Looking for a clear wood finish for your next project? But trying to decide between solvent and water-based? Not sure what wood finishes turn yellow? Or, what is the most durable wood finish?
In this article we’ll explore five of the most popular clear wood finishes.
But first, why a clear wood finish?
Well, most wood has great character and stain can detract rather than enhance it. And hiding knots, mineral stains, grain patterns or other features takes away the natural ambiance.
Before we get started, here are a few things I look for in my wood finishes:
- Low toxicity (usually water based)
- Fast drying time (1-3 hours)
- Ease of application
- Sheen (satin, semi-gloss or gloss)
- Water exposure
- Indoor or outdoor
Clear Wood Finishes
|General Finishes Arm-R-Seal||4.8||Excellent application, dry time and durability to water and wear||Buy|
|Minwax Polycrylic||4.5||Water based, lower toxicity polyurethane that wipes on with a cloth||Buy|
|Rust-Oleum Spar Varnish||4.3||Exterior grade finish that is durable, flexible and can handle sea water and mildew||Buy|
|East Coast Resin||4.3||Super gloss coat for tabletops with maximum durability||Buy|
|Rust-Oleum Spray Lacquer||4.1||Simple and easy to use spray lacquer for small projects||Buy|
What is a Clear Wood Finish?
Before we begin, let’s take a look at just what a clear wood finish is.
A clear wood finish can take two forms:
- Penetrating finish like tung oil that penetrates the wood and seals the wood pores
- 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 Clear Wood 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 Clear Wood Finishes
By far the most popular type of clear wood finish, a surface finish will provide a durable topcoat.
Common Surface Finishes
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. Which is why I only use General Finishes Urethane .
The toxicity of these types 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.
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 Arm-R-Seal Clear Wood Finish
The General Finishes Urethane is my go-to finish that goes on clear and has held up on my cherry cabinets and furniture for 15+ years.
- Dries in 15-20 minutes (low humidity)
- Covers evenly
- Cloth-based application (no brushes)
Like most clear finishes you will want 2-3 coats. And I like to use a sanding block after the first coat to create a perfectly smooth final finish.
2. Minwax PolyCrylic Clear Finish For Interior Projects
The Minwax Polycrylic is a water based, less toxic finish that applies easily and dries fast in the right (low humidity) conditions.
- Dries in 2-3 hours
- Covers evenly
- Cloth-based application (no brushes)
- Will not yellow like oil-based finishes
And like most clear finishes you will want 2-3 coats. But for water-based finishes I recommend an extra coat.
3. Spar Varnish - Ultimate in Outdoor and Marine Clear Finishes
The Rust-Oleum Spar Varnish is a marine grade clear finish that is great for exterior applications where the finish will be exposed to water.
- Exterior finish
- Expands and contracts with weather condition changes
- 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.
4. Epoxy Resin Clear Bar and Table Top Wood Finish
The East Coast Resin is a clear, hard wood finish that is perfect for bar tops or epoxy tops.
- 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.
5. Clear Lacquer Spray Finish for Small Wood Projects
The Rust-Oleum Spray Lacquer is a great finish if you are applying a protecting coat over an existing surface. Or, for small projects where a spray can is economical.
- Fast drying
- Applications up to 7 square feet
- Durable coat that can be sanded
- Smooth factory-like finish
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.
Clear 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
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.