best chalk paint top coat

How to Pick the Right Protective Finish for Your Furniture Piece

Don’t allow your furniture piece to be ruined by the normal wear & tear of everyday life!  Instead, protect it by applying the absolute best clear coat for furniture.

I’ve tested 7 of the most popular topcoats and compared reviews to find the best protective finish for your next furniture project including the best topcoat for chalk paint!

As someone who has painted dozens of different furniture pieces, I’ve learned that not all topcoats are created equal and that different surfaces need different protective finishes.


  • How to protect your existing furniture so it isn’t ruined by everyday use
  • What to use to seal the finish of your new furniture project
  • How to find the best topcoat for your specific furniture finish
  • My best tips to apply a clear coat to furniture whether 
  • The easy way to seal chalk paint
  • The absolute best top coat for chalk paint

Have you ever spent hours refinishing a piece of furniture only to have the top ruined by a drinking glass ring or even a scratch? 

Have you added a protective finish to a furniture project only to realize it was a horrible product that ruined your finish?

If you have, you know how incredibly frustrating that can be.  I get it!  Depending on the finish, sometimes the only solution is to completely refinish the whole surface.  But fortunately, if you apply a clear coat, your beautiful finish will be preserved and protected for years to come!

Would you own a home without insuring it?  In the same way, a topcoat (or clear coat) acts as an insurance policy against the potential damage caused by everyday life.  Especially if you have young kids, your tabletop, desk, or coffee table can be easily ruined with an accidental scratch or a drinking glass left on it for too long – not to mention spills!

I don’t know about you but when it comes to furniture pieces that get a lot of use, I want them to be protected against the potential damage and unexpected spills of everyday life.
(As an Amazon affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. Please see my full disclosure HERE).

The Best Top Coats for Paint & Stain

☑️ If you are curious or in a hurry, here is my top pick for the best clear coat for furniture (CLICK HERE FOR THE CURRENT PRICE)

chalk paint top coat

What is a clear coat?

A clear coat (often referred to as a poly or topcoat) basically a clear protective finish that you brush on your painted or stained furniture piece after it has dried.  It gives the piece a shield against scratches, water rings from drinking glasses, and just dirt in general.

The protective coating makes cleaning furniture pieces easier because dirt can’t penetrate into the paint surface.  Instead, it wipes cleanly and easily from the topcoat!

What furniture pieces need a clear coat?

Why should I protect my painted furniture with a topcoat?  Any hard furniture that gets a decent amount of use regularly needs protection.  We recommend using a clear coat on dining tables, coffee tables, desks, end tables, or entry tables as these are all used daily and subject to wear and tear.

Dark painted furniture pieces are especially susceptible to showing smudges and dust so I use a clear coat on those to provide protection.  Also, it’s a good idea to use a top coat on any furniture pieces exposed to regular humidity in bathrooms or your kitchen.  Whether you are looking for the best top coat for chalk paint or even for latex paint or stain, this is a good general rule of thumb:

BOTTOM LINE: If your painted furniture piece will come into regular contact with water, food, or little fingerprints, you need a topcoat for the ultimate protection!

Do You Need a Clear Coat Over Latex Paint?

This even goes for latex-painted furniture pieces.  Although latex paint is very durable, it still benefits from an extra coating of protection.  The top coat makes the surfaces harder and therefore more durable but most important clear coats are much more waterproof than latex as latex paints can bubble up if water penetrates the surface.

best clear coat for furniture

What Happens if You Don’t Wax Chalk Paint?

Unlike latex-painted pieces or stained pieces, chalk painted furniture needs a protective finish unless you know a drinking glass won’t be set on it.  If a chalk painted piece without wax or a top coat comes into contact with water, the paint can actually re-liquefy!

So if a cold drink is placed on unsealed chalk paint, you could be left with a puddle of paint on your now-ruined furniture piece not to mention the potential of wet paint on your rug or clothing.

How to Seal Chalk Paint EASILY

Perhaps you are familiar with using wax as a protective coating on chalk paint but did you know you can more easily apply a top coat and your surface will be better protected from water?

While wax can waterproof a surface, there is a definite learning curve with applying wax properly.  If not enough wax is not properly buffed onto the surface, it can be easily penetrated with water and the surface will be ruined if a cold drink is left on the surface. Also, wax has to be reapplied every 6 months to a year to be effective!  Later, we’ll discuss the best chalk paint top coat as opposed to waxing!

By applying a clear coat to unsealed chalk paint, you can get a more durable, waterproof finish, but without the time, effort, and extra expense of wax!

best clear coat for furniture

Two Types of Clear Coats for Furniture

There are two basic types of topcoats for furniture: water-based and oil-based.  Traditionally, oil-based polyurethanes were the main clear coats used on furniture but now more water-based formulas are on the market.  Here’s a little about the pros and cons of each:

1. Water-Based Clear Coats

It used to be that all polyurethanes were oil-based but now you are seeing several polyurethanes that are water-based and just as durable!  Polycrylic is also a water-based product and one of the topcoats we tested.  Water-based clear coats are easy to clean up, have low odor and the finish is much less likely to change over time.

