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What Are The Best Topcoats & Sealers for Painted Furniture

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Painted furniture can last a lifetime when you seal it with a topcoat or sealant, but what types and brands of paint sealer for wood work the best for painted furniture?

The best way to paint furniture and the best paint sealer for wood.

I have painted a lot of furniture for over 30 years and have become an expert in the best way to seal and protect painted furniture so it lasts a lifetime.

I receive many emails and questions from readers who are unhappy with how a clear coat for painted wood they used came out on their furniture makeover project.

They are frustrated and want to know how to fix the sealer or know what paint sealer they should have used.

In this post, I am answering the questions I am frequently asked about how to seal painted furniture and what paint sealer products I recommend.

Not all topcoats and paint sealers work for every project, so you have to choose wisely or you can ruin the painted finish on your project.

I hope this post helps you find just the right sealer for your painted furniture makeover.

Paint sealer for wood - choices. How to seal painted furniture with water based polyurethane or wax.
Painted desk was sealed with clear soft wax.

Why Do You Need To Seal Painted Furniture?

Paint sealers are needed as a top coat to protect the paint. A sealer dries to a harder, more durable finish than paint does.

A coat or two when dry will protect the paint to withstand daily use. Sealers also make a painted surface easier to wipe clean since they keep moisture away from the paint.

I apply a sealer over almost all painted furniture, especially if the piece is going to get a lot of use – table and desk tops, cabinets and the arms on chairs.

  • It is best to always seal furniture you paint where you used a low sheen paint like flat, matte, eggshell, or chalk paint. These finishes are easy to scratch and smudge and hard to clean. Sealing them makes the surface easy to clean and will keep the piece looking nice.

When Is a Sealer Not Needed Over Painted Furniture?

If you use high gloss paint or lacquer to makeover a piece of furniture you do not have to use a sealer. In fact if you do, you will alter the sheen. A semi-gloss or gloss finish paint is tough, wipeable and acts as a sealer all on its own.

There are a few brands of latex and acrylic paints as well as furniture paint on the market now that say you don’t need to seal over them, but I have found they don’t hold up as well. I end up sealing them with one of my go-to furniture sealing products.

Painted furniture tutorial

What Sealer to Use on Painted Wood?

Now that you know why and when you should seal painted furniture, the next thing you need to do is choose what clear sealer for painted wood is best to use for your project.

Standing in the paint sealer aisle at the home improvement store looking at all the choices can be a daunting task.

Here is a break-down of paint sealer types:

Oil-Based Sealers

Oil-based sealers and many gel-formula sealers that are oil-based work well on wood stained furniture. They are durable and will last for years.

Cons: When you use an oil-based sealer over painted furniture, it will change and darken the paint color. When this happens it is called “yellowing” or “ambering” because the paint color gets an orange/yellow cast.

This is not a good thing for painted furniture, so I recommend not using any oil-based sealer on painted furniture.

Clean-up of oil-based sealers can become a chore as it has to be done with a solvent like mineral spirits.

Water-Based Sealers

Water-based sealers are the best to use over painted furniture or projects. They will not amber or change the color of the paint. They have no smell when drying as oil-based sealers do, so they are less toxic.

How to seal countertops using Minwax Polycrylic.

Most brand formulas come in all sheens from ultra-flat to gloss as well as brush-on formulas and in spray cans. They create an even smooth finish and clean up is easy with soap and water.

  • Cons: If surface is damaged, the fix is hard to hide as a new coat of paint and polyurethane will sit on top of the existing finish around it and not blend in.

Wipe-On Sealers

Wipe-On Sealers can leave streaks and a white film when applied over dark paint colors. They might seem like an easy alternative, but can be hard to achieve a smooth even finish.

  • I do not recommend using this type of paint sealer for wood or painted furniture.

Furniture Wax Sealers

Furniture wax or soft wax comes in clear and dark colors. It works well over most flat or chalk paints. When using wax to seal painted furniture, a thin coat spread out over the surface is all that is needed. When buffed with a soft, lint-free cloth it produces a protective, subtle sheen.

the best paint sealer for wood that is painted with chalk paint. It is a mid price range product.

More layers can be added at any time. The more you buff the finish, the higher the sheen becomes.

