How to Apply Polycrylic

Learn how to apply Polycrylic the right way without streaks or brush strokes. Get a smooth as glass finish on your stained wood or painted furniture projects.

Learn how to apply Polycrylic the right way without streaks or brush strokes. Get a smooth as glass finish on your stained wood or painted furniture projects.

Apply Polycrylic Without Streaks or Brush Strokes

Polycrylic is an easy-to-apply protective finish for DIY projects. But this top coat can become streaky or have noticeable brush strokes if it’s applied the wrong way.

Follow these helpful tips and tricks to tackle your next Polycrylic project with confidence. Get goof-proof results and a smooth as glass finish on your stained wood and painted furniture projects every time.

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Table of Contents

What is Polycrylic?

Polycrylic is a water-based protective finish or top coat made by Minwax. It adds a layer of protection to wood projects by preventing dirt, dust, water, oil, grease, etc. from penetrating the wood. It also protects against normal wear and tear and adds a shine to the wood.

Polycrylic doesn’t have stinky fumes like oil-based polyurethane, dries quickly, and doesn’t yellow over time. Because it’s water-based, it cleans up easily with soap and warm water.

Opening a can of Polycrylic protective finish

When we open a can of Polycrylic, we’ll notice it has a milky white color. This is normal. It will become crystal clear as it dries.

The other thing we’ll notice is Polycrylic has a runny consistency. This runny consistency can make it difficult to apply on vertical surfaces. In other words, we need to watch for drips when it’s applied to vertical surfaces like the sides of bookcases or doors.

Related: Polycrylic vs Polyurethane: Are They The Same?

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Where to Use Polycrylic

UseNotes
Indoors or OutdoorsCan be used for indoor projects.
Not recommended for outdoor projects.
Light Woods or Dark WoodsWorks well on light woods.
Can look milky on dark woods. Apply thin, even coats for a clear finish.
Painted ProjectsWorks well on light colors.
Can appear milky on dark colors. Apply thin, even coats for a clear finish.
Small or Large ProjectsWorks well on small projects like small side tables, decorative trays, home decor projects, and more. Can be difficult to apply on large projects because it dries quickly.
Vertical or Horizontal SurfacesCan be difficult to apply on vertical surfaces because of its runny consistency. Can be difficult to apply on large horizontal surfaces like table tops because it dries quickly.
Instead of PolyurethaneNot as durable, heat resistant, or water resistant as polyurethane.
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Types of Polycrylic

Polycrylic is available in liquid and spray aerosol cans. The liquid product has a milky white color in the can, but dries crystal clear.

Polycyrlic looks milky but dries clear after it's applied
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What Sheens are Available?

Sheen is the level of glossiness. A higher gloss level means more shine and the lower the gloss level means less shine.

Ultra Flat MatteSatinGlossHigh Gloss
Amount of Gloss (Shine)✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔✔
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What is the Best Way to Apply Polycrylic?

Polycrylic can be applied with brush or sprayed.

The best way to apply Polycrylic is with a synthetic bristle brush. It’s also the method that Minwax recommends.

I use this paint brush (my favorite brush) to apply Polycrylic. The stubby handle makes this brush unique. 

I feel the stubby handle gives me better control when applying paints, stains, and finishes. And the shorter handle means less weight. That means less stress on my wrist.

The best way to apply Polycrylic is with a synthetic bristle brush

Can I Use a Foam Brush to Apply Polycrylic?

I’ve tried applying Polycrylic with a foam brush and I wouldn’t recommend it. 

My experience is the foam brush holds too much product. That means you could end up with a puddle if you accidentally push a little too hard on the brush.

Can You Apply Polycrylic With a Roller?

It’s not recommended to apply Polycrylic with a roller. Using a roller can introduce air bubbles into the finish. Those bubbles can cause the finish to be bumpy.

Those bumps will need to be sanded out and an additional coat will need to be applied.