Water-based top coats also dry quickly and can be used on bare, stained, or painted wood.  Can be used on bare, stained, or painted wood.

2. Oil-Based Clear Coats

Oil-based polyurethanes were always the more durable choice but now they have a lot of competition as water-based formulas have improved.  Oil-based products have a strong odor and can take longer to dry.  However, the longer drying time can mean fewer brush strokes.

Oil-based topcoats can have an ambering effect, which means that over time the clear coat can cause the surface of the furniture piece to yellow.  If you have a dark stained piece of furniture, this won’t be detectable and can even warm up the color of the wood slightly over time.  But if you have a white painted furniture piece, you can see how yellowing would be problematic!

Oil-based polys are very water-resistant but are not recommended for outdoor use as they may crack or yellow when exposed to UV light.

best chalk paint top coat

Benefits of Using a Clear Coat on Furniture

Any furniture piece can benefit from a protective finish but especially those that get a lot of use on a daily basis will be better safeguarded from damage, fingerprints, and smudges.

Often, the oils from your hands can react with the not so smooth surface of chalk paint or matte latex.  Over time, those fingerprints and smudges will make your piece look dingy – and not in a rustic farmhouse way.

Those dreaded water rings from drinking glasses can easily ruin a furniture piece but with the right amount of clear coat, you can leave glasses on your coffee table overnight with no damage to the surface!

Applying a good chalk paint clear coat make horizontal surfaces so much easier to wipe.  I can’t imagine having a tabletop without a clear coat for easy clean-up after means.

Many faux finishes use glaze and special techniques to highlight different features of the furniture.  Sometimes those glazes are not waterproof so you can easily seal in those details for good with a top coat!

Also, a clear coat will save you time on touching up furniture pieces later.  It will also allow you to scrub furniture without ruining the paint finish.

Our Candidates for the Best Clear Coat for Furniture (in no particular order)

best chalk paint top coat

The Best Clear for Wood: How We Chose Our Best Picks

We did a blind test on 7 of the most popular clear coats for furniture.   I found these by going to 4 different Facebook furniture groups I am apart of.  Each group consists of hundreds of professional furniture painters.  After finding out their favorite clear coats, I narrowed down their favorites to the top 7.

best chalk paint top coat

Testing to Find the Best Clear Coat for Wood

Using painter’s tape, I made seven different sections on each of two pieces of wood.  One was painted and one was stained.  On each section, I put a total of three layers of topcoat with light sanding in between.  I used an inexpensive foam brush to apply the protective finish.

best chalk paint top coat

The Cold Drink Test

After letting the last coat dry, I let the two wood planks cure for two weeks to reach maximum hardness and water impermeability for each sample.  Then, I put glasses of ice water on each sample for 24 hours to see which samples allowed a ring to appear.

best chalk paint top coat

Criteria for the Best Top Coat For Furniture Projects:

  1.  Easy of Application
  2.  Surface Smoothness
  3. Expense
  4. Durability
  5. Water Permeability
  6. Sheen
  7. Clarity

The All-Around Best Clear Coat For Furniture: Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane, Satin

After testing seven different topcoats, Varathane’s Water-Based Polyurethane was the clear winner!   This clear coat is great for interior products including furniture, cabinets, trim, and doors.  Varathane states it has the best scratch and stain resistance available and based on our findings, I believe them!  It has a low odor, with easy soap and water clean up.  It also dries quickly once applied.

What Reviewers Have to Say:

Many reviewers have used it in a paint sprayer with no problem and have even used it without sanding between coats.  Just be sure to not shake the can (only stir) to reduce bubbles.  One reviewer found that when they brushed it on there were several bubbles in the finish but those bubbles popped during the drying time to leave a smooth coat with no brush marks!  Click here for more reviews.

Why We Love It:

Varathane’s Water-based Polyurethane is a fabulous product that was easy to apply.  Some bubbles were left in the finish but they quickly popped upon drying leaving a super smooth finish with no brush marks.  After three coats, the finish was still very clear and not hazy at all, even on the stained sample.  The satin finish is very nice and not too glossy!  Also, this formula was the best performing water-based clear coat when it came to water rings as no ring was left after 24 hours.

best chalk paint top coat


Best Finish for a Dining Table Top:

This topcoat was also the best clear coat for a tabletop because it’s resistant to scratches, stains, and water.  One common concern for a dining table is the clear coat’s ability to protect against condensation from glasses and this top coat performed best!

Best Budget Top Coat:

To my surprise, it was also the best budget-friendly clear coat for furniture.  Crystalac’s Water-based topcoat was a close second but the price is almost twice as much.  See the current price here.

