barb blair by 61

before and after basics: polyurethane


Hello everyone! I can’t believe it’s already Thursday — this week just flew by. Thank you for all of the suggestions last week. I’m going to try and tackle them one at a time, starting today with polyurethane.

Many of you have asked how to apply it, what tools work the best and whether you should use water-based or oil-based varieties. In today’s Before and After Basics, I hope to answer all of your questions about this tricky liquid! — Barb

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!

Water-Based Polyurethane (I really love a matte finish)

Materials

  • foam brushes
  • soft-bristle synthetic brush
  • fine-grit sand paper
  • foam roller

In reading lots of articles on application, you will find that some people prefer to use foam brushes and some prefer bristle brushes for application. I personally do not like foam brushes, as they get over-saturated and fall apart! It makes for a frustrating venture, so I use either a bristle brush by itself or along with a foam roller.

Instructions

1. Make sure that you never shake a can of polyurethane as it will cause air bubbles to form in your finish. Gently stir with a stir stick. If you are using just the brush, you can dip right out of the can, but if you are going to use a roller, pour the poly into a tray.

2. Roll the poly onto the surface, making sure your paint strokes are in the same direction — do not work the roller back and forth, as this will leave lines and uneven spots in its wake! When working with any type of poly, it is super important to remember this step. Over-working with a roller or brush breaks the chemical reaction in oil-based poly and causes streaks in water-based poly because of the fast drying time. So work fast and in long, even strokes.

3. If you notice air bubbles after applying with the roller, go back over the surface lightly with your brush to smooth them out. Use a very light hand in this — you just want to skim the surface and not dig into the finish. You can do the whole application with a brush if you like and skip the foam roller. It is entirely up to you and what you find works best. Try it both ways and come up with your favorite finish.

4. Allow product to dry according to directions on the can, which is normally around 1 to 2 hours.

5. Lightly sand the surface with fine sand paper before applying a second coat. Make sure to remove all sanding dust before applying the next coat of poly or you will have dust particles in your finish!

6. Apply a total of 2 to 4 coats of poly depending on the needs of the piece.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Materials

  • china bristle brush
  • fine sand paper
  • mineral spirits
  • staining pads

Some suggest using mineral spirits to thin out the first coat of oil polyurethane, and you can totally do this. I use a product called Arm-R-Seal by General Finishes that I find doesn’t need to be thinned down. This has been the best oil product for my furniture products.

Instructions

1. Using a natural-bristle brush, apply the poly in long, smooth strokes (going with the direction of the grain) overlapping the previous stroke just a bit to ensure proper coverage. Remember again not to over-work the brush as it will disrupt the finish.

2. One thing to be careful of with oil is drips! Check for drips and go back with your brush to smooth them out.

3. Oil takes longer to dry than water-based poly, so read the instructions on the can very carefully! Let fully dry.

4. Sand very lightly over the entire surface. Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to remove all of the dust and to have a very smooth, clean surface before applying the second coat. Many make this mistake and end up with a bumpy, uneven finish.

5. Apply 2 to 4 coats and you have a very durable surface for your furniture!

Here are my thoughts on water- versus oil-based poly: Water-based products have their advantages; they are safer for the environment and working area, they dry fast, are easy to clean up, easy to apply, will not yellow over time and are quite durable as a finish. Oil-based products are more harmful to breathe in, (please make sure to wear a mask and use all necessary safety precautions), require longer drying times and can be tricky to apply.

In my experience, I’ve found the water-based poly to be all I need for most furniture pieces, but when working on a piece that will be used for a dining room table or sink, I go with oil. Oil-based finishes are still the strongest and most durable for surfaces that get lots of wear and tear.

So, that’s my two cents in the polyurethane department and it’s based purely on my experience with furniture. I hope that clears up some of your questions surrounding this process!

See you all next week!

Note: A great source for these products and more is your local Woodcraft store.

