Best Wood Finish: Polyurethane Vs Shellac

Choosing the best wood finish for your project can be a daunting task. Do you go with a protective polyurethane coating or the traditional shellac? Both have their benefits, but which is the best choice for you?

What is Shellac?

Previously brushing lacquer from Chinese lacquer trees on the wood items for top coat usage was common. Now better things are used like shellac. Shellac is a natural product made by combining a secretion from the female lac bug that is very safe once dried and hardened. Shellac imparts a warm, amber color to the surface of the wood.

Uses Of Shellac

Shellac, a safe wood finish, can be used on furniture items, which will bring out wood’s true colors once coated with shellac. It can be used on non-wooden items too by using a brush or a cotton rag. It also gives a mellow shellac finish and enhances the grain pattern of the wood. Shellac is available in a variety of colors, from clear to amber, and medium brown, and can be used to achieve different finishes on wood. Here are some uses for shellac on wood:


Shellac can be used as a primer before painting. This helps to seal the wood and prevent the paint or stain from being absorbed unevenly.

High Gloss finish

Shellac can be used to create a high-gloss finish on the wood. This is typically achieved by applying multiple coats of shellac and then buffing it to a shine.

It can be applied to raw wood or over an existing finish. It dries quickly and leaves a smooth, shiny surface. Shellac is also very durable and can last for several years without needing to be reapplied.

Protective Gear

Shellac can be used to protect wood against water damage and wood stain. By sealing the pores of the wood, shellac prevents water from being absorbed into the wood which can cause swelling, warping, and cracking.

Repairing Purpose

Shellac can be used to Repair Scratches and Dents in Wood. By filling in the damaged area with shellac, you can restore the wood’s original appearance.

Adhesive Agent

Shellac can be used as an adhesive for attaching two pieces of wood together. This is especially useful for delicate or hard-to-reach surfaces. It dries clear and becomes very hard making it ideal for protection.

Waterproofing Agent

It can be applied to outdoor furniture or any other type of wood that is exposed to moisture. This will save the quality of wood and retain it almost forever.

What Is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane is the hardest and most durable of all finishes as it has become the go-to topcoat durable finish for woodworkers everywhere. Nearly every finish & topcoat manufacturer has come up with a poly product for sale. The good thing is that it can be bought in all finishes, from matte to gloss. And, it can be sprayed on, applied through a foam brush, or even wiped on. 

Uses Of Polyurethane

Here are a few uses of polyurethane

On Wall-Hanging Items

Polyurethane can be used to protect items that are hung on walls, such as pictures and mirrors.

On Wooden Flooring

Polyurethane can be used as the final coat on wooden floors. It will protect the wood from scratches and dirt, and it will make the floors easier to clean.

Finishing Wooden Surfaces Of Cabinets

Polyurethane can be used to finish the wooden surfaces of cabinets. It will give the cabinets a beautiful shine and protection from everyday wear and tear.

As A Water Finish

Polyurethane can be used as a water-resistant finish on surfaces such as countertops and tabletops. It will help to prevent water from damaging the surface.

On Painted Surfaces

Polyurethane can be used to protect painted surfaces from scuffs and scratches. It is especially effective in high-traffic areas, such as baseboards and door frames.

On Metal Surfaces

Polyurethane can also be used on metal surfaces, such as door handles and cabinet knobs. It will help to keep them looking new for longer.

As An Adhesive

Polyurethane can be used as an adhesive for bonding two surfaces together. It provides a strong bond that is resistant to heat, moisture, and wear and tear.

Types Of Polyurethane

There are two types of polyurethane finishes available in the market,

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based poly is made with a petroleum-distillate solvent a chemical reaction and works great as a durable topcoat for wood surfaces. Its amber color gives the wood a warm glow and enhances the natural grain of the wood.

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based poly is made with water as the primary solvent and dries much faster than oil-based polyurethane. It has little to no odor, making it a good choice for indoor use. Water-based polyurethane also tends to be less sticky than oil-based finishes, making it easier to apply.

Shellac Vs Polyurethane

When choosing a finish for your woodworking project, you have two main options: shellac and polyurethane. Both finishes offer protection against water damage and wear, but there are some key differences between the two. Here’s a closer look at shellac vs polyurethane.

Water Resistance

Both shellac and polyurethane offer good water resistance, but polyurethane is slightly more durable in this regard. 

Heat Resistance

Polyurethane has better heat resistance than shellac, making it a good choice for items that may come into contact with heat sources (e.g., tabletops). 


Shellac is available in a variety of colors, while polyurethane is typically clear or amber-colored. Colors are used to achieve different effects, such as a natural wood finish or a high-gloss look.


Shellac has a strong odor that can be unpleasant for some people. Polyurethane, on the other hand, has little to no odor. The odor of shellac can be reduced by using a water-based product.

Drying Time

Shellac dries very quickly, while polyurethane can take up to 24 hours to dry completely. 


Shellac is somewhat fragile and can be easily damaged by alcohol or cleaners. Polyurethane is more durable and can withstand more wear and tear. 


The cost of finishing a wood project can be significant. Two of the most famous finishes are polyurethane and shellac. How do they compare in terms of cost?

  • Polyurethane is a synthetic resin that is available in both water-based and oil-based formulations. A quart of water-based polyurethane typically costs around $20, while a quart of oil-based polyurethane usually costs around $30. However, oil-based polyurethane tends to yellow over time, so it may not be the best choice for projects that will be on display.
  • Shellac is a natural resin that is derived from the lac beetle. It has a very long shelf life and can be applied directly to bare wood. A quart of shellac typically costs around $15. Shellac is also very easy to apply, so it may be the best choice for novice woodworkers.

Overall, both shellac and polyurethane are good choices for finishing woodworking projects. The best option for you will depend on your specific needs and preferences.

Pros And Cons Of Shellac

Here are some pros and cons Of Shellac


  • The natural beauty and warm amber tone of the wood can be enhanced.
  • High-gloss finish 
  • Retains its color for long
  • Shellac dries very quickly 


  • Shellac can be removed from the surface of the wood with water and alcohol because it is not as durable as polyurethane or varnish.
  • Limited Life Line

Pros And Cons Of Polyurethane

Besides being the best finish there is, there are some pros and cons of polyurethane


  • Polyurethanes with a water or oil base are equally resilient and long-lasting.
  • Forms a hard-wearing film protecting surfaces
  • Polyurethane offers better resistance to heat and chemicals
  • Retains wood natural color. 


  • Polyurethane can take longer to dry than shellac. 
  • Some polyurethane types turn amber over time due to UV exposure.

Final Thoughts

So, what is the best wood finish? The answer to that question depends on your needs and preferences. Polyurethane is a good choice for furniture that will be used in high-traffic areas because it’s durable and scratch resistant. Shellac is a better option for pieces that will be displayed rather than used because it has a more beautiful appearance and is less likely to show scratches.

Ultimately, the best wood finish for you depends on your specific situation and goals. If you want help deciding which type of finish is right for you, our team at Artistic Cabinet Finishes would be happy to assist you. We provide professional finishing services nationwide and can help you choose the perfect finish for your project.