You can see how I used Varathane’s Water-Based Polyurethane on the coffee table we built over the faux stain:  DIY Farmhouse Coffee Table with Turned Legs

Easy DIY Farmhouse Coffee Table With Turned Legs

Best Top Coat for Chalk Paint – General Finishes High-Performance Top Coat in Flat

The best sealer for chalk paint is General Finishes Top Coat which does an outstanding job of preserving the look, feel, and color of chalk paint.  Their Flat High-Performance Top Coat is a clear, flat, water-based topcoat and excels at making chalk painted or milk painted projects much more durable.

This was one of the two products that didn’t leave any evidence of drink rings even after the drinks were left on sealed wood overnight.

Does chalk paint need a topcoat?

The very ingredient that gives chalk and milk paints their velvety look and powdery feel works against them in the durability department.  This is especially the case with chalk paint that can even come off on your hands or if you rub up against it.   For that reason, chalk paint always needs some sort of sealant on top.

The Best Sealer for Chalk Paint

Wax is not the only option when it comes to Although wax can be used to increase chalk paint’s durability, it requires frequent reapplication. However, General Finish’s High-Performance Top Coat in Flat (click here for the current price) was picked as the best chalk paint topcoat and sealer because it preserves the look, feel and color while increasing the durability of milk paint and chalk paint even with one coat.  It dries quickly and can be easily cleaned up with soap and water.

(See the Runner Up for the Best Sealer for Chalk Paint if you want a lower-cost version here: Varathane Waterbased Polyurethane in Matte  This is also an amazing sealer for chalk-painted furniture!

What is the difference between wax and a chalk paint clear coat?

Wax usually comes in a can and comes in a paste consistency.  It has to be buffed on the surface with a special brush or rag and not too much can be used.  There is definitely a learning curve as far as technique and the wax has to be reapplied regularly to maintain the durability of the finish.

Clearcoat is a clear liquid that can be brushed on the surface with a regular brush.  Application is easy and it’s a once-for-all protective finish that is much more budget-friendly than wax.

The Easiest Chalk Paint Clear Coat to Apply

The best sealer for chalk paint should not only be durable but easy to apply.  Fortunately, there are lots of alternatives to wax on the market.  Any traditional sealer that you can brush on a a foam brush takes a lot less time and skill than waxing.  Also, the wax and special bush are another cost consideration when picking the best chalk paint clear coat.

How to Seal Chalk Paint: Wax or Clear Coat?

Be sure there are no areas of your chalk paint that are peeling.  This can happen easy close to distressed areas.  Sand off any paint that is peeling up too much so the clear coat lays flat on your chalk painted furniture surface.  You can brush on the clear coat the same way I show you in the video with latex.

What Reviewers Have to Say About Sealing Chalk Paint with This Product:

Several reviews said that the topcoat looks milky and opaque when applied but that it because completely clear once it dried.  I love that this sealer has  almost no odor making it perfect to use indoors when refinishing furniture projects making it a great chalk paint clear coat  (Click here for more reviews on the best sealer for chalk paint).

The Best Chalk Paint Protective Top Coat: Why We Love It:  

We love that it has a very consistent, velvety matte finish that had no streaks or bubbles.  The finish and feel of this chalk paint clear coat are very reminiscent of wax without the cost and hassle.  It stood up well to the water test but not quite as well at the Varathane Water-Based, although the results were outstanding especially for a matte finish which is inherently not as water-proof.  There were also no brush strokes in the finish!

Can you put polyurethane over chalk paint?

Any type of polyurethane can be used over chalk paint.  Some are just better options for others but water-based and oil-based polyurethane can go over chalk paint just like latex paint.  Any of the brands listed in this post, including our top pick, can be used if you want to use poly over chalk paint.

GF High-Performance Top Coat in Flat is the Best Top Coat for Milk Paint Also

Any of the top three choices would work beautifully on milk paint but if you like a super matte finish, this one is your best bet for use on milk paint whether it is General Finishes Milk Paint or Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint!


Best Sealer for Chalk Paint: Runner Up

Since writing this post, Varathane’s Waterbased Polyurethane came in a satin sheen but not in a flat/matte sheen.  Fortunately, there is now a flat sheen available here making it an other great option as a chalk paint clear coat: Varathane’s Waterbased Polyurethane in Flat

Best Clear Coat for White Paint: CrystaLac Super Premium Clear Top Coat

When it comes to the best clear oat for white paint, CrystaLac Premium Clear Top Coat is an exceptional environmentally safe resin for interior use.  It provides superior hardness, clarity, and durability.  It is especially recommended for “top” surfaces such as tables, bar tops, cabinetry, and furniture.
Many clear coats can yellow over time.  Oil-based clear coats are especially susceptible to this and less common with water-based polyurethanes.  However, because of CrystaLac’s chemical makeup, it will never yellow, making it a GREAT option for white furniture!

It also works really well as a sealant for chalk or milk paint as it won’t yellow over time and is easy to use.  This clear coat is highly resistant to moisture and alcohol so it is great for use on any surface that demands a hard, tough, protective finish. The CrystaLac topcoat can also be sprayed onto any surface, even metal, and dries quickly. Click here for the current price and reviews.

