Does polyurethane get a bad rap?

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Forum topic by CharlieM1958 posted 10-23-2015 02:16 PM 2378 views 0 times favorited 35 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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16292 posts in 5674 days

10-23-2015 02:16 PM

I was reading a comment on another thread this morning, one we’ve all seen some version of a thousand times, about someone disliking poly because it looks like plastic. It started me thinking about whether this is a fair criticism, or maybe just a bias based on how poly gets used sometimes.

Granted, some folks think every project should be finished with globs of high-gloss poly, and the result is not always pretty. Some projects are just better if you leave the natural texture of the would exposed to the eyes and hands. But if you’re going to put some sort of topcoat on a piece, is there really that much aesthetic difference between, say, a glossy lacquer finish and a glossy poly finish?

There are many factors that go into choosing a topcoat: ease of application, durability, water resistance, to name a few. But purely from the standpoint of appearance, is “plastic-looking” a valid criticism of poly, or is it more about how a finish is applied rather than which finish is applied?

I’ll go pop some popcorn and wait for the fireworks to start. :-)

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

35 replies so far

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

5368 posts in 5416 days

#1 posted 10-23-2015 02:22 PM

Pass the popcorn. I’m waitin’ with ya.

-- [email protected]

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6940 posts in 2678 days

#2 posted 10-23-2015 02:25 PM

In my opinion, it’s all application. I like poly for many reasons (durability being prime), but I do despise the ‘plastic’ look. When I use poly, I kill the gloss by finishing with 0000 steel wool and a scrub with brown paper. I only use the ‘gloss’ poly (versus the satin) since the satin has the dulling additive which can eventually obscure the wood.

As to the difference between a glossy poly and lacquer, consider that the lacquer in the end is a single layer of finish if applied properly. Each coat of lacquer ‘melts’ into the previous coat. Poly doesn’t do that. After extensive sanding to get a flawless, flat surface, the poly has the ghost rings present where the strata of each finish layer is visible, the lacquer doesn’t.

This is a discussion that could go on forever!

View Jeremy78's profile


11 posts in 2403 days

#3 posted 10-23-2015 02:30 PM

I think poly has its place and uses. Durability is a big plus to it. I am a “close to the wood” type guy. I love the oil finishes, specifically Danish oil with Shellac over it. I use poly if I have to have the durability factor. Otherwise I avoid it.

-- If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right

View mahdee's profile


4291 posts in 3223 days

#4 posted 10-23-2015 02:30 PM

I think it all depends what you want the end result to look like. One or two thin application can show the texture. Several application puts the wood “under glass” or plastic if it not gloss. There is a way to do a french polish with poly as well. I put several coats of it on my wood kitchen counter top 24 years or so ago and it is still holding up. Same with my walnut dining room table. It has made it past 3 children being born and raised and at this point it could use a fresh coat.
It all depends what the function of the object to be covered is going to be. I certainly would not have used lacquer
with five females in the house using nail polish and such.


View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

7480 posts in 3949 days

#5 posted 10-23-2015 02:30 PM

Not in my opinion, there is no polyanything in my shop and it deserves every curse word aimed at it. Besides the look, it has problems with adhesion…hence the sanding between coats for tooth. As much as I hate it, there are times when it’s the right finish for the job: like floors, where it’s abrasion/scratch resistance is worth it’s weight in gold. But generally, there are much nicer varnishes to use, the popularity of the resin is due to 2 things (IMHO): Norm’s never ending ” a coat of POLY”, and 2 it’s low cost (that’s the manufacturer’s draw). Just my opinion; but that’s what you were asking, right?

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5674 days

#6 posted 10-23-2015 03:40 PM

Good comments and opinions, guys… keep ‘em coming.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View splintergroup's profile


6940 posts in 2678 days

#7 posted 10-23-2015 03:46 PM

Good comments and opinions, guys… keep em coming.

- CharlieM1958 he pokes the ant hill with a stick….

View nashley's profile


46 posts in 2734 days

#8 posted 10-23-2015 04:58 PM

Just a neat little fact about finishes…

I went on a tour of the Gibson (electric) guitar factory here in Nashville about a year ago and saw some pretty amazing stuff. Our tour guide was the guy in charge of selecting, storing, and maintaining all of the hardwood that was used for making the guitars. He also dealt with grain orientation of glue ups and such. He is very knowledgeable and there’s no doubt he knows the physical properties of wood and how it reacts to its change in environment (temp, humidity etc.). He is basically the wood guru there at Gibson. During the tour through the finishing section of the plant, he also went into a lot of detail as to the reason for selecting the type of finish that they use. I asked him if he would mind telling us what they use and he gladly said that it was Sherwin Williams Hi-Bild Lacquer. Just the regular ol’ stuff anyone else can buy. He said that they also use a conditioner/sanding sealer which I would assume is the sanding sealer made by Sherwin Williams. They use tinted lacquer to get all of thise wild colors on their guitars, too. While he was so willing to divulge information I asked him what type of glue they use and he said Titebond III. I also asked him about the sandpaper grit progression they use from sanding the bare wood to finishing/buffing the lacquer, but I don’t remember the grits. He also mentioned that another advantage to a lacquer finish is that when a customer sends in a guitar to have it refinished, they can easily clean the guitar, prep, and refinish, with the resulting finish just as good as the day it was manufactured.

