Thoughts, Tips, and Tricks on Furniture Topcoats
Recently, a friend and I got talking about different ways to topcoat or seal painted furniture. She’s just getting into the process; and while I’m certainly not a pro, in the last year or so, I’ve painted quite a few pieces of furniture. Each time, I’ve tried to use a different combination of primers, paints, and topcoats, all in one large, on-going experiment to find out exactly what combo I like best and produces the best (and most durable!) results. As I walked my friend through my house, explaining how I did each piece (and more so, how I sealed each piece), it occurred to me you all might like all that info too! Here’s a not-so-quick rundown of the different topcoat methods I have tried, and my thoughts on each one!
(Just a quick disclaimer: I am by no means a PRO at painting furniture, and most certainly have not tried every method out there. I only know what I’ve learned through reading others’ blogs and the furniture pieces I have personally painted. For more great info on painting and sealing furniture, I refer you to my furniture painting idols: Centsational Girl and Miss Mustard Seed!)
First up, SC Johnson Paste Wax.
When we moved to our new home (and acquired some “new” furniture in need of repainting), this china-hutch-turned-bookcase was the first project I dove into. Having had a bad experience with polyurethane (more on that in a bit), I researched around for other sealing options. Trusting Kate’s experience and know-how, I went for this easy-to-find paste wax. I loved the application process – rubbing on and buffing off a topcoat was a new experience for me. However, I noticed during the buffing process that some of my freshly applied paint was coming off, particularly on the top surface. I used pretty cheap latex paint and perhaps I was buffing too vigorously, but after I was done you could see the wood grain through the primer and the paint on the top – boo. Nonetheless, I have found this wax pretty durable on the rest of the hutch, as this piece is frequently bumped by the front door and toddler toys and it doesn’t have a scratch! I loved the sheen and durability so much, that I reached for this again on my next project; but I found the paint coming off again when I started buffing, so I abandoned it and haven’t used it since.
Annie Sloan’s Soft Wax in Clear.
When the SCJohnson wax started pulling off the paint on our next project (our new media hutch, below), I started to panic. Not willing to experiment with this unit, I went straight to the computer and ordered a can of the infamous Annie Sloan Soft Wax and brush. It was pretty expensive all together, but I had read so much about this product’s quality and ease, that I wanted to give it a try. I did a lot of reading about AS Wax, and found THIS video tutorial super helpful – and pretty much followed her directions exactly. I had read and heard that most problems come from applying too much wax, so I was very careful to apply only light coats. I LOVED the application with the brush – and found its hefty price tag WELL worth it. I applied two light coats with the brush and then buffed it to sheen with an old t-shirt after each coat. I loved the buttery, semi-glass finish, and best of all – no brush marks to be seen. I thought I had found my all-time perfect furniture sealing solution…until…it chipped…and chipped again and again. This unit is in a super high-traffic area close to where my son plays. It didn’t take long for cars and blocks to hit this unit, chipping it in several areas. While I loved the application process and the finish, I can’t stand chips and scratches on pieces I work so hard to finish perfectly…
Despite the chipping, I was so smitten with the application process and finish of the AS Wax that I also used it on the coordinating grey dressers in the master bedroom. However, it wasn’t long that I had issues with the top surface of the dresser chipping/scratching every time I put something down on it. These pieces aren’t in a high traffic area, so I wasn’t too concerned with the sides and fronts, but I had to better protect the tops. I ended up re-sealing the tops with semi-gloss poly (more on that in a minute).
Since sealing these three pieces with AS Wax, I have learned that the paint I used (Sherwin Williams ProClassic) is prone to chipping (ag!) AND waxes work best when applied to porous surfaces such as raw wood or FLAT paint. (Double ag!) All of my paints had an Eggshell finish, so that may have caused my issues with chipping since I haven’t really read about anyone else having similar problems. I really want to give AS Wax a try with flat paints (or better yet – chalk paints!) to see if the chipping still occurs. I do love the finish it provides!