What Reviews Have To Say:

One reviewer said she used it as a clear coat on white-painted wood salad bowls and after ten years, there was no yellowing.  Several said that it didn’t need sanding in between coats!  

What We Love:

This has a gorgeous matte finish but also comes in other sheens.  It goes on easily with no streaks or brush strokes and it will never yellow, making it perfect for white and light-painted pieces if you are concerned about that. The only reason it was not the best chalk paint topcoat is because the price is higher than our top pick but it’s by far our best choice as the best clear coat for white paint.   Click here for the current price.

best chalk paint top coat


Most Water-Resistant Clear Coat

All of the clear coats tested did really in terms of water resistance.  Both the General Finishes High-Performance Top Coat and Varathane’s Water-based  Polyurethane had absolutely no drinking glass rings.  Others left a very faint ring but these two were definitely the most impermeable to water.

Best Top Coat for Latex Painted Furniture

The Varathane Water-based Topcoat was the best option for latex-painted furniture as it settles well and protects latex furniture from water which could cause bubbling or peeling on unprotected latex surfaces.  Our top three clear coats would all do well on painted furniture – CLICK HERE TO COMPARE THE TOP THREE.

The Best Paint Top Coat, YouTube Video

How To Seal Chalk Paint or Latex Paint Easily

It’s easy to clear coat over latex furniture with a few simple tips!  After painting your furniture piece, let it dry for 48 hours.

Lightly sand your furniture piece with steel wool with very fine sandpaper with high grit (300+) or lightly sand with your mouse sander.   (Click here for the best mouse sanders under $25)

Wipe off any sanding dust with a moist rag or paper towel.

best chalk paint top coat

Then brush on the clear coat in long strokes in one direction with an inexpensive foam brush (like this one).  When you are finished with your first coat, don’t touch it and let it dry according to the directions on the can.

best chalk paint top coat

My Best Tip: How to Protect Painted Furniture and Stained Pieces-

To give painted furniture maximum protection, top coat paint with 3 coats of clear coat.  This will give your piece maximum hardness and durability.  This sounds excessive but our top three clear coats all have very fast dry times, which will cut down on the time to finish your project.  Sand very lightly in between and follow the dry time recommended on the can.

Best Protective Finish for Stained Wood

For the best protective finish for stained wood, I’d pick General Finishes High-Performance Top CoatThis General Finishes Top Coat provides maximum durability and is very waterproof.  One reviewer complained about slight yellowing on a white piece of furniture but that’s actually a plus for stained furniture as it warms up the tone slightly making it the best clear coat for wood.  After sanding lightly, all three top clear coats would be a great choice for stained furniture.

How to Clear Coat Stained Furniture

Just like clear coating painted furniture, be sure to let the stain dry for at least 48 hours and sand very lightly.  For stained finishes, I recommend “sanding” with a paper bag so you don’t mar or scratch the stained finish.  The paper bag is enough to rough up the surface so the clear coat sticks to the stain but it doesn’t leave any scratched in the stain.

To provide a thick clear coat for wood, add three thin layers of clear coat for maximum durability.  Use an inexpensive foam brush (like this) and brush in one direction for each coat.  Allow each coat to dry according to the instructions on the can.

FREE Must-Have Furniture Painting Tips

For time-saving tips on how to refinish furniture on a budget, fill out the form below:

How The Other Contenders Performed:

Polycrylic Top Coat: How to Apply Polycrylic without Streaks

Minwax’s Water-based Polycrylic Top Coat is a commonly used clear coat for furniture refinishing.  All seven topcoats are good products but I found our top three clear coats all performed better than Polycrylic in terms of durability and water permeability.  There was a pretty obvious water ring left on the polycrylic sample but it provided a very smooth finish.

Several furniture painters have trouble with polycrylic streaking or forming stripes on the surface.  I’ve seen this problem as well but what helps is to add a little extra product per coat on your surface.  By adding extra polycrylic, it seemed to minimize streaking significantly!

Oil-Based Polyurethanes: Minwax’s Oil-Based Polyurethane and Varathane’s Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethanes are great when it comes to having a waterproof surface as they both left no glass rings on the surface of each sample.  HOWEVER, there were several bubbles in the Minwax surface and both caused pretty severe ambering of the painted surface.

The Minwax polyurethane separated so it took me a while to stir the product so it was once again consistent.  If you don’t stir in the solids, your finish will be high gloss.

So, while they could both be used for stained surfaces, they would not be a good option for painted furniture, especially light or white paint colors.   If you want to use an oil-based polyurethane, Varathane’s had better results by far – click here for the current price. 

best chalk paint top coat


What Sheen Should I Use on Furniture?

Sheen refers to the amount of shine on a piece of furniture ranging from high gloss, gloss, semigloss, satin, and then matte for the least shine.  Matte is the most popular now as you will see it often on farmhouse style or chalk painted furniture.