  • Pros: If a sealed painted surface gets damaged, all you need to do to fix it is lightly sand, paint and then apply a thin layer of wax over the spot and buff till the cloth slides over the surface. The fix blends right in.
  • Cons: Using wax does take some skill and practice to get an even and smooth finish. It does not work well on outdoor pieces.

What are the Best Brands of Furniture Sealers?

Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish

When choosing a sealer for painted wood, Polycrylic is the product I recommend the most. It is the best not only for the beautiful finish it creates, but it is affordable and easy to find at the home improvement store or Walmart.

Polycrylic also comes in a spray formula. I prefer using a spray on certain pieces that have a lot of detail. When I see a can of it in a store, I buy it immediately as it can be hard to find.

  • Formula: Water-based, easy clean-up, non-yellowing.
  • Available Can Sizes: 1/2 pints and quarts and a spray can.
  • Application Tool: Synthetic bristle brush.
  • Sheen & Finishes:  Ultra-Flat, Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss.
  • Coverage: 2 – 3 coats recommended.
  • Recoat – After two hours.
  • Dry Time: 3 hours for light handling, 24 hours for normal use.
  • Where to Buy: Walmart and home improvement stores

Pros: Dries to a clear durable finish, easy to apply and dries quickly. It is inexpensive and easy to find at your local home improvement store or Walmart.

Cons: Need to use a high quality paint brush to prevent brushstrokes. Don’t be alarmed when you apply it that it looks white. It will dry to a clear finish.

Is it Better to Brush or Spray Polycrylic on Furniture?

You can successfully use either the brush-on or spray version of Polycrylic on any project, but if sealing something intricate or that has a rounded shape, the spray version is much easier to use. It gets into all the nooks and crannies of the piece where a brush can’t get.

Before and after metal towel bar after being spray painted and sealed with a spray sealer.
Spray painted towel bar sealed with spray Polycrylic

For rounded items like this spray painted towel bar, spraying the sealer on created a flawless finish.

The only downside of using spray Polycrylic is that it should be done outside and you have to mask off any area that you don’t want sealer to get on.

General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat

Like the Minwax brand, General Finishes has a great line of sealing products.

When sealing painted furniture, their High Performance water based topcoat is easy to apply and creates a beautiful lasting finish.

  • Formula: Water-based, easy clean-up and non yellowing.
  • Application Tool: Brush, roller or sprayer.
  • Available Can Sizes – Pints, quarts, gallons and 5 gallon cans.
  • Sheen & Finishes: Flat, Satin, Semi-Gloss, and Gloss.
  • Coverage: 3 coats recommended.
  • Recoat: 2 hours
  • Dry Time: 30 minutes to touch – 7 days of light use.
  • Where to Buy: Online sellers and Amazon

Pros: This High Performance Topcoat polyurethane gets rave reviews and was voted as the hardest, most durable consumer water based polyurethane topcoat.

Cons: It is hard to find locally so you most likely will have to order it online and pay shipping costs. I have found that even though it is water based, it can look yellow over some light colors.

General Finishes Flat Out Flat

Flat Out Flat is very popular paint sealer for wood for those who want a water-based brush on topcoat that mimics the lustrous look and feel of wax.

  • Formula: Water-based, easy clean-up and non yellowing.
  • Application Tool: brush, roller or sprayer.
  • Available Can Sizes – Pints, quarts, and gallons.
  • Sheen & Finishes: Very flat, matte finish.
  • Coverage: 3 coats recommended.
  • Recoat: 2 hours.
  • Dry Time: 30 minutes to touch – 7 days of light use.
  • Where to Buy: Online retailers and Amazon.

Pros: When you want a truly flat finish that looks like a wax finish.

Cons: The increased matting agents used to create a “flat look” cause this wood finish to have less clarity, show fingerprints more and provide slightly less durability than the General Finishes High Performance performance poly. It is recommended for medium to low-use surfaces other than kitchen cabinets and table tops.

Soft Wax or Furniture Wax

When I paint wood furniture, I like the look of clear wax over the paint. The buffed finish looks like it came from a factory and not a painted finish.

What is the best wax to use over chalk painted furniture
Fiddes & Sons Supreme Wax Polish

Waxes sold for sealing furniture are available in clear, white, or dark wax colors.

Dark wax is a way to add a bit of antiquing or to bring out the details on a piece. White wax adds a limed or whitewashed finish over the paint. I used white wax over blue paint for this nightstand makeover.

