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Polycrylic – When, why, and how to use it

Last updated May 11, 2023

Sealer is an important part of DIY and can make or break your project. Over the years I have extensively tested dozens of different sealers, and also ruined a few projects by choosing the wrong one. Today we are going to talk about my favorite sealer, polycrylic.

polycrylic - everything you need to know

In this post we will take a deep dive into polycrylic and take a closer look at what it is, how it works, the benefits and drawbacks, and much more.

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic over paint

Polycrylic is a water-based, clear protective finish that can be applied to a variety of surfaces, including wood, metal, plastic, and more. This type of finish is known for its durability, clarity, and ease of use, making it an excellent choice for many different applications.

Polycrylic is a type of polyurathane finish, but unlike traditional oil-based polyurathane, it dries quickly, has a low oder, and is easy to clean up with soap and water. Polycrylic also has a lower VOC (volatile organic compound) content than many other finishes, making it a more environmentally friendly option.

How Does Polycrylic Work?

Polycrylic works by forming a protective layer on the surface it is applied to. This layer helps to protect the underlying material from scratches, stains, and other types of damage, while also enhancing the material’s natural color and texture.

Polycrylic is applied in thin layers using a brush or sprayer. As each layer dries, it forms a protective barrier on top of the previous layer. Multiple layers can be applied to achieve the desired level of protection and sheen.

Once fully cured, polycrylic provides a hard, durable finish that can withstand regular use and cleaning without showing signs of wear or damage. This makes it an ideal choice for high-traffic areas or items that will be exposed to water or other liquids.

Benefits of Using Polycrylic

There are several advantages to using polycrylic over other types of finishes, including:

  1. Fast Drying Time – Polycrylic dries much faster than traditional oil-based finishes, allowing you to apply multiple coats in a single day.
  2. Low Oder – Polycrylic has very little smell compared to other finishes, making it a better choice for indoor applications.
  3. Easy Cleanup – Polycrylic can be cleaned up with soap and water, making it much easier to work with than oil-based finishes that require harsh solvents.
  4. Clear Finish – Polycrylic dries to a clear, transparent finish that does not yellow over time, allowing the natural beauty and colr of the underlying material to shine through.
  5. Low VOC- Polycrylic has a lower VOC content than many other finishes, making it a more environmentally friendly option.
  6. Easy Application – Polycrylic can be applied using a brush or sprayer and does not require any special equipment or techniques, making it easy for even novice DIYers to use.

Drawbacks of Using Polycrylic

After using many different types of sealers, I have only found one true drawback of polycrylic. Compared to its oil-based cousin, polyurethane, polycrylic is not quite as durable. It is still very durable, just not quite as much.

When You MUST Use Water-Based Sealer

If you are using sealer on a painted project, you MUST use polycrylic. NEVER use an oil-based sealer over a painted surface, it absolutely will ruin it by turning yellow. Here are a couple of examples.

This is a furniture flip I did back in 2011.

what sealer should I use over paint?


When I was finished, I coated the table in a thick layer of polyurethane (oil-based sealer), because I didn’t know any better. This is what happened…

Why you should use a water-based sealer

It yellowed, bad. Here is another examlpe on a door I painted blue and then sealed with oil-based sealer.

polyurethane over paint - don't do it

If you are sealing over anything painted, or anything you wouldn’t be okay with turning yellow (like a light wood), you MUST choose a water-based sealer.

When it’s Better to Use Oil-Based Sealer

when to use polycrylic vs. polyurethane

Sealing over raw (or stained) wood is the only time I choose to use polyurethane (oil-based sealer) over polycrylic, especially if it’s going to be in a harsh environment like outside (or perhaps in a kitchen or bathroom).