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61 Comments

Jen Preston

Barb, I’m so glad you posted this because I am currently recovering from a DISASTEROUS Poly experience. I used the Miniwax poly-stain in one on my diningroom table. I sanded, I wiped down with a damp cloth, then dry, lint-free cloth, I got every little piece of lint, dust, off that I could. When it dried, it had tiny bits of particles in it that you could see in certain light and feel if you smoothed your hand over it. I had to re-sand the entire thing and choose another finish (decided to go with a stain and a wax instead. I work in my garage, and try to be as careful as possible, but I just do not see how to prevent these tiny particles from existing in the air.

Does this ever happen to you and what can you do about it?

Casey

Do you used poly over stain only? Or over paint also? Does one type (water vs. oil) work better over paint vs. stain?

Lauren

I refinished a beat up dining room table last year so it’s half wood, half red spray paint on top. I used an oil-based poly to protect the surface. It went on fine, but over time, little air pockets developed between the paint and the poly, especially if something was pushed across the table. I peeled all of the oil poly off, but am wondering if I should put on another type (water) or use a different product?

Nathan

Great post and I’d say we are on the same page as far as the water vs. oil debate. We generally use water based except for special circumstances of unusual wear or a lot of exposure to liquids.
@JEN – so sorry to hear that, did you use a lint free cloth for the damp cloth? That might be your problem. Have you finished the job now with the stain/wax combo?

dee

I know you have mentioned before that you sometimes use a wax finish instead of poly. How do you decide which to use? And is wax easier? thank you!

Lisa

hey barb

do you ever have any issues with water based poly turning yellow over white paint? i recently repainted an antique frame white and used poly to finish it and its yellowing! its driving me crazy! and i am trying to make sure not to use a lot so it doesnt build up in those areas. what am i doing wrong?

Anna

I recently did a DIY project on the floors of my gallery, I took wrapping paper, made my own wall paper paste, and did the entire floor in bright green… sealed it in with six layers of poly and good to go! In retrospect I would have tried to get another 6 layers on, but now I know for next time!

Sofia

I have used water based poly over paint many times (a good rule of thumb is if you are using oil based paint use oil based polu, water based paint use water based poly). Could be why you got the bubbles between the layers. I love poly over paint because it gets rid of that stickyness you can get with paint (especially on something like a table top or a surface that gets wear).

Sofia

oooh and for the white paint issue- minwax makes a great “clear” water based poly. I have never had a problem with it yellowing.

Bobbi

Thanks for the helpful post! I have some furniture I want to re-do, but the thought of it can be so daunting! It’s good to have some hand-holding:)

Denise

In the process of refinishing dining set, used a black stain on the sugar maple part but left the burl walnut inset alone and topping off with an oil lacquer (watco has it not only in quart for brushing but comes in spray). Just don’t forget the mask.

Lisa Cole

Perfect timing! I just bought a couple of dining chairs on clearance and plan to paint them turquoise. I was nervous about the poly part, so this was helpful.

Barb

lisa, i personally have not had any problems with the water based poly turning white paint yellow. that is normally the advantage of water based poly, so I am so sorry that you had that problem! I use the product shown in the post, and really really love it. what brand are you using?

dee, good question! I always use poly over milk paint…always….and then I sometimes will use clear wax on top of that! I know…I’m crazy….but I love to layer these products….and adding the wax really depends on the project and your personal preference. I love the dull shine wax gives, and some pieces just call for that… but it is not a critical step after poly. I mainly use wax over latex paint, and clear wax is definitely easier than applying poly, but with colored waxes you need to work fast in order to get proper blending.

lauren, hmmmm, it almost sounds like heat damage in the poly? I can’t be sure, but unfortunately any piece of painted furniture is going to show wear and tear over time when exposed to the elements…especially a painted dining room table. Just make sure that you keep all heat and moisture from direct contact with the finish. I still highly recommend an oil finish because of the usage. Your table may need yearly maintenance in order to keep it in top shape.

