Explore the Different Types of Polyurethane Finishes

When giving your wooden furniture or floors a smooth, durable finish, polyurethane is a go-to choice for many. It’s a protective coating that enhances the natural beauty of wood and shields it from damage. This article will explore polyurethane finishes’ importance, usage, and available types. So, if you’ve ever wondered about the best finish for your next woodworking project, keep reading!

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane, often called ‘poly,’ is a synthetic resin used in varnishes and as a protective finish for wood. It’s a versatile material known for its ability to resist abrasion, temperature variations, and chemicals – properties make it an excellent choice for various applications.

But what makes polyurethane stand out from other finishes? Well, it’s all about the balance it strikes. Polyurethane offers a level of durability that’s hard to beat, yet it doesn’t compromise the natural look of the wood. It’s like a protective shield, keeping the wood safe from scratches, spills, and the wear and tear of everyday life, all while letting its natural beauty shine through.

You might think, “That sounds great, but aren’t all finishes designed to protect and enhance the wood?” Yes, but here’s where polyurethane has the edge. It’s incredibly versatile. You can find it in different forms – from glossy to satin finishes and from water-based to oil-based varieties. This means you can choose the type of polyurethane that best suits your project’s needs.

Types of Polyurethane Finishes

When it comes to polyurethane finishes, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The type of finish you choose can significantly impact your project’s final look and feel. So, let’s explore the different types of polyurethane finishes available, focusing on the two main categories: oil-based and water-based polyurethane.

Oil-Based Polyurethane

Oil-based polyurethane is a classic choice among woodworkers and furniture makers. It’s known for its rich, warm glow that adds depth and character to the wood. Here’s what you need to know about oil-based polyurethane:

  • Appearance: It imparts a slightly amber or yellowish tint to the wood, enhancing its natural grain and color.
  • Durability: Oil-based polyurethane is highly durable and resistant to scratches and general wear.
  • Drying Time: Drying takes longer than water-based polyurethane, usually 24 to 48 hours between coats.
  • Odor: It has a strong odor and requires proper ventilation during application.
  • Cleanup: You’ll need mineral spirits or paint thinner for cleanup.


  • Enhances wood’s natural beauty
  • Excellent durability
  • Ideal for high-traffic areas


  • Longer drying time
  • Strong odor
  • Not as environmentally friendly

Water-Based Polyurethane

Water-based polyurethane is a more modern alternative to the traditional oil-based finish. It’s gaining popularity for its eco-friendly properties and ease of use. Here’s what sets water-based polyurethane apart:

  • Appearance: It provides a clear finish, preserving the wood’s natural color without adding any amber tint.
  • Durability: While still durable, water-based polyurethane is generally considered less robust than its oil-based counterpart.
  • Drying Time: It dries quickly, often within 2 to 4 hours between coats.
  • Odor: It has a low odor, making it more pleasant to work with.
  • Cleanup: Cleanup is easy with just soap and water.


  • Clear, natural finish
  • Quick drying time
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Low odor


  • May require more coats for the same level of protection
  • Slightly less durable

Oil-Based vs Water-Based Polyurethane: A Comparison

FeatureOil-Based PolyurethaneWater-Based Polyurethane
AppearanceAmber tintClear finish
DurabilityHighly durableLess robust
Drying Time24 to 48 hours2 to 4 hours
CleanupMineral spiritsSoap and water

Polyurethane Finishes for Furniture

Polyurethane finishes aren’t just for floors; they’re also a popular choice for furniture. From your favorite reading chair to that antique table you inherited from your grandmother, polyurethane can protect and enhance all types of furniture. Let’s explore how polyurethane finishes are used for furniture, the benefits, and the different sheens available.

Polyurethane for Furniture: The Benefits

Polyurethane finishes offer several benefits when used for furniture:

  • Durability: Polyurethane provides a hard, durable finish that can withstand daily use, making it ideal for furniture like tables and chairs.
  • Versatility: Whether working with a vintage or a modern piece, polyurethane can enhance the look of all types of furniture.
  • Protection: It protects the wood from damage caused by spills, scratches, and even sunlight.
  • Easy Maintenance: Furniture finished with polyurethane is easy to clean and maintain.

