New Breed of Poly Gains a New Fan: Me

Over the years, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with polyurethane. Even though many readers tell us that it’s their favorite finish by quite a stretch, generally speaking it just isn’t mine.

On the plus side, polyurethane is pretty darn durable. We have two teenage kids who are hard on furniture. My wife and I are constantly hounding them to use coasters under sweaty cans of diet cola. Book bags and musical instrument cases get tossed on the kitchen table when they get home from school–and those metal hinge knuckles, zippers and buckles are anything but kind to a tabletop finish. Damp towels sometimes get hung over the backs of wooden chairs. You get the picture. If you’ve got kids or grandkids, you need a tough-as-nails wood finish if you want it to survive the long haul.

But the downsides to poly can tip the scales the other direction for me. Oil-based poly takes forever to cure, and when you’re on magazine deadlines, that just doesn’t work. It smells awful, too. You might think, well so does lacquer and shellac, but at least both of those options flash off quickly. Not poly. It seems to stink up the finishing area for days.

Poly makes my brushes crunchy, no matter how diligently I clean them, and it can be difficult to lay down smoothly unless you’re really attentive to brush marks.

Even typical waterbased poly has a couple of drawbacks: it smells like ammonia and it can make the wood look washed out when it cures. But at least it dries more quickly than it’s oily cousin.

Well, I just wrapped up a new project for our upcoming October issue of the print magazine, and time was on my side for a change. In spite of my grousing, I decided to give poly another try (durability being my biggest objective for this project), but this go-around I tried something new: Rust-Oleum’s Ultimate Polyurethane in a satin sheen. Maybe you’ve seen it on the shelves of your local hardware store or big box home center. You might even recall an eZine interview a while ago in which I interviewed the folks at Rust-Oleum about this product and the company’s other new Wood Care finishes, or a blog post from one of their recent visits to the office. So, time to give it a try for myself.

And the verdict, now that the project is done: I’m very impressed.

Ultimate Polyurethane is waterbased, but I was pleasantly surprised when I first popped the lid. The milky liquid has almost no discernible smell. I applied it in a small room of our basement, and the absence of oily solvents or ammonia was a welcomed and pleasant benefit. It brushed out smoothly while wet and proceeded to flatten out even more as it dried–another big plus! And, true to the marketing suggestion on the front of the can, it dried quickly. The company claims “ultra fast,” which for me translated to about two hours until the finish was dry to the touch. Sure beats the snail’s pace of oil-based poly.

The majority of this new project is made of cherry. So, in order to avoid potential blotching that can turn unassuming wood grain into a distracting case of the “wood hives,” I started with a wash coat of dewaxed shellac to seal the wood. Then it occurred to me that that potentially may have been a bad start to a project that would be topcoated with a waterbased finish. Shellac isn’t very resistant to water. But, my fears were unfounded, thankfully. The varnish cured beautifully and seemed to have no negative impact on the shellac underneath it. While I will say I miss some of the amber tone that an oil-based finish can impart to cherry, this Rust-Oleum product doesn’t drain the wood’s natural color dry. And the flat sheen is perfect for my application. It doesn’t look at all “plasticized.” The brush bristles cleaned up to a supple dry with soap and water.

By now you can guess that I’ll be using this new breed of poly again. I can’t attest to it being “33 percent more durable than the leading competitive product” just yet, as my kid’s haven’t given it their own style of acid testing. But if it turns out to be as tough as it is pleasant and easy to apply, this just might be a new favorite general-purpose finish of mine. So far, I’m not seeing a down side to it.

I encourage you to give Rust-Oleum’s new poly a try, and then, please post a comment to tell us all what you think of it. Hopefully, your results will be as good as mine.

Catch you in the shop,

Chris Marshall, Field Editor

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  • Chris, I enjoyed your review of the Poly, but there is a better whey to achieve even better results: Vermont Natural Coatings is a locally based, environmentally sustainable business producing PolyWhey® naturally derived wood finishes without the toxic chemicals of other finishes. PolyWhey technology has emerged as a new category of wood finish that performs like an oil-based finish, applies with the ease of a waterborne but without the negative qualities associated with each. The result is a naturally durable, safe and easy to use finish that meets the highest professional and environmental standards.

