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 top coats and compared reviews to find the best protective finish for your next furniture project including the best chalk paint top coat!
This is a great post for you if you:
- Want to protect your existing furniture so isn’t ruined by everyday use
- Have worked hard on a new furniture project and want to seal the finish
- Want to find the best top coat for your specific furniture finish
- Need insight on the best tips to apply a clear coat to furniture
If YOU ARE CURIOUS OR IN A HURRY:
☑️ Here are our top three picks for the best clear coats for furniture. CLICK HERE TO COMPARE ALL THREE
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 top coat (or clear coat) acts as an insurance policy against the potential damage caused by everyday life. Especially if you have young kids, your table top, 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.
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What is a clear coat?
A clear coat (often referred to as a poly or top coat) 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 top coat!
What furniture pieces need a clear coat?
Why should I protect my painted furniture with a top coat? 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 chalk paint top coat 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.
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-liquify! 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 Make Chalk Paint Waterproof
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 expensive of wax!
Two Types of Clear Coats for Furniture
There are two basic types of top coats 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 pro’s 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 top coats 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 less brush strokes.
Oil-based top coats 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.
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 safe-guarded 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!
Clear coats make horizontal surfaces so much easier to wipe. I can’t imagine having a table top 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 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)
- Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic Protective Finish (sclick here for the current price)
- Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane (click here for the current price)
- General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat (click here for the current price)
- Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane (click here for the current price)
- Crystalac Water-based General All Purpose Top Coat (click here for the current price)
- Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane, Oil-Based (click here for the current price)
- General Finishes High Performance Top Coat (click here for the current price)
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.
Testing the Clear Coats
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 top coat with light sanding in between. I used an inexpensive foam brush to apply the protective finish.
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 glass of ice water on each sample for 24 hours to see which samples allowed a ring to appear.
Criteria for the Best Top Coat For Furniture Projects:
- Easy of Application
- Surface Smoothness
- Water Permeability
After testing seven different top coats, 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 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.
This top coat was also the best clear coat for a table top because it’s resistance 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!
To my surprise it was also the best budget-friendly clear coat for furniture. Crystalac’s Waterbased top coat was a close second but the price is almost twice as much. See the current price here.
This General Finishes Top Coat does an outstanding job of preserving the look, feel and color of chalk paint. Flat Out Flat is a clear, flat, water-based topcoat and excels at making chalk painted or milk painted projects much more durable.
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.
Although wax can be used to increase chalk paint’s durability, it requires frequent reapplication. However, General Finish’s Flat Out Flat Top Coat was picked as the best chalk paint top coat 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.
Best Top Coat for Milk Paint
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!
What is the difference between wax and a 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.
Clear coat 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.
What Reviewers Have to Say:
Several reviews said that the top coat looks milky and opaque when applied but that it because completely clear once it dried. It also has almost no odor making it perfect to use indoors when refinishing furniture projects. (Click here for more reviews).
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 is 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!
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.
How to Clear Coat Painted Furniture
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 a very fine sandpaper with a 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.
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.
My Best Tip: How to Protect Painted Furniture and Stained Pieces-
To give painted furniture maximum protection, use 3 coats of a 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.
For the best protective finish for stained wood, I’d pick General Finishes High Performance Top Coat. This 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 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.
Must-Have Furniture Painting Tips
For time-saving tips on how to refinish furniture on a budget click here: Furniture Painting 101, Tips & Tricks
How The Other Contenders Performed:
Minwax’s Water-based Polycrylic Top Coat is a commonly used clear coat for furniture refinishing. All seven top coats 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.
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:
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 a describe 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 top coat.
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, its a good idea to seal all chalk painted furniture. See the best chalk paint top coat 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 top coat. 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 ideas 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?
Stain is a product that penetrates wood pores instead of covering it. 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 clear coat.
Furniture Painting Tips from Renovated Faith:
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.
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Table of Contents
- How to Pick the Right Protective Finish for Your Furniture Piece
- What is a clear coat?
- What furniture pieces need a clear coat?
- Two Types of Clear Coats for Furniture
- Benefits of Using a Clear Coat on Furniture
- Our Candidates for the Best Clear Coat for Furniture (in no particular order)
- How We Chose Our Best Picks
- The All Around Best Clear Coat For Furniture : Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane, Satin
- Best Chalk Paint Top Coat – General Finishes Flat out Flat Top Coat
- Best Clear Coat for White Paint: CrystaLac Super Premium Clear Top Coat
- Most Water-Resistant Clear Coat
- Best Top Coat for Latex Painted Furniture
- Best Protective Finish for Stained Wood
- Must-Have Furniture Painting Tips
- How The Other Contenders Performed:
- CLICK HERE TO COMPARE THE TOP THREE
- What Sheen Should I Use on Furniture?
- FAQ’s – Best Clear Coat For Furniture:
- Furniture Painting Tips from Renovated Faith:
- Applying the Right Top Coat to Wood Furniture: Final Thoughts
- Reviews for the Best Clear Coat for Furniture
Reviews for the Best Clear Coat for Furniture