The Beginner’s Guide to Applying Polyurethane

March 14, 2017

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Fearless DIY. Sharing building project tutorials and interior design tips. Let’s build something beautiful together. For more projects, design tips and behind the scenes, follow me @designtobuild.nicole

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Poly, Poly, Poly, you are not my friend. (Polyurethane, that is). Isn’t it so discouraging when you’re moving along so smoothly on a project and then you hit a brick wall and have to redo everything you just did? If you’re anything like me, you’re ready to throw in the towel and scrap the whole thing. Fortunately, (or unfortunately–depending on how you look at it 🙁 ) I didn’t have that option, when my frustration hit the roof last week, while tackling this on-going office project.

I had finished painting the wall divider black and the desk countertops a grayish-taupe colorAnd I LOVED it!! I couldn’t get over the difference it made….

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

Those before and afters are night and day! Amazing! Unfortunately, I couldn’t just leave them as is. No. I had to add polyurethane to them…and that’s where it all went south. 🙁

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

Polyurethane is used to protect a painted or stained surface from scratches and everyday use. Knowing that this is a heavy-traffic area, at least 5 coats of poly would need to be applied. With a 2-hour dry time in-between each coat and the recommended, no more than 2 coats in a 24-hour period, I searched for a way to speed things up a bit. Bad idea.

I found a product by Varathane called Triple Coat Poly.

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

I am a loyal Varathane poly user and thought I had hit the jackpot on this one. I envisioned this gem of a product cutting down the poly-applying time of all my future projects. I was stoked…until I applied it and it dried.  Oh no! It looked awful! I was a bit worried as I was applying it, because it was pretty thick. But I also expected that, since it’s 3 coats in one.

Instead of drying smooth and almost unnoticeable, it left stroke marks, was too shiny and was very splotchy.

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

I was dreading the thought of having to repaint both areas again. So, I didn’t (at least not right away 🙁 ). I wondered if it was the foam roller I used. I noticed that the areas where I used my paintbrush, were smooth and looked great. So, I HAND-PAINTED both areas…so much space to cover…a lot more time than I had planned on. 🙁

But again, after it dried, same thing…stroke marks, too shiny, very splotchy. ERGH!!!

It was inevitable, I had to start from scratch. I repainted the divider black and allowed it to fully dry.

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

Then I applied my go-to, never-fails-me…Varathane Matte Poly and it looked GREAT!!!

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

I lucked out on the countertops and did not have to repaint them. I was able to just add my Matte Poly to them and they dried smooth and not so shiny. I think the before’s and after’s of the countertops are my favorite. What a difference!!

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

The beginner's guide to polyurethane

Yes, I’ll have to apply 5 single coats, but in the long run it will be so much quicker. I just wish I would have stuck with what I know, from the beginning. But, live and learn, right?

ALL of this to say, I thought it might be helpful to share a little of what I’ve learned about Poly over the years.

The Beginner’s Guide to Polyurethane:

As I said before, my favorite poly is Varathane Matte Finish Clear Poly (water-based). I also have had great results with General Finishes Poly.

Number of coats needed (dependent on the surface and the use):

  • Countertops; high-traffic areas–5+coats
  • Hardwood floors–5+coats
  • Dresser/cabinet/sofa table, etc–2-3coats
  • Coffee table–3-4coats
  • Rule of thumb: more use=more coats

Drying time:

  • 2 Hours
  • No more than 2 coats in 24-hour period
  • Allow 48-hours to fully cure after all coats have been applied


  • Small surface–QUALITY (very important), thick, natural bristle brush
  • Large surface–Quality foam roller

Sanding between coats:

  • Not sanding between coats, has always worked out fine for me.

Water-based vs. Oil-based Polyurethane:

  • Personally, I prefer, water-based. My experience with oil-based is that it tends to yellow. So, when I can I use water-based.
  • Oil-based will give a harder, more durable finish. But again, the yellowing. 🙁

I’m curious, have you ever used the Triple Coat Poly? What about oil-based poly? If so, what has been you’re experience with it? I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of it, on my part, was user-error. If you’ve tried it and it worked out great, I would love to know what you did differently. We’re in this together. 🙂

Until next time,

Happy Building (and Poly’ing)

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