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All About Polyurethane

Use this guide to learn more about choosing and using polyurethane, the toughest of the clear finishes.
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Get heirloom restoration advice from the man entrusted with President George Washington's desk

How to get that high-gloss, barroom-style epoxy finish for your own projects. Tons of ideas here, too!

Use olive oil to brighten up wood! Apply a thin coat to hydrate worn, dried-out wood, as long as it was origin­ally treated with an oil finish. Finish by buffing it in.

Linseed oil, brushed over the island's cherry edge-grain butcher-block top, brings out the wood's natural color. | Island paint: 780F-7 Stealth Jet, BEHR®

Pro tip: "To get a uniform look with stain, apply a prestain wood conditioner with a brush or cloth first. It temporarily fills in the grain, so the color will be absorbed more evenly." —Dan Vos, owner, DeVos Custom Woodworking, Dripping Springs, TX

DIY stain: Some finishes can fake decades of wear in a matter of minutes. Here, we mixed ¼ cup of rusty nails with ¾ cup of vinegar and let steep for 24 hours. When applied, the solution reacts quickly with the natural tannins in the wood grain (we used oak), mimicking the weathering that occurs over many years.

Distress wood: Simulate wear and tear by whacking boards with a hammer, driving in and pulling out nails, or tapping the sides of fasteners against planks to leave marks where natural wear patterns would occur. Finish wood with stain, then touch up indents with black stain to simulate the look of oxidation.

Get the time-worn board look without the wait: see 3 ways to get the look of salvaged wood using lumber milled in this century

Most boards at home centers are S4S, or surface-planed smooth on all four sides. Head to your local lumberyard and ask for rough-sawn boards, which have uneven surfaces and come in true dimensional measurements—24s are actually 2 inches thick—just like framing lumber from the 1800s.

Six layers of paint was stripped off to refinish this heart-pine door separating the bathroom and bedroom. | Photo: Patricia Lyons

Boat-wood effect: Inspired by reclaimed-wood furniture made from traditional Indonesian fishing boats that have been retired, this four-color finish features multiple layers of paint, so it has texture—a good fit for pieces that aren't in constant use, like an occasional table. | Photo: Daniel Hennessy

Color wash: This technique adds subtle color while allowing the natural beauty of the wood to show through. Try it on unfinished pieces with paneling details for the wash to accentuate, like the cabinet above. | Photo: Daniel Hennessy

Using a clean, dry rag, work the pickling solution into the wood by rubbing against the grain. Then, using a fresh rag, wipe with the grain to remove the excess and expose the grain. Repeat this sequence, working in patches to cover the entire bench evenly. Let dry overnight. | Photo: Wendell T. Webber

Prep wood furniture for whitewashing: Using a medium-grit sanding sponge, scuff up all the surfaces to open the pores of the wood. Be sure to work with the grain. | Photo: Wendell T. Webber

Wood Stains: When wood needs a little help to look its best, brush or wipe on some stain to deepen its color and highlight the grain. This brush-on product, born in the U.S.A. in 1984, combines stain pigments and polyurethane in one can, making for fast finishing. | Minwax

Interior, water-base poly works well on light-colored woods and stains where ambering would be undesirable. Blended with acrylic resins, it goes on milky but quickly dries crystal clear. Not as durable as oil-based polys. Available in gloss, semi-gloss, and satin. |

Interior fast-drying oil-based poly is great for caabinets, floors, furniture, and trim such as wainscot, where abrasion resistance and durability are important. |

Water-based, oil-modified interior poly combines the durability and ambering of an oil with the fast drying time, low VOC content, and easy cleanup of a water-based product. It's great for doors, cabinets, furniture and floors. |

Spar urethane protects the finish of exteriors doors, trim, and furniture with UV absorbers that guard the finish and the wood from the sun's rays. And it's made with a special blend of oils and resins that allows it to flex as the wood surface expands and contracts. |

Brush-on, wipe-on or spray? Every polyurethane has its preferred applicator. We show you which to use where. |

Tabletops and other surfaces subject to abrasion benefit from high-build, oil-based finishes that provides maximum durability with just two coats. |

Most exterior polys can be used indoors, but interior polys should never be used outdoors; they lack the additives that protect exterior finishes from UV rays. |

Gloss, semi-gloss or satin polyurethane? Choose whichever sheen you like best; there's no difference in durability. Just remember that the glossier the finish, the more it will show any underlying imperfections and any future wear and tear. |

Oil-based, water-based or water-based oil-modified polyurethane? We show you the characteristics of each so you can know before you buy and try. |

Interior oil-based stain- and poly-combos protect bare wood with each coat, but require a conditioner to ensure even coloring before applying. Great for furniture, cabinets, trim. |