, and extreme temperatures. It can also help give them a glossy shine.
  • Masonry Surfaces: Brick and tile can benefit from a polyurethane coating, as it can help to seal porous surfaces and repel water, grime and dirt.

It should be noted that the kind of polyurethane finish used on a particular surface will be dependent on the composition of the surface. Some surfaces will require a different grade of polyurethane finish than others, so it’s important to consult a professional before starting any finishing project. Additionally, it’s important to note that some finishes are safer and more durable than others. For instance, an oil-based polyurethane finish may be unsuitable for porous surfaces, while a water-based or an acrylic-based finish may be more effective. Ultimately, the type of finish you choose should be based on your individual needs and the environment in which it will be used.

How to Apply Polyurethane Finish

Applying a polyurethane finish can help protect and bring out the beauty of wood surfaces. The process is not difficult, but there are some important steps to take in order to ensure the finished product looks great and will last a long time. Here’s a look at the steps you should take when applying a polyurethane finish:


Before you begin applying the polyurethane, prep the surface by sanding it with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will help remove any imperfections and give the finish a smooth, even surface to adhere to. Once you’ve sanded the surface, clean it with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris.

Recoating the Finish

Once the first coat of polyurethane has been applied, it’s time to recoat the surface. Before doing this, you should wait for the first coat to dry completely. This can take a few hours depending on the temperature and humidity of your environment. When the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper and then clean it once more with a damp cloth. Then, apply a second coat of finish in the same manner as the first.

Drying Time

After you’ve applied your desired number of coats, you should allow the finish to dry. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on the specific finish and the temperature and humidity levels in the room.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Once the finish has completely dried, you should clean it regularly in order to maintain its appearance. This is easily done with a damp cloth and a mild, non-abrasive cleaner. With the proper care and maintenance, your polyurethane finish will remain attractive and durable for years to come.



Before applying your polyurethane finish, there are a few steps to take in order to ensure a quality result. First, you’ll need to carefully clean and dry the surface. This will allow the finish to bond to the surface and prevent any lumps, bumps, and bubbles from forming.

Additionally, you’ll want to use a light-grit sandpaper to lightly sand the surface. Sanding will help to eliminate any scratches and smooth out the surface for a polished look.

Here’s a quick checklist to help you prepare for your polyurethane finish:

  • Clean and dry the surface
  • Lightly sand with a light-grit sandpaper
  • Wipe off the dust with a slightly damp cloth
  • Apply a thin coat of primer
  • Allow primer to dry completely

Taking the time to properly prepare the surface is essential for a successful application of your polyurethane finish. You’ll want to make sure that all the steps above are complete before you move on to applying the finish. Once you’ve finished prepping the surface, your polyurethane finish will stay looking beautiful for years to come.

Recoating the Finish

When recoating your polyurethane finish, it’s important to understand the different types of finishes and their properties. Oil-based polyurethane finish is the most common and generally takes longer to dry; however, it is more durable than water-based polyurethane. Water-based polyurethane is typically faster drying but not as strong or durable; it also imparts a slight yellow hue to the wood, which may not be desired in some applications. Acrylic-based polyurethane has a slight sheen and is fast-drying, but it is also not as durable as oil-based polyurethane.

When recoating a polyurethane finish, it is also important to consider the underlying surface and the environment it is being applied in. If the finish is being applied in an area of high humidity or in direct sunlight, be sure to apply a fast-drying finish. If the finish is being applied over a softer type of wood, such as pine or cedar, an oil-based polyurethane may be a better choice for superior durability.

When applying a new coat of polyurethane finish, it is important to use the same type of finish as the one previously used. If a water-based polyurethane was used before, only use a water-based finish. If an oil-based polyurethane was used, continue to use oil for recoatings. This ensures compatibility between the different layers to avoid potential issues with adhesion.

Make sure the surface is thoroughly clean and free of dust, dirt, or debris before recoating. Any dirt may cause imperfections in the finish, so it’s important to ensure the surface is clean and free from contaminants. The new finish should also be stirred thoroughly before use to ensure an even surface and color. Finally, it is important to apply the finish in thin, even coats to avoid runs and imperfections.

Drying Time

When it comes to drying time, polyurethane finishing is fairly quick. Depending on the type of polyurethane finish used, the curing or drying time can vary. Oil-based polyurethane products tend to take the longest amount of time to dry, typically about 24 to 48 hours. Water-based polyurethane drying and curing times are often much shorter, with a complete curing time of about two to four hours between coats. Acrylic-based polyurethane finishes can take anywhere from two to forty-eight, depending on the product.

Regardless of the type of polyurethane finish, it is important to factor in the drying time into the overall timeline of your project. Make sure you factor in enough time to allow each coat of polyurethane to fully dry and cure before applying the next coat. If you apply the next coat too soon, it can create streaks in the finish, or worse, can peel off completely.

Additionally, once you have finished the project, it is important to wait on the last coat to cure and dry completely before you walk on or use the surface. Depending on the type of finish and environmental conditions, this can take more time than the smaller coats before it. Waiting the completely allotted time will ensure your surface is properly finish and ready for use.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Cleaning and maintaining your polyurethane finish is important to ensure your furniture will last for years to come. It’s important to know how to properly care for a polyurethane finish and how to clean it effectively without causing any damage to the finish. Here are some tips to keep your polyurethane finish looking its best:

  • Dust regularly with a soft cloth to prevent dirt build-up
  • Clean spills immediately with a soft, lint-free cloth
  • Use a damp cloth to remove tougher dirt or stains
  • Never use harsh chemicals, scrubbing brushes, or steel wool to clean a polyurethane finish
  • To protect against scratches and further damage, use felt pads on the bottom of chairs, tables, and other furniture
  • If a spill does occur, be sure to clean the area thoroughly with a damp cloth and allow it to air dry completely before reapplying the finish

Using the right techniques and materials is the best way to keep your polyurethane finish looking great. Regular cleaning and maintenance will not only keep it looking great but will also provide the protection it needs to ensure your furniture lasts a long time.


Devin B

Hi everyone! My name is Devin and I'm the author of this website about tips for woodturning and wood finishing. I'm an avid woodworker and have been doing it for over a decade. I'm constantly learning new techniques and experimenting with new materials and finishes.

I started my journey in woodworking when I was a teenager, making furniture for my bedroom and small projects for my family. As I got older, my interest in woodturning and wood finishing grew. I took classes on the subject and read books on the topic.

I'm passionate about woodturning and wood finishing because it allows me to express my creativity in a tangible way. I love the satisfaction of seeing a piece of wood that I have transformed from a block of raw material into a beautiful finished product.

I hope you find the tips and advice on this website helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'm always happy to help out and share my experiences. Thanks for visiting my website!