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The Best Clear Coat for Wood Projects

Choosing the best clear wood finish for your project can be a difficult choice. While some of the best clear coats are designed to not yellow the wood, others protect against water damage and still others are free of harmful VOC’s to be food safe. 

And to make things more confusing, you’ll need to choose between interior and exterior finishes that offer features like:

  • Wipe on applications
  • Extreme hardness (epoxy)
  • UV protection
  • Water contact
  • FDA approved for food safety
  • Spray application

In this article learn the different between penetrating and surface wood finishes, what finishes won’t yellow with time, best finishes for outdoor use, and why choosing a low VOC finish is best.

Top Picks

Best for interior wood (non-yellowing):

 

Easiest to apply:  

 

Best for outdoor furniture: 

 

Wood floor pick:  

 

Marine grade protection:  

 

Food safe, solvent free finish:  

 
Last updated on 2022-12-06 at 09:42 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

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Types of Finishes

Clear Coat for Wood Epoxy Top

From cabinets to furniture and food safe surfaces like a butcher block there are a wide variety of options when choosing a clear coat for wood projects.

But, and we’ll get to this later in more detail, there are two broad categories of wood finishes: surface finishes and penetrating finishes. 

In general, you’ll use a surface finish for cabinets, furniture, trim and other surfaces as it “builds up” to provide a protective coat.

On the other hand, a penetrating finish like tung oil protects the wood from within and, with proper choice, are food safe.

Best Finishes for Indoor Projects

For surface finishes there are a broad variety of finishes and application types. Here’s an overview of these finish types by their primary characteristics:

  • Water resistant: a urethane or polyurethane finish is best. Common for cabinets, floors, trim and furniture.
  • Waterproof: an epoxy finish is most common (and durable). Epoxy is used for bar tops where water and glasses are tough on wood.
  • Indoor low toxicity: to reduce the stink and chemicals, using a polycrylic or water-based polyurethane is common. 
  • Non-yellowing: one of the hallmarks of a polycrylic is its resistance to UV-fading and yellowing that is common with other polyurethane.
  • Food safe – from (fittingly) the Tung tree, a tung oil is most popular, but mineral oil and a few other conditioners are also common.

Best Finishes for Outdoor Projects

Moving outdoors, you’ll find a variety of applications from direct water contact to finishes for indirect sun and water:

  • Waterproof: a spar varnish is the gold standard for waterproof exterior finishes and work well as an outdoor table finish.
  • Penetrating oil: for finishing exotic woods like Jatoba there are specialty clear coats for wood furniture that are safe to use outdoors.
  • Water resistant vertical surfaces: for direct sun and water contact a water based topcoat like the General Finishes 450 is popular.

Best Clear Wood Finishes

Based on my decades of woodworking experience, here’s my list of the best available clear wood finish:

1. General Finishes Urethane (Durable, Easy to Apply)

Wipe on urethanes, like a General Finishes urethane, are easy to use and make a perfect finish for any skill level. No brushes, dries very fast, and works on trim and large surfaces equally well.

Clear wood finish - wipe on urethane

Overview

Urethane Wood Finishes

First, I’ve sprayed hundreds of gallons of high toxicity pre-catalyzed lacquer. And while that type of (professional) finish is fantastic, it’s not a DIY’ers option or safe to apply without the right protective gear.

So, for my home woodworking projects, 20 years ago I switched to a urethane wipe on finish (I use General Finishes, above). And the results? A comparable finish without spraying.

What do I like about a urethane finish? It holds up incredibly well to water and wear, it goes on with a cloth, dries in 15-20 minutes and is easy to sand between coats.

Like most clear finishes you will want 2-3 coats for a smooth, clear finish. And I like to use a sanding block after the first coat to create a perfectly smooth final finis

Pros

Cons

2. Polycrylic Finish For Interior Projects (Non Yellowing)

Polycrylic is a low VOC, water-based finish that will not yellow over time and is easy to apply.

Clear wood finish - polycrylic

Overview

Polycrylic Wood FInishes

A polycrylic is a water based, less toxic finish that applies easily and dries fast in the right (low humidity) conditions.

If you are looking for a less noxious clear wood finish then using a polycrylic is a great option to more noxious oil-based finishes. And, this finish is DIY friendly.
 
Key features:
  • Dries in 2-3 hours
  • Water-based
  • Covers evenly
  • Cloth-based application (no brushes)
  • Will not yellow like oil-based finishes

And like most clear finishes you will want 3+ coats. But for water-based finishes I recommend an extra coat. You can learn more in our guide to applying polycrylic.

Pros

Cons

3. Spar Varnish Exterior Clear Wood Finish

Spar varnish produces a hard, clear finish that protects wood from water damage and has been used for decades on marine-grade projects.

