Best Clear Coat for Wood & Painted Furniture (+ Infographic)

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Tired of the normal wear and tear of your furniture pieces in everyday life? So why don’t you protect your furniture with the best clear coat for wood furniture? Topcoats are not just for painted furniture, but also for stained or raw wood. If left unsealed, wood can be damaged due to moisture, heat or wear & tear. That is why most woodworking projects will ensure that the wood is protected with a topcoat regardless if it was painted, stained or raw.

But what is the best clear coat for wood and painted furniture projects? Will the clear coat affect the colour of the wood or the painted pieces? And which sealer for wood furniture is the easiest to apply? These are the questions I will address in this guide! I have also surveyed MORE THAN 400 DIY-ers, hobbyists and experts to find out their opinions on the best sealers for wood and painted furniture. Read on to find out my findings (+ printable infographics)!

What is a clear coat/ topcoat?

But before moving forward, let’s talk about what a clear coat actually is! A topcoat or a clear coat is basically a clear protective finish that you brush on your raw, stained or painted pieces after it has dried. It gives the piece a shield against daily wear, tears, scratches, and dirt.

Treating your furniture with a protective layer of clear coat will prolong the life of furniture and simply protects the furniture’s beautiful paint or stained finish from water, scratches, chips, stains, and scuffs.

Do I Need to Clear Coat My Furniture?

clear coat for furniture

Sealing your furniture is significant, but it is very confusing to know when you actually need to seal your painted furniture or not.

You SHOULD apply a clear coat if your furniture is:

  1. Made of unsealed raw wood

  2. Exposed to regular humidity

  3. Painted with chalk paint or latex paint

  4. In high traffic areas and will go through regular wear and tear

  5. Painted in dark colours. Dark painted furniture pieces are particularly vulnerable to show dust and smudges, so it is advisable to use a clear coat on those to give protection.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some paints do not require a sealer, such as General Finishes milk paint, Americana decor satin enamels, and Fusion mineral paint, as these already have an in-built sealer in their paint formulation. Ultimately, I generally recommend applying a topcoat on high-traffic pieces such as coffee tables, desks, end tables, dining tables, or entry tables as these are subject to daily wear and tear.

Bottomline: Apply topcoat for painted/stained pieces in high-traffic areas, and for all raw wood pieces.

What Are The Different Kinds of Top Coat?

different kind of topcoat for furniture

There are various kinds of topcoats, the most popular ones being polyurethane and polycrylic. While I will be focusing on these two, it’s good to know the other kinds of finishes available in the market that could even be more affordable in your area.

  1. Polyurethane

    Polyurethane comes in both water and oil-based options, with the oil-based ones being more durable but more yellowing. You can get polyurethane in a spray can, making it a breeze to apply, especially for large pieces.

  2. Polycrylic

    Polycrylic is a water-based product and it is similar to polyurethane, but it doesn’t emit as much smelly and toxic fumes. This makes polycrylic ideal for indoor projects due to its low VOC.

  3. Shellac

    While I’ve heard of shellac-based primer, a shellac finish is not as commonly known. Shellac finish is a natural product as it’s made from a secretion from the female lac bug by combining it with a solvent, i.e., alcohol. It is very safe and dries and hardens quickly. It can be affected by heat or chemicals, so it is advised not to use it in the kitchen. Apply it with a cotton rag or with a natural bristle brush.

  4. Lacquer

    Lacquer is exceptionally durable and resistant to damage; however, it begins to discolor and become scratched over time. As it is thinner than the other finishes, therefore it is applied using a spray. It provides incredibly intense gloss finish and it is often used on ultra-modern furnishings.

  5. Varnish

    Varnish is a great option as a finish or a topcoat for protecting raw wood. Due to its higher solid ratio, varnish is very durable and is ideal for outdoor furniture. Spar varnish, in particular, is perfect for pieces that will be in contact with water, such as wood decks and boats, and outdoor furnishings due to its high durability and natural UV light protection. Apply it with a natural bristle brush.

