Difference between Shellac, Lacquer and Polyurethane Finishes

Shellac, Lacquer and Polyurethane, are the variety of finishes used on the furniture and you might have come across them while buying furniture for your home. Although, all these are doing similar jobs of making your furniture look beautiful with that extra shine yet there are some differences between these finishes that you must know before selecting them for your furniture.  

Choosing the right finish for your wood project is the key for getting the results you want, but knowing where to start from can be a bit confusing—until you understand a few basics.

Let’s first talk about what they have in common:

  • All these finishes protect the wood.
  • All are applied as a top coat.
  • All create a smooth, clear finish on the wooden surface.

Despite having so many similarities, these products are recommended not to be used interchangeably. Following is a basic description of Shellac, Lacquer and Polyurethane Finishes and differences between them, take a look.

Shellac:   This finish is virtually a natural product that creates a lustrous, mid-gloss sheen with a golden tint.

Lacquer: Lacquer is a clear nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent that creates a crystal-clear, hard wearing finish and can be applied by sprayer for an ultra-smooth surface. It comes in satin, semi-gloss and gloss. It’s also available in an aerosol option.

Polyurethane: This durable product is available in several finishes ranging from matte to gloss. Oil-based is the hardiest and has a slight amber hue, while water-based has less odor and a crystal clear finish. Also, polyurethane (poly) comes in two formulations (water and oil-based) that can be applied accordingly.

Note: According to their best usage, we’ve categorized these products in the next section.   

Dry to Touch: While oil-based polyurethane requires 4 hours to dry to touch, rest of the finishes are much faster:

  • Lacquer (30 min.)
  • Shellac (1 hr.)
  • Water-based poly (2 hours)

Easy to Apply: If you want to ensure no brush marks and an even finish, oil-based poly is your best bet— it self-levels, correcting inconsistencies in your application. Lacquer is even more forgiving, letting you skip sanding and hole-filling altogether.

Easy to Clean:   All finishes are easy to clean, however, water-based poly is best out of these as it can be washed off with just soap and water.

Best for a Golden Glow:  Oil-based poly and shellac bring out the warmth and beauty of natural wood.

Best for Ultra-Clear Finish: Lacquer is the best choice for leaving the desired color exactly as is—because of its high clarity. Water-based poly is the second-best option.

Most Durable: Poly stands up best to scuffs, scratches and wear.