Formula: Soft paste texture.
Available Can Sizes: Sizes vary by brand.
Application Tool: Soft, lint-free cloth or a wax brush.
Sheen & Finishes:  A subtle luster.
Coverage: 2 coats recommended.
Recoat – Immediately after previous coat is buffed.
Dry Time: 1 hour – 48 hours for normal use.
Pros: Dries to a clear durable finish
Cons: Does take some experimenting to get the technique down. Needs to cure for a few weeks to become durable.
Where to Buy: Amazon, Walmart and home improvement stores.

4 of the best furniture waxes to seal painted furniture.

I have used and recommend all of these furniture sealing waxes:

1. Kilz Sealing Clear Wax – I have only used this once so far on this night table. I really liked it. It was easy to buff to a sheen. It costs around $10 for a small tin.

2. Annie Sloan Clear Wax – You can’t go wrong with this wax. It goes on very smoothly and is easier to buff than any of the other waxes I have used. It runs around $30. I used in on this painted mirror makeover.

3. Fiddes and Sons Supreme Clear Wax – This is a medium priced wax. It sells for about $22 a can. I have used this brand more than any of the others. It has a slight smell, but not as bad as the Johnson’s. It buffs easily. I used in on this sideboard I painted turquoise and this sideboard that I later turned into a bathroom sink vanity. It is going on 8 years and the original wax finish is still going strong.

4. Johnson’s Paste Wax – Is a bargain at around $13 and can be found in the cleaning aisle at Lowes. It works well. The only downside is it smells intense as you apply it. Once dry though, it has no smell, but until it does, the smell can be overwhelming. I only use this when I can work outside or in my garage. I used it to seal this wood file drawer cabinet.

How to Seal Painted Furniture With a Water Based Polyurethane Product

Bathroom vanity made over using off white chalk paint and clock face cabinet door knobs

When I made over this bathroom cabinet with DIY chalk paint, I sealed it with brush-on Minwax Polycrylic in a satin finish. It came out beautifully and was easy to achieve.

Polycrylic sealer for furniture and using to seal painted shelves

When sealing a painted finish with Minwax Polycrylic or another water-based sealer, always go over the painted finish with a 220 grit sandpaper first, then clean it with a tack cloth to make sure all the dust and dirt and stray bristles from a paint brush are removed.

Then apply a light coat of the poly with a brush, foam applicator or flocked foam roller. Let dry and repeat the process for each coat. This will ensure a very smooth finish.

Stir the sealer thoroughly before using and do not shake. Shaking the closed can to mix the contents can cause air bubbles that will show up in your finish.

  • To apply, start at one side of your piece and work towards the other side as you slightly overlap long, even brush strokes across the surface.
  • Let it dry for at least 2 hours and then reapply a second coat.

Using a Spray Can Water Based Sealer – Shake the can well before using and then again for re-coating.

  • Hold the can about 8″ away from the surface and make long even sweeping motions across the surface. Keep the can upright as you spray to eliminate splattering.
  • Make sure to read the can’s label for re-coat times as it is important so the sealer won’t wrinkle as it dries.

How to Seal Painted Furniture With Wax

I think adding wax to protect a painted finish seems scary to many.

Polyurethane seems like the easier method, but once you get the hang of using wax – you realize it is so easy to apply and buff to a beautiful “from the factory” luster.

Another thing many think you need to do when you use soft wax to seal a piece of painted furniture is that a lot of wax is needed to create a durable finish. This is a mistake. Less wax is better.

With wax, one light thin coat applied with a wax brush, soft lint-free rag and then buffed with another clean towel will provide a smooth, even finish that has a subtle sheen.

  • I have tried using a brush, but find these SHOP towels work great for spreading the wax over the surface as well as buffing it to a sheen.

If you want more protection, simply add another light layer of wax over the previously buffed surface and buff again.

Buffing is simply the process of taking a clean, soft lint-free rag over the surface in a circular motion with some muscle behind it until the cloth slides across the surface.

On my kitchen table which gets a lot of use, I add a new layer of wax once a year. Applying a new layer takes 10 minutes.

For every other piece of chalk painted furniture on which I have used wax to seal the surface, I haven’t had to add new wax. Some are going on 8 years. So the fear that you will have to keep waxing the furniture every few months is not valid.