Keep in mind that oil-based sealer will make your wood appear darker and warmer, which may or may not be a good thing. If you are sealing over light wood or something you want to look very rustic, polycrylic may still be a better choice.

oil-based sealer on wood, not on paint
polyurethane sealer on raw wood


How to apply Polycrylic

Polycrylic can be applied using a brush, a roller, or a sprayer, depending on your personal preference and the type of project you’re working on. Here are the general steps for applying polycrylic using a brush:

  1. Prepare the surface: Before applying polycrylic, make sure the surface is clean, dry, and free of any dust, dirt, or debris. If necessary, sand the surface to remove any rough spots or imperfections.
  2. Stir the polycrylic: Thoroughly stir the polycrylic to ensure that it is well-mixed and any settled particles are evenly distributed.
  3. Apply the first coat: Dip the brush into the polycrylic and apply a thin, even coat to the surface, working in the direction of the wood grain. Be careful not to over-brush, as this can cause brush marks and bubbles.
  4. Let the first coat dry: Allow the first coat to dry completely, following the manufacturer’s recommended drying time.
  5. Sand the surface: Lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out any rough spots or imperfections. Wipe the surface with a clean, damp cloth to remove any dust.
  6. Apply subsequent coats: Apply additional coats of polycrylic in the same manner, allowing each coat to dry completely before applying the next. For best results, apply at least two coats.
  7. Sand the final coat: Once the final coat has dried, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper to remove any imperfections or brush marks. Wipe the surface with a clean, damp cloth to remove any dust.

Overall, it is important to apply polycrylic in thin, even coats and allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next. This will help ensure a smooth, durable finish that will protect your project for years to come.

Note: My favorite way to apply polyacrylic is with this brush. Nothing beats it!

If you are sealing something that isn’t a flat surface (like a chair), you can also get it in a spray can.

Polycrylic FAQs

  1. Can polycrylic be used on all types of surfaces? Polycrylic is generally safe to use on a wide range of surfaces, including wood, painted surfaces, and even paper or fabric-based projects. However, it is important to test a small, inconspicuous area first to ensure it adheres properly and does not cause any damage.
  2. How long does polycrylic take to dry? The drying time for polycrylic can vary depending on factors such as humidity, temperature, and the number of coats applied. Generally, it takes about 2-4 hours for polycrylic to dry to the touch, and 24 hours for it to fully cure.
  3. How do I clean up polycrylic? Polycrylic can be cleaned up using soap and water while it is still wet. If it has already dried, it can be removed using mineral spirits or denatured alcohol.
  4. Can polycrylic be used over oil-based finishes? Yes, polycrylic can be used over oil-based finishes (like oil based stain), but it is important to first lightly sand the surface and clean it thoroughly to ensure proper adhesion. It is also important to test a small, inconspicuous area first to ensure that the polycrylic adheres properly and does not cause any damage.
  5. Is polyacrylic food safe? Polycrylic is not considered food safe, as it is not designed or tested for use on surfaces that will come into contact with food. While it is generally safe to use on surfaces such as furniture, walls, and crafts, it is not recommended for use on cutting boards, countertops, or other surfaces that will come into contact with food or beverages.If you are looking for a food-safe finish for your project, there are other options available, such as food-grade mineral oil, beeswax, or shellac. These finishes have been tested and approved for use on surfaces that come into contact with food, and can provide a durable, protective finish without compromising the safety of your food or beverages.

Sheen Options

Polycrylic is available in several sheens, which refers to the level of gloss or shine that the finish provides. The available sheens may vary depending on the manufacturer and product line, but the most common sheens for polycrylic are:

  1. Matte: A low-gloss or flat finish that provides a subtle, natural look to the surface.
  2. Satin: A mid-range sheen that offers a soft, smooth finish that is not too shiny or dull.
  3. Semi-gloss: A higher-gloss finish that provides a noticeable level of shine, without being too reflective or mirror-like.
  4. Gloss: The highest level of sheen available, which provides a shiny, reflective finish that can be almost mirror-like in appearance.

The choice of sheen for your project will depend on your personal preference and the type of surface you are working with. For example, a matte or satin finish may be more appropriate for a rustic or natural look, while a semi-gloss or gloss finish may be more suitable for a modern or high-shine look.

polycrylic - when, why, and how to use it

Overall, polycrylic is a popular and versatile protective finish that offers many benefits for DIY projects. Its clear and durable coating provides protection against damage while also being easy to apply and clean up. Whether you’re a DIY enthusiast or a professional woodworker, polycrylic is definitely worth considering for your next project!

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  1. Hello! I’m visiting from the Ultimate Blog Party. It’s great to visit your blog – I love the look of it!! I’m excited to look around more. I’m now following you on BlogLovin’, Fb, Twitter, and Pinterest.

    This is a great post. It’s nice to learn from others’ mistakes. Your table looks so lovely now!! Great job!

