How to Seal Furniture

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Picture this, you found a beautiful wooden piece of furniture at a secondhand store, but you’re not really feeling the color, so you decide to refinish the item. You’ve stripped, sanded, and bleached the piece and now it’s time to protect that natural wood. You buy the first topcoat that you come across, apply it, and you’re heartbroken when this sealer leaves the natural wood looking darker than you desired. Friends, I invite you to learn from my mistakes. There is nothing more frustrating than working for hours, or even days, to achieve a natural wood finish only for it to look darker after being sealed.

It is far too common for a topcoat to make natural wood look wet or dark. After many different projects and lots of trial and error, I’ve found the best topcoats for furniture and discovered some tips to keep color change from happening. I’m excited to share my wisdom on how to seal furniture in this post! I’ll start with the basics including what a topcoat for furniture is, why you need it, and different types of topcoats and then I’ll move on to share my current favorite furniture topcoat and some tips on applying it.

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Refinishing furniture for a natural wood finish and how to seal furniture.

Top Coat for Furniture

Applying a top coat, or a sealer, is an important step when refinishing furniture. While leaving natural wood projects bare is an option for some, in our house, dirty fingers and kids make top coats for furniture very necessary. Natural wood is susceptible to damages such as water rings, scuff marks, household chemicals, etc. Topcoats protect your furniture from these types of damages to keep the natural wood looking beautiful. They do this by drying to a much harder finish on top, making them more difficult to damage with surfaces that are easier and safer to clean. 

Different Types of Top Coats for Furniture

There are three types of clear topcoats used to seal natural wood or bleached furniture – polyurethane, polycrylic, and wax finishes. Each type of clear coat has different pros, cons, and projects that it’s best suited for. 

Polyurethane is available in oil-based and water-based finishes. Oil-based polyurethane is the strongest, most durable topcoat. This clear finish protects heavy traffic areas in a home or items exposed to a lot of moisture, making it a good choice for wooden floors, outdoor furniture, etc. Oil-based polyurethane tends to dry with a slight yellowish tint, so be cautious to only use it over wood that’s dark enough or warm enough to hide the yellow cast. Water-based polyurethane contains less VOCs and it also dries faster. But, it isn’t as resistant to high temperatures or water as oil-based polyurethane. I’ve made the mistake of using polyurethane on white painted furniture and it yellowed with time.

Polycrylic topcoats only come in water-based finishes. They are less toxic and smelly than polyurethane, making them a little easier to work with (less protective gear needed). Polycrylic topcoats create a hard finish for your product and dry quickly, but they don’t tolerate high heat quite as well as a polyurethane finish. Polycrylic topcoats are my sealer of choice for most projects, as they don’t tend to yellow as often as polyurethane.

Clear furniture wax can also be used to seal natural wood projects. Furniture wax provides a soft, silky finish to a piece, which can be lovely. But, wax is the least durable of all of the sealers and will often need to be reapplied over time. Applying a furniture wax can take a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, it’s nice for smaller projects such as picture frames, small furniture items, etc.

Polycrylic crystal clear finish.

My Favorite Top Coat for Furniture

After trying many different topcoats over the years, my current favorite is General Finishes Flat Out Flat. This clear topcoat is water-based and mimics the look and feel of wax, but with more durability than wax. Flat Out Flat provides a matte finish and is recommended for medium to low-use surfaces. My favorite feature of this furniture topcoat is that it typically doesn’t change the color of the wood. I’ve used Flat Out Flat when refinishing an heirloom cedar hope chest, whitewashing a desk, and on several other projects and have always been very pleased with the end result – no color changes or “wet” appearances! When sealing painted furniture (instead of bleached or paintless natural wood), polycrylic top coats or a wax supplied by the paint company are my favorites. For example, I recently painted a cabinet in Celia’s room using my favorite mauve paint color, Damask by Fusion Mineral. This paint company has a special wax finish that can be applied on top of painting projects, such as this cabinet.

How to Seal Wood Furniture with Flat Out Flat

Wondering how to seal wood furniture using my favorite top coat? Follow these steps!

  1. Using a paint brush, brush on one thin application of General Finishes Flat Out Flat topcoat. To avoid brushstrokes, be sure to use a liberal amount and avoid using pressure, back-brushing, and picking up and putting down your brush multiple times. 
  2. Let dry for 1-2 hours. You will know if the top coat is dry if it forms a powder when lightly sanded with a fine-grade (220-320) foam sanding pad or 400-grit sandpaper. Certain conditions such as humidity levels, temperature, etc. can affect dry time. If in doubt, wait longer.
  3. Lightly sand with a fine-grade (220-320) foam sanding pad to improve smoothness and adhesion. Remove dust with a vacuum, oil-free tack cloth or clean water-dampened rag before re-coating. 
  4. Apply another thin layer of topcoat followed by the light sanding process after it has dried. 3 coats of Flat Out Flat are recommended. Additional coats (beyond 3) will not improve durability.
General finishes Flat Out Flat topcoat.
Applying General Finishes Flat Out Flat to cedar hope chest.

Tips for Sealing Wood Furniture

  • Be sure to test an inconspicuous spot of furniture first. This will ensure that you’re happy with the end appearance of the top coat before completing the entire project.
  • Use a high-quality brush. Be sure to research to find the best type of paint brush for the job and don’t skim on the quality.
  • Avoid picking up your brush several times and back-brushing while sealing wood furniture, both can cause streaking. 
  • Be sure to carefully follow the instructions of your specific top coat. Several furniture top coats require multiple layers with specific drying time in between. It’s important to read over these details before starting.
Refinished cedar hope chest with natural finish.
Natural wood finish on cedar hope chest.

What to do if You Mess up When Sealing Wood Furniture?

Learning how to seal wood furniture can be a bit tricky, especially your first few times. You might be wondering what to do if you mess up? Or how you can fix natural wood furniture that turns too dark after a top coat? There are a few options. One option is sanding the furniture down again to its natural state and starting over. Another option is to lightly sand the top coat and then add a white wash mix on top. Whitewashing wood furniture creates a beautiful, neutral finish. Be sure to check out my guide on whitewashing furniture for tips on how to complete this process.

How to Seal Wood Furniture Projects

Have you played around with different types of top coats for furniture in your home? Do you have a favorite clear finish that you like to use on your wood projects? I’d love to hear about what has and hasn’t worked for you so that we can learn from one another! I’m also happy to help answer any questions you may have about how to seal wood furniture. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email!

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4 Comments

  1. I have a farmhouse table I have sanded, bleached abs then used a wax… this is a kitchen table and the wax has not I reverted the rings… I want it lighter… should I resand or can I use another product to seal abs which product would you recommend?

    1. Hi Julie,
      I would sand the topcoat (wax) and then re seal it. I’m confused by your message, did you mean there are rings present or no rings? Let me know and I might have a different answer for it! – Amy

  2. Have you tried the general finishes high performance top coat? Looking to seal a desk and table so I want something with a little more durability but won’t change the natural wood color.

    1. I have not but I plan to do a post soon comparing different topcoats on different types of unfinished wood, stay tuned! I’ve heard it is a wonderful product!

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