Expert Answers: A wipe-on finish that builds quickly

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This article is from Issue 108 of Woodcraft Magazine

Q: I like the look of poly finishes, but they take a long time to apply, and my projects feel rough. How do I get a good, smooth – and fast – application using these wipe-on finishes?

A: I prefer to use Minwax Wipe-On Poly for most of my projects. It’s absolutely my favorite among wiping varnishes for a variety of reasons. But first, here’s how to apply it. Start by sanding all of your surfaces to 220 grit and vacuuming away the dust. Then apply the first coat, which acts as a sealer and raises the grain. I like to flood on this coat (and the others) with a foam brush, let it sit for 5 to 20 minutes, and then wipe it off with thick paper towels (the kind sold for shop use). To prevent spontaneous combustion, be sure to lay oily rags out flat to dry before discarding them. 

Let the first coat dry for a couple hours, and then sand it lightly with 320-grit paper, folded in your hand, just until the surface feels smooth. Once again, vacuum away all dust. After that, you can apply any number of coats in quick succession, with just an hour or so between them. I usually apply three more at this stage. Because there’s so little time for dust to settle into the wet finish, you don’t have to sand between these coats.

Once you like the look, let those multiple coats dry overnight, and you’re ready for one final pass. Sand once more with 320-grit paper, stir the can well, and apply one last coat, very thin this time, so it will dry even more quickly. If there are a few dust nibs in the final surface, just rub it with a paper bag to leave it buttery smooth. With this technique, you’ll have a nice, smooth-to-touch finish in short order.

As a bonus, Minwax Wipe-On Poly is affordable and widely available at hardware stores and home centers. Additionally, for some reason related to its formulation, it adds a less yellow color to lighter woods than the brushed version, meaning I can use it for almost everything I build, dark or light. 

And last, like all wiping varnishes, Minwax Wipe-On Poly can be applied more thinly to the base of a table, for example, with additional coats added to the top for more protection and a deeper sheen—without making the two parts of the project look different. I prefer the satin variety of this finish, which doesn’t need to be rubbed out at the end to produce a soft sheen. But be sure to stir the can before each use.

Flood it on. Start by sanding all surfaces to 220 grit and vacuuming away the dust. The bare wood will drink up quite a bit of finish, so apply the first coat liberally with a foam brush.
Wipe it off. The key to quickly building this finish is wiping lightly. The goal is to get rid of drips and runs, leaving an even layer of finish without removing too much.

Sand the first coat. Use 320-grit paper, folded into a pad, and sand lightly until the surface is smooth. Then vacuum away the dust.


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