Tough Finishes for Table Tops

A wide-ranging discussion of various approaches to finishing table tops. Your choice will depend on the intended use and the preferred appearance. January 14, 2009

I'm building a slab table of Iroko for a customer and considering using Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish (the board in the photo below has not been finish sanded). I'd like to hear advice on this choice or other recommendations. I don't have a spray booth. Waterlox is a phenolic wiping varnish. Can it be polished or buffed after enough coats ? Or does its gummy chemistry prevent this? How does Waterlox hold up to scratches? Will my customer be able to wipe some on and maintain his table if it does get scratched? I know I have a lot of questions so any help is appreciated.

Click here for full size image

Forum Responses
From contributor D:
If I had to smell Waterlox I would probably just use cat varnish. One coat gloss one coat dull rubbed and you’re done. Waterlox is soft and hides scratches well but wears off quickly. Have you tried a burnished drying oil like polymerized tung oil? It can be rubbed down to a satin sheen once cured and touches up extremely easily. Requires a little more maintenance but if routinely maintained it can look awesome forever.

From contributor A:
What is this table going to be used for? When you say buffed are you looking for a mirror finish or a dull rubbed look? If it's a just a regular dining table then 5-7 coats Waterlox should suffice if you wipe it on.

If this is a table that is going to be used in a commercial environment (restaurant, bar, office, etc.) then you might want to go with something a little bit tougher like a polyurethane, 2k (waterborne or solvent), or an aluminum oxide finish (waterborne).

From contributor D:
Are you serious? Aluminum oxide on a slab I am sure costs at least $15 bd/ft. Better yet why doesn't he just shrink wrap it in polyethylene sheet like Visqueen? Or coat it with a nice coat of latex paint.

Don't ruin this slab with waterbased. I would no sooner put waterbased on a slab like this as paint it. Waterlox is definitely better than waterbased for depth and iridescence. I have one waterbased product I like but it is an oil emulsion so it is more oil finish suspended in water than waterbased. Waterlox is nice for hiding scratches. When it scratches they do not turn white and are hard to see. I would still go for catalyzed varnish for wear and chemical resistance if I had to go with a smelly finish.

From contributor M:
Personal opinion and experience speaking here, but conversion varnish doesn't even begin to approach the hardness and abrasion resistance of Waterlox (or even polyurethane). Waterlox can be built a good bit higher than CV it just takes forever to cure, and is just plain rugged hard.

Conversion varnish does, however, whip oil based varnishes/polys in chemical durability - by a long shot. CV will resist pretty much any sort of household chemical. Be careful not to confuse the two forms of durability. Waterlox is more scratch resistant (not scratch proof) and CV is more chemically resistant. Between CV and Waterlox, you have a give and take.

I sprayed my own personal kitchen table with CV and regret it. I used satin, and even then is has all sorts of scratches all over it that ought not be nearly as bad as it is if CV was as hard as oil based polys. But on the bright side I can clean my table with any cleaner I have in the house without worrying if it will lift the finish or haze it. Answer: nothing in my house. I would not hesitate one moment to use Waterlox, particularly since you say you have no spray equipment. I would not however wipe it on. I would buy a good quality brush and brush it on.

From contributor A:
Waterlox is more of a DIY type product to me and should be used by the DIY types. If you want to impart some color into the slab first you can do this by using a quick dry wiping stain in a clear base first before applying your finish. If you want more amber add a touch of amber dye to your clear base wiping stain.

CV is a poor man’s finish and a nightmare to fix after ten years. If you want to cheap out just shoot one coat of vinyl and one coat cv and your’re done. You shouldn't have to rub out a dull finish if you can spray.

I finished three of these slabs (6' x 14-16') a few years ago and used clear epoxy to fill all the voids and then a BonaKemi 2k urethane floor system (solvent) and they looked awesome. These tables are still in excellent condition after 3 years of daily abuse in a resort.

From contributor D:
Suspending ALO particles in a film finish ruins the clarity of the finish. Bona as a finsh company is 80% marketing and very little R and D. If you want serious R and D in a professional floor coating look at Azko Nobel's Synteko line. Yes CV can be used to be cheap but it can also be a great system if used appropriately. Ten years from now it can be intercoat abraded and then coated with about anything you want. 2k solvent based poly's are awesome but rarely used on floors anymore. I like 2K automotive clear on wood but at $80 quart it is a little steep for most projects.

