POLYURETHANE AND ITS USES
Let's talk about what is probably the most widely used (by homeowners)
furniture finish today: polyurethane. It has many of the advantages of varnish, with few of the drawbacks.
Polyurethane dries more quickly than varnish, so you don't have to worry (as much) about dust settling in the
wet finish. It flows better than varnish, so brush marks are more likely to disappear. Correctly applied,
polyurethane is more durable than varnish. Many people, however, won't use it ...
The most common complaint against polyurethane is that it "looks like
plastic." Well, the chemical structure (when dry) is very close to plastic, but the reason some people get
that idea is from being told that a certain piece of furniture, such as a restaurant table top, is coated
with polyurethane, when in fact, it isn't. Since they don't like the way the top looks, and they've been told
it was polyurethane, they don't like polyurethane. Most of the ultra-thick finishes you see on commercial
furniture (furniture exposed to the public on a regular basis) is a plastic, which, strangely enough, is why
it looks like plastic.
If you take three identical pieces of furniture, finish one in lacquer, one in varnish, and one in polyurethane, no
one is going to be able to tell you which is which without testing the finish with
One other complaint against polyurethane (mainly from people like me who work
on furniture finishes) is that polyurethane is very difficult to repair, and many times difficult to remove
when stripping furniture. Well it can be repaired and it can be stripped, so that bias just reveals how lazy
(I admit it) some repairmen are!
Polyurethane lends itself to good results with a minimum of investment. It's
its own sealer, and you don't need a fancy brush to get good results. Foam brushes give great results. Of
course you can't use the brush but one time, but if you're going to put three coats on a piece of furniture,
you won't need but three brushes at, say 89 cents each? That's a lot cheaper than a $15 or $20 brush, which
you have to clean after every use. Remember I'm talking about the home owner, not the professional. The
professional will invest in the good brush, and keep it clean, because it's cheaper in the long run. But for
the do-it-yourself who's going to do one or two pieces of furniture in a year, shelling out $20 (or more) for
a brush is ridiculous.
As with varnish, work with a small area (about one foot square) and then move
on, overlapping as you go. Brush from wet to dry. In other words, brush from the wet area of finish toward
areas yet to be covered. On table tops, do the edges first and then work from the middle of the top out to
the edges. Never start a brush stroke at the edge moving in; you'll drag finish off the brush and it will run
over the edge. Again as with varnish, don't over brush. Get it on the surface, smooth it out, and leave it
alone. The few brush marks you leave will settle out if you don't keep messing with
When finishing turned legs, work around the leg, starting at the top and
working down. When finishing square (unturned legs) work from top to bottom on all four sides at once. Do the
edges of flat surfaces first, then work from the middle of the surface out to the
Polyurethane is a modern, durable finish that is easily applied by the
beginner, producing a wear resistant finish in a variety of sheens, from matte to gloss. As always, read the
instructions on the can carefully. The manufacturer knows more about his product than you do, and they want
you to have good results.