casey, I don’t personally use poly over a piece that I have painted and then stained. I let the stain be the finish. now, if you have a stained wood piece {not painted} that you are wanting to amp up the protection on using poly would be fine on top of that. I mainly use the poly as an extra protection over certain types of paint. I use water based poly in most cases, but if the piece will get water on it, like a sink….or lots of wear and tear , like a dining room table I use oil poly for durability.

jen, oh man! that sounds terrible! I’m so sorry that you had that problem. I think I understand what you are saying as far as the process you went through: you sanded, then wiped off the sanding dust with a damp rag and then followed that with a dry lint free rag and still felt like there was dust in your finish? I would suggest one more step. I always vacuum the entire surface as well to ensure extra dust removal. when I work on furniture I try to do all of my sanding on a different day than painting day for that very reason. once dust is in the air , it takes a bit to settle. The second stain and wax finish sounds great though! good thinking:)

catherine

I need to polyurethane my cork tile floors. Can I use waterbased or should I go with oil, given it’s going to get walked on and furniture dragged across it (chairs being moved in and out etc)? How many coats should I be aiming for?

Emily

Great article, Barb. I just finished a project yesterday afternoon that used spray urethane varnish and it just won’t dry. The items feel stable but tacky. Have I used the wrong product or will it just take more time?
Thanks!

Heidi

Jen: I noticed the same problem (these tiny blobs on the wood surface after using a foam brush and polyacrylic top coat) and it was caused by semidried polyacrylic that had dried on the inner sides of the can and got mixed with the stuff that was still good to use. I had to buy a new can of PA, sorry no other solution for that.

monika

im totally with barb on water vs oil poly … the only problem i ever had with oil based one, was the brush … how do i clean it? water based ones are super easy to clean up but oil is another story, i get rid of cheap rollers but i cant keep dumping brushes after i use them … any advice on that ?

Jen

I’m about to embark on an ambition project of staining and poly-ing all of my new clad wood windows. The living room and dining room windows are about 8 fet tall! My question is, can I use the water based for my windows or should I use the oil based? The idea is that these windows will be here for another hundred years just like the ones we just removed.

william

Jen Preston-
I believe your problem is not the dust that is on the table prior to application, but dust in the air that settles on the coated surface.

There are a few tricks and some standard practices that should help you out. First, you should try to reduce the shop dust as much as possible. Vacuum the area thoroughly and turn on your ambient air cleaner the night before a finishing day. Keeping a cleaner on during finishing will only stir the dust up and create more problems for you.

Once the prep work is done, you can start your finishing. When using poly, you have a long cure time right? And that’s the problem. While the finish cures, dust settles in it. So one thing you can do is start using a wiping formula (if you are not already). The wiping formula is thinned with mineral spirits, and will dry faster than full-strength varnish. You may have to apply more coats to get the finish thickness you want, but that’s a small price to pay for less dust-nibs. Now once the finish is dry, you should lightly sand with 320 grit and apply the next coat. Repeating this process, you won’t have a problem until the final coat . For the final coat, I typically thin the varnish as much as 75% with naptha instead of mineral spirits. The naptha flashes off quickly and dries before lots of dust has time to settle. Now once this last coat dries, it is inevitable that you will have an occasional bump. I take care of these with a light touch of 2000 grit automotive sandpaper. The 2000 grit is aggressive enough to flatten the nibs but fine enough not to scratch the finish. Don’t rub too hard. Just a few light passes will do the trick. That should leave you with a nearly flawless finish. And with practice, the results get better and better. Hopefully that will put you on the right track. Good luck!

Jo Ann

Thanks for this timely info. Painted my entry door tourquoise (inspired by a summer DS article on entry door colors). Finishing has been procrastinated because I needed to wait for your instruction! Have applied 1 super light coat water-based poly and did over-work a small area. Now I can proceed confidently, probably at least 2 more coats, since it’s exterior… Yea, thanks again!