Clear wood finish - spar varnish

Overview

Spar Varnish Wood Finish

Rust-Oleum Spar Varnish is a marine grade clear finish that is great for exterior applications where the finish will be exposed to water.

First, not all finishes were made to be in contact with water. But Spar varnish is one of the exceptions and was made for contact with water.
 
Key features:
    • Exterior finish
    • Expands and contracts with weather condition changes
    • Durable
    • UV protection

Key drawbacks? Well, this finish is tougher to apply and isn’t suited to most interior applications. And you’ll need to use protective masks and gloves as this is a solvent based finish.

Pros

Cons

4. Epoxy Resin Finish for Bar Tops

A two part epoxy resin works for bar tops or filling live edge tops of any shape. An epoxy is recognized as extremely hard and is what you'll find on bartops due to it's durability and toughness.

Clear wood finish - epoxy resin

Overview

Epoxy Wood Finish

A two part epoxy forms a clear, hard wood finish that is perfect for bar tops or epoxy tops.

While more difficult to work with and perfect, an epoxy finish produces an amazing clear and durable coat on wood.  And due to it’s composition it has excellent resistance to water, abrasion and dings.
 
Key features:
  • Two part mixture
  • Fast drying times (30-60 minutes working time)
  • Avoids “fish eyes” and craters
  • Bubbles can be burned off during drying with a blowtorch or heat gun

While this finish may seem intimidating, with a long working time you’ll be able to adjust your approach. But make sure you have a level surface first and a heat gun for bubble control.

Pros

Cons

5. Clear Lacquer Spray Finish In a Can

A spray lacquer is perfect for small surface projects with uneven features that wouldn't accept a brushed or wiped finish.

Clear wood finish - spray lacquer

Overview

Spray Lacquer Wood Finish

First up is understanding that lacquer is an acrylic-based spray and a protective mask rated for chemical use is a must.

I’ve occasionally used a spray like this for touch-ups and small projects where I didn’t want to use my HVLP sprayer. 
 
Other uses include application over old finishes or even paint. But, make sure you test it on a small (non-visible) area to make sure the solvents do not damage the existing coats.

Pros

Cons

6. Tung Oil for Butcher Blocks

Tung oil is a penetrating clear wood sealer that has been used for centuries to seal wood and is favored in kitchens and cutting blocks

Clear wood finish - tung oil

Overview

Tung Oil Wood Finish

This penetrating wood finish can be used on a variety of projects, including:

  • Food safe cutting boards
  • First finish on wood projects, and then later seal them (eg. with urethane or lacquer)
  • Weathered wood
  • Brick, stone and cast iron

So what gives tongue oil the distinct status of a wood finish that is food safe?

Well, tongue oil is made from compressing the roots of (you guessed it) the Tung tree. Once extracted, applied to your project, it dries when exposed to air and forms a sealant deep within the wood.

Pros

Cons

7. Polycrylic Spray-on Finish

A polycrylic spray converts the water-based clear finish typically brushed on into a spray can that produces a clear finish with a dry time to recoat in as little as 2 hours.

Clear wood finish - spray on

Overview

Spray Polycrylic Wood Finish

Combining all of the features of the wipe or brush-on polycrylic but converting it to a spray can, this type of finish is quick and easy for all projects. And, as a spray can, it can be used for minor touch-ups of projects that may have been damaged during transport or installation.

Pros

Cons

Clear Wood Finishes: By Project

With hundreds of options to choose from deciding on a clear coat can be a daunting search. 

And, as woodworkers know, for each project the best finish will vary. 

Let’s take a look at the most common projects and wood finishes to use.

Best for Furniture or Cabinets

Tools To Make Cabinet Doors
Clear Finish on Cherry and Maple Wood

When finishing cabinetry or furniture pieces with a clear finish you’ll have an important decision: do you apply a penetrating oil first and then a surface clear coat last?

The answer depends on how you want to highlight the grain and if a yellowish tone on clear wood (maple) would enhance or detract. 

And lastly, to avoid showing off flaws on larger surfaces most woodworkers stick to a satin finish. Why? Well, gloss finishes reflect more light and highlight defects.

Options:

  • Darker woods – use a satin sheen urethane to highlight the grain. 
  • Lighter woods – opt for a water-based finish that will not yellow with age. 

Pick for Trim and Window Casings

Custom Wood Trim
Applying Finish to Trim

One of the most common DIY projects is to apply a wood finish to new trim or window casings. 

But, surprisingly, this seemingly low surface area project will quickly turn into a tedious project as ridges and drips can create runs in the finish.

The solution? A wipe on finish that goes on easy and is great for small and large surfaces (including wood doors).

Options:

  • Wipe on finishes – look for a higher gloss, wipe on finish that builds up quick and offers a rich shine. 
  • Sanding Sponges – are a must to sand between the second and third coat for a smooth finish.

