Need recommendations for a good clear coat

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Forum topic by Chuck77 posted 11-14-2017 04:15 PM 3532 views 0 times favorited 24 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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15 posts in 971 days

11-14-2017 04:15 PM

Topic tags/keywords: best clear coat best finish favorite finish

Hi everybody,
I’m new to the group. I’ve been reading these forums for years but have never posted. So I know there’s a lot of excellent advice out there.

I’ve recently started building and selling hardwood beds online. They’re selling like hot cakes. I’m mostly using cherry, walnut, mahogany or white oak.
The beds are looking great but like many woodworkers my weak link is finishing. I don’t stain my beds, I use clear coat to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. I have been using General Finishes satin top coat to this point. I’ve been getting descent results but they could be better, especially with the price I’m charging. These are my complaints with what I’m using (General Finishes satin top coat)
It gets extremely sticky while I’m still spreading it so it becomes a sticky mess while it’s going on. The stop and start marks are really obvious and hard to avoid. It’s a gel so it goes on pretty thick so no running but it’s tough to get it nice and clean. If I don’t smooth it out perfectly it puddles up and dries and leaves build up spots in some areas. This requires sanding to fix before the next coat.
I like that it is not glossy, and it doesn’t smell too bad (this is huge with the customers).

I’m probably just dreaming but I’d like to find something that is easier to use and gives great results (for a finishinng novice like myself). I don’t have the facilities to spray at this point so hand rubbing only. I really can’t have something that smells very strong after 24-48 hours.

Anyway, if anybody has a good suggestion I’d love to hear what everybody else likes to use. Thanks in advance for any secrets you can pass along. I do appreciate it.
Chuck in San Diego

24 replies so far

View pintodeluxe's profile


6158 posts in 3590 days

#1 posted 11-14-2017 04:44 PM

Welcome to Lumberjocks!

Limiting yourself to wipe on finishes may be an issue for even a small production shop. It’s not that you can’t get a good finish with a wipe on top coat… you can. However it will take many more man-hours to complete each project.

All of the problems you mention are solved readily with even the most basic HVLP conversion gun and a mid sized compressor. Clear shellac sprays well, and looks nice on natural finishes. It is my favorite on walnut. I tried wiping on shellac and I absolutely hated it. Spray the same product and it comes out fantastic.

Pre-cat lacquer is my all-time favorite to spray. I know I’m not answering your question the way you asked, but if it were me, I’d look seriously into spraying. Especially beds! I can’t imagine wiping finish on a whole bed!

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View Rich's profile


5621 posts in 1366 days

#2 posted 11-14-2017 05:28 PM

I didn’t know for sure which GF finish you were using until you mentioned gel. GF Gel Topcoat is a nightmare in my opinion. It’s fine for small boxes and things, but as soon as you’re trying to wipe it over a large area it’s a gummy mess as you said. I tried it on a table top and was not happy. As soon as it hardened, I sanded it smooth and went back to Arm-R-Seal.

Willie is right about spraying. It’s the best way to go for production, and lacquer is a dream to work with. Since you can’t spray, I’d give Arm-R-Seal a try. It’s reasonably priced by the gallon, and with a rag you can wipe down a large surface quickly. Unlike the gel, it will spread quickly and easily unless you’re using it in a super hot and dry environment. It sands nicely between coats as well.

Any oil based urethane will retain some odor until it fully cures, but Arm-R-Seal is one of the better performers in that respect based on my experience.

Be sure to hang the soaked rags to dry and don’t toss them in a pile.

I’m curious how you’re selling hardwood beds online. Isn’t shipping a nightmare? Do you have a web site? I’d love to see your work.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View Andybb's profile


2762 posts in 1380 days

#3 posted 11-14-2017 05:31 PM

For ease, a small investment and low mess you might consider HVLP and a thinned water based poly like Varathane. The HF system is the same as the one Rockler used to sell, comes with 3 tips and works very well. You could finish with multiple coats and be done in one day. I too would love to see your online site.

