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How to Seal Wood – 3 Popular DIY Products Explained

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August 25, 2023
Zoe Hunt

After you’ve built your beautiful new DIY furniture, it’s time to finish it! You can choose to stain it, paint it, or leave it natural to completely customize the piece to your style preferences. 

Regardless of which finish you choose, the final step in your DIY furniture project is to seal your wood. In this post, we’ll cover why it’s important to seal your wood furniture and talk through 3 popular sealing options among the DIY community: polycrylic, polyurethane, and finishing wax. 

By the end of this post, you’ll understand some of the pros and cons of each of these options and know which sealer to use on your next project. 

how to seal wood text overlay on image of polyurethane, polycrylic, and finishing wax cans

Do I need to seal my DIY woodworking projects?

If you are staining your wood or leaving your piece natural, you’ll definitely want to seal your project to keep it looking like new for as long as possible. Here are just a few benefits to sealing your wood: 

Increased Durability 

When it comes to sealing wood, this is the benefit that people think about most often. Sealing your wood can help protect against spills, stains, and scratches to keep your DIY furniture looking like new for longer.

Protect Against Water 

The finishing options we’ll share today don’t fully waterproof your wood, but they do offer some protection against water by creating a barrier between the wood and the liquid. As we mentioned earlier, sealing your wood can protect against spills. You’ll still want to wipe any spills up, but rather than instantly starting to absorb into your wood, your sealer will add a protective coat that prevent the liquid from immediately absorbing, giving you time to grab a towel to wipe up the spill.

water sitting on surface of wood that has been sealed with Polycrylic
water sitting on wood sealed with Polycrylic

Easier Cleaning 

Don’t bat an eye at this benefit! I know it might not sound that impressive, but trust me, having a sealed surface makes cleaning so much easier. 

Not only does the coat protect the wood from your cleaning products, it also makes it so much easier to wipe down and dust. 

For the first year or two that we tackled DIY projects, no one told us the importance of sealing our wood (or sanding, but that’s a story for another day). Whenever we go to clean those OG pieces, the duster inevitably snags and the furniture just doesn’t feel (or look) nearly as clean. 

Free download wood sizing cheatsheet

Custom Appearance 

The finishing options we’ll discuss today all give you a slightly different look. You can strategically use different sealers to achieve the exact look you’re going for. 

Polycrylic and Polyurethane also come in a variety of different sheens. You can choose if you want to add a high gloss finish to make a statement, or maybe just a little sheen. 

Even if you choose say an Ultra Flat Polycrylic, the sealer automatically gives it a more finished and polished look. It prevents your wood from looking dull. 

applying Clear Ultra Flat Polycrylic to DIY end table

But what about painted projects? Should you seal painted wood?

When it comes to paint projects, we generally opt for a high-quality enamel paint and choose not to seal our projects after painting. If you’re looking for added durability, you can choose to seal your painted projects. 

Pros, Cons, and When to Use Popular Wood Sealers 

There are a lot more wood sealers on the market than what we will share in this post, but we will cover the 3 most commonly used products among DIYers. We use one of these three options on approximately 99.9% of our indoor projects. The only thing we ever really use beyond these options is Waterlox – and that’s only when we need a food-safe finish! 

Polycrylic 

Polycrylic is my go-to sealer for a variety of reasons. First, it dries quickly so that I can stain and finish sealing my projects all in the same day. 

Second, it dries clear. When I say “clear,” I want to manage expectations. It will ever so slightly darken the color of your wood, but it will not yellow over time. Because it doesn’t yellow or have an amber hue, this is often what I recommend when people stain or paint something white and want to seal it. 

applying Polycrylic with Purdy XL brush to Minwax 2024 color of the year Bay Blue

Pros of Polycrylic 

  • Quick drying
  • Dries clear and won’t yellow over time 
  • Easy cleanup – just use soap and water to clean off brushes 
  • Lower odor
  • Super versatile – can be used over paints and stains 
  • Beginner-friendly application (it’s much more forgiving and easier to apply than Polyurethane)
  • Good, durable protection 
  • Available in wide variety of sheens from ultra flat to glossy

Cons of Polycrylic 

  • Requires multiple coats (3 is usually recommended)
  • Need to watch for drips when applying 
  • If applied too thick, can leave a white haze 

When to Use Polycrylic 

  • My go-to for indoor furniture projects 
  • Light wood tones or white colored projects

A common question I get asked about Polycrylic is… can you use it over an oil-based finish? The answer is yes! I know it seems like it wouldn’t mix well, but you CAN use Polycrylic over an oil-based stain. In fact, we use an oil-based stain and then top it with Polycrylic on the majority of our DIY projects. 

