What is Polycrylic and What is it Used For?

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If you find yourself working with wood often then you will be familiar with the importance of using a good wood sealant or finish. Not only does a topcoat help protect the wood from any moisture, the elements, heat, and long term wear-and-tear but it can also help keep your paint job looking better for longer. The main finishes available are polycrylic, polyurethane, and varnish. Many homeowners and handymen may be familiar with polyurethane but are wondering, what is polycrylic?

In this article we will cover what it is, what it’s used for and then discuss a range of questions you may have about its use. Make sure to read the article until the end as we include a range of tips to help you apply this protective coating like a professional.

Table Of Contents

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based coating that is used to protect the surface of interior wood pieces. It is suitable for light woods such as ash, maple, and birch. It can be used over top of water-based wood stains and can easily be applied via a synthetic bristle brush or an aerosol can. The finish dries fast, is non-flammable, has low odor, and helps add beauty to a range of surfaces including, wood furniture, cabinets, doors and woodwork. It can be found in gloss, satin, matte and semi-gloss sheens.

What is Polycrylic Used For?

Polycrylic is used as a protective topcoat for interior wood surfaces. It acts as a barrier between the wood and the outside world by creating a durable finish that helps prevent against chipping, abrasion, scuffing, and damage from household chemicals. It adds beauty to interior wood pieces by creating a gloss, satin, matte, or semi-gloss sheen that enhances stain, paint, or the woods natural color.

Can Polycrylic Be Used Outside?

No, it can not be used outside. It was developed as an interior protective finish and may suffer damage from sunlight or long term exposure to the elements, which can lead it to appear opaque and lose effectiveness. When looking to protect outdoor wood surfaces a marine grade spar varnish or an exterior clear finish will be more effective.

Can Polycrylic Be Sprayed?

Yes, it can be sprayed. The protective coating is available in aerosol format and can be applied in the same manner as spray paint. You can also use a paint sprayer meant for stains which will allow you to utilize cans instead for efficiency. If opting for a paint sprayer, you may have to thin the finish before use.

What Is The Difference Between Polycrylic And Polyurethane?

Well both products are used as wood sealants, each are slightly different in their chemical composition and use. Polyurethane can be found in both oil-based and water-based formats and is often used as a finishing for flooring, furniture, tables and doors. It is resistant to water and can be used outdoors if needed. Oil-based polyurethane tends to dry with a slightly cream tint to it, making it better for dark woods, well water-based polyurethane drys clear and is suitable for all wood. The oil-based format is slightly more resistant to heat well water-based polyurethane has less odor. 

In contrast, polycrylic can only be found in a water-based format and is intended for indoor use only. It dries fast and clear as long as care is taken when applying coats, has low odor, and is less toxic than polyurethane. It is often used as a substitute for polyurethane indoors to protect against scuffs, abrasion and other household damage.

With that being said, polyurethane is the more durable finish of the two and is easier to apply. Polycrylic can be slightly more difficult to adhere evenly due to it’s runnier consistency, and requires you to apply a minimum of two coats. Additionally, it tends to take longer to cure than a polyurethane based finish.

Despite this there is no right choice when it comes to selecting a finish as each product has its own set of benefits and are suitable for different applications. To help you better understand these differences we’ve outlined some of the benefits of each finish below.

Benefits of Polyurethane

  • Durable and long lasting finish
  • Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use
  • Available in water-based and oil-based format

Benefits of Polycrylic 

  • Dries fast and clear, making it especially suitable for light woods
  • Lower odour
  • Less toxic and easier to clean up
  • Typically more affordable

Types Of Polycrylic

This product can be found in two formats, an aerosol can or a paint can, allowing you to choose between a brush or spray-on application. To help you understand the nuances between the two we have highlighted some key points on each product below.


The brush-on version is better for large jobs that require you to cover more surface area and thus more paint. The pails come in 1 quart size and can cover up to 125 square feet per quart. It is suggested you use a synthetic bristle brush for proper application.


The spray on version is great for the odd job around the house where you don’t want to have to fuss about breaking out a brush and canvas. It dries fast, can be conveniently sprayed on quickly, has relatively low odor for an aerosol, and comes in a decent size. With that being said the aerosol version is more suitable for smaller projects and crafts.

Tips For Applying Polycrylic Over Paint Or Stain

Best practices for applying polycrylic (Source: Youtube, Works Forme)
  • Clean your surface first. If there is any dirt, wax or grease on the wood make sure to remove it before you begin painting.
  • If applying a fresh coat of stain ensure you wait at least 24 hours before applying the protective coating to allow it to properly adhere.
  • Apply thin, even coats in one direction – this will help the end finish appear clear and vibrant.
  • Before applying a second coat allow at least 2 hours for the first coat to dry.
  • Once the first coat has dried give the surface a light sanding with fine sandpaper. This helps the second coat adhere properly.
  • Always allow your final coat to dry for a minimum of 24 hours – this prevents any unwanted issues in the end finish.


In conclusion, it is a topcoat that allows you to protect and beautify indoor wood surfaces! We hope this article covered everything you were looking for. As always, if you have any questions or comments make sure to leave them at the bottom of this post and our team will do their best to get back to you.



Ryan is a writer for ToolboxAdvice.com. He's been a hobbyist and painter for a long time, and now enjoys teaching others. His content primarly focuses on reviews and guides for painters and construction professionals.

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