If you want your project to last and have that professional looking finish, I highly recommend a ‘top coat’.
There are a lot of options out there. It’s overwhelming as you wander the store and find a shelf with so many different top-coat options. I stick with the few that I like and know work well.
It dries thick, like a thin plastic. It is water resistant. It makes your surface easy to wipe clean. It’s not only used for wood, but many products including metal and ceramics. The reason I normally pick lacquer over a polyurethane is this - when applying, it congeals and covers my brush strokes. Once dry, and after a quick steel wool sand (very fine, like 000 or 0000), when I run my hand over it, I don’t see or feel my brush lines in the finish. Again, this is my personal experience finishing many items and comparing the poly to the lacquer. I also prefer the satin finish lacquer as I like to still see and feel the wood grain. Top coating with a gloss will give it a shiny glare. Up to you.
* Clear finish (directly on wood, or over stain).
* Apply with a brush or aerosol can.
* Comes in satin, semi-gloss, gloss finishes. (I prefer the satin finish because it still lets you feel and see the wood, without a plastic sheen.)
* Dries for second coat in 2 hours.
* Dries to the touch in 45 minutes.
* It smells like toxic bananas…
Basically a plastic in liquid form, like the lacquer. Can be applied directly to wood or over stain. Shouldn’t change the shade of your stain like a shellac might. The polyurethane offers a nice finish like the lacquer…but…I often find it’s not as ‘smooth’ to the touch in the end. Occasionally it will leave small bubbles, which really bothers me. Yes, even with a steel wool quick sand over the top I prefer a lacquer…
* Clear finish (directly on wood, or over stain)
* Apply with brush or aerosol can
* Comes in satin, semi-gloss, gloss finishes
* Dries for second coat in 3-4 hours
Less durable than lacquer or polyurethane. But, it’s a great option for things like picture frames, small projects, crafts or things that won’t be exposed to a lot of water or elements. I opt for this for my craft projects as I want a fast, quick drying option. It can be bought in a spray can for easy application on small projects.
The disappointing thing about shellac is water and heat penetration. If you place a cup of hot chocolate on a shellac surface – be prepared to refinish it. Water and/or heat is known to leave a white ‘rim’ on the shellac surface. I had a house plant on a hutch that I top-coated with shellac. I will always know where that house plant once resided until I choose to refinish the piece…dang it all.
* Can says ‘clear’ or ‘amber’, but it will add a hint of warmth to your wood regardless of the shade you pick. (directly on wood, or over stain)
* Apply with a brush or aerosol can.
* Dries for second coat in 45 minutes.
- Brush vs. Aerosol
All of the above options come in spray cans. But, if you have a large project like kitchen cabinets, you’d spend a mint for spray cans. I usually opt for the old fashioned brush-on application. The spray cans offer a thinner application, whereas using the brush on method you can really coat your project for a nice durable finish.
- Quality Brush
Do not try to use a cheap foam brush to apply these products. Lacquer, Polyurethane and shellac are thick and a little sticky. Use a nice, high(er) quality brush. I’m not talking anything crazy – like $15 for a ‘purdy’ brush found at home depot. There is nothing more frustrating than putting on a lacquer finish and having to pick bristles out of your finish that have come off your cheap brush and ended up embedded in your tabletop! It’s worth the money. Plus, if you rinse it properly, it can last for many years.
- Brush Strokes
Dip the brush in the can. Gently scrape the brush against the upper lip of can to remove too much excess liquid. Then use long, even, straight strokes to apply.
- Finish Sand
It’s normal to have an bit of an uneven finish on your topcoat. This is why you should do more than 1 coat. In between coats you can take a piece of steel wool and gently smooth down any bubbles or brush strokes that are evident. Be sure the steel wool is very fine – 000 or 0000.
If you’ve invested in a nice brush (which you soon will, if you haven’t yet!) you’ll want to clean it properly so you can use it for many projects.
* Dedicate an old Tupperware or bowl for cleanup of brushes.
* Pour about 1/4 cup of denatured alcohol (shellac) OR lacquer thinner (lacquer or poly) into the bowl.
* Swish your brush around in the liquid and you’ll see it gradually start to turn a dirty color.
* Discard mixture.
* Repeat process.
**Repeat. Until when you swish your brush around, the liquid is clear.
What to Use, When?
To help me decide which to use, I look at where the piece will go, and how much protection it needs. I have a preference towards lacquer…
A picture frame? Shellac
A kitchen table? Lacquer (or Poly)
Cabinetry in a bathroom or kitchen? Lacquer
Craft project? Shellac
Dresser? Polyurethane or Lacquer
Wood Desktop? Lacquer (or Poly if you want…)
It’s important to keep in mind where your piece will be. The sun will warp and fade wood if there’s no UV protectant in your top coat. If you know your furniture is going to be near a window, or getting direct sunlight – consider using a varnish with UV protectant.
Enamels and Epoxy
I should also mention here, there are other options besides the few I discussed above. Namely, enamels and epoxies. Unless you plan to float in it, you’re not going to normally opt for epoxy…