    I’d love to put some in your hands.
    David Dillon

  • Hi Chris,
    polyurethane is indeed of great use! Thanks for sharing on the post!
    Having worked on woodworking projects for over 15 years, here are some tips that i would like to share for best usage of polyurethane-

    1. You do not need to use a sanding sealer when using polyurethane as this weakens the bond of finish

    2.Any surface where polyurethane is to be applied should be clean and there should not be any dirt, dust and lint. The best way is to wipe the wood with denatured alcohol prior to application. Do make sure its completely dry before applying the polyurethane

    3 Stir but do not shake the polyurethane so as not to create air bubbles

    Good luck!

  • Tung

    Chris, I really enjoyed your article. I love using poly for a super strong durable finish. I built an 8′ long computer desk 22 years ago and finished it with polyurethane. After 3 kids’ daily use and two now off to college, you would think the desk is brand new due to the durable finish protecting the stain below. Am a little learry but may give rustoleum water-based a try in our elevator (small area) where smell is undesirable.

    Also, we have swedish finish on our floor. Do you think polyurethane would work well as an overlay in this application?

    • Chris Marshall

      @Tung: What is Swedish floor finish? Never heard of that.

  • Scott Robison

    And to David Dillon regarding his different whey…put some in my hands bro! It won’t go untested…I promise!

  • Rich

    How does Rust-Oleum’s Ultimate Polyurethane stand up UV? I’ve been tempted to try the product on some outdoor chairs. They will get some sun (north side of the house) and the typical almost no rain weather of Los Angeles.

    I do have some Helmsman that I was going to use, would that be better for the outdoor environment?


  • AlanIBOX

    Can you spray the Rustoleum? Can it be thinned?


    • Chris Marshall


      I’ve not tried spraying the new water-based poly, but I’m sure the technical hotline at Rust-Oleum could answer that question for you. The can does specifically state NOT to thin the product. Best, Chris

  • James

    I’ve used this poly for a dining table several months ago and loved it. It’s been the easiest poly to clean up spills and sticky messes from our two kids. It goes on very smoothly and as opposed to oil-based it’s very easy to see the cloudy/milky areas so that you can ensure an even coat of finish every time. The legs of the dining table that I made were turned and I didn’t have any difficulties getting and even coat even in the intricate areas.
    1. Soap and water clean-up – which actually leaves brushes like new.
    2. No smell – at least very little
    3. Won’t combust as oil-based poly’s can
    4. fast dry time

    1. Doesn’t brighten the wood as oil based poly does.
    2. I didn’t start using it sooner

    I’ve switched to Rust-Oleum’s line completely now as I feel much safer using it. My wife is always concerned about the chemicals I use in finishing and as my work shop is attached to the house it is a great concern. I switched completely now because it’s much easier to apply and get a great finish and faster dry time reduces dust on the surface of a project during drying; as a bonus I’ve reduced the amount of highly flammable chemicals dramatically.

    I recently completed a stepping stool with storage for my 3 year old with Rust-Oleum’s “soft touch” poly. This will be a true test of it’s durability in comparison with other finishes.

  • Linda U.

    I am sanding my floors back down to bare wood. My house is old and I don’t think this has ever been done before. I will not be staining the floors.
    Anyway, my question is, do you think or believe Rust-oleum’s Ultimate Polyurethane in a satin finish would be good to use on the floor or is it better to only use on furniture and other such items that are inside a house?

    • Chris Marshall


      That’s a great question, but it’s one better answered by the help line at Rust-Oleum than me. Give them a call, and best of luck on your floor refinishing project!


  • Ree

    My husband and I just built a 9′ dining table using reclaimed barn wood, which we planed. We really wanted a smooth matte finish; a finish that looked as if it’d been worn that smooth by years of bread-making and long dinner conversations. Basically we wanted the look of a wax finish with the durability of poly.

    We used this product and have loved the results. We applied 5 coats total, which we had to apply inside the house (thank you, odorless Rustoleum!). Because we wanted it completely smooth, I lightly sanded after the first 3 coats. (The grain really rose after the first coat which, I admit, was very frightening, but I put on my big girl panties and pressed on. The grain rose a little after coat #2, and hardly at all after coat #3.) And, since we used the Matte version, I even was able to very lightly sand after the final coat, just to remove any random brush texture.