From contributor D:
Have you ever used Bona's 2k AO solvent finish? You can clean it with acetone or lacquer thinners when cured and it doesn't hurt it at all. Never mind household chemicals. If you want to go automotive clear 3m makes a great 3k waterborne that is about $180 a gallon.

Like I say it depends on what the table is going to be used for. If it's for someone’s house then waterlox is fine, so is a mix of orange and garnet shellac and a regular phenolic varnish for that matter..

Sikkens makes a good marine grade varnish that can handle lots of abuse and the clarity is amazing. It works well over shellac for interior applications.

Contributor M has a point though about wiping the waterlox. It would be better to fine a nice 4 inch flat brush with short soft. I'd probably work my way across the short way from one end to the other along the length.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all these responses. The table will be used in a residence. My client doesn't want a glass-like surface. Reading some of the grain is his taste. I have made a sample with 5 coats of Waterlox and performed a simple scratch test with my fingernails. Scratchmarks were left in the surface with very light pressure, so this eliminates the Waterlox. I'm not familiar with 2K or ALO finishes, so I need to do some reading.

From contributor A:
The waterlox will need about 7-9 days to harden up and a full 3-4 weeks to cure 100% before it's super hard. This is one of the disadvantages of the finish.

If you can't spray then most 2k products are probably not a good idea unless someone here knows of some that can be brushed well over such a large surface. That's a shame because 2k (2 component) products cure faster by a chemical reaction with a catalyst. Most of these reach an 80%+ chemical cure in 24 hours.

If you are looking for a nice grain effect and a good easy to apply finish I would suggest 1 liberal coat of BLO (boiled linseed oil) applied with a brush and then wiped off twice at 15 minute intervals. Let this dry for 2-3 days. After the oil is dry apply 3-4 coats of the Waterlox (one coat every 12 hours) and let it dry for a week.

Alternatively you can also apply a polyurethane like Fletco's Varathane Diamond finish for floors or Gym Floor Finish also by Fletco, these products are readily available in many places. Both come in a satin sheen and dry to a really hard durable surface that is chemical and scratch resistant. Apply it liberally as per what it says on the can and re-coat within 24 hours. I would do 3 (gym floor) or 4 (diamond) coats, then let it cure for 7 days before you denub it and polish it.

If you want something that is hard faster than you might need to go the other route I suggested and use a polyurethane. Apply 1 coat of a oil/solvent quick dry wiping stain in a clear base or a clear base with a hint of amber dye. This will give you the same type of color generation as the Waterlox. Let it dry for a few hours.

When it's dry you can apply 3-4 coats of your choice of polyurethane in either a waterborne (must be sprayed for such a big surface) which dries much faster, or an oil base (takes about 6-12 hours to dry for each coat). Most professional grade waterborne polyurethanes will cure in 5-8 days and be rock hard. Oil based polyurethanes take 7-14 days for a full chemical cure (Sikkens Marine would be my choice here). Personally if you're not an experienced finisher I would pass this one off to someone that is. It looks like a nice chunk of wood.

From contributor M:
Contributor A is right on about cure time. When Waterlox (or even regular polyurethane and even gym floor finishes) harden after application, they are always scratch-prone. A week or two solves that problem. Waterlox has been around a long time and is time tested. Let your sample piece cure up a little bit and you'll see a drastic difference, and remember that nothing is bulletproof.

From contributor A:
The major failing of CV is the dry film thickness restrictions due to its brittleness. If I’m finishing a tabletop, no matter what the finish I like to throw down 4-6 wet coats. CV can't really be buffed because there is no film thickness to work.

Contributor A - I'm well versed in the Awlgrip line of marine 2k's. Bombproof starts to describe the durability. Unfortunately they are the old school toxic 2k's of 30 years ago. They have a robust line of reducers, thinners, extenders that allow one to spray, roll, or brush any of their topcoats.

They have a clear coat 2k as well as a 3k varnish. It actually brushes well if you know the product and pick a good temp/humidity application day.

From contributor B:
Let me say this about Waterlox as a floor sealer. I worked in a kitchen month or so ago and the floor and dining area was done in this product. It looked great and I did not see any scratches or any other deterioration of the floor.

From contributor W:
Has anyone ever sprayed on Waterlox? I would think it could be done, just trying to speed up the learning curve.

From contributor M:
No, I have not sprayed WLX, but I know lots of others who have. I have sprayed a lot of standard polyurethane, so it shouldn't be that different than WLX. Just beware the dust, as spraying tends to really get dust afloat and it never fails to fall into your beautiful finish during the many hours of cure time.