Wipe-on or Brush-on Polyurethane: What’s the Difference

Polyurethane is one of the most common, durable, and best all-around finishes for the everyday diy-er. It’s relatively easy to apply, provides excellent protection, and gives the wood a beautiful luster. Depending on the project, I use either wipe-on or brush-on polyurethane on most of my work. I used brush-on poly for my coffee table and the lid of the blanket chest but decided to go with wipe-on poly for the mountain bookshelf and rustic mirror. Some of that was due to what I had in the garage … some of it was due to how many coats I wanted to apply and the final use of the project. They both provide the same protection, so the significant differences come down to method of application and number of coats.

Wipe-on or Brush-on Polyurethane

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Brush-on Polyurethane

Brush-on polyurethane provides excellent protection in just a few coats. However, it can be difficult to apply without brush marks and drips. Often, it is best to use brush-on poly for exposed flat surfaces that will see significant wear and tear, such as table tops. You still have to take care to avoid brush marks, but it is relatively easy to apply on the flat surface and will seal the project for significant use in as little as three coats. There is a little longer dry time between coats of brush-on poly (4-6 hours), but it’s pretty much a wash when you consider how many more coats of wipe-on poly would be necessary for the same amount of protection.

Wipe-on Polyurethane

Wipe-on polyurethane is simply standard polyurethane that has been thinned with mineral spirits. The advantage: there’s no need to worry about brush strokes, drips, or reaching difficult places. Simply dampen a lint-free cloth, wipe on, and apply the next coat after only 2 hours.

So what’s the downside?

It takes about three coats to build up the same cover as one coat of brush-on polyurethane.

In the interest of efficiency, it is best to use wipe-on poly on surfaces that won’t see quite as much wear and tear, such as furniture legs, trim, bookshelves, etc. They need some protection but won’t see as much abuse as a table top. A few coats of wipe-on poly are sufficient to protect and seal the wood and give it a nice finished look.

What about something like cabinets?

I’ve seen lots of discussions about sealing cabinets with wipe-on or brush-on poly. Personally, I would choose wipe-on polyurethane to ensure there were no brush strokes or drips. Cabinets see substantial moisture and use, so it would require quite a few coats to ensure adequate protection. However, it’s worth the extra time for a perfect finish.

You Decide

So when you’re going back and forth between wipe-on or brush-on polyurethane, ask yourself three questions: How much wear and tear does it have to withstand? How many coats do you want to apply? And what method of application do you prefer? There are pros and cons to both wipe-on and brush-on poly. But, ultimately, the decision comes down to your preference in those three areas.

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

And, if you’re not sold on using polyurethane, read some more about other wood finishing options.

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