  6. Finishing oils

    Another notable finish for raw wood would be finishing oils such as mineral oil and boiled linseed oil. If you are looking to protect wood pieces around your house that will come into contact with food (cutting boards etc), it is recommended to use food-grade mineral oil and rub down wooden handles with linseed oil.

Polycrylic VS Polyurethane

I will be focusing on polycrylic and polyurethane as these are the most popular sealers around, and for good reason! You can pretty much use it on all kinds of furniture, whether it’s painted, stained or raw wood, and whether it’s in high-traffic areas or not.

Here’s a handy comparison chart for polycrylic & polyurethane! Print it out or Pin it for reference!

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polycrylic vs polyurethane

Best Sheens for Furniture

These topcoats usually come in multiple sheens: flat/matte, eggshell/satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss (from lowest to highest sheen). Let me briefly explain what these sheens are best for and its drawbacks:

  1. Flat/Matte

Flat finishes give a matte and velvety look, and it doesn’t reflect much light.

Cons: It has low durability and can easily be scuffed off or scratched.

Best For: Furniture pieces in low-traffic areas that won’t be heavily used.

  1. Eggshell/Satin

Similar to flat finish, satin or eggshell finish also doesn’t reflect much light and gives a matte look. It is also more durable than flat finishes.

Best For: A matte and durable finish for furniture for both low- and high-traffic areas.

  1. Semi-gloss

Semi-gloss finish is considered to be the best paint finish for furniture as it reflects light well, has high durability for heavy use and can withstand constant cleaning.

Best for: All pieces of furniture with a slightly glossy finish

  1. High-gloss

High-gloss gives a very glossy finish to your pieces and has the highest durability out of all the finishes and can withstand very heavy use and cleaning.

Cons: High-gloss finishes require the most demanding prep out of all the finishes and it will highlight any imperfections on the furniture.

Best For: Pieces in good condition (no scratches or imperfections) that need to withstand very heavy usage.

Bottomline: Generally speaking, the best sheen that has a good balance of durability and sheen for furniture are eggshell/satin and semi-gloss.

How to Apply Topcoat on Furniture

  1. The key to applying a smooth, even layer of topcoat is in the brush. Use a quality natural brush for all oil-based finishes, and synthetic or nylon brushes for all water-based finishes. 

  2. If you are going to coat over a large area, opt for a roller brush or a spray can, especially if you will be using a polycrylic topcoat as polycrylic dries super fast and it is challenging to achieve an even finish for large pieces. If you are using a wipe-on topcoat, a tack cloth is good enough.

    clean before sealing furniture

  3. Clean your work area and ensure there is as little dust as possible. If you really need to, consider using an air purifier to clear the dust.

  4. Always apply a THIN layer of topcoat to prevent any bubbles or drips. This is the most important step, especially if you are using polycrylic! As polycrylic is runnier, you need to keep an eye out for drips.

    If you still notice some bubbles, don’t worry! The bubbles would usually settle itself out as the coat dries. If not, use a dry rag to wipe the coat down. Bubbles usually indicate the layer of topcoat is too thick.

    If you are using a spray can, STIR it instead of shaking the can to prevent bubbles from forming.

    how to apply clear coat on furniture

    Credits to: https://renovatedfaith.com/clear-coat-for-furniture/

  5. Apply the coat in ONE direction in a single, long stroke. Always let each individual coats DRY before sanding/recoating it according to the recommended dry time. Don’t be impatient or else you will end up with a sticky finish, trust me!

  6. After the first coat dries, sand it light with a fine-grit sandpaper (#220-#300) or a steel wool.

    The key is to sand LIGHTLY. Make sure not to deeply scratch the finish or sand it down too much.

    If you will be coating a stained finish and are scared to scratch it, you can try roughing it up with a paper bag.

  7. Wipe off the sanding dust with a tack cloth and apply another layer of topcoat.

  8. Repeat this process until you reach your desired durable finish. More layers = More durable, but there’s a limit of course. Try not to exceed 4-5 layers of topcoat. 

    Also, a clear coat might take a milky finish if it’s too thick, so take note if you will be coating white-painted furniture. I generally recommend 2-3 layers of topcoat.

