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Best Polyurethane to Protect Your Surfaces

Polyurethane is a polymer that’s used as a finish/top coating/ protectant in woodworking. It basically creates a hard surface that makes whatever surface it’s been applied to resistant to elements, spills, scratches, etc. In my experience, I have seen it most popular with cabinetry, floors, trim and outdoor furniture. The main thing that you want to keep in mind when it comes to polyurethane is if it offers damage protection against all manner of things. That’s pretty much the only reason you would want to use polyurethane, so it’s important that that factor is addressed. All of the list of the best polyurethanes in 2022 that I have included offer superior protection. Another thing you have to keep in mind with polyurethane is what you will be using it for. There are two types: oil based and water based. Oil is better for exterior application and water is better for interior application because it produces fewer fumes and can be cleaned up with water. So, take a second to reflect on your polyurethane needs and then continue reading to find out what product is best for you.

Comparing the Best Polyurethane for 2022

Minwax Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane - Best Polyurethane Overall

The Minwax® Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane is the best polyurethane because it’s great for anything you need to coat around your home. It’s water based so it produces less fumes and cleans up easily with warm water. It’s also a great polyurethane because it’s available in gloss, semi-gloss and satin sheens. These options mean that you more than likely will have the right sheen to work with any wood in your home. It’s also more valuable than other polyurethanes because it can be applied over both oil and water based stains once the stain is dry, which means you don’t have to worry about messing up any stain. Additionally, it has a recoat time of only 2 hours, which is fairly quick. That saves you time because you don’t have to wait as long to put on follow up coats.

Minwax 657000000 Water-Based Sanding Sealer - Runner Up

The Minwax® Fast-Drying Polyurethane, an oil based polyurethane (more fumes are produced and mineral spirits or paint thinner is required for clean up) is one of the best polyurethanes because it dries so quickly. Other water based polyurethanes on this list take upwards of 24 hours to completely dry. This one can take as little as 10 hours with recoats. It’s also great for use on both finished and unfinished wood, which just increases the number of instances that it can be used. Like the Minwax® Water Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane, it also comes in three sheens, which is great because it offers more options. My favorite part of this polyurethane though is the fact that it comes in an aerosol as well, which is great if you want application to be as easy as possible.

Rust-Oleum 250041H Ultimate Spar Polyurethane - Honorable Mention

The Rust-Oleum Varathane 200061H 1/2-Pint Interior Crystal Clear Water-Based Polyurethane is a great polyurethane to purchase because it comes in three different finishes. It also dries clear and doesn’t yellow with age. That makes it a great choice if you want a polyurethane that will last a long time and still look good. It’s also very cheap at fewer than $15. That makes it a great polyurethane to buy if you are on a budget and want one that is great quality for not a lot of money.

Deft Interior/Exterior Satin Amber Hue Colored Polyurethane - Consider

The Deft Defthane Interior Exterior Clear Polyurethane Satin, Quart is another great, oil based polyurethane to consider buying because it’s formulated to work on finished, unfinished, stained, painted, varnished or lacquered wood. This makes it very valuable to have because you don’t have to worry about damaging any wood surface with your protectant. It also can be used in marine applications above the water line (where the hull of a boat meets the water). Furthermore, it contains UV absorbers that block harmful sunrays, which makes it great for outdoor furniture.

Minwax Water Based Wipe-On Poly - Consider

The Minwax® Water Based Wipe-On Poly (water based) is the final polyurethane on this list because it is very easy to use. To apply, you simply wipe it on with a cloth. This also gives your product a hand rubbed look, which is desirable due to aesthetic reasons. Another advantage of using a cloth is that you don’t have to worry about visible brush marks on your final product. What I love the most about this polyurethane though, is that thanks to the cloth application, it’s very well suited for smaller applications such as trim, touch ups on floors, railings, etc., where a brush might be too clunky to use effectively.

Buyer's Guide

What To Consider When choosing Polyurethane

Whether you’re building a chair, a cabinet or simply looking for a top coat for your hardwood floors, polyurethane is one of the best finishes you can use on your projects. No matter what kind of wood you use, its quality or strength, without a good finish it will wither and dry before long.

Polyurethane is a specific kind of finish that will provide the highest protection money can buy. There are two main types that you can choose from: oil based and water based.