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How to Apply Polycrylic

Supplies


Quick Steps

  1. Set up your work area
  2. Prepare the surface
  3. Prepare the product
  4. Apply Without Streaks or Brush Strokes
  5. Apply 3 Coats
  6. Allow each coat to dry for 2 hours
  7. Sand with 220 grit sandpaper between each coat

Set Up Your Work Area

Polycrylic has a slight odor, but it doesn’t have strong, stinky fumes like oil-based polyurethane. That said, I would still apply it in a well-ventilated area

The work area should be relatively dust-free. Dust particles that land in the finish while it’s drying will need to be sanded out. Fortunately, Polycrylic dries quickly, so I haven’t experience this problem yet.

Humidity can cause Polycrylic to dry more slowly. If possible, choose to apply the finish when the humidity is low or in an area where the humidity is low.


Prepare the Surface

Any finish begins with properly preparing the surface of the wood. That means smoothing the surface of the wood with sandpaper. 

Related: What’s the Best Sander for Furniture? (Here’s the Answer)

I typically start with 80 grit or 100 grit sandpaper and finish with either 120 grit or 150 grit sandpaper.

Related: 11 Secrets for Sanding Wood Projects Like a Pro

Next, I fill any gaps or nail holes. I like to use this DIY wood filler. It’s easy to make with just two ingredients and it absorbs stain well.

Related: Does Stainable Wood Filler Work?

Polycrylic on Raw Wood

Water-based products like water-based Polycrylic raise the grain of raw wood (wood that has not been stained or painted). In other words, the wood is no longer smooth after the finish is applied. 

One way to prevent this from happening is to prepare the wood before applying the water-based finish. Dip a rag in water and wipe it on the surface of the wood. When the wood is dry, lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper. Then, remove the sanding dust. First, remove the majority of the dust with a ShopVac and then follow up with a tack cloth.

Related: What is a Tack Cloth? (+ What I Used Instead) 

Polycrylic on Stained Wood

I usually build my projects with pine. Pine often becomes blotchy when it’s stained. To help prevent blotchiness and help the wood accept the stain more evenly, I apply a pre-stain conditioner. Store-bought pre-stain conditioners are available, but I like to use natural, DIY versions instead.

Related: What I Use Instead of Wood Conditioner

Then, I stain my project. I like the Rust-Oleum and Varathane oil-based stains. Oil-based stains have stinky fumes. Lately, I have been using homemade stains like this coffee stain or this DIY black walnut stain.

It’s important to mention that water-based finishes could react with oil-based and water-based stains. For example, water-based top coats can sometimes remove water-based stains like the coffee stain and the black walnut stain.To prevent this from happening, we can apply wax-free shellac.

Related: What You Need to Know About a Shellac Wood Finish

Wax-free shellac rarely reacts with oil-based or water-based stains and can be used under any other top coat. The wax-free shellac will act as a barrier between the stain and the water-based Polycrylic.


Prepare the Product

Stir the Polycrylic. Don’t shake it. Shaking can introduce air bubbles. Those bubbles can cause the finish to be bumpy.

Those bumps will need to be sanded out and an additional coat will need to be applied.

Stirring Polycrylic with a paint stick

Apply Polycrylic Without Streaks

  • Use a quality synthetic bristle brush
  • Apply with the grain of the wood
  • Use long strokes in one direction. Short, back and forth strokes can leave streaks or brush strokes
  • Apply thin, even coats and brush out any drips
  • Keep a wet edge. Work from wet areas towards dry areas. 
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How Long Does it Take to Dry?

Polycrylic dries quickly, usually in about two hours. It’s ready for light handling after about three hours. 

It needs to dry at least 24 hours before it’s ready for “normal use”. We need to be careful during this time because it can scratch or dent before it’s fully cured.

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How Many Coats of Polycrylic Should I Use?

Minwax recommends applying three coats of Polycrylic.

I usually apply three coats to my projects and I’ve been pleased with the results.