  2. Congrats on your “creative bloggers got talent” win. You totally deserve it, because of that contest I found your blog and I love it! Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I had to comment because my kitchen cabinets were sealed with polyurethane by our painter and I always say it looks like a cat peed all over them!! LOL! So glad you were able to save your table – my cabinets are on hold for now… boo!

  4. We were just going to polyurethane my desk tonight, but I wasn’t crazy about the finish on the test wood. So glad I found this site for an alternative! Thanks!!

  5. I used polycrylic on my brand new faux granite counter top that it took a lot of work and time to do with paint and it still turned yellow. Now minwax polyurethane says “if you require a gloss finish without ambering use polycrylic, so I went and got the polycrylic, I had a beautiful beige and mocha and white granite finish it looked really nice and very realistic when I was done, I was so happy with the results, until I put the polycrylic on it and it turned yellowish. I am wondering if that’s maybe just the minwax brand? Are there others which are better? I still wanted to do my kitchen counters but not if they will turn out yellowish too. BTW wonderful job on your table :)

    1. I’m so sorry they turned yellow! So frustrating when you spend forever on a project and the last step ruins it. I’ve used polycrylic on quite a few things now and it has never yellowed, so I haven’t tried any other brands. Minwax is just a cheap/non-professional brand, so I’m sure a high quality brand would be better to you…though unfortunately I have no idea what that is. There is a store here in San Antonio called Woodcraft that sells stuff like that and could help, you might want see if there is one in your area.

      1. I know this is four years in the future from this post but I’m sure there will be others like myself using polycrylic for the first time and I wanted to share my story about yellowing. I’ve been working on a side table project and because of unforeseen events I was forced to paint it white instead of using a stain like I wanted too. With that said I did a ton of research into sealing and protecting the finish. Like many of us I came across polycrylic because it doesn’t turn yellow. However on the can it does say that it may turn yellow. I’ve read many articles and blog posts about polycrylic and many people have had great success without the yellowing.

        Needless to say I bought a quart of Minwax polycrylic and put it on the table top and the legs (with kids and pets you never know what they can destroy). The legs turned out great, but the table top yellowed. I was mad but it was a small problem and a small table, nothing to lose my temper over. I sanded it down and repainted it. I then put another coat of poly on it and yet again it yellowed. My frustration was building but I wasn’t going to let an inanimate object get the better of me. I sanded and painted but before I put on another coat I turned to my computer. I researched again, and I found some people say it never yellows, but many others aren’t sure why it did because they’ve never had it happen. This isn’t helpful for those of us who have a yellow finish on our hard work.

        I stopped and thought about it again. I asked myself, “why are the legs perfect the table top yellows?” I reflected on the two previous attempts on the table and realized my errors. The first time I dripped on a spot that was tacky already and tried to clean it up and instead I over brushed it. It was hot that day and the thin coat began drying faster than normal. To tell if you’re over brushing it for those of you that don’t, the brush stops gliding along the surface.

        My second attempt I realized was too thick and it became a patchy yellow in the heavier spots. The way I determine if I had too much, if I couldn’t see the brush strokes it was too thick. Don’t worry on the third coat the brush strokes disappear with all the sanding and settling of the polycrylic.

        I just finished my second coat on the third attempt and it looks great. I’ve found the first coat has the least amount of forgiveness when it comes to being applied. In conclusion, I have found if you put it on too thick or over brush it, the yellow will show it’s unwanted face.

        I hope this helps someone else that’s having the same issues I had.

        1. This is great information. I spent several hours carefully painting and distressing an antique dresser with white chalked paint.. I researched thoroughly as to what to use for a top coat for protection and quickly learned that wax finishing is not a good option as it doesn’t protect that much and has to be re-applied often. Wax coating for chalk paint is not cheap, either. So I went with the Polycrylic by Minwax, for the main reason 99% of the ‘paint experts’ say it won’t yellow on white painted furniture and especially not on white chalked paint applications. Low and behold, as I applied my second coat of the Polycrylic a brownish yellow color was appearing. I assumed the brownish/yellow would disappear when the finish completely dried; it did not. The next morning my beautiful, time consuming newly painted dresser had brownish yellow streaks in various places. I did more research and again, so many people said this product should not yellow over white paint applications and many attested to the fact that they did many pieces with the exact product and never had a yelllowing issues. I am so glad, I kept looking further for an answer as to why my white chalked painted dresser yellowed when I used the polycrylic sealant that was not suppose to yellow. I found my answer, I was excited to finally get my piece finish, I was applying the polycrylic coating too thick. It all made sense because it was not yellowing over the entire piece but just in some areas and I felt those were the areas I was putting on the finish rather thick.
          Thank you for your insight.

