How To Remove Polycrylic Finish: Safe and Effective Techniques

Polycrylic finish can be a good choice for woodworking projects and has several very desirable advantages:

  • It’s easy to use
  • It dries within hours
  • Multiple coats can be applied in a single day
  • It dries completely clear
  • It does not yellow over time

What is not to like about any of this?

And yet, there may be times when you regret your decision on a finish for that piece of furniture, or the kitchen cabinets, or the new trim you installed in the living room.  What do you do after you’ve put in all that time and effort?  

We understand why you might have chosen a polycrylic finish in the first place.  It’s a good choice for all interior finish projects (but not exterior), so long as it will not be exposed to water or extended use like flooring.  The not-yellowing over time part has great appeal, and being able to apply multiple coats in a single day of work can speed your project along.  

But there still may be that time when you wish you had gone in a different direction.  Can polycrylic be removed, and if it can, is it difficult to do so?

Key Points About Polycrylic

  • It can be removed from wood surfaces.
  • It will require a bit of work to do so.
  • Safety precautions should be taken, both for you and for your wood.

What is Polycrylic?

1/2 pt Minwax 25555 Clear Polycrylic Water-Based Protective Finish Gloss

Polycrylic is a water-based product that is used for interior finishes on wood surfaces.  It’s a clear finish topcoat for wood that will protect wood surfaces from temperatures, water, and light.  It can not withstand high heat while it is still crying and curing, but once set can withstand a hot coffee mug, for instance.  It’s not waterproof but does offer water resistance.  It’s not a durable as an oil-based polyurethane finish, but it is durable enough to resist scratches, scuffs, blemishes, and dents.

Polycrylic is strictly a water-based product, unlike polyurethane, another type of finish that can be both a water-based and an oil-based wood finish.  As a water-based product, it is more environmentally friendly and will clean up easily with warm water and soap.  Its VOC levels (volatile organic compounds) are low, keeping its emission of noxious fumes that are common to solvent-based finishes much lower.  

Notwithstanding its lower VOC levels, it is important to use adequate ventilation in the area nonetheless, something you should do with all finishes just as a precaution.  

Polycrylic comes in an ultra-flat, matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finish.  One is not more advantageous than any other, and one will depend on your preference for a particular project.  Again, it’s a good choice for small interior use on furniture, cabinets, and trim in your house, so you’ll want to choose the finish that suits the overall room in which it will be used.

Among the best-known products is Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic.  Minwax water-based polycrylic offers all of the advantages of a polycrylic wood finish mentioned – ease of use, quick-drying, easy to clean up after, etc.  Minwax Polycrylic can be found at any of the large DIY stores, local hardware stores, and online retailers.

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A thin coat of polycrylic is the best way to apply it to the wood surface.  After the first coat has dried, a light sanding with a high grit sandpaper, 220 grit, will be enough before adding a second coat. This will ensure an even finish and good adhesion for the next coat or any additional coats.  

Is Polycrylic Better Than Polyurethane?

We’ve written quite a bit about polyurethane, and in fact, we use polyurethane in our shop.  You’ll find some of them with a search on this site, but we’ll help with a few:  how many coats of polyurethane, how to get rid of the smell, and how to clean a brush after using polyurethane.

Whether something is better for your woodworking project than another, something, though, has to do more with what you are trying to achieve.  Generally speaking, though, there are some differences worth pointing out, and we’re thinking specifically for small interior projects like those we mentioned earlier:

  • Much less toxic than an oil-based polyurethane, making it a good choice for indoor use
  • It has a much-less noxious odor than polyurethane
  • It dries much faster
  • Cleaning up after use is easy
  • It’s easier to work with on small projects indoors

However, that is not to say polyurethane doesn’t hold some advantages over polycrylic.  It’s a better choice for tables and flooring, wood surfaces that will get a lot of use and a bit of abuse; it is more durable over time than polycrylic; and will tend to be better against heat and water, as well as more resistant to scratches.

Again, better depends on the project and the desired results.  The point is you should not rule out using polycrylic from among the many protective finishes.  It will serve you well on small interior projects.

Can Polycrylic Be Removed?

In spite of all this, you’ve used a polycrylic finish on your project, and then you’ve changed your mind for whatever reason.  What to do now?

The answer to the question is yes, polycrylic can be removed with a little work and a bit of protection both for yourself and for the wood surface it is being removed from.  The usual suspects for removing finishes, like sanding and solvents, will not be your best choices when removing polycrylic from your project, though.  

Sanding.  While you can use this method to remove the polycrylic, you run the risk of damaging the wood beneath it.  You will also need to use high grit sandpaper, something in the 220 – 320 range grit, which means it’s going to take a lot of time and effort for the task.  Low grit sandpaper can damage the wood – you’ve already sanded the wood smooth, and that low grit sandpaper will dig into the wood and undo your hard work.

Solvents.  Also, a problematic choice in that solvents will not entirely remove polycrylic from the wood’s surface.  Here, again, you also run the risk of damaging the wood.

Strippers.  No, not those kinds of strippers.  Be sure not to choose a chemical stripper that contains methylene chloride, a caustic and corrosive substance that can harm the skin and eyes and emit a harmful gas that can cause respiratory damage.  It’s also not environmentally friendly and should be avoided. Stay away from paint strippers that use this chemical.  A water-based or soy-based stripper product will be the best choice.

There’s work involved, but these are both effective and safe.

Safety Precautions For Removing Polycrylic

As with all such tasks, you want to be safe with all of the materials you are using to remove polycrylic.  These include:

  • Masks
  • Gloves
  • Goggles
  • A fan or two
  • An open window or other means of good ventilation

Beyond these measures, you’ll want to have handy some steel wool, the stripper you have chosen to use (water-based or soy-based), a brush or spray bottle, and a scraper.

Apply the stripper with a brush or a spray bottle.  We suggest trying it in a limited area first to make sure you have the hang of the chosen stripper and to make sure it will do the job for you.  Give it a few minutes, and if it seems okay, move on to the rest of the wood surface. 

Follow the instructions on the stripper container, but generally, you will want to let it sit for 15 – 30 minutes before you begin scraping.  Use a regular scraper, gently wipe the polycrylic off, and put it in a disposable bag.

Apply the stripper as needed for a second pass on polycrylic removal, digging gently into grooves and curves to get it all off.  There is no need to sand in between coats of the stripper.  

This is all information likely described on the stripper container.  One such choice might be Kleanstrip Premium Stripper, which you can purchase at large DIY stores, and maybe even at a local hardware store.  Be sure to read the directions before beginning, too.

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After you have removed all of the polycrylic, remember to use care in the disposal of the bag.  Soak it in water before tossing away, just to be safe.  Yes, it’s water-based, but this is a good habit to have when disposing of used rags and removed finishes generally.  

Other Means of Removing Polycrylic

There are other less effective ways to remove polycrylic, and we could not find any strong recommendations for them.  We’ll mention them anyway, just in case you want to give one of them a try.

  • Acetone.  It will work, we believe, but is generally considered to be less effective than a water-based or soy-based stripper.
  • Vinegar.  Mix it in a 1:1 ratio with water, and it will help remove polycrylic, too.  Again, though, it is less effective than a stripper.

Video Discussion of Polycrylic and Polyurethane

It’s not directly on point, but it does offer information that will help you choose between a water-based polycrylic finish and an oil-based polyurethane.  If you make a fully informed decision and know what you want, you’re less likely to find yourself regretting a choice and having to figure out how to remove it.

Don’t rule out polycrylic as your finish choice for small interior projects.  It is a good wood finish, and for those types of projects, it will serve you well.

Last update on 2023-09-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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