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Guide to Clear Protective Finishes

Protect your project and keep it looking beautiful for years to come.

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Protect For Long Lasting Beauty

While wood stains add color and bring out the beauty of the wood, clear finishes protect the wood and enhance its beauty. Whether you choose to stain your wood project or not, it is important that you protect the wood with a clear finish, such as polyurethane.

Most clear finishes are available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. Choosing a sheen is a matter of personal preference.

The gloss level will affect the appearance of your piece, but not its durability.

Clear finishes, sometimes called “topcoats” will protect your project against damage from water, household chemicals, and everyday wear. And the beautiful finish will make your wood come alive!

 

Choosing a Clear Finish

Choosing the best clear finish for your project will depend on a few key factors:

  • Project type: A project that will see heavy use, such as a table top, requires more protection than a project that will be subjected to less wear and tear. Be sure to choose a clear protective finish that is right for your project.
  • Exposure to sunlight and humidity: Doors, windows, bathroom cabinets, kitchen countertops and outdoor furniture can all be exposed to sunlight, temperature changes and humidity. For these conditions, you need to protect your project with a finish that has ultraviolet absorbers and special oils that expand and contract with temperature changes.
  • Crystal clear or amber tone: Many clear finishes add a rich, warm, amber tone to the wood. Others remain crystal clear. You can choose whichever look you prefer for your project. However, if your project is a light color—whether stained or unfinished wood—it is best to protect it with a finish that remains crystal clear.
  • Ease of application: Some Minwax® clear finishes can be easily applied with a cloth—no need to worry about drips or brush marks. Some dry very quickly and can be cleaned up with soap and water, while others require mineral spirits.
  • Note for hardwood floors: Some general-purpose clear protective finishes can be used on floors. Minwax® also offers topcoats that are specially formulated for hardwood floors. They have application benefits that make them ideal for large surface application.

Minwax® Clear Finish Comparison Chart

Use the chart below as a guide to selecting your clear protective finish. Click on any product for more details.
Product Ideal for Use on These Projects Protects Against Sunlight and Humidity Amber Tone or Crystal Clear Application Tools Time to Recoat Soap and Water Clean Up
Fast-Drying Polyurethane Fast-Drying Polyurethane Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors, Floors No Amber Natural Bristle Brush 4-6 Hours No
Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors, Floors No Amber Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Polycrylic® Protective Finish Polycrylic® Protective Finish Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Crystal Clear Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Helmsman® Spar Urethane Helmsman® Spar Urethane Interior & Exterior Doors, Windows, Bathroom Cabinets, Kitchen Countertops, Outdoor Furniture Yes Amber Natural Bristle Brush 4 hours (6 hours for 350 VOC formula) No
Water Based Helmsman® Spar Urethane Water Based Helmsman® Spar Urethane Interior & Exterior Doors, Windows, Bathroom Cabinets, Kitchen Countertops, Outdoor Furniture Yes Crystal Clear Synthetic Bristle Brush 2 hours Yes
Clear Brushing Lacquer Clear Brushing Lacquer Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Crystal Clear Natural Bristle Brush 2 hours No
Wipe-On Poly Wipe-On Poly Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Amber Lint-Free Cloth 2-3 hours No
Water Based Wipe-On Poly Water Based Wipe-On Poly Furniture, Woodwork, Cabinets, Interior Doors No Amber Lint-Free Cloth 2-3 hours Yes
Express Clear™ Express Clear™ Furniture, Trim, Molding, Crafts No Crystal Clear Lint-Free Cloth 1 hour Yes
Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane for Floors Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane for Floors Specially Formulated for Hardwood Floors No Amber Lambswool Applicator or Natural Bristle Brush 3-4 hours (4-6 hours for 350 VOC formula) No
Ultimate Floor Finish Ultimate Floor Finish Specially Formulated For Hardwood Floors No Crystal Clear Synthetic Pad Applicator 2 hours Yes

How to Apply a Clear Protective Finish

Most clear finishes are applied with a brush, working in the direction of the grain of the wood. After it dries, sand lightly. Then remove all the sanding dust and apply a second coat. For added durability, a third coat can be applied. Most projects will be ready for normal use in 24 hours. Be sure to follow the label directions for the product you are using.

Minwax® clear protective finishes are also available in convenient aerosol sprays that are great for trim, molding and hard-to-reach areas.

Stir the clear finish well before and occasionally during use.

Be sure to mix in all material that may have settled to the bottom of the can.

Never shake a can of clear finish.

Shaking will cause bubbles in the dried finish.

Always apply thin coats.

Thick coats take longer to dry and are more likely to be uneven and attract dust.

“Tip off” each section.

To minimize brush marks and bubbles, “tip off” each section of your project at a 45-degree angle and lightly run the bristles over the entire length of the wood.

Test before you sand.

To be certain that the finish is ready to be sanded, sand a small, inconspicuous area first. If the finish starts to “ball up”, STOP. It is not dry enough to be sanded. Wait at least 30 minutes then test again.

 
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