A finishing question for a new guy

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Forum topic by HuntleyBill posted 12-11-2009 01:05 AM 926 views 0 times favorited 4 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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103 posts in 3058 days

12-11-2009 01:05 AM

Being new to this sight, I am already learning a lot. On past projects I have often finished with Poly but am reading a lot on here about using varnish. I like a smooth high gloss finish on a lot of my stuff and my questions is: Is varnish better than poly? Seems with poly, I am often sanding out bubbles ( probably because I might not be doing it right).

Is a wipe on better than a brush on?
Water based or oil based???

Your thoughts on which finishes are better would be great.

...and thanx again for all your help


-- If you think you can, or think you can't...your right!

4 replies so far

View CharlieM1958's profile


16274 posts in 4187 days

#1 posted 12-11-2009 02:59 AM

I believe the terms “varnish” and “polyurethane” are almost synonymous is common usage. Technically, both are a mixture of oils and resins. Poly uses synthetic resins while old-fashioned varnish uses natural resins. But most modern products are urethane based.

Have you been brushing? Wiping on poly requires many coats to get a thick high gloss, but you won’t have nearly as much problem with bubbles and runs as you will with brushing.

You can easily make your own wipe-on poly by thinning regular oil-based poly with 40-50% mineral spirits.

I don’t find wiping on water-based poly to give great results. If you want to use water-based poly, try applying it with a foam brush rather than a regular paint brush. That works pretty well. In general, water-based poly has less color, and gives your project a cool appearance. Oil-based poly yields a warmer, orange-ish tone.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View bigike's profile


4050 posts in 3257 days

#2 posted 12-11-2009 03:28 AM

my new finnish is gloss poly thined with mineral spirits to my liking. old finnish was seal a cell and arm a seal gloss. very old finnish or first was just tung oil but now i use it to bring out the beauti of the wood or i use boiled linseed oil. this is my list of finnishes but i have others like water based poly satin plus a few toners like walnut gel stain antique maple gel stain the others are from transtint i mix these with seal coat i also have premixed shellac so it has the wax in it but the poly mix with ms is what i use now its great. all the others are too im just learning to use the poly mix and i like it so im going with it for awhile.

-- Ike, Big Daddies Woodshop,

View pashley's profile


1043 posts in 3686 days

#3 posted 12-11-2009 05:44 AM

I only use poly for times when the piece is going to be banged up a bit, such as tables and chairs. For things like my clocks, I use shellac – it dries quickly and is easy to work with, and pretty tough. Combined with a few coats of Briwax, it makes for a nice finish.

Regarding application (at least for shellac). I use either the spray on type, or, if using canned product, those cheap wedge foam brushes. The give a very smooth coat, and obviously, having no hair, leave no brush marks. You can use and expensive natural hair paint brush as well, but you have to typically get them at a specialty paint store.

-- Have a blessed day!

View gerrym526's profile


274 posts in 3777 days

#4 posted 12-11-2009 06:36 AM

There’s nothing I can add to the finishing info that pashley, bigIke, and Charlie provided.

I can however, answer the “bubbles” issue with poly, and think it starts with the brush quality. Have been brushing on poly (mostly water-based, but occasionally oil based when the finish required it) for years. Never had a bubbles problem when I used a high quality brush (think $20+ for the brush). If you clean it carefully with soap and water, rinse, and store wrapped in a doubled up paper towel to help it hold its shape, it will last for years. I have one high quality brush labelled only for poly, and it’s probably 10 years old.

Hope this helps.

-- Gerry

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