-- Andy - Seattle USA

View Manitario's profile


2816 posts in 3660 days

#4 posted 11-14-2017 07:44 PM

If you’re doing this as a job, where time and efficiency are key, then I agree with the others; spraying is the way to go. What you spend in startup cost in getting a sprayer, setting up a space for it etc. will be paid back in time saved.

If you’re just doing this on the side as a hobby to make a bit of money; nothing beats the speed and easy of wipe on finishes. Probably the easiest, quickest finish outside of spraying is a danish oil type finish. Wipe on a generous coat, wait 10 min and wipe off. Repeat in 24 hours and you’re done.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View AandCstyle's profile


3283 posts in 3034 days

#5 posted 11-14-2017 11:33 PM

Chuck, I think you have 2 requirements that tend to eliminate oil based products: no smell and out the door in 24-48 hours. I like Arm-R-Seal a lot, but it is oil based and needs a week to cure enough for light use and a month for complete cure.

This means you need to use a water borne product. I haven’t used the Varathane that Andy mentioned, but it might meet your needs if it can be applied without spraying. I have used Target Coatings EM6000 and really like it because it is very forgiving as a sprayed product. However, it can also be applied with a brush. It flows out nicely to give a smooth finish and each coat “burns in” to the previous coat so there are no witness lines. If you go this route, you should also consider using Target’s WR4000 which contains linseed oil to help pop the grain. Even though contains oil it is water borne and dries quickly with little odor.

HTH and good luck.

-- Art

View Andybb's profile


2762 posts in 1380 days

#6 posted 11-14-2017 11:46 PM

I haven t used the Varathane that Andy mentioned, but it might meet your needs if it can be applied without spraying.

- AandCstyle

People speak highly of the Target products also. I have used both. The Varathane can be applied nicely with a foam brush. The reason I prefer the Varathane is because it is readily available at Home Depot and is less expensive and seems to dry quicker. You could always start with a quick wipe on coat of Zinzer shellac to help with the “pop” then apply the Varathane or the Target. I spent a week about a year ago making all kinds of OCD type comparisons here including the Target products. Made my head spin and settled on the Varathane. A lot of Luthiers use it also. It’s made for floors and is very durable. If I want a satin finish I apply a few coats of gloss then a final coat of satin.

If I’m not spraying Deft lacquer from a can on smaller projects I’ve migrated to water based finishes. Finishing is my least favorite step in a project. With wb I can be done in a day vs a week with oil based. Water cleanup and no smell. You can also add a little Trans Tint wb dye for a little color.

Also, don’t judge or mess with the finish of wb after you first apply it. Don’t go over it like oil based to smooth it out. Let it dry.

Good luck.

-- Andy - Seattle USA

View Chuck77's profile


15 posts in 971 days

#7 posted 11-15-2017 12:31 AM

Lots of good points being made here. Thank you!

The more I think about it the more obvious it becomes. I need to be spraying. Funny thing is, I already own two HVLP spray guns. I got a Husky set about a year ago to paint a lego table. Used it once and put it away. I think I’ll start getting into spraying.
So now my questions are (and some of this has probably already been answered) what type of finish should I be spraying? I don’t have the week tona month to let things cure. I typically have about 2-3 days once the building process is complete to finish it and ship it. And it really shouldn’t arrive at the customers house smelling like a chemical refinery. It sounds like I should go water-based, correct? Sounds like Varathane has some potential.

As far as a spray area goes, what are some considerations I’d need to think about? I have a nice area just outside my wood shop where I can spray. Thats probably a good spot since it’ll keep the spraying outdoors in a ventilated area and away from my machinery.

I’d imagine I’d need to cover the walls and floor in that area with a thick plastic (to keep from covering it all with overspray.

Is it best to hang the pieces while spraying them? I’d love to hear about some spray area set up ideas if someone would like to share.

While hand-rubbing finishes I use a 3M half-face respirator with an organic vapor cartridge. Would this also work for spraying? I like to play it pretty safe with my lungs.

Thanks again for all the help guys.

View pontic's profile


797 posts in 1385 days

#8 posted 11-15-2017 12:49 AM

I would also like to know this too. I think waterbase is the way to go. Will the first coat raise the grain significantly?