Minwax Polycrylic – Semi-Gloss.
Using some sort of polyurethane is probably the most conventional and durable way to seal painted pieces. Before I started this blog, I re-painted some old bookcases that now act as a dining room hutch. I painted them with flat black paint and then finished them with high gloss poly. Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was doing and literally threw the poly on these babies with a poor-quality brush in a dark garage around midnight. The result was super streaky, and I was shocked at how much the glossy sheen amplified all the imperfections in the old wood bookcases. I’ve never been thrilled with this paint job and have them on the list for a new paint job someday. BUT…I have to say, the high-gloss sheen does have a perk – it is SUPER durable. These have been moved, banged into, spilled on and more – and they don’t have any chipping or scratches! Now that I’ve learned better application methods, I might need to give the glossy version another try.
Because of my bad first experience with poly, I was skeptical to use it again. I hated all the brush strokes and the almost reflective sheen on our bookcases. However, when I made over this train table for my toddler son, I knew I needed something super durable to protect the paint job; this was a play table after all, so I decided to give poly another try. This time, I used the semi-gloss version (you don’t see near the imperfections!) and applied it with with a 4″ foam roller. I waited 24 hours between each coat to ensure it was fully dry before adding another layer. Oh.my.friends. Night and day – this train table has been bashed and banged and there is not a scratch or chip to be seen. And applying with the roller kept all the strokes at bay, and resulted in a nice uniform sheen.
I reached for the same can of poly when I made over these storage towers for our home office. Being one of the busiest rooms in our home, I didn’t want to worry about scratching or chipping these as I worked around. I also applied the poly using a 4″ foam roller, and was very careful to smooth out any bubbles or drips as I went. Months later, and these are still in great shape, and I know I made the right topcoat call!
As I mentioned above, the tops of our grey dressers (finished in AS Wax) were chipping when we put something down on them a little too hard. After a few months, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I gave them each a super light sanding and then touched up the paint job. Once the paint was dry, I rolled on two light coats of semi-gloss poly with the foam roller, letting it dry several hours between coats. I can now put anything down on these and don’t even think twice about it!
My sister-in-law, who also has a long history of re-painting furniture, once mentioned to me that using poly on a piece can sometimes be viewed as “downgrading” the quality of a wood piece since it’s essentially putting a coat of plastic on it. If that’s something that really matters to you, you might want to consider the waxes and other finishing options. For me, right now, I am all about durability. I want my paint job to last – and so far, this one gives me that hard-surface durability our family needs!
Minwax Polycrylic – Semi-Gloss.
I’ve had a can of this Minwax Paste Finishing Wax in my garage for over a year, and I JUST started using it. At first, I was scared to use it because the wax is not clear, and I couldn’t find ANY blogger or website that promised me it wouldn’t turn my sparkly white furniture brown. Well – if you have been wanting to try this, even on your white furniture, I say go for it. I’m regretting I didn’t try it sooner. This wax is super easy to find and pretty inexpensive. It goes on with a rag/old t-shirt like the others, but once buffed to a nice sheen, it has the durability very close to the polycrylic. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that I can apply it, wait 10 minutes, and buff it to a shine. Without any dry time, I can have the piece done and inside in no time! I most recently used this wax on our new lemon lime console table…
…and Henry’s re-painted play table and chairs.
Even on kids’ furniture, this wax has been the most durable compared to the SCJohnson wax or the AS Wax. I do feel like the roll-on water-based poly is a big tougher; but I love the oh-so-easy rub on/buff off application that I am reaching for this one more and more these days!
Rustoleum’s Spray Clear Gloss.