Considerations When Using Polyurethane for Furniture

While polyurethane is a great choice for furniture, there are a few things to consider:

  • Application: Applying polyurethane requires a bit of skill. It’s important to apply thin, even coats and sand lightly between coats for the best results.
  • Drying Time: As mentioned earlier, oil-based polyurethane takes longer to dry, which can be considered if you’re working on a time-sensitive project.
  • Ventilation: Due to the strong odor of oil-based polyurethane, proper ventilation is necessary during application.

Different Sheens of Polyurethane

Polyurethane finishes come in different sheens, each offering a different look:

  • Gloss Polyurethane: This makes your furniture stand out with a shiny, glass-like finish. It’s great for pieces that you want to draw attention to.
  • Satin Polyurethane offers a more subtle shine, giving your furniture a soft, elegant look. It’s perfect for pieces where you want a balance between shine and subtlety.
  • Matte Polyurethane: This gives a flat, non-reflective finish. It’s ideal for pieces where you want a natural, understated look.

Exterior Polyurethane

If you’re working on outdoor furniture, you’ll want to consider exterior polyurethane. It’s specially formulated to withstand the elements, protecting against sunlight, rain, and temperature changes. However, remember that exterior polyurethane usually has a more limited range of sheens than interior polyurethane.

How to Apply Polyurethane

Applying polyurethane might seem daunting, but with the right approach, it’s a process that can be mastered. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to apply polyurethane finishes:

Step 1: Preparation
Start by preparing your workspace. Ensure it’s well-ventilated and free from dust. The piece of furniture you’re working on should be clean and dry.

Step 2: Sanding
Before applying polyurethane, sand the surface of the wood. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually move to finer grit. This will help the polyurethane adhere better to the wood.

Step 3: Dust Removal
After sanding, remove any dust or debris from the surface. You can use a vacuum or a tack cloth for this.

Step 4: Applying the Polyurethane
Using a high-quality brush or a foam applicator, apply a thin coat of polyurethane. Always follow the direction of the wood grain. Avoid over-brushing as it can lead to visible brush strokes.

Step 5: Drying
Allow the first coat to dry. The drying time will depend on the type of polyurethane you’re using. Oil-based polyurethane typically takes longer to dry than water-based.

Step 6: Sanding Between Coats
Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. This helps the next coat adhere better.

Step 7: Repeat
Repeat applying polyurethane, drying, and sanding for at least two to three coats.

Step 8: Final Coat
Apply the final coat of polyurethane. After it dries, your furniture piece is ready to use!

Polyurethane vs Varnish

Regarding wood finishes, polyurethane, and varnish are two popular options. But how do they differ, and which one should you choose? Let’s break it down:

Polyurethane: As discussed, polyurethane is a synthetic finish with excellent durability and protection. It’s available in various sheens and can be either oil-based or water-based. Polyurethane is ideal for high-traffic areas and pieces that require a high level of protection.

Varnish: Varnish, on the other hand, is a traditional finish made from resins, oils, and solvents. It’s known for its high-gloss finish and superior UV protection, making it a great choice for outdoor furniture. However, varnish can be more challenging to apply than polyurethane, and it doesn’t offer the same level of scratch resistance.

UV ProtectionMediumHigh
Application DifficultyLowHigh
Scratch ResistanceHighMedium

Polyurethane Brands

When it comes to polyurethane finishes, there are several brands that stand out for their quality and range of offerings. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones:


Minwax is a household name in the world of wood finishes. They offer a wide range of oil- and water-based polyurethane finishes, catering to various needs and preferences. Minwax polyurethane is known for its durability and ease of application, making it a favorite among professionals and DIY enthusiasts. Their products come in different sheens, from gloss to satin, allowing you to achieve the perfect finish for your project.


Varathane is another popular brand that offers high-quality polyurethane finishes. Their products are designed to provide superior protection and enhance the natural beauty of the wood. Varathane polyurethane is available in oil- and water-based formulas, and they also offer a line of specialty finishes for different applications.

General Finishes

General Finishes is a brand known for its professional-grade finishes. Their polyurethane topcoats are highly regarded for their durability and ease of use. They offer oil- and water-based polyurethane and a range of sheens.


Rust-Oleum is a brand that’s been around for over a century, and they offer a range of protective finishes, including polyurethane. Their products are known for their durability and resistance to scratches and stains, making them a good choice for high-traffic areas.

