DIY Poly Finishes for Furnituremakers

Furnituremakers who finish their own table tops don't have to settle for finish failures. April 20, 2011

When it comes to the final finish with all my furniture projects, I get stuck. I've had a lot of bad experiences with poly topcoats. I've poured lots of hard labor into a piece of furniture, only to have it ruined in the end by polyurethanes. So now I simply leave all my tops incomplete.

Whenever I coat with a poly, it scratches up white and looks awful. I can make a tiny scratch with my fingernail and bring up what looks like caked on wax. Everything I place on these tables scratches them.

I used to use the old painstaking wax-on, wax-off technique, as that is the look I want, and with that out of the canister wax paste, I never have to worry about peeling, or that white caked on look if it does peel. But this is just too labor intensive.

Maybe I'm using the wrong poly, but before I screw up this latest project of a huge desk, I need to know what poly brand, if any, I could use to seal the top (without that glossy sheen) and have a nice flat, hand rubbed surface that you see on most table tops in the stores. I heard Varathane poly wouldn't scratch easily, but I can't afford to ruin yet another top. It needs to be a DIY product.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
If you're not spraying, then there are many wipe on polys that are tough and easy to apply. Easy to find at Home Depot or Lowes is Minwax wipe on poly. Just follow the directions on the can. It's thin, so use 4 or 5 coats. If it becomes scratched, just sand out the scratch and apply another coat. I used it on some maple and showed it to a friend with a $1,000.00 turbine. He said he was ready to trade his gun for a rag to get away from the orange peel!

From contributor B:
I'm a big fan of General Finishes and they have quite a few choices you can use on a desk. As with any finish, make sure to apply to a piece of scrap and let it dry first. I wipe on any finish I apply, from shellac to poly, and don't run into the easy-to-scratch problems you mention. Make sure you are using fresh poly, no matter the brand. It sounds like it may not be drying completely underneath. Remember to go with a coat and wait for it to dry before applying another coat.

From contributor D:
Are you using an oil base or water base poly?

Contributors J and B gave you great advice. Minwax wipe-on poly and General Finishes Arm-R-Seal are perfect oil base wipe-on products that are DIY friendly. Remember to let each coat dry completely before recoat. Sounds like you will be using a satin finish. Be sure to stir the product frequently to distribute the flatteners. Do not shake (shaking creates bubbles).

The Minwax product is available at most big box and hardware stores. You'll find General Finishes online.

From contributor S:
You will not achieve the same look as your wax finishes from a poly. The molecular weight doesn't allow a poly to enter the wood to saturate the colors and fibers for the depth and silkiness that a wax provides. Since you had success with a wax, would you be interested in continuing with wax if you knew some techniques and products to take much of the pain out of it?

From contributor O:
I've used General Finishes Arm-R-Seal on many, many projects and over a 10 year period I've never had a project go bad. The Arm-R-Seal can be applied by brushing on, spraying on or wiping on. I've achieved a beautiful hand-rubbed oil look and feel by sanding the wood to 320 grit, applying the Arm-R-Seal, letting it soak in for about 5 minutes, then wiping the excess off till it's dry. I repeat this about 6 or 7 times. The look and feel of the finish is beautiful, super smooth, and it really makes figure, color and grain pop in a piece of wood. I've never had a customer contact me later saying the finish was starting to go bad.