Oil Based Polyurethane

Available in both spray and brush on version, oil based polyurethane will give wood an amber finish, covering its natural color. The advantage, however, is that it’s more wear proof and well suited to outdoor projects or items that will incur a lot of wear and tear.

Although it’s long lasting, this finish dries slowly. It will be dry to the touch in about two hours and ready for a second coat only six to twenty four hours later.

Another potential issue with it is its odor. It’s quite pungent and will not go away until it’s completely dry. There is no way to minimize it and the best advice is to leave your work to dry overnight somewhere out of smell range.

You’ll also want to make sure that you’re in a well ventilated area when applying this compound as it emits toxic VOCs. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to work with as it’s self smoothing and it’s likely you won’t need more than one coat for adequate protection.

Water Based Polyurethane

Water based polyurethane will not change the natural coloring of the wood but it is likely to withstand less abuse than its oil based counterpart. This product dries quicker than the oil version and you will be able to apply multiple coats in far less time.

Another advantage is that this water based finish has no odor and has lower toxicity making it less of a pain to work with. It’s also easier to clean up with a bit of water and soap.

This is ideal for projects that don’t require heavy duty coating but it can still provide solid protection if applied in multiple coats. However, keep in mind that that means you will need more product to cover the same surface area and therefore the price of the finish will go up.

Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane

If you want to have the best of both worlds, the water-based oil-modified might be the polyurethane for you. Just like the pure water-based, it’s non-toxic and dries quickly and just like the oil based, it dries up to a nice amber color. It’s also more durable than just the water based one without any of the offending odor issues.

What kind of finish should you choose?

Another important aspect to consider is what sort of finish you will need for your project.

Matte Finish

This finish has no luster which can be off putting to many customers. It’s ideal for those who love to see the natural wood color shine through with as little distortion as possible.Satin


This is one of the most popular choices because it’s shiny but not too shiny and it allows the natural texture and beauty of the grain to shine through.

High Gloss

This type of finish is not a very popular choice. That’s because it has the most amount of luster and will show every scratch, trace or spot. It’s reserved for specialty use that sees very little traffic.

Semi Gloss

Almost as popular as the satin finish, the semi gloss has a bit more luster and it’s also less forgiving. It will require more maintenance but it will also allow the beauty of the wood to shine through.

What is the best way to apply polyurethane?

There are three application methods to choose from, when working with polyurethane: brush on, wipe on or spray on.

Brushing on is the best option for flat surfaces that don’t require much nook and cranny work. It will work like a charm without any bells and whistles.

Wipe-on is the best option for you if your project has a lot of crevices or rounded surfaces as it will allow you to easily cover the area uniformly.

Spray on is a good solution for harder to reach areas but it has a few drawbacks. It’s harder to work with and more difficult to achieve uniform application. It will also require care and preparation to avoid dripping.

How do you apply polyurethane?

The most popular application method is brush on and it’s quite straight forward. Apply the product gently in the direction of the grain. If you’re working with a clear, water-based finish you can sand lightly after it dries and apply a second or even a third coat, until you feel you have the appropriate coverage.

When working with clear polyurethane, make sure to stir it before use and while coating your project. You don’t want residue depositing on the bottom of the can. However, you won’t want to shake it either because that can cause bubbles which will show up on the wood.

Work in small sections and apply light layers. This eliminates the potential for contaminants to stick to the coat and show up in the dried finish.


What are the different types of polyurethane finishes?

Polyurethane finishes come in four varieties: matte, satin, soft gloss and high gloss.

Is polyurethane toxic to humans?2

Yes, polyurethane can be harmful to humans because of the fact that it emits Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs which irritate the lungs and airways and can cause inflammation and asthma attacks. When working with polyurethane, make sure you’re in a ventilated room and you’re wearing proper protection.

How many coats of polyurethane should I use?

This depends on the type of polyurethane you are using. Typically, an oil based product will only require a couple of coats but you will need to wait about 24 hours between applications. A water based solution will need more coats but it dries much faster.

What is the best way to apply polyurethane?

The best way to apply polyurethane is with a brush. Make sure to choose a high quality synthetic brush to facilitate a smooth application. Additionally, always apply in the direction of the wood’s grain.

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