Paint Sealers I Do Not Recommend

Painting furniture is all about adding your style to the piece. Everyone that has painted furniture will have their own preferences on the type of finish they want to achieve, but no matter what these are, the one sealer you don’t want to use is an oil-based polyurethane.

How to stain a staircase

Oil-based polyurethanes are great products to use over stained wood or when you are using only transparent stains where you can see the wood grain underneath.

They are not a good sealer or topcoat for painted wood furniture because it will darken, yellow cause discoloration of the paint color the minute you apply it. It will shock you, so make sure the can of poly you choose does not say oil-based on the label.

Wipe-On Polyurethane Sealers

I do not recommend “wipe-on” polyurethane products that come in a handy- wipe style packages. They can be hard to apply evenly over a large flat surface which can make the finish look streaky when dry.

These wiping cloths are not recommended to use over medium to dark paint colors due to water vapor being trapped which could cause streaking.  I can attest to this… it happens.

I also do not recommend sealers called “soft varnish” or “cream wax products”. If not applied correctly, they tend to look streaky, dry improperly and become tacky. You need to have special skills to get these sealers just right.

I wouldn’t want someone to think they are a failure at furniture painting and sealing when the problem is just a challenging product that takes time to master. There are so many better sealers on the market that I mentioned in this post that will give great results with less effort.

Should I Use a Brush or Roller to Seal Painted Furniture?

When choosing how to apply a sealer, you have several options. You can use a paintbrush, roller, foam applicator or paint sprayer.

A sprayer is the fastest way to seal painted wood, but for the average DIY’er, a brush, foam applicator or roller are your choices.

Rollers or a foam style pad applicator are great when you have a large flat surface to seal, like a table top. They don’t work as well on table legs and arms where a brush is better to use.

When I am making over a table or dresser, I use both a roller or foam applicator and brush for the different sections of the piece.

Can You Seal Painted Furniture With Mod Podge?

Mod Podge is a craft store sealer used mostly for small projects or wood crafts, but they do sell a furniture formula. This can be used successfully to seal furniture makeovers.

I used it to seal the top of a dresser that I covered with gift wrap. It has held up perfectly for over 10 years.

The downside of using Mod Podge is that the surface can feel tacky if it is applied too heavy. Light coats are key to making this sealer work and look good.

Can You Use Paint Glaze as a Sealer?

When you hear or read the word “glaze” on a container in the paint aisle, it can be confusing as different paint brands call different products a glaze.

paint glaze

A paint glaze is often confused with being a sealer when in fact – a “paint glaze” or clear glazing liquid is not a sealing product. Paint glaze is used to mix with paint to slow the drying time so you can manipulate the paint into faux finishes that have a transparency to them. It is a white liquid that dries clear leaving the paint color the same.

When the paint and glaze mix dries it is not durable as a sealer for painted wood and needs to be sealed to protect the painted finish.

The other type of glaze is a “sealing glaze” that is sold mainly in craft stores. It is a thick glossy medium or an oil-based spray gloss glaze that is used to seal craft projects in a glossy sheen. A spray glaze is oil-based and will yellow the paint.

Sealing Furniture TIPS:

  • Always read the label on the can of sealer you are using for specifics in what temperature is best to apply the sealer along with the applicator to use as well as re-coat and dry times.
  • Apply furniture sealer using thin, even coats. More thin coats are better than one or two heavy coats. Let each coat dry before applying the next.
  • Two thin coats of sealer will provide protection, but more can be used on high traffic surfaces.
  • Once you brush on a section, do not go over it again. You want to make sure your brush doesn’t touch areas that have already begun to dry. Going over the wet sealer a second time will cause brushstrokes to show up. If using a roller, the sealer will lift and cause an orange peel texture to the surface. If you missed a spot wait for the coat to dry and then make sure to cover it when you apply the second coat.
  • To achieve an ultra smooth finish: Between dried coats of sealer, go over the surface with super-fine sandpaper to smooth any rough spots or texture and then wipe any grit away with a tack cloth. Then apply the next coat.
  • Always test the sealer you plan to use on an inside door or a hidden area of the piece. This will help you determine if you like the the way the finish looks before going over the entire piece and then not liking it. It will also help you see if yellowing occurs and will know if there is an immediate problem.

