One of the first things I struggled with when I started dabbling in furniture building and refinishing was understanding the difference between polycrylic and polyurethane. I wasn’t sure when it was appropriate to choose one over the other, how many coats I’d need of either, or what finishes were best. Today I’m going to share what I’ve learned with you, because I’m refinishing my beech Ikea Gerton desk top! Here it is in a photo from our old apartment:
Let’s talk about polyurethane first.
Here are some quick facts:
- Polyurethane provides an extremely durable finish. It can be oil-based or water-based, and it comes in matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes.
- Traditional oil-based polyurethane has a very strong odor and should be used in well-ventilated spaces only, while water-based polyurethane has a much lower odor.
- Water-based polyurethane dries much faster than oil-based polyurethane. However, oil-based polyurethane is more durable.
- Both water- and oil-based polyurethane can lead to yellowing, which is lovely when finishing a piece of richly pigmented stained wood—not as lovely when finishing a piece or furniture painted in a lighter color or wood with a lighter stain.
I use polyurethane 100% of the time when finishing stained wood projects, and I usually use a semi-gloss finish. I know the oil-based version is worse for the environment and my health, but oil-based polyurethane remains my favorite. However, I did use a satin water-based polyurethane to seal the tree branches for my DIY cat tree project because I needed them to dry quickly.
Questions about applying polyurethane? I used semi-gloss polyurethane in this post on how to stain and finish wood.
And now let’s chat polycrylic:
- Polycrylic is a durable, water-based finish. It comes in matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes.
- It dries quickly, with only a couple of hours required between coats.
- It is a thin, opaque liquid, but it does not yellow furniture, so it’s fantastic for lighter surfaces.
- Since all polycrylics are water-based, cleanup is easy and can be done using soap and water.
- It should be applied in quick, thin coats. Unlike polyurethane, polycrylic dries so quickly that you can’t go back and smooth out a spot right after you’d applied it.
- Since it dries so quickly, applying applying polycrylic with a small, smooth roller is a good option, especially on larger surfaces.
If I’m not using a specialized finish, I usually use polycrylic to add durability to painted pieces. I love that the cleanup is so much easier than it is when using oil-based polyurethanes, and polycrylic won’t yellow lighter pieces. The process for applying polycrylic is the same as the polyurethane process I outlined here.
So what did I use on my desk top?
Polyurethane. 🙂 I have this solid beech desktop from Ikea. When I purchased it, the directions said to oil it regularly with wood oil for protection. Guess what I didn’t do? Oil it regularly with wood oil for protection. It’s now full of stains since I can’t easily wipe it clean. I can’t even dribble water on it without it making a mark, and that’s super annoying. I chose polyurethane because I didn’t mind a little yellowing and had a big can of semigloss on hand already.
Here’s what I used to refinish it:
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- Minwax polyurethane in semigloss
- 220- and 320-grit sandpaper and rubber sanding block
- Small foam roller
- Tack cloth and rags
And here’s how I did it.
(Remember to wear a mask and eye protection while sanding and working with wood, and wear an appropriate mask while working with paints, stains, and finishes. Follow the directions and warnings from your particular brand. Do not use any tools without proper training, precautions, and supervision.)
Step 1: I gave the entire top and sides a light sand with the 220-grit sandpaper to buff out any stains. I used this nifty little 3M sanding block.
Step 2: I wiped the piece down with a rag to remove the excess dust, and then I wiped it down with tack cloth to remove every last bit of sanding residue. I used a small, smooth roller to apply the polyurethane to the entire top and sides of the desk.
Step 3: After the first coat had dried (follow the instructions on your brand of polyurethane), I gave the entire top and sides a light sand using the 320-grit sandpaper to pop air bubbles and even out the finish. Then I repeated step 2 twice to achieve three coats of polyurethane.
And here it is!
Lil Blanche in her afternoon sunny spot.
This project was long overdue, and it would have been so much easier to do it had I bit the bullet when I brought the desk home nearly two years ago! But hey, better late than never, right?
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