Polyurethane for Different Wood Types

Just as there are different types of polyurethane finishes, there are also various types of wood, each with unique characteristics. The type of wood you’re working with can influence the choice of polyurethane finish. Let’s explore how different types of wood react to polyurethane and how to choose the right finish.


Hardwoods like oak, maple, and walnut are dense and durable, making them ideal for furniture and flooring. They have a rich grain that can be enhanced with an oil-based polyurethane, which imparts an amber glow to the wood. However, a water-based polyurethane would be a better choice to preserve the wood’s natural color.


Softwoods like pine, cedar, and fir are less dense than hardwoods. They’re often used for outdoor furniture, window frames, and paneling. Water-based polyurethane is usually a good choice for softwoods as it won’t add an amber tint that could alter the wood’s lighter color.

Exotic Woods

Exotic woods like mahogany, teak, and rosewood have unique colors and grain patterns. An oil-based polyurethane can enhance these features, but it’s important to test the finish on a small area first, as the high oil content in some exotic woods can cause the finish to dry too quickly or not at all.

Painted or Stained Wood

Water-based polyurethane is typically the best choice when applying polyurethane over paint or stain. It’s clear so that it won’t alter the color of the paint or stain, and it dries quickly.

Common Mistakes When Using Polyurethane

Using polyurethane can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re new to it. Here are some common mistakes people make when using polyurethane and how you can avoid them:

Mistake 1: Not Preparing the Surface Properly

One of the most common mistakes is not properly preparing the wood surface before applying polyurethane. This includes not cleaning the surface thoroughly or not sanding it properly.

How to Avoid: Always clean the wood surface to remove dust or debris. Sand the surface, starting with coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually moving to finer grits. Wipe the surface with a tack cloth to remove any residual dust.

Mistake 2: Applying Thick Coats

Applying polyurethane too thickly can lead to runs, drips, and an uneven finish. It can also extend the drying time.

How to Avoid: Apply thin, even coats of polyurethane. It’s better to apply several thin coats than one thick one.

Mistake 3: Not Allowing Enough Drying Time

Not allowing enough drying time between coats can lead to a sticky finish and can trap dust and debris in the finish.

How to Avoid: Always allow the recommended drying time between coats. This will vary depending on whether you’re using oil-based or water-based polyurethane.

Mistake 4: Not Sanding Between Coats

Failing to sand between coats can result in a rough finish and poor adhesion of subsequent coats.

How to Avoid: Lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper after drying each coat. This helps the next coat adhere better and results in a smoother finish.

Mistake 5: Using the Wrong Brush

Using a low-quality or wrong brush can leave visible brush strokes in the finish.

How to Avoid: Use a high-quality, natural-bristle brush for oil-based polyurethane and a synthetic-bristle brush for water-based polyurethane.

FAQs About Polyurethane Finishes

Let’s address some frequently asked questions about polyurethane finishes to clear up any lingering doubts:

Can I apply polyurethane over paint?

Yes, you can apply polyurethane over paint. It can provide a protective layer and enhance the durability of the painted surface. However, it’s recommended to use water-based polyurethane over paint to avoid yellowing.

How long does polyurethane take to dry?

The drying time for polyurethane can vary based on the type and brand. Generally, water-based polyurethane dries faster, often within 2 hours, while oil-based polyurethane can take up to 24 hours to dry.

How many coats of polyurethane should I apply?

Two to three coats of polyurethane are typically recommended for the best results. However, the number of coats can depend on the type of wood and the level of durability you want to achieve.

Can I apply polyurethane with a rag?

You can apply polyurethane with a rag, especially when working on small projects or intricate pieces. This method, often called “wiping,” can give you more control and help avoid drips and runs.

Do I need to sand the final coat of polyurethane?

Sanding the final polyurethane coat is unnecessary unless you’re aiming for an ultra-smooth finish or planning to apply a wax topcoat.


Polyurethane finishes are a versatile and durable option for protecting and enhancing wood. From understanding what polyurethane is and its different types to learning how to apply it and avoid common mistakes, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. We’ve also explored how polyurethane can be used on different types of wood and compared it with other finishes like varnish.

Whether you’re a seasoned woodworker or a DIY enthusiast, understanding polyurethane finishes can help you make the most of your wood projects. Remember, the key to a great finish is preparation, patience, and practice.