The shinier the piece the more durable and easy the surface is to wipe off.  So, if you need a more durable finish, satin is often a good option because it’s not very shiny but is a hard, waterproof surface.

The more gloss a surface has the more it will show imperfections in the surface so a matte sheen is much more forgiving than a semi-gloss.  The clear coats I experimented with were all matte and satin finishes:

Best Matte Clear Coat – Click here for reviews and the current price.

Best Satin Clear Coat – Click here for reviews and the current price.

FAQ’s – Best Clear Coat For Furniture:

Can I Paint Over Polyurethane without Sanding?

Someone asked me how to refinish a piece of furniture that had been clear coated with an oil-based polyurethane.  I would not attempt to refinish over this surface without at least sanding and adding a primer and I describe it in this post here: How to Paint Furniture the Easy Way.   Remember, you are not sanding to remove the surface you are just barely roughing up the surface to accept primer or paint (How to Stand Furniture in 5 Minutes).

Can You Put Polyurethane Over Wax?

A good rule of thumb is that nothing will stick to wax except primer.  So, don’t put any clear coat over wax including polyurethane.  You can however wax over polyurethane if you like the buffed look of wax but a much easier option is using our pick for the best chalk paint topcoat.

Do you Have to Seal Chalk Paint?

If your chalk painted piece will not come into contact with any spills, drinking glasses or you aren’t worried about the finish rubbing off on your hands, you don’t have to seal it.  But most of the time, you’ll want to be able to set a drink on a piece of furniture.  Also, you don’t want to worry about the color rubbing off on clothing.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to seal all chalk painted furniture. See the best chalk paint topcoat here.

What is the Best Clear Coat for Kitchen Cabinets?

If you are wondering how to seal chalk painted kitchen cabinets, your best bet is General Finishes High-Performance Top Coat for a more durable finish or General Finishes Flat Out Flat Top Coat for a more matte finish.  I wouldn’t recommend painting kitchen cabinets with chalk paint as I discuss in my post: A Better Alternative to Chalk Paint.  If you are wondering what clear coat to put on latex-painted cabinets, I would consider going without one.  If you use a good latex made for cabinets, it should be durable and water-resistant enough without the trouble of a topcoat.  However, if you have chalk painted cabinets, you will need some sort of protective finish.

Should I Use a Spray Clear Coat for Wood?  

Spray clear coats seem like they are incredibly convenient and if you are working on a craft project, they are.  But for furniture, spray clear coats are generally a bad idea as they are notorious for leaving stripes on your furniture piece.  Trust me; opt for the brush-on top coats!

After Staining Wood, Do You Have to Seal It?

A stain is a product that penetrates wood pores instead of covering them.  Therefore, the surface can still be easily scratched as there is no protective finish for a typical stain.  For that reason, it is best to seal all stained wood to prevent scratches from ruining the finish.  Gel stains are thicker and more protective so you can get away without a clear coat for lightly used pieces.  Just lightly sand with a paper bag before sealing with a clear coat.

Want To See More Furniture Makeovers?

To see my best furniture reveals click here:  15 Stunning Painted Furniture (Before and After Reveals)

Posts Related to the Best Top Coat for Paint:

Milk Paint vs. Chalk Paint vs. Latex

Best Tips for Painting Furniture

A Better Alternative to Chalk Paint for Furniture

How to Paint Furniture Legs Quickly & Easily

The Best Way to Stencil (Without Paint Bleed!)

Faux Stain with Latex Paint

General Finishes Milk Paint Review

Faux Driftwood Finish for a Weathered Wood Look

How to Make IKEA Furniture Look Expensive with Paint

How to Fix Damaged Wood: Caulk, Wood Filler, or Epoxy?

Applying the Right Top Coat to Wood Furniture: Final Thoughts

Refinishing furniture can be so rewarding if you know the right way to seal and protect your finish.  There are several clear coats in the marketplace but only one exceeds all others.  In terms of smoothness, clarity, durability, and protection from water, we’ve reviewed our best picks above.  You can now finish your next furniture project with confidence knowing it will be protected and look gorgeous for years to come.

best chalk paint top coat

What are your thoughts, my friend?  I love to hear your thoughts and answer any questions!  Scroll down to leave a comment and I WILL reply! ❤️



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  1. Karin, I am a first-time reader of your blog and I must say that you packed a powerful punch with this one! Your research project was so cool! I am impressed with your method and results. Thank you for going to such a time consuming comparison of these top coats. You can add me to your list of followers!! Have a wonderful Mother’s Day.

    1. Thank you so much for that Cecilia and Happy Mother’s Day to you!! I have always wondered myself which top coat was the absolute best and figured it was worth a post on the topic. Thank you for stopping by! I appreciate it!

  2. Hi! I am a noob painter and I found your article very useful – thank you!

    About a year or so ago, I picked up a paint at Lowe’s that was supposedly a two-in-one and the paint guy told me I wouldn’t have to prime or seal with it. I painted a wooden sewing cabinet with it and now I have decided to go back and add a sealant. I painted the piece with a cabinet roller and the whole thing just feels sort of bumpy or pebbley if that makes any sense. I’m hoping a sealant will help protect it and maybe give it a more smooth finish.

