Lacquer Or Polyurethane For Table Top: Choosing the Best Finish

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When selecting a wood finish for a tabletop, the choice often comes down to lacquer or polyurethane.

This article compares these two popular finishes, highlighting their unique properties and suitability for tabletops, to help you make an informed decision for your woodworking project.

QUICK ANSWER:

For a tabletop finish, lacquer is generally the better choice, offering quick drying, easy repair, and a durable, heat-resistant surface ideal for daily use.

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer, surpassing polyurethane in durability and longevity, is a favored finish for high-end furniture. Its fast-drying, water-resistant nature ensures clarity over time, making it ideal for projects that demand durability with minimal upkeep.

Comprising a nitrocellulose solution and solvents, lacquer offers both glossy and matte finishes.

The primary types of lacquer are nitrocellulose, acrylic, and water-based. Nitrocellulose lacquer, with a history in automotive and musical instruments, yields a high-gloss finish but may develop a reddish-amber hue, less suited for light woods.

Acrylic lacquer is preferred for lighter woods due to its non-yellowing quality. Water-based lacquer, eco-friendly and less toxic, is increasingly popular for its odorless nature and versatility in various woodworking projects.

One of lacquer’s advantages is its ease of repair. Being a thin coating, it seamlessly blends with previous layers, unlike polyurethane, which often necessitates sanding for effective adhesion.

This property, along with its robustness, makes lacquer a preferred choice for aesthetic and practical woodworking applications.

Is Lacquer Good For A Dining Table?

Yes, lacquer is a good choice for a dining table. Lacquer’s durability, fast-drying nature, and high heat resistance make it well-suited for the frequent use and varying conditions a dining table typically endures.

What is Polyurethane?

Also a popular wood finish today, polyurethane is basically a plastic in liquid form that creates a hard, plastic film over the surface of the workpiece.

It is much thicker than lacquer and not as easy to apply unless it is thinned. It comes in water- and oil-based versions, and although they differ in their dry times and compositions, they are both durable and protective coats on your woodworking projects.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-Based Polyurethane

Less toxic than oil-based, this polyurethane is also odorless. It does not yellow over time and dries faster than the oil-based sibling. However, it does not stand up well to high heat, and without protective measures, is not a good choice for any surfaces that will face heat unless protective measures are taken.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Durable but slower drying, this polyurethane can withstand exposure to high heat. But, unlike water-based polyurethane, it is toxic, and precautions must be taken when applying it, especially in a well-ventilated environment. Unlike lacquer finishes, it does not penetrate wood; it merely forms a solid, plastic film coat on the wood’s surface.

Lacquer vs. Polyurethane For A Table Top

FeatureLacquerPolyurethane
DurabilityMore durable and longer-lasting than polyurethaneDurable, but less so compared to lacquer
Finish QualityHigh-gloss finish; less susceptible to yellowingCan yellow over time, especially oil-based types
ApplicationThinner, ideal for spray applicationThicker, requires brushing or thinning for spraying
Drying TimeDries within about 10 minutesWater-based dries faster than oil-based
Heat ResistanceHigh tolerance for heatOil-based withstands heat better than water-based
RepairabilityEasy to repair, blends well with previous coatsOften requires sanding for adherence
Eco-FriendlinessWater-based lacquer is less toxic and more eco-friendlyWater-based polyurethane is less toxic than oil-based
SuitabilityBetter for high-heat exposure like kitchen tabletopsWater-based suitable for less heat-exposed surfaces

Quality of Finish

Polyurethane will tend to be more durable than lacquer. While lacquer is also durable, it is more susceptible to dings, scratches, and discoloration than poly.

Application

Polyurethane is thicker and, if not thinned, requires brush application. This makes it susceptible to brush marks, so extra care must be exercised in its use and application, as well as a fine brush.

Lacquer, on the other hand, is thinner and a spray application with a high-volume low-pressure sprayer.

Drying and Curing Time

Lacquer can dry within about 10 minutes, much quicker than poly. Water-based poly is faster drying than oil-based, which can take up to 24 – 30 hours to dry completely. Because it dries much faster, it is easy to apply multiple coats of lacquer within the same time it takes for one coat of poly to dry fully.

Which Finish To Use On a Tabletop

Tabletops are likely to be exposed to high heat. Hot serving platters, casserole dishes, the dinner plates from which the meals will be eaten, and a hot cup of coffee or tea are the most common sources of that heat.

If precautions are not taken, and a water-based poly is the tabletop’s finish, the heat will cause damage to that finish. Placemats, trivets, and coasters are essential for the protection of the tabletop.

Bookshelves, bookcases, and desks are less likely to include heat sources than a dining room table would. Water-based poly will be a better choice for those projects.

For kitchen or dining room tabletops, and if you have chosen polyurethane as your finish, an oil-based poly is far better than water-based. It can withstand high heat without being damaged.

Its use carries other concerns, like its chemical composition, toxicity, odor, and much longer drying time. But, for the protection of a tabletop that would be exposed to heat sources, it is the better choice among polyurethanes.

As for lacquer finishes, we have a higher tolerance for heat with its use. A clear lacquer has been shown to tolerate intermittent temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius and 800 degrees of continuous heat. This is a much higher tolerance than that of polyurethane.

If you take the necessary protective precautions, a water-based polyurethane will work – placemats, trivets, coasters, and extra care.

If you don’t want to think about being so careful and prefer a poly finish, the oil-based poly is the choice you want to make.

Or, you can choose the lacquer finish. With quicker drying time, multiple coats within the time it takes for an oil-based poly, and easy repairs, a water-based lacquer is a very good choice for that kitchen or dining room table. Its higher heat tolerance without causing damage is a compelling difference to warrant its use.

This video actually puts lacquer and poly to the test in various ways and illustrates what we have discussed in this article.

After our research, our own use, and this video demonstration, we would opt for a lacquer finish for our tabletop, specifically a water-based lacquer finish.

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