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Water Based Finishing Tips

A professional woodworker shares his tips for applying water-based polyurethane over raw or stained wood, and shows how to get great finishes every time.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Using water-based finishes

If you used water-based wood finishes years ago and gave up in frustration, give them another try. Newer versions have many advantages over solvent-based finishes: They dry much faster, so less dust can settle into the wet coat, and there's less waiting between coats. Cleanup takes soap and water, not chemicals. They're low odor, pose no fire hazard and are better for the environment.

But water-based finishes aren't perfect. They raise the grain and are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. They're nonyellowing, which is good, but they can produce a bland appearance on darker woods.

To help you achieve a great finish every time and avoid the pitfalls, here are my top 10 tips for using water-based finishes.

Raise the grain first

Seal oil-based stain

Lay it down and leave it

Choose the right applicator

Use synthetic abrasives, not steel wool

Refinish kitchen cabinets with water-based poly

Strain your poly first

Use an extender in hot, dry conditions

Add color for the look of oil-based poly

Mist your wood before staining

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Paintbrush

You'll also need a paint pad, mesh strainer and stand, and vinyl gloves.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Water-based polyurethane
    • Wax-free shellac
    • Household pump sprayer
    • Sponge
    • Extender
    • Synthetic abrasive pads
    • Dye

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