Best Clear Coat for Wood Furniture

Now, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. Which is the BEST clear coat for wood furniture? I’ve asked furniture painters and DIY hobbyists for their opinions and received 474 inputs from 8 Facebook Groups with 18 recommendations of sealers for wood furniture. I also took into account the expert opinions of Karin from Renovated Faith and Carrie from Lovelyetc who have been in the furniture flipping game for years and allocated 50 points for their picks.

Here are the results:

best clear coats for wood furniture

See any of your favourites? Below I will be sharing with you the TOP 7 best clear coats for wood furniture and their verdict Stay tuned!

best sealer for furniture

  1. General Finishes High Performance Top Coat

This is the clear winner among all the 18 sealers! General Finishes High Performance Top Coat, which is a water-based polyurethane sealer, won by a LARGE margin. You can hear everyone vouching for General Finishes nowadays for its superior quality.

Here’s what the people have to say:

General Finishes High Performance Top Coat Reviews

Karin from Renovated Faith picked this sealer as the best top coat for chalk paint and stained wood, and the most water-resistant! Here’s her review:

“This General Finishes Top Coat 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. There were also no brush strokes in the finish!”

Carrie from Lovelyetc picked this sealer as her favourite top coat for distressed or vintage furniture, or over chalk paint for a matte look. Here’s her review:

“This is my number one pick for a great all-around sealer. It is easy to apply, holds up well, and works well over all kinds of paint and stain. I have never had a problem when using this sealer.”

HOWEVER, there were some reviews of how this sealer caused their pieces to yellow. So avoid using this on white or brightly coloured furniture, just to be safe. On the bright side, this ambering effect would look beautiful for stained wood to warm up the tone!

The verdict is…

General Finishes High Performance Top Coat Reviews

General Finishes High Performance Top Coat is…

BEST FOR: Stained wood, Dark-coloured pieces & Chalk painted furniture

AVOID FOR: White or bright-coloured furniture

  1. Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish Water Based

Everyone thinks Minwax Polycrylic when they think about sealers. It can be found in virtually all stores. So it’s no surprise that this was so familiar and popular with everyone, especially among the DIY-ers. However, this Minwax Polycrylic sealer also had one of the most negative reviews as well. Here’s what people had to say about it:

Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish Review

Karin from Renovated Faith:

There was a pretty obvious water ring left on the polycrylic sample but it provided a very smooth finish. 

Carrie from Lovelyetc:

In my opinion, this sealer isn’t nearly as easy to work with as the General Finishes sealers. However, it is cheaper and can easily be found at your local home improvement store so it wins as far as convenience. And though it can be more difficult to work with, it does give a very durable finish.

The general consensus is that it is smooth and durable if applied correctly, but it’s very difficult to work with for beginners. It can easily leave bubbles and streaks with improper techniques, and it’s not as water-resistant as General Finishes. It is also yellowing, similar to General Finishes. It is an okay sealer if you are tight on budget, but wouldn’t recommend if you have other options!

And the verdict is…

Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish Review

Minwax Polycrylic is…

BEST FOR: Experienced furniture painters & those on tight budget or with limited accessibility to products

AVOID FOR: White or bright-coloured furniture, Pieces that will be in contact with water (dining table etc), Beginners

  1. Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

Varathane is another trusted brand among DIY-ers. If you work with wood furniture alot and deal with a lot of stained wood, Varathane is probably your go-to brand, as it is mine. What I love about Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane is that it provides excellent scratch and stain resistance, keeping your interior wood projects look great for a longer time. This water-based topcoat comes with an ultra-fast drying feature that is easy to clean up with soap and water, ultimately saving your time.

Here’s what the people have to say about it:

Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane Review

Karin from Renovated Faith picked this top coat as the all-around best clear coat for furniture, the best top coat for latex painted furniture and was the most water-resistant:

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.

The general consensus is that this Varathane sealer leaves a super smooth, waterproof finish and it is easy to apply and clean. It is also said to be one of the most budget-friendly sealers around with excellent scratch and stain resistance.

