8 Best Polyurethane Finishes for Wood

Updated: Feb. 21, 2024

Polyurethane is the main component in modern varnish. Choose the best polyurethane finish for your project from these standouts.

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Unlike lacquer, shellac and varnish, which have been around for centuries, polyurethane is a product of 20th-century lab technology. In some ways, polyurethane is better than traditional film coating. It’s a curing finish instead of a drying finish, like lacquer. The process is irreversible, so the best polyurethane finish has excellent chemical and moisture resistance. It’s an ideal finish for projects that need strong protection such as floors, tabletops and outdoor furniture.

“The pros are that it’s tough, resistant to water and chemicals and available in various finishes (gloss, satin, matte),” says Jeff Palla, president of Mr. Handyman. “However, polyurethane finishes can be challenging to apply without streaks or bubbles and may require multiple coats for desired protection.”

Polyurethane comes in solvent and water-based formulations. Water-based formulations dry more quickly, release fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and make cleanup easier, so they’re more popular.

That doesn’t mean you should always opt for a water-based product, however. Solvent-based formulations have characteristics that water-based products can’t duplicate. Nor is polyurethane always a suitable substitute for lacquer or shellac, which can be layered and buffed to give an ultra-smooth protective coating with a more natural appearance.

A polyurethane finish is suitable for all but the highest quality interior furniture and woodwork, and it’s probably the No. 1 clear finish for exterior woodwork. Modern exterior formulations closely resemble traditional varnishes that include sun-blocking resins to protect wood from UV deterioration.

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Best Polyurethane for Interior Woodwork

Minwax One-Coat Polyurethane

There are many good products for interior woodwork, but we like the price of Minwax One-Coat Polyurethane. It comes in quart cans and in three sheens: full-gloss, satin and semi-gloss.

Milky in the can, this product dries to a crystal-clear finish that hardens in about two hours. It cleans up with soap and water and produces few VOCs. A single coat covers as well as three coats of a comparable product, but you’ll still probably want to apply at least two coats so you can sand in between.

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Best Solvent-Based Interior Polyurethane

Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane

A solvent-based (also known as oil-based) polyurethane like Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane dries more slowly than a water-based formulation. The extra time allows for smoother leveling and a better quality finish.

This product gives the wood a rich, amber hue, reminiscent of old-style alkyd varnish. Great for bar tops, table tops and wood stairways, it’s ready to recoat in only four to six hours. It cleans up with mineral spirits.

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Best Exterior Polyurethane

Minwax Helmsman Spar Urethane

Solvent-based polyurethane formulations perform better outdoors than water-based ones, and Minwax Helmsman Spar Urethane contains all the UV-blocking solids you need. The extra solids give the finish an attractive dark amber appearance.

This product contains natural oils that allow it to expand and contract with the wood. It cleans up with mineral spirits and is ready to recoat after four hours. It’s great for exterior doors, trim and furniture, but isn’t recommended for decks or fences. Semi-transparent stains usually provide better coverage for those large surfaces.

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Best Polyurethane for Wood Floors

Bona Mega Waterborne Wood Floor Finish

If you’re willing to pay more, Bona Mega Waterborne Wood Floor Finish gives your floor top-grade protection and a professional finish. The low VOCs are especially important when finishing a large area like a floor.

It may seem like a small detail, but we like that this product comes in a plastic bottle. That means you can pour it straight on the floor without transferring it to another container. It’s ready to recoat in only two hours so you can apply several coats in a day.

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Best Wiping Polyurethane

Minwax Wipe-On Poly

Minwax Wipe-On Poly comes in a convenient can that makes it easy to transfer the product to your rag. It’s a solvent-based product that cleans up with mineral spirits. It’s ideal for railings, moldings and turned wood features.

The formulation is thinner than brush-on poly, allowing the product to seep into wood pores like a penetrating oil and harden within. After several applications with sanding in between, you’ll get the smooth, protective film coating you expect from polyurethane.

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Best Spray-On Polyurethane

Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish Spray

Minwax Polycrylic combines the hardness of polyurethane and acrylic to create a super durable finish. Application doesn’t get any easier than pressing a button on a spray can, and this water-based product dries so quickly that multiple coats can be applied in a single day.

Unlike some spray products, Polycrylic is rated only for interior use. Still, it’s one of the most popular and highly rated polyurethane sprays on the market. It’s also available in cans for brush applications. It comes in gloss, semi-gloss and satin finishes.

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Best Polyurethane/Stain Combo

Minwax Polyshades

Minwax Polyshades is a solvent-based polyurethane with various wood-tone tints. That allows you to adjust the color of your interior woodwork at the same time as you apply a protective coating.

This will never take the place of two-step staining and top-coating for wood finishing purists, because when the finish wears off, the color goes with it. However, it’s a great option for anyone with a lot of interior woodwork to stain without a lot of time to do it.

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Best Polyurethane for Marine Applications

TotalBoat Gleam 2.0 Marine Spar Varnish

TotalBoat Gleam 2.0 Marine Spar Varnish combines the hardness of polyurethane with the rich luster of tung oil and other additives. It gives a maximum protection coating for boat decks, railings and other above-the-waterline components.

Its high resistance to salt air and prolonged moisture exposure make it a desirable finish for all residential exterior woodwork in coastal communities. If you want a satin-sheen finish with maximum endurance, the manufacturer recommends applying undercoats of gloss and topping off with a final coat of satin.

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What to Consider When Buying Polyurethane

Choosing the best polyurethane for a particular project involves the following considerations:

  • Use: Indoors, it’s good on furniture, woodwork and wood floors, or as a protective coating over a layer of paint. Outdoors, you’ll find it on woodwork, furniture, decks and railings.
  • Water- or solvent-based: Water-based finishes tend to have a more plastic-like appearance. Solvent-based products have more time to flow out before drying, creating a smoother finish. Solvent-based products tend to turn slightly amber after application, but water-based products don’t.
  • Drying time: Water-based products tend to dry to the touch faster than solvent-based products, so you can apply more coats in a day. Curing time runs three to five days for most products.
  • Sheen: Water- and solvent-based products come in a variety of sheens, including gloss, semi-gloss, satin and matte. Gloss finishes are more reflective and, hence more noticeable. They’re also a little harder.
  • Wipe-on, brush-on or spray-on: Wipe-on polyurethane products go on contoured surfaces (think turned chair legs), while brush-on polyurethane is generally for flat surfaces. Spray-on products work for both and guarantee stroke-free finishes but are usually more expensive. “With proper preparation and technique, applying polyurethane is straightforward,” says Palla. “Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and use quality brushes or applicators for the best results.”
  • Interior or exterior: Never use an indoor product outdoors. It lacks the extra sun-blocking solids, wears off in a year or two and does little to protect the wood.