  6. Thank you so much for your kind reply. I am in CT. We only have Home Depot. We used to have Lowes but they kept closing their stores until the last one was gone. I was raised in Chicago, we had plenty of home improvement stores there and art and craft stores, I loved it there, since I am very crafty, then I had to fall in love with a guy in CT, lol. They have only one arts and crafts store here in CT and it’s half the size of the many in Chicago. Home depot on the other hand is almost in every single shopping plaza, lol.

    I am thinking maybe of ordering a different brand on amazon, but I don’t want to be disappointed again and waste money, that’s why I asked. I don’t want to make another mistake and get another crappy brand, because I didn’t know. I do thank you :)

  7. I used polycrylic on my kitchen cabinets and the wood trim around the countertops when we redid our kitchen several years ago. I also used it on the door and window casings throughout the house. We had so much wood to finish that the shorter drying time was a big bonus. The cabinets are…ok. The wood looks flat–no depth to the grain & no shine, but that’s not a big deal. The finish on the trim around the countertops didn’t hold up well at all. It was tacky and dull within a year. The door and window trim still looks good everywhere except in the one bathroom where I used the polycrylic and the window sills. It doesn’t hold up to the sun, moisture, and heavy use that the oil-based does. If I were to do it again I would still use the polycrylic, but probably just on the door & window trim (except in the bathroom). I was really pretty disappointed in Minwax for claiming that it holds up the same as polyurethane. So…that’s my two cents. Do with it what you will!

    1. Hmmm, good to know. Everything I’ve used Polycrilic on is holding up well so far, but I have been using Polyurathane on stuff that I know will be getting a lot of abuse (and it doens’t matter if it yellows), like our farmhouse table Adam built. Polyurathane does seem like it would hold up better just because it’s thicker…which is also why it’s a pain to apply.

  8. Hello! I am literally in the process of redoing my kitchen cabinets. I have applied the polycrylic to a couple of drawers and it looks awful. Can you tell me how you applied your polycrylic? I’ve tried an expensive synthetic brush, a foam brush and in desperation I tried applying it with a cloth as you would when applying a stain. I cannot seem to get a smooth look. Any suggestions?

    1. Hmmm, I have no idea why it is looking bad. I’ve only ever applied the polycrylic to furniture and craft projects and usually I use a cloth simply because I hate washing brushes. I have used a brush though and it turned out great. I use the satin poly, perhaps that makes a difference. I don’t know! I’m sorry it’s turning out terrible…I know how frustrating that can be! You know, when we painted our kitchen cabinets we didn’t put any finish on them at all…perhaps you could just skip the entire process?

      1. Thanks so much! Think I will try the satin finish and pray that it turns out the way I want. :)

  9. Also, do you think the “finish” of the polycrylic could make a difference in the “streakiness”? Wondering if the “high-gloss” may show the streaks and brush marks more.

  10. I love Varathane’s water-based polyurethane, but the oil-based one is not my favorite due to yellowing. I wonder if this is a water-based vs. oil based issue. I’ve only been refinishing for a year, and I always love a good recommendation. I’ve posted all my water-based polyurethane projects on my site and none has yellowed yet…crossing fingers.

  11. Polycrylic comes in Flat, Satin, Low Gloss and High Gloss. Your results will be radically different depending on the selection. Also, you can base coat with other chemically compatible finishes to heighten the grain and then use the poly.

    1. Okay, I have to admit something…this comment has been bugging me all night. I’ve worked pretty hard to make my site look clean and have the ads not be too in your face while still allowing myself to make an income…but heck, maybe I’m just blind because I’m used to them. Did you look at it without the ad blocker? I can’t seem to come up with 17 no matter how I count.

  12. I am in the process of painting my bathroom cabinets and I plan on putting Polycrylic on to finish. I was wondering, how many coats did you apply? I’ve read several blogs that list anywhere from 1 – 3 coats and I’m so confused!