However, some people did notice that the finish yellows on white furniture, while others said it dried clear. So, do take note if you will be working on white painted furniture!

And the verdict is…

Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane Review

Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane is…

BEST FOR: Any kinds of furniture, especially those that will come into contact with water, such as dining tables, and those in high-traffic areas.

AVOID FOR: White or bright-coloured furniture, though some report that it works perfectly over white. Try with caution!

  1. Dixie Belle Gator Hide

This water-based poly-acrylic is definitely a cult favourite. So many DIY-ers swear by Dixie Belle Gator Hide and this product has been highly-raved in the community. Here’s what the people have to say about it:

Dixie Belle Gator Hide Review

Brandy from BrushedByBrandy:

Gator Hide is tough! It seals really well. [It] sprays BEAUTIFULLY! We don’t even dilute in our sprayer and this is a foolproof method to a streak-free finish.

The general consensus is that that Gator Hide is super tough, just as its name suggests, and water-repellent. It is recommended for high-traffic areas such as tabletops and outdoor furniture. However, many mentioned how difficult it is to apply Gator Hide smoothly with no streaks. It is HIGHLY recommended to use Dixie Belle’s blue sponge applicator to apply Gator Hide as it might not apply well with other tools. Do factor in these costs when you are considering your budget!

To find out how you can overcome these challenges with Dixie Belle Gator Hide, do check out this post by BrushedByBrandy. She’s probably one of the best when it comes to using the Dixie Belle line for furniture makeovers, in my opinion! So, I totally trust her advice!

And the verdict is…

Dixie Belle Gator Hide Review

Dixie Belle Gator Hide is…

BEST FOR: Experienced furniture painters and for pieces in high-traffic areas.

AVOID FOR: Beginners without any proper sponge applicator

  1. CrystaLac Super Premium Satin Topcoat

One of the most underrated sealers! CrystaLac Super Premium topcoat is an environmentally safe resin for interior use. It provides superior hardness, clarity, and durability. I recommended it to apply at top surfaces such as cabinetry, tables, bar tops, and furniture. Some clear coats can yellow over time, but CrystaLac’s chemical makeup will never turn yellow, making it a perfect sealer for white furniture.

This water-based polycrylic clear coat is resistant to alcohol and moisture, so it is excellent for use on the wood surfaces that demands a tough, hard, and protective finish. You can also spray this topcoat onto any surface, even on metal, and it dries quickly. It is water-resistant and protects your furniture from scratches, dirt, and dust.

Here’s what the people have to say about it:

CrystaLac Super Premium Topcoat review

Karin from Renovated Faith picked this sealer as the best topcoat for white paint:

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.

CrystaLac Super Premium topcoat is an underrated clear coat but is probably one of the best sealers for WHITE furniture projects. It is one of the best sealers in the list for white paint as it is truly non-yellowing. It is said to be durable, water-resistant and easy to apply with no brush marks. The only downside is that it’s on the more expensive side. This is definitely the sealer to consider for white paint.

And the verdict is…

CrystaLac Super Premium topcoat review

CrystaLac Super Premium topcoat is…

BEST FOR: Any pieces of furniture, especially white and bright-coloured pieces.

AVOID FOR: Those on a tight budget.

  1. General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat, Quart

GF Flat Out Flat Topcoat, a finish designed to preserve the look, feel and color while increasing the paint’s durability with a single coat. The topcoat dries quickly in about two to four hours under normal conditions. It is made of self cross-linking acrylic instead of urethane, so basically it’s not polyurethane like GF High-Performance.

Applying this top coat delivers superior performance and is easy to use. It gives a completely matte finish, an ideal option for pieces that you want to make look more vintage or aged. It is recommended not to apply clear topcoats over bright white paint, as yellowing may occur due to a substrate’s reaction.

Here’s what the people have to say about it: 

General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat review

Karin from Renovated Faith:

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.