Butch Block Wood Finishes

Clear Wood Finish Cutting Board
Cutting Board Finish

As you likely know, the number one consideration with any food-related wood is it is “food safe”. 

And fortunately there are dozens of options to choose from. Since these finishes *must* penetrate (surface finishes would come loose into your food) the options here are all oil-based sealants.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer guidelines – most of which recommend periodic re-sealants over the years. So keep hold of the bottle.

Options:

  • Clear Finishes – like mineral oil go on clear and require a few coats for optimal protection. Be sure to look for NSF certification to ensure food safety. Thirteen Chefs Mineral Oil
  • Oil Enriching – food safe options that penetrate and highlight wood grain.  Walrus Oil

Best For Irregular Wood Project

Wooden Airplane
Model Wood Airplane

Some finish projects are intricate enough that wiping or brushing just won’t work. 

And while a professional would use an air sprayer, a DIY’er or even most woodworkers will turn to a basic spray-on lacquer. 

Options:

  • Spray Lacquer – is first and foremost a toxic spray, so use a mask. But this high gloss option goes on fast, dries quick and offers a durable finish.
  • Spray Polycrylic – is less toxic, sprays clear and offers a durable finish. 

What is a Clear Finish?

Before we begin, let’s take a look at just what a clear wood finish is. 

A clear finish can take two forms:

  1. Penetrating finish like tung oil that penetrates the wood and seals the wood pores
  2. Surface coat like lacquer or polyurethane that forms a layer on top of the wood

And, these can be used separately or together based on your project and desired aesthetics.

Types of Clear Wood Finishes

Now that we’ve broken wood finish into two categories (penetrating and surface) let’s take a look at what types of finishes there are in each category. 

Because wood projects can range from cutting boards to furniture to outdoor benches and tables there is no one-size-fits-all clear finish for projects.

And if you factor in visual preference, UV protection, anti-yellowing, and toxicity of application there are an even wider range of finishes to consider.

Penetrating Finishes

A cutting board is a great example of where a clear finish is desired and the finish cannot be on the surface.

So what types of finishes can offer protection to the wood? 

Fortunately there are solutions that have been used for 2000+ years (Tung oil) that are plant based and food safe.

Common Penetrating Finishes

  • Tung Oil (plant-based, clear)
  • Boiled Linseed Oil (plant-based, yellowing)
  • Mineral Oil (non-toxic, food safe)

Applying a Penetrating Finish

These types of finishes are among the easiest to apply. 

First, make sure your projects surface preparation is complete, fully sanded, and clean of all dust and debris.

Then simply follow the directions on the oil you have chosen.

A few pointers:

  • Always use clean, food-safe rags if you are working with pieces like a butcher block
  • Drying time can vary from a few hours to a few days with a penetrating finish
  • Follow directions for multiple coats
  • And, remember multiple coats can lead to build-up you may not want

With some projects, like a butcher block, you’ll be able to apply a tung oil many times over the life of the piece.

Toxicity of Penetrating Finishes

Most penetrating clear finishes are toxin free, however check the individual supplier and remember to check the actual composition. For example, some Tung oil (pressed from the Tung tree) are imitation. 

Surface Wood Finishes

By far the most popular type of clear wood finish, a surface finish will provide a durable topcoat.

Common Surface Finishes

  • Lacquer
  • Polyurethane
  • Shellac
  • Epoxy
  • Polycrylic

Applying Surface Finishes

These finishes range from easy to hard to apply.

While some finishes wipe on with a rag, others require High Volume Low Pressure (HVLP) spray systems for the best finish.

What’s best for your project? Well, I consider budget and avoiding toxic fumes first, but humidity, drying time and your skill all play into choosing a clear wood finish.

Toxicity

The toxicity of finishes is something to watch. 

While water-based finishes are generally less toxic than a solvent finish there are still toxins to keep track of.

What should you look for? First, the common language is Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) and the Underwriters Laboratory has a GREENGUARD program that certifies products seeking to be greener.

But, be sure to always use protective equipment when finishing wood to ensure you’re minimizing contact, use ventilation, respirators and all other safety equipment as specified by the manufacturer.

Wood Finish Application Tips

So you’ve decided on a finish.

Now the hard part of making sure your wood project is ready for the finish. And you have all the right supplies on hand to make the finish turn out the best.

Tip #1 - Make sure the wood is sanded properly

I’ve seen so many projects go bad with the wood not having the right finish sanding. To avoid this simply follow these steps:

    • For new construction projects use a tool like a belt sander to remove extra wood and create a flat surface.
    • My favorite tool is an orbital sander as it can remove a large amount of wood with a 40-grit sanding disc and be the finish sander with a 320-grit disc. Use this sander to remove any scratches and prepare the wood for a final sanding.
    • Use a pad or palm sander with a high grit number (200+) to remove any orbital sander swirls.
    • For uneven surfaces use a sanding block to remove any raised grain.