    1. Do 2-3 coats, one isn’t enough. I would apply two coats with a foam brush, sand lightly with sandpaper (150-200 grit) and then apply the final coat. This will seal it really well and the end product will be silky smooth!

      1. I was definitely going to do 2 but was leaning towards 3. Now I think I’ll definitely do 3. Thanks for the reply, I love your blog!

  13. I have another question, can I touch up areas on my cabinet if needed after polycrylic has been applied? If so, what steps would I take? Thanks!!

    1. Touch it up with paint? Not really, though your shouldn’t need to. If you get some wear and need to touch up with paint I would sand off the poly, paint, and reapply poly. Though if you get wear it probably means the poly has worn off and you won’t have to sand much at all.

      1. The reason I ask is I just finised painting my bathroom cabinet. I didn’t notice until after polycrylic coats were done that some areas on the doors and drawers, around the edges, didn’t have very good paint coverage. I may just leave well enough alone :-(

        1. I totally understand. I know it’s probably driving you nuts right now, but give it a few weeks and you won’t even remember that the cabinets aren’t perfect.

          1. Your right, it IS driving me nuts right now! This was my 1st big painting project and I made a lot of mistakes! What should have only taken a few days ended up taking me 2 1/2 weeks, but you live and learn :-) I just keep telling myself, it’s a distressed look, LOL! Your right, in a few weeks I probably won’t even care. Thanks for all the info!

  14. About 10 years ago I finished all of the raised panel Oak kitchen cabinets with at least 3 coats of Minwax Polycrylic. My husband spent months building these to my specs.
    As they became dark around handles, I used Krud Kutter to clean them. It appears that the Krud Kutter damaged the finish and surface has been sticky ever since. The “permanently” coated Brass handles also have become sticky. What I want to know is what will remove the normal Kitchen grease and grime without damaging the finish. I’m preparing to re-coat the doors and drawer fronts that have been damaged and don’t want to repeat the error of using something too strong BUT do want to be able to clean them without damage. The Minwax company rep suggested warm water with a bit of DAWN and some Ammonia, but no measurements. This just made the bad spots worse and doesn’t get the real GRIME off. THANKS for any help you can give.

  15. Why would you use polyurethane vs polycrystalline on a dining table? I used pilycrylic on a coffee table – 3 coats – and a few weeks later a cold water bottle left a ring on it…just wondering if polyurethane would prevent this from happening??

  16. Wanted to let you know how much I enjoy Ur blogs, filled w/Very useful information but w/ intelligent humor. Now we just need more websites to follow suit.

  17. Thank you so much. Just started repainting my kitchen cabinets and couldn’t figure out why the poly had a yellow haze to it. Thankfully, I came across your pics and info before I finished the whole project!

  18. I spent hours painting and distressing two bookcases, bought polycrylic based on all the rave that it doesn’t turn yellow and sure enough, saw my beautiful bookcases this morning with ugly yellow stains all over. Then I saw on the back of the can that it says it “could” ember. WHY?

  19. I’m curious – why would you still use polyurethane on your dining room table instead of polycrylic? I just painted our kitchen table white and distressed it and I’m debating how to seal it. I was planning to use polycrylic so I don’t have to deal with yellowing and then wax over it, but now you’re making me rethink my choice!

  20. I refinished my kitchen countertops with spreadstone and a final topcoat of Polycrylic. The next morning a can see water spots from our coffee cups. Do I need another coat or is it not fully cured yet?

    1. Did you only use one coat? I would add another coat and wait 48 hours before putting anything on it. That should make it better, but you may always be able to see some water spots (especially if you used a high sheen).

  21. I’m so happy I found this on polycrylic, I have used this on almost everything I work with, and it has held up to everything. I even used it on areas and furniture with high use and I think it holds up amazing, I used it on built ins, technically the original maid and butlers kitchen counter top. And that was probably the one project that tested my patience, to say the least 🙄 and I didn’t have any thing left for a clear coat except for the water based polycrylic, I was tired, frustrated and thought, I’m just going to have to…well after all was said and done, me chasing after people and kids at first to not put anything there, Don’t scratch it, etc. Life moves on, and my sister always puts EVERYTHING on it,lol, I stopped freaking out and this has even held up like a BOSS. I Can’t say enough about it, and I honestly rarely use polyurethane anymore. Just let it dry between coats, and cure. It is seriously fabulous and I was so happy to see this article. Thank you.

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