How and When to Wipe On Polyurethane

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Wipe on polyurethane vs brush on polyurethane. There is a time to wipe on polyurethane and a time to brush on polyurethane. Learn how and when to use each.

Be sure to download my 2 page Wipe On Polyurethane Summary Sheet available here Wipe On Polyurethane – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF a nd at the end of this article.

So you’re wondering what the best and easiest way to apply polyurethane is.  Seems like 10 different authorities give us ten different methods. Well this may be number 11 but it’s the way I have been doing it for over 30 years.

While I prefer brushing polyurethane on, using a wipe on polyurethane definitely has its place. I also prefer to make my own wipe on mixture. Here it’s a matter of both cost and appearance.

Buying a pre-made wipe on polyurethane is expensive. It can be 6 times the cost of making your own. It will also cause a discrepancy in the sheen if you are also brushing polyurethane on the same project.

Let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages. The PROS and CONS:



                             Better Control
                             Not as Messy
                             Fewer Coats
                             Faster Application on Flat Surfaces


                            Good for Thin Vertical Surfaces
                             Good for Highly Detailed Surfaces
                             Good for Round and Cylindrical Surfaces
                             Faster on Round and Cylindrical Surfaces
                             Throw Away Applicators



                            Hard to Control on Thin, Round Surfaces
                            Requires Brush Cleaning Between Coats


                             Requires 2-3 Extra Coats
                            Not Quite the Same Appearance
                            Very Expensive if bought premixed

So when do I brush polyurethane and when do I wipe polyurethane? You’ve probably figured that out by reading through my pros and cons above. Wipe on polyurethane definitely has its place when brushing isn’t efficient or practical.

I will be refinishing this dining room chair. Could you imagine trying to brush the spindles on this Windsor type chair? It would take forever!

Round or thin table legs, railing spindles, chair legs, thin lamp bases, wooden handles, etc. all are best done with a wipe on polyurethane. Trying to brush these surfaces lends itself to runs, puddles and brush marks.



In all my videos on finish coating my number one rule is “LAY IT ON THIN”. While a thicker coat of polyurethane affords better protection, it’s important to realize that thickness is built in layers. So for a truly professional looking finish multiple thin coats of polyurethane is the key, not globing on extra thick coats. Heavy single coatings tend to leave your project looking “plasticy”.

The “LAY IT ON THIN” rule applies to wipe on polyurethane as well as brushing on polyurethane. Thin happens in two ways. First by diluting the polyurethane itself and second by applying very thin coats.


Be sure that the rag you use is clean, dust-free and lint-free. Since you are handling polyurethane directly it’s best to wear latex gloves. Drop cloths should be used to protect surroundings because there is less control with wipe on polyurethane so drips are sure to happen.


In my very first video Bubble Free Polyurethane Application and the newer more detailed version the Ultimate Guide to Bubble Free Polyurethane Application I recommend using a brush and thinning your polyurethane using 3 parts polyurethane to one part thinning agent. For oil borne polyurethanes I use mineral spirits, paint thinner, turpentine or acetone as the reducing agent
(acetone should only be used when the more common thinners are outlawed by states and cities due to Volatile Organic Compounds [VOC’s]) . For water borne polyurethane I use tap water or distilled water (never well water) as my thinning agent. 

To make your own wipe on polyurethane I recommend thinning to 50/50. One part polyurethane to one part thinning agent.


There are two things you should know about the first coat. First it won’t be pretty. The first coat tends soak into the wood leaving a surface that looks blotchy and semi-coated, if at all. Don’t fret subsequent coats will improve its appearance dramatically.

Grain Raise After Applying First Coat of Polyurethane

The second thing to realize about the first coat is it tends to raise the grain of virtually all woods. Grain raise happens when cut fibers pop up. Think of the split-end frizzies that happens after washing your hair. Grain raise commonly occurs after the first coat of any liquid (polyurethane, stain, sealer). It may or may not raise on subsequent coats. Running your hand over the dried coating is the best gauge (feels fuzzy). No big deal, grain raise can be taken down by a light sanding with a 220 grit sandpaper or a #0000 steel wool pad.


I always let my polyurethane dry overnight. I want to be able to touch, feel and visually inspect at different angles in light before applying and subsequent coat. This way if there are any imperfections I can easily correct them rather than add an additional layer over the flaw. Re-coating without correction means I have to go through a few layers to correct a flaw that could have been easily handled initially.

Sanding whether brushing or using a wipe on polyurethane should be fast and, light and quick. Obviously sanding round, thin or cylindrical surfaces wouldn’t be fast nor easy. Using a 0000 steel wool or fine abrasive pad serves the purpose here. Because the material is malleable it can easily be fashioned o fit the contours.


Dust is a woodworker’s worst enemy. Once done scuffing the surface be sure to wipe clean with a rag dampened with the same thinning agent to remove any dust particles. Let it dry for a few minutes and you are now ready for the next coat.

Tack cloth (sticky cheese cloth purchased at home centers) is another option. The dust sticks to the cloth when wiped on a surface. But be careful not to overdo wiping as you can transfer the sticky substance to your project and interfere with the next polyurethane coat.


Unused wipe on polyurethane that’s been thinned can be stored in an air tight container for second and subsequent coats.


The following are guidelines I use for the number of coats for various applications:

Furniture that will not receive a lot of handling – 2 COATS BRUSHING – 4 COATS WIPE ON POLYURETHANE

Tables, counters and bar tops. Cabinets and wet surfaces – 3 COATS BRUSHING – 5 COATS WIPE ON POLYURETHANE

Floors, steps, stools, foot rests (heavy traffic) – 4 COATS – 6 to 7 COATS WIPE ON POLYURETHANE

You can see why I brush on polyurethane when I can. Wipe on polyurethane extends the project time dramatically.

Finishing is not difficult and with proper guidance virtually anyone can achieve a quality, durable, lasting, professional looking finish.

I hope this all makes sense and helps with your project.

Well that’s it.
Hopefully this is NOT THE END but A GREAT FINISH!! (Bad pun sorry)

best  . . . paul

For a visual guide on brushing polyurethane go my YouTube Channel and view “Bubble-Free Polyurethane Application Technique” or for a newer even more in depth brushing technique go to “The Ultimate Guide to Bubble Free Polyurethane Varnish”


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My YouTube Library:

Chemical Strippers vs Heat Gun – Refinishing Furniture
Sanding Efficiently – The Second Step In Refinishing Furniture
Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper for Your Woodworking Project – Refinishing Furniture
Blotch-Free Wood Stain Application Technique – Refinishing Furniture
Bubble-Free Polyurethane Application Technique
When and How to Wipe On Polyurethane – Refinishing Furniture

Ultimate Guide to Bubble Free Varnish – Doors, Furniture, Cabinets, Tables
Fixing Polyurethane Bubbles, Puddles, Runs and Brush Marks
Proper Brush Cleaning – Paint, Polyurethane, Varnish, Shellac

PDF Summary Sheets Available for Download and Printing:

Polyurethane – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Stripper – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Sanding – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF
Choosing the Right Grade Sandpaper (Chart) PDF
Staining – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF

Wipe On Polyurethane – Rules, Tips and Paraphernalia PDF

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