Now that you know what the best sealers to use for sealing painted wood, you can make an informed choice so that your furniture makeover turns out just as you envisioned it.

If you have any questions about a paint sealer for wood or furniture makeover questions in general don’t hesitate to leave me in the comment section of this post below.

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92 Comments

  1. HI Diane,! I’ve been thinking of doing over the world’s ugliest triple dresser and the color you used is exactly what I had in my head! The dresser came along with my husband 46 years ago, and he is strangely attached to it!! Ugh, but it does offer a lot of storage. Two questions…how does humidity affect application? (I live in upstate S.C. and it’s very humid in my garage). And secondly, how long do you need to let the paint cure before it’s safe to move it back inside and “merchandise” the top, as Christopher Lowell used to say. Thanks for an inspiring post!

    1. Hi Roxanne –

      I live in Chapin, so I have the same situation – the hot humidity of living in SC. I don’t like to paint outdoors in the summer months and if I have to, I paint the pieces right in place inside my house with the AC on. I flatten a big cardboard box to make a dropcloth to place the furniture on. The cardboard protects the flooring and makes it easy to turn the piece of furniture so you can paint all sides easily. Check out this post to see it in action:http://bit.ly/2G2KOys

      Right now – spring is the best time to paint out in your garage… but wait until the pollen has stopped, here in the Midlands of SC there is a thick yellow coat on everything. Once you have the piece painted, I would wait a day or two before moving it. It doesn’t have to be totally cured to move. Once in place in your home, be gentle for a few days to a week with it. It can take up to 4 weeks to fully cure.

  2. Oooh, thanks so much, Diane! Very good information and I will always know where to come when I need to “read this again”….. I was thinking about half way through this that, if DIANE has a problem with a product, I can absolutely assume “I” will have a problem with it….thanks again! Have a great weekend.

    1. Hi Sharon – I am so happy that my post will be of help to you. :-) I don’t like to write negatively about any product, but I want everyone to have success so sharing my likes and dislikes makes sense. Hope you have a great weekend, too.

  3. Hi, Diane,
    Your desk looks beautiful. Color, finish, lovely work, so professional!
    I, too, use wax over poly on items that will get a lot of wear. After several coats of MinWax Satin Poly, I applied Johnson’s Paste Wax lightly with a very fine 0000 steel wool in circular motion, which eliminates little burrs caused by dust or particles drifting into the poly as it dries. Then i buff with a soft cloth and follow with a sheepskin buffing head on my drill. I did a large dining room table with 2 leaves and it turned out soft and waxy looking but it’s tough. Extra coats meant more work but I never wanted to do that big table again!
    BTW, the paint guy recommended a faster drying poly which I used and had to sand off because it dried much too quickly for a long tabletop. The quick poly had no “flow” that would allow it to settle into a smooth coat and would dry before I reached the other end of the table : (

    1. Hi Sassy –

      Thanks for sharing your process. So you use wax over poly? I always remove the poly and then apply the wax? Does the wax sit on top of the poly or does the steel wool and electric buffing head on your drill really help it to get into the surface?

  4. I’m still giggling over this article, mainly because of the timing. I am, hopefully, on the downside of a furniture makeover goof project myself, and your words have helped me to lighten up over the mess I’ve made. I’ve already successfully painted two pieces with Annie Sloan’s paints and waxes. This time, I zoned out and without thinking unnecessarily primed the piece first. Big mistake. I have been sanding and painting and sanding and painting and probably will not get back to the surface I began with. But, I’m persevering and will learn to love the end result! Learn by doing, right? Or, read the directions…

    1. Hi Molly –

      Good to know we are not alone. In fact, I am sure there are many others doing the same. I have made many mistakes or tried something and it didn’t turn out like I thought. On one such paint makeover mistake, I began to scrub the paint off and as I was doing it the most amazing finish began to surface. My mistake turned out to a big win – I hope your project turns into something you love.

    1. Hi Alison –

      Thanks – it is good to know that you found the post helpful :-) Since I have been writing about the topic for years and there are hundreds of other blogs and websites that post about furniture painting, it is hard to know what is helpful for readers. I have so many posts deep in my archives that I plan to re-write to update them to answer all the questions I receive.

      Hope you have a great weekend. Ed was cleared after his knee surgery to start hitting golf balls. If the weather permits he will be down at the club hitting balls at the range tomorrow. :-)