Is epoxy better than polyurethane for bar tops?

When choosing a varnish or finish for your bar top, there are several different options available. Shellac, lacquers, oil-based finishes, polyurethane, and—of course—epoxy resin are all at the very least feasible.

Still, some options are decidedly better than others, so it's useful to know what the pros and cons of each are.

In this article we'll be comparing two of the best-known choices—epoxy resin and polyurethane—to determine which would be better for a typical bar top.

What is epoxy resin?

Epoxy resin, specifically two-part epoxies, are highly durable plastics that start off as two separate liquid components. When these components are mixed together, they begin to cure (i.e., harden).

When applied to a substrate (e.g., a wooden bar top) just after mixing, epoxy will bond directly to the surface, developing a tenacious connection that preserves and safeguards the substrate material.

As the curing process progresses (typically over a 3-day period), the epoxy resin gradually becomes stronger and stronger, until ideally it has resulted in a rock-solid finish with a crystal-clear, transparent appearance.

Epoxy resin is valued for its versatility. Starting off as a liquid allows it to easily conform to unusual shapes and fill in small holes, voids, and divots without issue.

Epoxy is also also admired for its incredibly high resilience and ease of maintenance. It features unmatched resistance to impacts, scratching, and moisture. A cured epoxy finish is waterproof, easy to clean, and food safe.

These days, two-part epoxy resins are easily available, with numerous different producers, many of which, unfortunately, are discreetly imported from foreign economies where quality is sacrificed for profit.

Thus, when choosing a brand, it's wise to watch out for substandard "budget brands", which cut corners on quality. A premium resin will last much longer, with a cleaner, stronger finish.

A long wooden bar top with an epoxy coating.

What is polyurethane?

Polyurethane is a type of polymer used in a variety of industries, in many different forms, one of which is polyurethane varnish. Polyurethane varnish is similar to epoxy resin in its purpose, but has a different set of upsides and downsides.

For upsides, polyurethane is highly scratch resistant and quite durable, though less so than epoxy. And—similar to epoxy—it is moisture resistant, though again less so than epoxy.

As for downsides, polyurethane definitely has a few. For one, it forms a weaker bond with the substrate, meaning that it can come loose (delamination), which distorts the appearance and can cause cracks or breaks in the finish.

Additionally, polyurethane exhibits a greater tendency to yellow over time. Exposure to various elements, such as UV rays (e.g., direct or indirect sunlight) can hasten this degradation.

Polyurethane generally fares poorly in outdoor settings. Exposure to humidity, sunlight, and a highly fluctuating temperature range all contribute to gradual deterioration.

Aside from these pros and cons, polyurethane has a couple of more subjective aesthetic traits.

Once applied, polyurethane conforms as a thin film to the texture of the substrate surface. This means, unlike with epoxy, which becomes a flat, smooth finish, polyurethane can keep the ridges, fissures, and divots exhibited by something like wood. That can be an issue for cleaning, since residues and other forms of grime or debris can reside in the grooves of materials like wood.

Secondly, polyurethane exhibits a hazier sheen compared to the high-gloss finish of epoxy. When light reflects off of polyurethane, it becomes more diffuse—i.e., spread out and less like a mirror.

Is epoxy better than polyurethane for a bar top?

Now that we've discussed both finishes individually, we're ready to directly compare them.

Here's how epoxy and polyurethane perform against one another.

Epoxy vs Polyurethane

  • Physical Durability: Epoxy - Epoxy is the winner here. While polyurethane is indeed quite strong, it doesn't reach the exceptional heights of a premium epoxy resin.

  • Clarity: Epoxy - Both finishes are beautiful in their own way. While epoxy brings a crystal-clear clarity, a polyurethane finish puts on its own pleasing display with diffuse, softer, and fuzzier reflections.

  • Water Resistance: Epoxy - Epoxy once again takes the win. Although both finishes are water resistant, only epoxy is truly waterproof, thanks to its ultra-smooth molecular bond.

  • Heat Resistance: Tied - Either of these two finish types has adequate heat resistance for normal use. For very hot items—such as a baking pan, fresh from the oven—use trivets to disperse the heat and prevent it from damaging either type of finish.

  • Ease of Maintenance: Epoxy - A proper coating of epoxy will last longer and be easier to maintain and clean than a polyurethane finish.

  • Cost: Polyurethane - Between the two, polyurethane will cost less up front. This, in part, is because it doesn't last as long and isn't as durable or resilient.
A high-trim wooden bar top with a coating of epoxy resin.

As you can see, epoxy excels in nearly every category, while breaking even with polyurethane for heat resistance, yet being slightly more expensive up front.

Even still, while polyurethane may indeed be cheaper at first, its higher costs for maintenance and upkeep, combined with its shorter lifespans and more restrictive limitations on use and placement, make it the lesser option of the two when choosing between them.

In the end—for the strongest, clearest, longest-lasting, and lowest-maintenance finish—a premium epoxy is the way to go.

Have questions? Want advice? Contact us!

At UltraClear Epoxy, we pride ourselves on providing the best in customer service and premium-grade epoxy resins.

If you have any questions about the "pros and cons" of an epoxy bar top, or if you'd like help planning a project of your own, please reach out to us. Our epoxy experts are ready to assist!

You can contact us via phone or email here. During business hours, you can also text chat online with one of our resin specialists by clicking the Help button at the bottom right of your screen.

You can also check out our award-winning UltraClear Table Top Epoxy, which is unmatched in quality. The more you need, the more you'll save!

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