The Right Clear Coat

A lot of products are available to protect and beautify a surface. It can be confusing. But the knowledgeable staff at Quality Hardware can help you find the right clear coat for your project.


Lacquer plaque, the right clear coat

Lacquer was invented in india and was originally made from the secretion of the Lac insect. A similar coating, also called lacquer, was developed in China from the gum of the Lacquer Tree. Current commercially available lacquer is a synthetic polymer based product. It creates a high gloss, durable, protective coating, and dries quickly, allowing for recoating the same day. It doesn’t yellow over time, as some clear coatings can. It is a ‘surface’ coating, which means it does not soak in to a surface, but remains on the surface. And it can be used on any surface.


Lac Bugs, the right clear coat

Shellac is still made from the secretion of the Lac bug. It is available in many shades from clear or “blonde” to dark brown, although the most common colors are clear, amber, and orange. Synthetic shellac is now commercially available. It is used to create a high gloss finish. Like lacquer, it doesn’t soak in to a porous surface. It is not as durable as lacquer, or polyurethane. It isn’t water proof, and it can be damaged by heat. But, although it is subject to water and heat damage, it is easy to repair. It can be stripped by using denatured alcohol, and then recoated. It is non-toxic, so it can be used for children’s toys. It is also use in the pharmaceutical industry to coat tablets.

Rustoleum Crystal Clear Spray

Rustoleum clear spray, the right clear coat

This is an acrylic coating (not to be confused with polycrylic, which we will talk about later). It is available in matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes. One of the properties that distinguishes acrylic coatings is their UV light protection. This makes them particularly good at protecting exterior wood surfaces. It is a surface coating that doesn’t yellow over time and although it is not as durable as polyurethane, it is more durable than Shellac or lacquer. And it is not food-safe.

Teak Oil

Teak oil, the right clear coat

Teak Oil is a generic term for a wood finish intended specifically for teak wood. Teak wood is a popular wood for building boats and marine furniture. Teak oil is not made from teak wood. It is most commonly a mixture of boiled linseed oil and Tung oil with a variety of other possible ingredients. It is a penetrating coating (as opposed to a surface coating). This means it sinks in to the wood surface. It seals the wood, is water-resistant, and usually has some pigment ingredient to help protect the wood from UV light. It has to be reapplied regularly. It is not intended for any surface other than wood, and it is not food-safe.

Danish Oil

Danish oil, the right clear coat

Danish oil, like Teak oil, is a generic term. It usually consists of linseed oil, Tung oil, mineral spirits, synthetic resins, and/or varnish. It is usually food-safe (check the label) so it is a popular option for kitchen cabinets, cutting boards, and wood counter-tops. It is a penetrating coating that dries to a satin finish. It is not for exterior surfaces and does not contain UV protection. It needs to be reapplied regularly to maintain the finish.

Cedar Oil

Cedar, the right clear coat

Although Cedar Oil protects wood from insects, it is not generally used to enhance the appearance of the wood. It is a penetrating oil that restores the aroma and pest-repellent properties of old cedar wood. It is food safe, and the aroma is reported to have therapeutic qualities.

Tung Oil

Tung tree, the right clear coat

Tung oil is pressed from Tung tree nuts. Originally used in ancient China, Tung Oil is an ecofriendly option to provide a water-resistant matte finish on unfinished wood. It is a penetrating finish that accentuates the grain of the wood and has a light honey color. It needs to be applied evenly in several coats, leaving 40 minutes between coats for the oil to be absorbed. Once the wood is saturated, wipe off the excess. It can take up to a month to fully cure, and for the first 10 days you should check the wood every day, wiping off any oil that reappears on the surface. Pure Tung oil is food safe.


Polyurethane, the right clear coat

This is currently the most durable of the clear coats. Polyurethane is a liquid plastic that can be applied to any surface to protect it from scratches, bumps, water, and sunlight. Polyurethanes that are marked “Exterior” have additives that protect the substrate (surface) from UV light. Polyurethane is available as an oil-based product or a water-borne (oil-modified) product. Because of environmental laws, oil based polyurethanes are not available in large quantities in all states. Water-borne or oil-modified polyurethane has most of the traditional solvents (VOCs or volatile organic compounds) removed and replaced with water. Tiny bubbles of polyurethane float in the water base. Other ingredients are added to keep these bubbles suspended. When the water dries, the tiny bubbles of polyurethane come together to form the coating. Oil based polyurethane takes a long time to dry, where as water-borne polyurethane is fast drying and can be recoated in about two hours. Oil based polyurethane dries with a slightly amber color that may become more pronounced over time. Oil-modified polyurethane dries clear. Neither of these polyurethanes is not food safe.


Polycrylic, the right clear coat

Polycrylic is similar in a lot of ways to polyurethane. The big difference is that polycrylic is water based. Therefore it is much less toxic or flammable in liquid form. It is also strictly for interior surfaces, as it can’t stand up to weather or UV light. Polycrylic is not as thick as polyurethane, so you have to be careful when applying it, to avoid drips and runs. And you may have to apply more coats to get the same look as polyurethane.


polywhey, the right clear coat

PolyWhey is a wood coating made from polymerized whey protein, a byproduct of cheese-making. It is relatively new product made by a company called Vermont Natural Coatings. It is water based, non-toxic, and almost as durable as polyurethane. And it can be used inside or outside, as it can stand up to weather and UV light. It also does not yellow with time, and is food safe.

Spar Urethane

Spar Urethane, the right clear coat

Spar Varnish is a varnish that is particularly resistant to water. It has been used for hundreds of years on ocean-going ships to protect the wood from water and UV light. When polyurethane became popular in the 20th century, the wood resins in spar varnish were replaced with polyurethane to create spar urethane. It has all the qualities of polyurethane, and has increased water resistance and UV protection. The down side is that it is not as chemically resistant or heat resistant as regular polyurethane.

Spar Varnish

Spar varnish, the right clear coat

Varnish is a fairly generic term for any wood coating made from resin (usually tree sap), an organic oil, and a solvent (usually alcohol or turpentine). A huge number of combinations of these components have been used for centuries all over the world to protect and beautify wood surfaces. Spar varnish is intended to protect the masts and yard arms (spars) of a sailing ship. Thus any coating claiming to be a spar varnish must be able to stand up to weather and sunlight, and be durable and flexible in changes of temperature and humidity.

Knowing a little about the various available products will help you choose the right clear coat for your particular project.

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