For help on which sanders to use refer to the guide to the best wood sanders.

Tip #2 - Use the proper safety equipment

Even a water-based finish has a level of toxicity that you should be careful with.

And lacquer or other chemical-based finishes absolutely require safety equipment. Beyond using a ventilated area be sure to use:

    • Paint-grade respirator
    • Chemical gloves
    • Eye protection

Tip #3 - Test on a Small Piece First

I have an imprint of an orbital sander on my insulated garage door. 

Many years ago I attempted a tricky color match on a maple desk top – which is extremely hard to do with a blotch-prone hard maple project. And after many redo’s and touch-ups (and a late nite) was frustrated at the process.

What I would have done different? Use a test piece of maple first, found the right application process AND THEN tackled the larger surface.

While applying a clear wood finish may not have the same level of difficulty, if you’re new to wood finishes try a test piece of the backside of your project first to get the hang of it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best clear wood finish?

While there are many varieties of wood finish I prefer a urethane finish due to it’s easy application, durability and resistance to water. In fact, I have converted from spraying lacquer with an HLVP sprayer on most projects to use of a wipe-on urethane.

Do I need to stain wood before applying a clear wood finish?

While there are pros and cons of applying an oil sealant it comes down to preference and if you are looking to avoid a yellowing of the underlying wood. For example, the maple trim in my house is finished with three coats of lacquer and has no stain. But a light stain or oil can enhance the grain of the wood and might be worth applying. If you’re not sure test it out on large enough test piece that you can decide what works best for your project.

How do you get a smooth finish on wood?

By applying two coats of a sealer and then sanding the finish with a 220 grit.

What is the hardest wood finish?

A two-part epoxy is one of the hardest finishes for wood. While other finishes are durable, this finish is by design made for high use, high risk of damage areas like commercial bars.

What is the difference between lacquer and polyurethane?

There are three primary considerations when comparing lacquer vs. polyurethane. First, lacquer is thin enough to be sprayed on while polyurethane is generally brushed. Second, polyurethane is generally more durable as it is a surface finish whereas lacquer is a penetrating finish. And last, lacquer typically dries faster due to it’s solvent-base.

Summary

Hopefully this article helped your research and decision process on selecting a clear wood finish for your next project.

Resources

  • About the Author
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( Woodworker )

Eric has been a professional woodworker for over thirty years and has worked in small cabinet shops making everything from kitchen cabinets to hand-made furniture. Now working from a home woodworking shop Eric is sharing his passion for woodworking, tool advice and how-to knowledge from his Minnesota-based woodshop.

10 thoughts on “The Best Clear Coat for Wood Projects”

  1. Hello, I appreciated your information on the different options for finishing. We have a cerused dining table with matching buffet and the table top has some minor surface damage where there was a centerpiece and water appears to have removed the top surface in a couple of areas, i am needing to sand it down and re-seal the table top to address the finish but do not want to harm the cerused white look that is in the grain so that the table will still match the buffet when complete.
    if you have any suggestions i would much appreciate any input, local furniture restoration places here want more than the table is worth to refinish it and i still have concerns of the outcome matching the buffet.
    the Polycrylic looks like it might be the solution since it does not yellow.
    I can sent photos to help understand my situation better?

    Thank you
    Steve

  2. Hello, do you have any recommendations on a sealant for a redwood deck. I’ve read that we should wait at least 3 months before sealing the new deck and I am looking for recommendations on a sealant/stain.
    Thanks for any info,

    Abel

  3. Hi Abel,

    That’s a great question. My recommendation is consulting a local paint supplier like Sherwin Williams as your local temperature ranges, sun exposure, foot traffic and humidity will impact performance of the sealer (and when you can apply it).

    E.D.

  4. My question is about putting a clear coat of something on a walking stick. What is the best to use? I was thinking of the spray rustoleum laquer. Will that be ok?

  5. Hello
    What would you suggest for wooden wind chimes? I am looking to protect them from the weather and the uv of the sun.
    Thank you

  6. Hi,
    I have some cut pieces from a cedar tree that I would like to make into hot plates. They have a red Starburst in the center. Should I use Tung oil or Walrus oil first and then use a surface coat? If I apply a surface coat after a penetrating oil will that prevent yellowing?
    Also, if I use a surface coat, which would be your best preference? Not sure if it’s needed or not.

    Thank you,
    Tamara

  7. Hi Tamara,

    For hot surfaces any surface finish will risk being heated and melted. A penetrating finish is best, or leave the wood bare.

    Thanks,
    Eric

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Disclaimer: DIY projects can be dangerous, hire a professional (link to Home Advisor) if unsure.