General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat is one of the best matte finish in the market and works great over chalk paint, though it’s not as durable as GH High-Performance Top Coat. Nonetheless, it performs pretty well in terms of smoothness and moisture-resistance. While it is not as yellowing as GH High-performance, this sealer do have reports of yellowing over bright white paint.

And the verdict is…

General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat review

General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat is…

BEST FOR: Matte finish on any pieces of furniture, especially for chalk painted pieces and those in low-traffic areas

AVOID FOR: High-traffic areas and bright white pieces.

  1. Wise Owl Paint™ Varnish

Wise Owl Varnish Review

Copyright ©2020 Wise Owl Paint. All Rights Reserved.

Here’s the rising star! I didn’t include this in my polls, but most of the comments vouched for Wise Owl Varnish! This varnish has certainly risen up to be one of the top cult favourites! This is what the Wise Owl brand as to say about their clear coat:

“Wise Owl Varnish was engineered with a crystal-clear resin; it is incapable of yellowing. Other water-based topcoats use urethane, a naturally amber colored resin. This resin is known to rear its ugly yellow head with exposure to sun and time. Wise Owl Varnish is industrial strength and its clear resin ensures it stays clear indefinitely.”

 Here’s what the people have to say about it (No word cloud as there are fewer comments):

“I love Wise Owl Varnish. I have used others that have yellowed over time. WO will not yellow!”

“Wise owl varnish is definitely the best. Incapable of yellowing, easy to apply, only needs two coats, and it’s super tough.”

“Great for preserving everything from wood to stainless steel. You can use it on almost everything.”

Born in a Barn Boutique highly recommends Wise Owl Varnish for its easy application and great coverage:

It’s a thin consistency and it goes on very very easily. I would recommend waiting a few hours before you recoat […] It has a beautiful sheen and has a beautiful coverage. Wherever you miss on that first coat, that second coat does pick it up just like they say.

This product hasn’t been reviewed much by furniture paint experts, unlike the other clear coat brands, but it’s probably because this is a relatively new brand as compared to the rest! But Wise Owl Varnish is HIGHLY-raved in the DIY community right now. In fact, in my poll, most people would just vote and not comment. But the majority of the comments swear by Wise Owl Varnish. This shows how much they love it!

Wise Owl Varnish is highly durable and can be applied very easily. It has a great coverage, with 2 coats being sufficient usually, and it is seriously non-yellowing. The only cons I suppose would be the fact that it has not been as widely reviewed as the other brands, if that matters.

And the verdict is…

Wise Owl Varnish review

Wise Owl Paint Varnish is…

BEST FOR: Any kinds of furniture, especially those in high-traffic areas

AVOID IF: You rather wait for more expert reviews of the brand to come in before investing in the product. 

Highlights (TL;DR)

  1. General Finishes High Performance Top Coat: BEST CLEAR COAT FOR STAINED WOOD, DARK COLOURED & CHALK-PAINTED PIECES

    Ratings: 4.1/5

  2. Varathane Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane: BEST OVERALL, BUDGET-FRIENDLY CLEAR COAT

    Ratings: 4.3/5

  3. CrystaLac Super Premium topcoat: BEST CLEAR COAT FOR WHITE PAINT

    Ratings: 4/5

  4. Wise Owl Paint Varnish: TOP COMMUNITY PICK FOR BEST CLEAR COAT

    Ratings: 4.1/5

And there you have it! Let me know if you agree with this top 7 and my verdicts on the best clear coat for wood and painted furniture! Or if you disagree, let me know what are your top picks!

Hope this guide helps you decide on which clear coat is best for your wood or painted furniture! Let me know if you have tried any of the top 7 sealers for wood furniture here or if you want to rave about other clear coats for furniture that you found that is amazing! I would love to hear from you!

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best clear coat for wood and painted furniture

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About Me

Hello, world! I'm Nia, nice to meet y'all! I've started this blog under the pseudonym of Eureka Girl to post about all my projects which started from my Eureka! moments. I tend to get hit by a wave of inspiration during ungodly hours and my body will be possessed by the spirit of Eureka Girl that will not rest until my project is complete. I guess you could say that this blog is another of my Eureka! moment.

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