    Based on your research here, I’m thinking I should go with the Varathane, but I’m really confused on the application. Do I need to rough up my paint job with sandpaper before I apply it first? I feel like it would just destroy it, ha! I tried that on a small little thing I did once and it ruined the paint. This particular piece is a very light color, so I definitely want to avoid anything that yellows.

    I would appreciate any wisdom you could share with me because I am so afraid I am missing something and am going to screw it up!

    Thank you,

    1. Hey Dee, These are all great questions. Since the finish is kind of pebbly, you are probably right, it might “distress” it if you aren’t careful and I know that’s not the look you are going for. I feel confident you can use the Varathane (make sure to get water-based) clear coat over the surface without sanding. You could always paint on a small area in an inconspicuous spot, let it dry and see if it tries peeling off. Let me know if you have any other questions!

      1. Thank you so much for your response! Sanding is what scared me from doing it to begin with. I’m so unclear on when you are supposed to sand and when you aren’t.

        I will purchase the water-based Varathane and see how it goes!

  3. Hi Karin, I just had to comment because I am shocked at your top pick!! I needed a sealer for our homeschool table which came from the store with a very very matte, chalkboard-like finish that was almost like running your hand across extrafine sandpaper. So I haunted woodworker’s forums online and determined that the Varathane Ultimate Water based crystal clear interior satin stuff – yup, exactly the same can as your top pick, I double checked – would be the best thing to use. Well stirred and two lovely smooth coats later, and a week to cure, and… it has not held up AT All. It scratches so incredibly easily! I have even had plastic container bottoms scratch it. It’s totally trashed after one year of use. I’ve switched to General Finishes high performance flat for one or two projects since and though I haven’t had the chance to do a tabletop I’ve been very satisfied with that one. Your test makes me wonder if something about the table surface I used the Varathane on didn’t allow for good adhesion. I’m scared to ruin another project with it, but I could totally try my own side by side trial over paint and wood samples and see how that turns out. So weird!

    1. That’s so strange Julie! I’m so sorry to hear that. I’ve never had that problem with the Varathane Waterbased Top Coat. You might test it on a piece of wood before using it on your next piece. I’m wondering if it had to do with the finish of the table.

    2. Me and my spouse have a small business fixing and selling vintage furniture, and though we don’t do a lot of chalk or latex work (because we usually work with natural wood grain) we have had a little experience with water based clear coats, and in our experience they are much less robust than oil based finishes. You need more coats of water based product, and they require a longer time then usually advised to cure. We eventually realized that it can take up a month for water based paints and clear coats to fully cure, and if you apply too many coats or any wax before cured, you risk that it won’t dry properly.

      1. I can see that being a problem with polycrylic but the Varathane water-based poly has been great. I put 6 coats on a table at 30 minute intervals and have no problems with drying, curing or durability. Thank you Stefen!

  4. Thank you for sharing the wealth of amazing information! Appreciate all your effort! Blessings to you as well, Karin.

  5. HI Karin! Thanks for all of the wonderful information in this blog! I’m planning to repaint an antique dresser for use as a changing table in our nursery. I would like to only use a clear coat on the top if I can (pure laziness), but I’m worried that it will change color over time and look different from the rest of the piece. I’m going to be painting it a dark green and was thinking of using the Varathane you recommended. What do you think?

    1. Hey Alyssa,
      Great idea on the clear coat. Since you are using the water-based varathane it will not discolor over time like some oil-based. Thank you for your sweet comment and I wish you all the best!

  6. I am so THANKFUL for your post. I am inexperienced and in the process of finishing antique Duncan Phyfe table and chairs. I was so confused after reading so many posts and then found yours!!!! I just want to THANK YOU for going to all the work of testing the finishes to come up with the best one. That is what it takes but I couldn’t do that.

    I can not tell you how much I appreciate you. It helped me so so much.

  7. Thank you for all the information. I have been wanting to know how to create furniture with a chalkboard for my son’s home classroom. You have provided the solution.

  8. This post is genius and so helpful! Thanks for your comparison of all the topcoats. Used General Finishes flat out topcoat today, and it was a dream to apply and looks awesome.

  9. I’m looking for advice: I sanded down my kitchen table, stained it, and then put three coats of Minwax Polycrylic on it. In the first few weeks of use we started noticing permanent scratches. Then I put three coats of Varathane Water based Polyurethane on it, gave it time to rest, and resumed using it. We now mysteriously have a white ring on it , and if we leave water on it for 20 plus minutes blue marks appear and then fade over time. My question is (since I used your number one recommendation) do you think I just have too many coats on it, making it susceptible to rings? Besides that it looks and feels great but I’m afraid it will continue to get marks.