Barb

catherine, you can use water based for sure, but flooring polyurethane’s are a bit different than the ones you can buy at a local hardware store. They have a different chemical structure and are made to hold up to a lot more. I would encourage you to visit a local flooring store to see if you can purchase some there. I think with floors the standard is 3 coats.

emily, those spray varnishes are very finicky. They do take a lot of time to dry { but they eventually do!} and can sometimes remain a bit tacky. They are very vulnerable to changes in temperature too, and can break down. I ‘m not sure what project you used it on, but maybe next time try applying with a brush.

monika, you can use mineral spirits to clean your brushes that you use with oil based products, and after you have cleaned and soaked them you can finish with a soapy water rinse before drying.

jen, you can totally use a water based product and you will be fine, it will also make any touch ups and adjustments down the road much easier!

Barb

jen, one more thing….my answer about the water based formula is assuming you are talking about interior windows? If you are talking about painting the exterior, the only way to go is oil exterior.

Brenda Benson

After reading through all the comments, I haven’t found any information exactly how to do the finishing of a water based poly coat on a small lamp table. We have put several coats of the poly on the table and lightly sanded, carefully removed the dust then used tact cloth before putting on the next coat. We still have a few bubbles in the finish. Should I lightly sand and polish with some product for the end coat such as a wax or something??

Barb

brenda, if you are still experiencing bubbles then you can sand lightly to remove all of the bubbles and then use a clear wax as a top coat. were you applying with a brush or a foam roller?

Lisa

hi barb

i was using minxwax polycrylic. the one in the little metal can. and had the yellowing issue on the white frame. sad face :(

Jodi Weed

Lisa, I had the same problem with the same product, except I used it on a hutch in my kitchen. :( My question for Barb is, how do I correct this? Will sanding off the layer of poly get rid of the yellow or do I have to strip off the paint too? Oh, I hope it is just a matter of doing some sanding and then reapplying the correct poly…..I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

melissa

Hi all! I hope this will clear some things up for some of you–water based finishes can go over any paint but oil finishes need to go over primer or oil only. At least this has been my experience. This goes for paints and poly’s. I painted a table a few years ago with oil enamel over latex paint and it is now peeling. Barb, is there any kind of painting guide out there detailing all these little important bits of info?

Barb

lisa, painting poly over white is always hard even with water based poly. I do not use white paint a lot but when I have, even the water based gives a little bit of a yellowing effect. Normally in my experience it is not an undesirable effect though. I can suggest using a clear stain/ pickling stain over white, or a clear wax to avoid any yellowing at all.

jodi, was your piece white too? hmmmm….maybe I need to paint a white piece and see what happens:) I just haven’t painted a white piece in year. Either way, you can just sand down your finish to try to remove the yellowing, and then I would use a clear wax coat over the top {fiddes is my favorite} for a nice finish that won’t yellow.

melissa, I will see about pulling together a guide with all of this info becasue there are definite rules about oil and latex meshing. Your table with the oil over latex paint should have been ok if you sanded and then primed before applying the oil paint top coat. The problem is probably coming from the latex underneath loosening. In my experience you can put oil polyurethane over latex, and also stains over latex with great results…..it is just not reversible the other way. I’ll do some digging! :)

Carol

Hi Barb: I have just painted a wood fireplace with water based primer and two coats of water based paint. I would like to protect it but am confused what I should be putting on top – do I put coats of clear polyurethane or do I use the clear wax.

Barb

carol, I would go ahead and put a couple coats of poly on for protection. A wax finish will give protection too, but a different look. Wax gives a more matte worn in look whereas poly gives a smooth shiny {but not bad shiny!} look.

Melissa

I used a minwax “polycrylic” and thru a somewhat painful trial and error (sanding, repainting, reapplying polycrilic, etc.) finally got a nice coat on a painted wood dresser. However, it’s still tacky after like 12 hours. Any ideas? Thank you!

SusanO

Barb, how would you deal with a poly’d piece on down the road when you want to change the paint colour? I’ve got some painted white shelves that needs poly’ing, but I’ll want to change the colour later. Would I have to remove the poly, and if so how?