-- Illigitimii non carburundum sum

View retfr8flyr's profile


386 posts in 2446 days

#9 posted 11-15-2017 02:46 AM

I have had good luck using a 1# cut of de-waxed shellac for a prime coat, to raise and bring out the grain. A very light sanding to knock down any grain that raised and then shoot Target EM6000. The Shellac and EM6000 dry so quickly you can do most jobs in one day. I have a 10×10 pop up tent with sides that I use for painting. If it’s nice out, I set it up outside but if the WX isn’t conducive to painting, I just move a car out of the garage and set it up inside. It keeps overspray in check and keeps the finish clear from anything falling on it. I have limited space so this setup works well for me.

-- Earl

View Andybb's profile


2762 posts in 1380 days

#10 posted 11-15-2017 02:47 AM

Not if you use shellac or if you give it a wipe with a moist cloth then a light sand before applying.

-- Andy - Seattle USA

View DrDirt's profile


4614 posts in 4519 days

#11 posted 11-15-2017 02:24 PM

You need a thinner slower drying coat.
Most wipe on finishes – aren’t really great for large areas – - I am picturig doing a Queen size headboard with a rag.

A challenge is that you are in California, so a lot of products are not going to be available to you with the VOC requirements. But as you already see – - the stops and starts show up in your finish… so “Fast Drying” is your enemy – - the faster it dries, the worse that problem will be.

I would get a pint of GF Arm-R-Seal,

Marc – The woodwhisperer – -did a ‘Wiping Varnish Shootout’ and looked at performance, clarity, durability and blotching etc…. I have and like Waterlox… but I think when I run out – I am likely to change to General Finishes.

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

View DS's profile


3503 posts in 3197 days

#12 posted 11-15-2017 02:36 PM

+1 for pre-cat lacquer and spray on finishes.

The flash out is about 15 minutes and sanding and re-coat in 30 minutes.
It’s a good idea to cure out 24 hours before shipping so most of the out-gassing is done.

Every major manufacturer I’ve seen uses either pre-cat lacquer, or conversion varnish for production finishing.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View Lazyman's profile


5446 posts in 2164 days

#13 posted 11-15-2017 02:41 PM

I recently sprayed (cheap HVLP) a General Finishes water based poly on a headboard I refinished and worked great. Definitely a timesaver if time is money and the quality of the finish was much better than using a brush. I think I did 2 or 3 coats a day if I recall. However, for a high-end product, I would personally want a hand rubbed finish such as Tried and True Danish Oil or Varnish Oil. Takes about 10 times longer (more coats and 24 hour drying time) so not great for high volume but results in a less plastic look in my opinion.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View DrDirt's profile


4614 posts in 4519 days

#14 posted 11-15-2017 05:23 PM

Spraying large items, takes some skill – but it is the way to go in production…

However I have never had a problem with runs, sags, or Orange Peel, in a wiped on finish.

If you are looking for (or your customer wants) a ‘wood’ feel… they will like the results/look of the wiping varnish.

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

View Andybb's profile


2762 posts in 1380 days

#15 posted 11-16-2017 04:23 AM

It sounds like I should go water-based, correct? Sounds like Varathane has some potential.

- Chuck77

Correct IMO. Water based. If you already have an HVLP you are good to go. Like I said, Home Depot carries Varathane but nothing wrong with other products. 3-4 coats in a day and you are done. I like to wipe on some Zinnser shellac first then smooth with a white scotch brite pad then wipe down with a moist rag. If you want a satin finish use gloss on all the coats then use satin as the last coat. After letting it harden overnight I like using brown then white scotch brite pads on a random orbit sander then buff with some automotive paste wax with a cheap Harbor freight buffer. I’m no expert but that is what works for me. Practice the entire process and learn your technique on some similar sized scrap. Here is a page with spraying techniques and patterns by Charles Neil. As far as a spray area goes, use your best judgement.

PS…I like to thin the Varathane with this stuff when I’m spraying it. Also available at Home depot.

-- Andy - Seattle USA

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