Lacquer vs. Polyurethane for Table Top: Which to Use?

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 05/15/23 • 

Polyurethane and lacquer are wood finishes you can apply on different surfaces to add a smooth and protective layer. These two can protect against varying degrees of moisture, heat, and other elements.

If you’re looking for a suitable finish for a tabletop that will be used for meals, kids’ homework, and other activities, both poly and lacquer are good. However, which is better to use? In this post, we’ll see their differences to help you decide which is better for your tabletop.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is one of the most popular wood finishes today due to its durability. Once applied on a wooden surface, poly forms a hard plastic-like protective film. Polyurethane can be applied to a wide range of wood surfaces like floors, tables, furniture, cabinets, and much more.

Poly is available in different sheens, from matte to gloss. It is mostly applied using a brush but can also be rolled on, sprayed on, or even wiped on. When brushing poly, consider using a natural bristle brush.

There are two main types of polyurethane available; these are water-based and oil-based poly.

Water-based polyurethane has a cloudy or milk-like appearance but clears up as it hardens. Compared to oil-based polyurethane, it is less toxic, odorless, and does not change color/yellow over time. However, when used as a protective top layer, it does not hold up well under high heat.

Oil-based polyurethane is durable but takes longer to dry compared to water-based polyurethane. It can also withstand heat better than water-based poly and thus is better to use on kitchen countertops or other surfaces exposed to heat. However, it contains more toxins and odor, and care should be taken when applying it.

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer became available as a replacement for shellac and quickly gained ground as a preferred wood finish. It is a fast-drying wood finish that is usually sprayed but can also be brushed on when using the right lacquer thinner. Lacquer is impervious to water, heat, acids, and other elements.

There are different types of lacquers, but most are nitrocellulose based. These are made by treating wood cellulose fibers with nitric and sulphuric acids. Resins/binders are then added in varying degrees to make them flexible, have a better build, and bond well.

Apart from nitrocellulose lacquer, there is also acrylic lacquer, which is not often used on wood because of its high cost. Acrylic lacquer combines with cellulose-acetate-butyrate (CAB). The best property of acrylic lacquer is its ability to resist yellowing. Acrylic lacquer is also called water-white or sometimes identified as CAB-acrylic. Read more about lacquer wood finish.

Lacquer vs. Polyurethane for Tabletop

Both polyurethane and lacquer are good for use on a tabletop. Tabletops might be exposed to different elements like heat, moisture, and food spills. To better protect your table, you’ll need a finish that effectively handles these elements.

A Tabletop Sprayed with Lacquer

A Tabletop Sprayed with Lacquer

Polyurethane is a good finish and is usually used on surfaces exposed to high wear, like floors. For a tabletop that will be exposed to heat, you’ll need to take extra steps to protect your tabletop. However, if your tabletop will not see much heat, poly is better protected against water damage and wear and tear. An oil-based poly will handle heat better than a water-based poly.

Lacquer is also a good tabletop finish. It will handle the heat, is less prone to scratching, and improves your wood grain’s appearance. Repairing lacquer is also easier compared to damaged polyurethane.


Hello there! This is the Make Wood Better Team. Here, we share informative how-tos and guides focused on making wood better. Whether it's finishing wood, maintenance, or restoration, there's something on this website for you to learn and improve your skills.