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Do You Have to Sand Between Coats of Polycrylic?

Yes. Apply the Polycrylic and allow each coat to dry for about two hours. 

Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper between each coat. Then remove the sanding dust. First remove the majority of the dust with a ShopVac and then follow up with a tack cloth.

Do not sand the last coat.

TIP: Don’t use steel wool to sand between coats when using water-based products like Polycrylic. Water can cause steel wool to rust. If any of the steel wool is left behind it could cause a stain in the finish.

Sanding wood after applying a coat of Polycrylic
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How Do You Fix Streaks or Brush Strokes?

Streaks and brush marks can be fixed by sanding and reapplying.

Let the coat with streaks or brush strokes dry completely. Next, lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper to remove the streaks or brush strokes.

Then, remove the sanding dust. First, remove the majority of the dust with a ShopVac and then follow up with a tack cloth.

Next, reapply the Polycrylic.

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Can You Apply Polycrylic Over Paint?

Yes, Polycrylic can be applied over paint. 

We need to prepare the painted surface just like a wood surface. Paint is smooth. Polycrylic needs something to bite into so that it will stick to the surface

That means we need to lightly sand the painted surface with 220 grit sandpaper. Then, remove the sanding dust. First, remove the majority of the dust with a ShopVac and then follow up with a tack cloth.

I should also mention if your painted project has visible streaks or brush strokes, you will see those brush strokes even after the Polycrylic is applied. The painted surface will need to be completely smooth for the Polycrylic to be completely smooth.

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Can You Apply Polycrylic Over Chalk-Type Paint?

Yes, Polycrylic can be applied over chalk-type paints.

Related: How to Spray Chalk-Type Paint

I’ve heard matte-finish paints like chalk-type paints have an additive that gives them a chalky appearance. This additive supposedly can prevent Polycrylic from drying (it will remain tacky) or dry very slowly.

I have applied Polycrylic to projects painted with chalk-type paints. In my experience, the Polycrylic dried as it normally would on any other project. 

I would recommend that you try it on some test pieces before applying to your project to be sure the Polycrylic will dry properly with your chalk-type paint.

I should also mention if your chalky paint project has visible streaks or brush strokes, you will see those brush strokes even after the Polycrylic is applied. The painted surface will need to be completely smooth for the Polycrylic to be completely smooth.

We need to prepare the chalky painted surface just like a wood surface. That means we need to lightly sand the painted surface with 220 grit sandpaper. Then, remove the sanding dust. First, remove the majority of the dust with a ShopVac and then follow up with a tack cloth.

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Can You Apply Polycrylic Over Vinyl Decals?

Yes, Polycrylic can be applied over vinyl decals.

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Final Thoughts

Polycrylic is an easy-to-apply protective finish for DIY projects. But this top coat can become streaky or have noticeable brush strokes if it’s applied the wrong way.

Get a smooth as glass finish by using a quality brush, applying with the grain, using long strokes in one direction, applying thin, even coats, and keeping a wet edge.

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6 Comments

  1. I wondered if you have tried to use Polycrylic and used a HVLP type sprayer and what the results were and why you do not use a sprayer.

    1. Hi Frank – I haven’t used Polycrylic with my paint sprayer. I typically use Polycrylic for small projects that are easy to tackle with a brush. But as far as I know, you can use it in a sprayer. Now that you brought it up, I’m going to try spraying it!

    1. Hi Bill, I haven’t tried spraying it yet, but it’s on my list of things to try.

  2. I think one of the important elements of poly acrylic, is that it won’t yellow. Anything with -thane in the name will. That’s why I stick with poly acrylic or even paint base for dark colors. (You know, the can of stuff before the pigment is added.)

  3. This was great info, thanks!! I’m just starting out with DIY stuff so i needed some basics with this material. I wasnt about to waste resin for a custom desk i am making for myself! This seems like a proper solution 🙂

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