How Many Coats Of Wipe-On Poly?

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In this article, find out what wipe-on poly is, how it compares to traditional polyurethane, and how many coats to apply for your next project. We’ll also cover some tips and tricks for working with wipe-on poly and how to make your own. 

What Is Wipe-On Poly? 

Poly is short for polyurethane, a clear, tintable wood finish with exceptional durability and water resistance. 

Traditionally, polyurethane comes in a liquid form. It is brushed onto wood and allowed to dry, then sanded and recoated. Bubbles often form on the surface of brush-on poly, requiring sanding or tipping-off with a brush to pop them before another coat can be applied

Tidy and professional-looking application of liquid polyurethane is difficult for novices to achieve. Maneuvering a brush around the spindles of a staircase or chair back is maddening to DIYers and professionals alike. 

Hand holding a can of Polyurethane

Wipe-on poly solves both of these problems. The solvents used to make it wipeable eliminate bubbles. Because it is applied with a rag instead of a brush, there are no drips or runs to worry about. A square of cotton is much easier to maneuver around a spindle than a brush. 

Plus, you don’t have to bother with cleaning up the brush after applying the poly.

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Where brush-on polyurethane needs to dry for six to 24 hours before it can be recoated, one of the major benefits of wipe-on poly is: it can be recoated after just two or three hours. 

Coats of Wipe-On Poly vs Coats of Brushable Polyurethane

When applying traditional brushable polyurethane, the number of coats required depends on what kind of poly you are applying, and what outcome you desire. 

Polyurethane can be either water or oil-based.

  • With oil-based polyurethane, two or three coats are required to form robust protection from damage, scuffs, scratches and moisture.
  • Water polyurethane is thinner and builds more slowly as a result. Most projects require five to six coats of water poly in order to match the protective qualities of oil-based versions. 

Wipe-on poly is always made from oil-based polyurethane, with thinners added. This means it goes on in thinner layers and dries more quickly. 

To achieve the same coverage as a single coat of oil polyurethane, three coats of wipe-on poly are needed. Therefore, plan on applying at least four coats of wipe-on poly. You may need as many as six coats for objects or furniture that sees heavy use. 

Because the dry time of wipe-on poly is significantly shorter than either oil or water based liquid polyurethane, the total time needed to achieve appropriate coverage is much shorter. 

When To Use Wipe-On Poly

Use wipe-on on poly to coat cylindrical surfaces such as spindles, balusters, and chair or stool legs. 

It is ideal for beginners because it doesn’t drip, bubble, or run. It’s easy enough to work with, even young people can successfully apply wipe-on poly with appropriate supervision. 

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One of the best qualities of wipe-on poly is how little clean-up it requires. No brush washing required! 

Gloved hands applying Wipe-on Poly

When To Use Liquid Polyurethane

Wipe-on poly is applied with a rag, so each stroke is done by hand. For small projects, hard to reach areas, or wooden cylinders, this is not an issue. 

If you need to cover a large surface, such as wooden floors, a paint roller and traditional polyurethane is better suited to the job than wipe-on poly. 

When To Use Spray Polyurethane

Spray your polyurethane when you’re working with intricate wood furniture with a lot of angles, or if you have a lot of wood pieces to finish at one time.

Spraying polyurethane is relatively simple provided you have the correct equipment.

How To Apply Wipe-On Poly

  1. Prepare your workspace. Lay down a drop cloth or resin cloth to catch any spills or splashes. Pour some of the product into a clean plastic container. Shine a bright light horizontally across the surface. 
  2. Choose your applicator. Cotton t-shirts cut into squares are a popular option. The important thing is that you choose a lint-free cloth, so you don’t leave behind a trail of fuzz on your freshly finished wood. 
  3. Apply the polyurethane. Dip the applicator into the poly and squeeze out any excess. Wipe the finish onto the wood, moving in the direction of the grain. The surface of the wood should look uniformly wet. The light will reveal any uncovered patches. 
  4. Allow to dry. About two or three hours after applying the first coat, you can apply a second. For the best results, lightly sand or scuff the first coat before  applying the second. 0000 steel wool or fine-grained sandpaper will prepare the surface to accept the next layer of wipe-on poly. 
  5. Build the finish. Repeat steps three and four until you’ve reached the level of coverage you desire. Six to nine coats of wipe-on poly are needed to provide the same level of durable protection as two to three coats of brushable oil poly. 
  6. Rest the finish. Wait 24 hours before using the finished surface, and treat it gently for the first week. Wipe-on poly takes about 30 days to reach full hardness through curing. 
Gloved hands folding a piece of white cloth

Tips for Success With Wipe-On Poly

  • The key to success is in applying multiple thin layers. Polyurethane, whether wipe-on or traditional, is a buildable finish. Thick layers can cloud or obscure the grain of the wood and make your project look like it’s coated in plastic. 
  • Don’t stress about the first coat. Wipe-on poly soaks into the wood more than liquid versions, leaving a patchy and unevenly covered surface. As you continue to build the finish, this patchiness will disappear. 
  • Don’t store wipe-on poly in plastic for more than a few days. The solvents that make this product wipeable can start to degrade plastic after that time. 
  • Don’t apply more than you need. Don’t flood the wood with poly or leave excess liquid behind. 

How To Make Your Own Wipe-On Poly

Wipe-on poly is sold in hardware stores, but you can also make your own. To make wipe-on poly, combine one part oil-based polyurethane with one part mineral spirits. Water-based polyurethane can not be used to make wipe-on poly. 

Conclusion

Wipe-on poly is made from oil-based polyurethane with a solvent added. It is applied with a rag rather than a brush. Because it is thinner than oil-based polyurethane, more layers are needed to achieve the same coverage. Plan on six to nine coats of wipe-on poly to achieve the same coverage as two to three coats of brushable polyurethane.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.