Polyurethane 

Another popular finishing choice is polyurethane. We tend to reserve our use of polyurethane for projects where we use a dark stain and want to add even more depth and color to the finish. Traditional oil-based polyurethanes add an amber hue to your wood and continue to amber over time. 

Out of the options we’re sharing here, it is the most durable, making it a great option for things like hardwood floors that see a lot of traffic. 

More recently, water-based polyurethanes have come onto the market. Water-based finishes will not add an amber hue to your projects as the oil-based finishes do. 

We’ve tried a few water-based polyurethanes over the years, but generally still prefer polycrylic if we want that crystal-clear finish. There’s nothing wrong with them, that’s just our preference. 

Pros of Polyurethane

  • Very durable
  • Available in satin to glossy finishes
  • Ambers over time for a richer color (may be a con depending on the look you want)

Cons of Polyurethane

  • Requires multiple coats (3 is usually recommended)
  • Strong smell 
  • Requires minimal spirits to clean up 
  • Requires 4-6 hours of dry time between coats
  • Requires slightly more skill to apply and get even 
  • If applied too thick, finish will be sticky 
mineral spirits bottles
You’ll need to grab Mineral Spirits to clean oil-based finishes.

When to Use Polyurethane

  • High-traffic areas where you want maximum protection 
  • Want to add more depth and warmth to the color of your wood 

Wax 

Wax is a great finishing option for lower-traffic furniture pieces that don’t get touched as often. Wax is as durable as polycrylic or polyurethane which is why we reserve the use for less-touched furniture items. 

When wax is an option though, we do love using it. It’s very simple to apply and only requires one coat. You also don’t need to be as meticulous when applying because you buff off the excess as the final step. 

Waxes are also great if you want some unique finishes. My favorite wax has been discontinued, but it was a white grain highlighting wax. It looks incredible on black furniture like this entry table or even on lighter furniture like this DIY shutter sideboard.

sealing black stained wood with white finishing wax

You can also use darker waxes for a more antiqued look. We actually used a darker wax on this DIY dresser to help add a little more color to the wood grain.

Pros of Wax

  • Beginner-friendly application 
  • Generally only requires 1 coat 
  • Soft-to-the-touch finish 
  • Can add unique finish to a piece – lots of types available!

Cons of Wax

  • Least durable of the options listed here 
  • Requires more regular maintenance and re-application 
  • Not suitable for high-touch furniture

When to Use Wax

  • Furniture you don’t touch as often (think: decorative pieces, accent furniture)
  • Want a specific look (grain highlighting or antiqued look can be achieved with wax)
  • Looking for a smooth, hand-rubbed luster
Minwax finishing wax cans stacked on top of each other

Tips for Applying Sealer to Wood 

Now that you’ve decided on which sealer you want to use to protect your furniture project, it’s time to actually seal it! 

Regardless of which sealer you choose, make sure to wait the recommended dry time on your stain or paint before moving onto the sealing step. You’ll also want to read and follow the application instructions on the particular brand of sealer that you chose. 

If you decided on a polycrylic or polyurethane, there are a few general best practices to keep in mind while sealing your wood. 

  1. Stir before applying. Don’t shake your sealer or you may get bubbles in your finish. 
  2. Watch for drips along the way and apply even coats. 
  3. I’ve found the most success starting in the middle and then working my way out towards the ends. After finishing a section, lightly go over the piece all the way across while holding your brush at a 45-degree angle to minimize brush strokes. 
  4. Between each coat, let it dry the recommended amount of time and then lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe with tack cloth to remove any lingering dust before applying the next coat. 
  5. For an extra smooth finish, sand very lightly with 320, 400, or 600 grit sandpaper after your finish coat. 
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Summary of How to Seal DIY Wood Furniture 

After staining your DIY furniture projects, you definitely want to seal your wood to make it more durable, easier to clean, and to get a more custom look. 

There are three very popular ways to seal wood among the DIY community: polycrylic, polyurethane, and wax. You can use polycrylic or polyurethane on any indoor DIY project, while wax should be reserved for furniture pieces that aren’t touched as often. 

When choosing between polycrylic and polyurethane, it’s really a matter of personal preference. Polycrylic is fast-drying, dries clear, and comes in a variety of sheens from ultra flat to glossy. It’s not quite as durable as polyurethane though. 

Polyurethane on the other hand is great for high-traffic areas and pieces that need a lot of protection because it is very durable. The standard oil-based options amber over time, adding more depth of color to your projects. It does require several coats, has a longer drying time, and a pretty strong odor. 

Choose which sealer you want to use based on the final look you’re going for and how durable you need it to be. Polycrylic is durable enough for the majority of DIY projects, so don’t be afraid to use it on things like a dining room table! 

Have any more questions about polycrylic, polyurethane, or finishing wax? If so, drop them in the comments below! 

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