    1. I’m not a huge fan of polycrylic because it is known for leaving streaks so I have to wonder if the layers of polycrylic are making moisture come to the surface when a cold drink is placed on it. You can give it a few weeks to make sure it is cured all the way but if it keeps leaving marks, I would sand it down again and use just the Varathane Water-based Poly. I have over 6 coats of this on our coffee table and haven’t had any problems with drinks. So sorry you are having to deal with this and let me know if I can answer any other questions.

  10. I have no idea how old this post is if you will respond… but I read a lot of your blog about why you Don’t like chalk paint compared to your method but have you actually ever used chalk paint? And what was the brand that your friend used on her cabinets?

  11. So helpful, thank you! I bleached my wood dining table- any suggestions for a clear topcoat that won’t darken the finish? I went to put water based poly on and was surprised the “wet” looked remained after drying. Bummer.

  12. Karin, I love your in depth articles and the comparisons you have done on different paints & finishes.
    I was wondering if you have painted furniture for outdoors, of course using exterior durable paint, and if you have any recommendations for clear, protective finishes for these pieces?
    I live in Alberta, Canada, where we deal with huge temperature swings. I love repurposing furniture, and would like to put some pieces outdoors in semi protected areas, but would like them to be durable to both moisture & heat/cold.
    Any thoughts would be so appreciated. Thank you.

  13. Hi there! Loving your article! I refinished our handmade kitchen table and now it’s time to seal it, and the last thing I want to do is ruin all the hard work I’ve put into it! The table top is a dark espresso stain while the legs are painted white. I’m looking for a stain to hopefully use on both parts of the table or to easily get two different cans at somewhere local like Home Depot. Would you recommend the Varathane Water-based Poly on the table top and legs? Just don’t want the white legs to yellow! Thank you!

  14. I must say, I have loved Polycrylic since it first came out for its quick dry time as well as durability. A few years ago, I refinished our coffee table creating a driftwood finish on the top with white chalk paint legs. I brushed on 4 coats of polycrylic on the top and 2 coats on the legs. My husband is disabled and unable to inject himself with insulin each night, so I do it for him. I prepared the cotton ball with alcohol before knocking the bottle of ubbing alcohol all over my beautiful driftwood table. To my surprise, there was no damage whatsoever. I love Polycrylic.

  15. Your clear coat testing save me from buying 2 new end tables! My end tables were in good shape except for the tops. I was shopping for new ones when I saw you painting tips. I was nervous to try redoing the tops but your instructions were clear and seemed pretty simple. The finish on the tops was chipped and cracked so I sanded and restrained them then added the clear coat to protect them from being ruined by liquids again. They turned out perfect and so durable!!

  16. I’ve bought a piece of furniture from Nadeau: Furniture With a Soul and I’m going to paint/stain/top coat it to look similar to Ethan Allen’s large Ming media cabinet in the peacock blue. I think it’s painted with wax over it. I am planning to do latex with a watered down darker shade of the same color, and then a tinted glaze, then a top coat. I saw the information about the General Finishes top coat. I hope I’m headed in the right direction. I’m planning to use MinWax gel stain or another gel stain like Java gel or General Finishes on the inside as it’s more of a stained look and different from the outside.
    I wanted to ask if this sounds right. I also want to check on your mention of using wax and polyurethane together. My understanding is that polyurethane on top of wax or vice versa is highly flammable. Maybe it’s just the rub-on poly I used for my kitchen area dining table but I thought it was a general statement. What are you aware of in that respect. The piece I’m doing is 86″ long and 31″ high, under an arched window that is about 9′ wide and 12′ tall starting about 33 inches from the floor and next to a fireplace, so I have to make sure I don’t do something that increases the risk of the piece catching on fire.
    I’ll look forward to your reply to my questions.

    1. Hey Mandy – I don’t think I’d use wax and poly together. I don’t usually use wax at all but use the clear coats mentioned in the post. Let me know if you have any other questions and I’d love to see pics when you are done! Thank you!

  17. I just painted shelves white Marquee Paint. Since they are white which top coat so they don’t yellow if you can plz help. Never painted

    1. If you used Marquee, I think you can get away without a clear coat unless they will be used very heavily. My favorite clear coat that does not yellow is Varathane’s Water-based Polyurethane!

  18. Hi Karin!
    Thank you for all your wonderful information! I’m new to repurposing furniture and you have helped me tremendously.
    I do have a question though. I’m using SW emerald paint for my project. (For some reason the man told me I couldn’t get the pro classic in the color I wanted). Anyway, I’m approaching the point of applying the top coat and need to sand, but the emerald paint has a shine to it. When I lightly sand using 400 grit sandpaper I’m noticing that the shine is being removed and leaving dulled streak marks (I’m assuming it’s from where I’m pressing down harder than in other areas). My question is, will these streak marks show up after I apply the poly or should I sand my paint job to the point of it all looking a bit dull?
    I’ve searched the Internet for answers, but can’t seem to find anything about what sanding your paint job looks like before applying a top coat.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom 🙂

    1. Hey Melanie, That’s a great question. When you apply the clear coat, it will give everything the same sheen (depending on the sheen of your clear coat). Apply one coat and apply at least one more coat after the first dries. I don’t usually sand between coats of the clear coat. Please let me know if you have any other questions!