Meredith

hi barb,
I just discovered this post and had a question for you. I inherited a table from my aunt, who was using a piece of glass on top to avoid water marks. The table is wood and stained. I would like to dtich the glass top, and was wondering what type of finish I should use to avoid water marks? Would it be ok to apply another coat of similar color stain to the piece and not use a finish or would you recommend using a wax/poly/etc?? Thanks for your insight! And I love these posts!

Barb

susan, if you want to re paint your shelves and you have used a water based poly you can just sand them down and re paint. If you used an oil based poly you would need to either strip them down or use an oil based product to finish them again…..and I would still recommend sanding before any more painting.

meredith, I would definitely recommend using an oil based poly over the stain. I have found that oil is the only thing that truly protects from water damage…and even then you have to catch the damage early. using a coat of wax over top of the poly really helps with water as well…it makes it bead up and if you get to it quick enough will not leave any signs of damage. On any piece of wood furniture painted or unpainted, extended periods of exposure to moisture will not be a good thing. I’m so glad you are enjoying these posts! Let me know if you have any other questions!

Jeanine Biggar

Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you Nonetheless I’m experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss drawback? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

Bob Chilcoat

About 3 years ago, I put water based polyurethane on a floating cork floor. I did this because I read everything I could about cork installation and applied it according to the directions. It looked great for a few years.
Now, the finish is peeling and flaking. I am trying to find a way to remove the polyurethane without damaging the cork. I would never, ever apply polyurethane over cork again.

Debra Hlatky

I recently used the MinWax Poly/stain on my stairs and I think they turned out well. Of course, staining and then applying a Poly is the best way but for my stairs, I wasn’t about to go through all of that hassle. I used the satin finish and was going to put a clear gloss top coat over it because I thought it looked nicer when it was wet but I’m glad I waited on that decision. I like the satin finish and since the oak wood that was used for the stairs isn’t the prettiest, I don’t need to gloss it up any further so that all of the imperfections show. Now, if you’re going to do something like chairs or tables, I suggest using the stain then polyurethane. I did this finish to some wooden bar chairs and they turned out really nice. :-)

Kim

I’m painting a table top black with an oil based enamel paint. I’ve already applied two coats of oil based primer. I was wondering if I can apply the paint with a foam roller or will it cause bubbles? Also I’m terrified about polyurethane. I need to make the tabletop as durable as possible since it will get lots of use. Does it need to be applied with a brush only? What about using a foam roller then smoothing out with a brush??

Steve

I’m looking for a product I can apply after the last coat, to protect the surface from scratching more than normal. Furniture Project, not floors or walls. Pledge Wax? Bees Wax? Gotta be something to extend the life of the shine…?

Renee

Hi Barb,
I just bought an old oak desk. There was a poorly applied poly finish on it, and the stain was too light for my taste, so I stripped it. After lightly sanding, I applied two coats of Watco Danish Oil Stain. I am very happy with it now. What would you do at this point? I feel like I may need something on the desk top for a bit of protection, like poly or wax. The piece will be used in a home office, and will probably have a coffee cup or cold beer on it from time to time. I am inclined to use the wax, only because it is less work. Thanks!

shellie

I stained shelves red mahogany and applied with water based poly in the can and after I saw that it said not to use that with red mahogany…what should I do. Should I sand it down lightly and add a coat of the fast dry polyurethane…also my cloth was not so lint free and I can see lint on it…and I can not go through the whole dreadful process again because these shelves go as long as 6 feet and it has been a task…What should I do. I just put the second coat of water base poly on and now waiting the 30 min and I can out of the wb….??

Sharon Briandi

Hi Barb, Help! I just finished a kitchen table with poly and lightly sanded in between coats and the finish is awful. It looks like there is a film on the table that I can’t get out so I sanded the table to start over. I again got the same results so I sanded down to the wood. What am I doing wrong?

