Clear polyurethane creates a beautiful, super-tough, armor-like finish that shields table tops and other wood furniture from scratches, stains, scrapes, solvents, moisture, UV, and weather damage.
Polyurethane coatings are much easier to apply and are more durable for daily use than traditional marine spar varnishes. Here are some guidelines that can help you make the right choice between oil-based and water-based polyurethane coatings—both are very easy to use to bring out the beauty of your table top.
Cost-wise, water-based polyurethanes are a little more expensive, but people generally choose them over oil-based poly for three reasons: clearer color, faster drying time, and low odor. In addition, water-based polyurethane formulas have improved to the point where they are almost as durable as oil-based polyurethanes. Here's a quick summary of the features and benefits of oil-based and water-based polyurethanes.
- Crystal clear finish highlights wood's natural beauty
- Low odor, low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), no lingering harsh fumes
- Starts out milky or hazy, but dries perfectly clear
- Dries very fast—in 1-2 hours; apply the necessary coats and finish in as little as 1 day
- Depending on the brand, may be thinner, requiring a few more coats than oil-based poly
- Easy to clean up with just a little soap and water
- Cheaper water-based polyurethanes can mute the distinction of the grain—you get what you pay for.
- Note: TotalBoat Halcyon is a unique, water-based polyurethane coating available in Clear and light Amber finishes. It enhances the wood grain and cures to a beautiful, durable finish.
- Imparts a slight amber tone to the wood, so keep this in mind if you plan to stain the wood first
- Amplifies the wood grain, imparting greater depth and bringing out darker and lighter tones
- gloss to the wood than water-based poly
- Typically contains more solids and requires fewer coats than water-based poly
- Dries much more slowly than water-based poly
- Harsh odor and higher VOC levels than water-based poly
- Less expensive than water-based poly
Which looks best on wood?
It depends on the wood species, and the look you're going for. For example, water-based poly maintains the natural beauty and color of light-colored woods like maple; you can still use water-based poly on dark-colored colored woods, but some people think it has a tendency to make these woods look cold and uninviting. Oil-based poly adds depth and richness to darker woods like walnut and cherry, but darkens light-colored woods. In short, if you want the wood to maintain its light color, use water-based polyurethane.