  19. I will be putting a top coat over my chalk painted armoire. I plan on getting the General Finishes product after reading this post. I looked it up and I see there’s two different varieties, I’m a little confused on which to get. There’s the General Finishes Water base Top Coat High Performance in Flat, than there’s General Finishes Flat Out Flat, they are both water based Top coats, is there a difference between the both?

    1. Great question Laureen! After writing this, General Finishes came out with a High Performance Topcoat in Matte and not just satin. So, I would probably lean towards that product. But also, I realized the Varathane Waterbased Polyurethane that came in first has a matte version now, so I think I would opt for that one but all three should be good products. Here’s where you can find the Varathane WB in matte: Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks Laureen!

      1. Hi Karen, I actually forgot to ask… how long after I chalk paint my armoire do I need to wait before I can apply a top coat? I’m hearing different answers, some say I can apply 24 hrs after painting, than I saw where you have to let the chalk paint cure for 2 to 3 weeks before applying topcoat. What do you think? Thanks so much!

  20. Hi Karin. After reading this post regarding the best top coat, I decided I want to give General Finish Flat out Flat a try over my chalk painted armoire. When I was about to order I noticed there’s two different versions of General Finish top coats. There’s the water base Top Coat High Performance in flat, this one actually has different textures, flat, gloss, satin, or semi gloss. The other is Flat out Flat. They are both from General Finishes. Are they both basically the same? This is my first project so I just want to be sure. I’m so glad I came along this post, so helpful! Thank you!

    1. Hey Reeny,
      It’s so funny that you are asking this because I was wondering the same thing. General Finishes came out with the High Performance top coat in matte after this post was written. I probably need to test it too! I’m willing to be that it’s a really good product. But also, Varathane has come out with a matte topcoat. And since I had the best results with that one in satin, I would lean toward trying their matte version: Let me know if you have any other questions – Karin

  21. Hi Karin,

    So I painted a piece of furniture(night stand for bedroom set) I wanted to top coat it with a chalk paint top coat.(just the top of it) Is that ok? Trying to find the answer, but nowhere to be found.

    1. Hey Alice, That’s a great question. If your piece is white or cream, use the product I recommend for white furniture. For any other color, just make sure the topcoat sheen matches the sheen of the latex. Thanks for commenting! – Karin

  22. Hi Karen, I’m making wall decorations out of pine wood.will the knots come through on my pieces whether I stain,chalk paint or use acrylic paint over time?

    1. Great question. There’s a product called Zinnser BIN and it’s the only thing that I have found that prevents knot holes from coming through over time. It’s pretty smelly so a lot of times I will just dab some over the knot holes (not the whole piece). It dries really fast so do two quick “coats” on just the knot holes and then paint as normal. Let me know if you have anymore questions.

  23. Karin, I totally enjoyed finding your blog while google searching what to do about my table. I have a Pottery Barn stained dining table that through the years has been well used. I am wanting to apply a new clear coat. The top has child and cat scratches but none through to the stain. What is the best advice you can give for a beautiful “new” finish? I guess my most important question is can I use the water based products over the finish after lightly sanding out the wear marks?

    1. So if your table isn’t super glossy, you can put the water-based poly over it without any sanding. I have done it on a side table that had tons of TINY scratches and the Varathane Waterbased Poly made it look like a whole new table. You might test an inconspicuous part of the table to see how it looks before doing the whole thing. Thanks Karen! -Karin

    2. Hi Karen thank you so much for the wonderful blog. We have a chest that has been sanded and stained but we are unclear as to how we should finish it. This chest will be heavily used by children and need the ultimate protection. We have used the varathane Nano varnish in matte on our stairs and unfortunately with every scratch it turned white (looks awful 😕) so we are hoping to avoid such experience again. In your experience does the varathane water based polyurethane hold up to test to scratches on dark stain?
      Thank you

      1. Hi there, so sorry to hear that about your chest! The Varathane water-based poly is on my breakfast table over a dark stain. It has been stained for almost a year and I haven’t had any problems with scratches looking lighter. I hope this helps! Thanks!!! – Karin

  24. Hi Karin,
    I love how in depth your articles are. And I fully agree about sanding. There is no real way around it – you have to sand. If you want a quality finish you need to do the prep.

    One thing you may want to mention in future articles is wax is almost impossible to remove if you want to change your piece at a later date. Even primer will have difficulty sticking to it. When you sand it seems to push into the wood. You will read that Mineral Spirits will remove it but I have not found that to be the case.

    Thank you for all the trial and error you have done so the rest of us can get it right!

    1. Wow, that’s really good information. I didn’t know that. Thank you so much for sharing! I need to redo a piece that has been waxed (or try to) and do a post on it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge Nancy! – Karin

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