Heather

Have you ever worked with pourable poly? I’m designing a bar top that would have a 1/4″ top, but my contractor that designed it with this in mind, left many parts open with no molding to hold the poly in. I’ve heard of “framing” the parts off, but one part has hinges so I need to figure out how to get around these types of areas.

Connie Mc

My lovely painted “rug” on a wood floor was poly-ed over with a water based product. We covered it with masking taped paper during our earthquake repair. When we pulled up the making tape, the poly (only) peeled off. It is very noticeable b/c the poly had yellowed a lot, even over the yellow floor. How can I remove the rest of the water baed poly WITHOUT damaging the paint “rug?” help!! Thanks so much in advance!

Dave

Hi. We’ve had our brand new kitchen finished with a brown glaze over top of a horseradish white base. Our painter used defthane poly eurathane oil base Satin . The kitchen is so inconsistent . Some parts have slightly yellowed with a low sheen and other areas are super shinny and rediculosely yellow . Can we sand the heavier parts to dull the yellow and shine down??

Crystal

I painted my bedroom furniture and want to seal the paint with poly. Will I still need to sand the coats of poly?

Jeanne Turner

I have a carved wood entry door that my installing contractor sealed with a single coat of water-based polyacrylic (Minwax) over a water-based stain. The door does not receive direct sunlight and only very rarely is exposed to extremely light rainfall. I need to apply a second coat of sealer and am getting conflicting advice: 1. I should only use an oil-based polyurethane finish for exterior surfaces; 2. Never use an oil-based polyurethane over a water-based product without completely sanding off the first finish; 3. it’s okay to use the oil-based product, just sand lightly first to ensure good adhesion, etc. etc. HELP! This is a very pricey door + I don’t want to contend with a gooey mess that could have been prevented with the correct product and application. Thank you. Jeanne

Christiane

I was going to use high gloss polyurethane over a dresser but accidentally ended up using satin polyacrylic. Did 2 coats of that. Is it possible to do coats of the high gloss polyurethane over that?

Joanne a first-timer

I applied Benjamin Moore Stays Clear with a microfiber roller (and sponge brush in the corners) over water based paint. It looks awful. It looks like I applied it randomly and there is a few edges that have little white build up. I’m doing 4 stools so for two of them I sanded between coats and the other two I didn’t sand. Both look the same and awful. What can I do to fix this mess? I’m open to “weathering” and making it rustic. Could I perhaps smear a light gray paint over it and knick it up and sand some edges off?

Wendy

I have stained my staircase and then applied two coats of polyurathane…..It has turned out to be a disaster….white streaks all over….Can someone help me ……..Will I add another coat or what…..

Frank A. Eddy Sr.

I refinished my 42 year old dinning room table, stripped the old finish down to the
bare wood, sanded then used minwax oil base stain. Up to this point all was well, it
looked great. I then applied oil base minwax polyurathane, after a few minutes the table began to have white streaks through out the table top. Now the entire
top looks auful. What can I do to remedy the situation. help

Alicia

Hi there! Thank you so much for all the wonderful advice! I have recently been getting into refinishing furniture. My most recent piece is a coffee table I spray painted a plum color, then stenciled a pattern across the entire table top. I have just completed my first layer of oil-based poly. My question is this: will it ruin/affect the paint job underneath the poly when info to sand in preparation for my second coat?? The paint job is beautiful (if I do say so myself) and I would be totally bummed if all my hard word was ruined!

Bill smith

Alicia, as long as you wait long enough, and allow the poly to dry completely, and then sand lightly, the integrity of the paint should hold. Be patient, do things methodically, little steps at a time

sandy

I painted my bathroom floor and put 3 costs of polyacrylic on. It looked beautiful! I gave it a couple of days, then started sanding my bathtub. I thought the poly had plenty of time to dry, but after sanding, dust particles are in there and I can’t seem to remove them. Anyone have any ideas? I hate the thought of starting over.

Craig Compton

Can you use Polyurethan to harden a latex rubber mask?

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