Like anyone, I always prefer things in spray form. But like paint, spray clear coats only go so far to be cost effective so they are best used on small, skinny pieces. I used this spray to protect my office stools:
…and Henry’s green high chair.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE the durability this spray provides, but where you loose out is in the consistency of the sheen and the smoothness of the finish. I’ve tried really shaking the can well (for about 2+ minutes) before using it, and spraying in little-to-no-wind, and I will still get splotches of high-gloss sheen mixed in with more dull areas. So.irritating. To remedy it, I’ve been adding a coat of the Mixwax paste ON TOP of the spray clear coat to unify the sheen. Also, especially if it’s windy, the spray can leave a gritty feeling which can only be eliminated by sanding out with some fine-grit sandpaper. Still, for small projects like stools and picture frames, this is my go to. (And my son’s high chair is STILL chip free!)
No top coat.
Some paints, like those meant for outdoors, already have a protective coat in them and do no require a top coat. Although I am partial to taking that final step to protect all my hard work, there are a few projects where I have let the paint do the work for me.
I used white glossy spray paint from Rustoleum on our side table bases and and didn’t apply any protective coat. While still in good shape, they have a few dings and chips – namely from those darn matchbox cars that always seem to fly right at them! Should have added a spray clear coat to these a fighting chance at a chip-free life!
The same story applies to Henry’s original play table makeover. I used the Apple Red Rustoleum paint on the table and the spray on the chairs and no top coat on either. The table held up without a single scratch, but the chairs were riddled with lots and lots of chips in just a few short months. Should have sealed these too. (3 months into their blue makeover, the chairs and table are still chip free!)
I used the Apple Red Rustoleum paint (from the can) on our red garden bench with no protective top coat. It has spent the entire year out on our mostly covered porch, but has been rained on every now and then. It’s still in great shape, although the paint has chipped away around the feet, which often get exposed to the most water.
Last but not least, I used the Outdoor Valspar Spray AND the Rustoleum paint for our new outside console table. While it’s only been about a month, this little guy is still in great, chip-free shape!
Phew! I’m exhausted. When I had the idea for this post, I didn’t realize it would turn out to be such a long one 🙂 In any case, I hope you found something useful amidst my trials-and-errors with different top coats. I personally feel like the top coat is the most important, which is why I play around with it so much – your piece can look fantastic the whole makeover, but if something goes wrong in the end – it’s so frustrating to live with the texture, chips or whatever other issues arise! I still have a few things I am antsy to try – namely oil-based paint and some of the higher formula paints that don’t require a top coats. You’ll know when I get to them because they’ll pop up here on the blog eventually!
I hope you all have a great weekend! I am looking forward to some relaxing and organizing this weekend – how about you?
7 Comments on “Thoughts, Tips, and Tricks on Furniture Topcoats”
LOVE these tips! They come at the perfect time for me. I've been wanting to paint an old wood armoire red. I put blankets and my kids' board games in there. One, it's a bright color for a big piece of furniture, so it will stand out. Two, it gets a lot of use because of what I put in it. Two reasons for needing this advice for a durable finish. Thanks, Megan!! I've been following you for a few months, and you always have great tips.
Megan, thank you so much for sharing these great tips at Best of the Weekend! I'm keeping this one for sure! 🙂 Pinning and sharing! Have a happy Saturday and a fantastic weekend!
Awesome tips! I'm just getting into furniture painting/updating and I'm still trying to wade through all of the information. Thanks!
Beautiful pieces – you certainly have been busy…. wish I could hire you for my house. I'm a real newbie and totally afraid to ruin a piece of furniture – maybe I need to start with a real junkie piece so I won't feel guilty if I mess up. Thanks for the inspiration AND the great info!
Thank you so much for this comprehensive list! It's so nice to see what has NOT worked and WHY!! I will now have a better idea of what to get for protective coat when I finish a piece (one of these days… haven't figured out to do it while I'm living in an apartment). The only thing missing for me is what to do with stained pieces, as I think that's a finish that I would work with quite a bit. Nonetheless, thank you so much for taking the time to write this! Pinning for others to see 🙂 Have a great day, Megan!
How would you recommend cleaning a faux finished coffee table? The kids have make all over it!! EEEK!!!
This is an amazing summation of all your adventures with top coats . As a newbie to the DIY world of furniture it is much appreciated!! Thank you . Your work is beautiful!!!