I say all of this just to point out that Gibson has made hundreds of thousands of guitars, knows how to finish wood, and has experimented with everything out there, and they choose Lacquer.

I’ve had a lot of experience with Sherwin Williams lacquer since this is what my father has used on all of his cabinets and furniture. I can attest to the quality of finish that can be achieved by using lacquer and its ability to be touched up or completely refinished many years down the road. This is also why I chose to use it recently on a set of dining chairs and table that I built. The tables and chairs have already gotten some scratches but I know that a few years down the road I will be able to throw it all out in the garage, slap on a new finish and not have to worry about peeling or flaking between the original and the new finish.

I have no doubt that poly provides an excellent finish but I would be hesitant to use it on anything that you would like to be easily serviceable for future refinishes.

Disclaimer: I’m, by no mean, a expert on wood finishes nor do I claim to be. I’m just sharing some of my experience.



Thought I’d share a few of the pictures I took…

-- Nathan

View pintodeluxe's profile


6542 posts in 4269 days

#9 posted 10-23-2015 05:31 PM

I think satin poly and satin lacquer look about the same. I use lacquer because it dries faster. Traditional poly can take 24-48 hours for each coat to dry. That is a lot of time for dust to find its way into the finish.

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View Logan Windram's profile

Logan Windram

347 posts in 3918 days

#10 posted 10-23-2015 05:43 PM

Polyurethane offers excellent protection to a piece that will be high use abuse, it is easy to use as a wipe on product, it’s widely available, and it is accessible to any wood worker. If you thin it and build slowly, you can minimize the plastic looking effect. Oil based versus Water Bourne yields different looks, I like WB on light woods only, it makes dark wood look hazy. I’d agree with Fred, it’s really best suited for floors and other protection projects.

Oil- I use Osmo on alot of projects, it has the easy of a wipe on poly but leaves a non building rich finish on wood. It’s expensive and takes a little longer to dry and finish, but like other oils, it’s gorgeous. My recommendation to new finishers is go oil products first, perfect their use, then explore.

Lacquer- my go to for projects that will get more abuse, but it requires spraying to do it right… That makes it hard for the average woodworker, but then again there are rattle cans for small projects.

In the end, to me, a great project is determined by high attention surface preperation. No machine marks, no tearout, entire surfaces evenly sanded with a consistent scratch pattern. The common American will have no idea if you used poly, lacquer, oil, shellac… What they will notice is how the light reflects off you falwlessly sanded surface because that’s what matters, how it looks.

View MrUnix's profile


8996 posts in 3655 days

#11 posted 10-23-2015 06:15 PM

I love poly… you can get just about any desired look you want with it, it’s tough as nails and is basically fool proof. With wipe-on (50/50 mix) poly, it can be dry to the touch in less than 30 minutes (initial coats can dry in as little as a couple of minutes), and you can easily lay down 6-8 or more coats in a day without the need for sanding in between.


-- Brad in FL - In Dog I trust... everything else is questionable

View Woodknack's profile


13593 posts in 3836 days

#12 posted 10-23-2015 06:37 PM

I have, for many years, been a poly hate monger based on past experiences. But my wife bought some for something and had a bunch left over so I took it to the shop. To my surprise there is hardly any smell, dries in minutes, and two coats did not appear plastic at all.

-- Rick M,

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1589 posts in 4523 days

#13 posted 10-23-2015 06:47 PM

I’ve got a kitchen table I did nearly 30 years ago and two boys grown using it and numerous get togethers and its a tank. From a durability standpoint its dang hard to beat. I think it has it places and uses

I think every finish has +’s and -’s and depending on personal tastes and looks. Just like there are diff’s between oil base and water base. Wipe on and spray. Not an easy either or?

Personally I do not prefer it, but it’s not the anti-Christ of finishes either. Shellac is a great finish, but would not use it where water could be an issue etc.

I like in-the-wood finishes and low gloss but thats just me. Depends on what the client wants, that’s the one thats best :)

-- Sooner or later Liberals run out of other people's money.

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8816 posts in 4254 days

#14 posted 10-23-2015 07:36 PM

How’s the popcorn holding out Charlie?

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View JayT's profile


6455 posts in 3667 days

#15 posted 10-23-2015 07:43 PM

I don’t think poly gets a bad rap as much as it gets overused and used incorrectly too often. There are times it is the most appropriate finish, there are other times a different finish would work/look better. Too many coats of poly does give a “plasticy” look, IMHO. However on a tabletop or floor, a little bit plasticy is better than a lot beat up.

Because it’s the finish that most people are aware of, it’s the one they grab when starting out. Overuse and inexperience is a bad combination, especially with finishing. As someone progresses in their woodworking and really starts to learn about finishes, whole new horizons open up. Plus, they get better at prep and application, which results in a better look, as well.

-- - In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

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