    I was shocked to achieve the exact look I wanted with this product! (I’m hoping my light sanding won’t break down the product’s durability.) Also, due to the quick drying time, I accomplished it all in less than 24 hours!

    Just wanted to add my success story for others considering this product.

  • Mark

    I’ve recently used their Ultimate Varnish over pigmented shellac for outdoor adirondack chairs and a dining table. I sprayed it with an Earlex HVLP 5500 with the 1.5 needle and the results were great. I applied multiple thin coats and they were dry to to touch in less than an hour. I can’t comment on the durability since they have not been in the elements very long. I expect I will scuff sand each year and apply a fresh coat.

  • AC

    Polyurethane will not hold up to UV. UV resistant polyurethanes are called or known as SPAR Varnishes or SPAR urethanes. Typically used for windows and sills or exterior furniture. Becuase they are softer and more felxible due to temperature changes in climate, they are not recommended for siding of a home or fences. Re-application usually has to be done anywhere from 9-18 months depending on the exposure to the elements.

  • Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a
    paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally confused .. Any ideas? Many thanks!

  • Bob S.

    Hi Chris,

    I’m really interested in trying this product. I usually use brushing lacquer, but the fumes knock me out.

    The big question – can you use water-based polyurethane over an oil-based stain?

  • Excellent Article! I have a small wood furniture business. I use a lot of figured curly maple and apple. Both have extremely beautiful grain; but require the right finish to get the real beauty.
    After years of oil-based polyurethane use with your same mixed feelings I decided to give this a try also about the time this article came out.
    I haven’t gone back to oil-based yet and don’t intend to.
    I did notice also that I lost the deep golden amber of the oil-poly that enhanced the chetoyance in the wood.
    After research and experimenting, I’ve found that I can have the best of both by brushing on some BLO, letting it cure for a day or so then re-finish sanding and following with 4-5 coats of Rustoleum’s Water Based Gloss Poly with light, ultra fine sanding in between. I used to hate having to apply a lot of coats of oil-poly because it took forever, like a week or more and that meant I had to keep my shop completely free of dust for most of that time also, which meant I couldn’t work on anything else.
    I used it on a coffee table in our living room and I have two young, very rough children that are anything but careful with it.
    It’s only been a year; but the table looks more or less like new. No need for coasters and we even often use ceramic plates on it without scratching.

    My biggest tip would be to always use a high quality brush for finish coats. cheap brushes are fine for the first coat as it will mostly get sucked into the wood anyway and is harder on brushes (I leave live edges on many of my tables) but use a high quality brush on the rest. Well worth the cost. Extra bonus, this poly is super easy to clean off your brush. As mentioned even with diligent cleaning, after using oil poly a brush was never really the same. Cleaned brushes after using this are almost as good as new, certainly can be used over and over again with excellent results.

    Thanks for the great article Chris!

  • Hi. Great article! How work this product work on a kitchen counter? Specifically how is it affected by water, heat, food…etc? Thanks!

  • Peter

    I worked very hard refinishing a dining room table. The table looked beautiful right before the polyurethane was applied. I used Rust-Oleum and the highest quality 100% natural brush one could find, and to be honest, I couldn’t be more disappointed with the finish. Please don’t waste your time with this product. I ended up refinishing the entire top and using Minwax poly to finish the job. Good by Rust-Oleum, never again.

    • Glen Danielsen

      Brother Peter, just curious here: how many coats did you apply? Any light sanding between early coats? Just wondering if this poly was given a fair shake.

  • Mr. Timm

    In reply to Linda, Rustoleum does make a poly that is specially formulated for floors. And Peter – can you be more specific about why you were disappointed? It may be that you were expecting a different finish… ?

  • bob L.

    Used it for the first time during a re-do of the bedroom, made my own trim for windows and doors etc out of cherry I had band sawed up off my property. First I stained the wood with Minwax. I had serious doubts upon opening the can and looking @ this milky watery stuff. Surprise for me it went on easy and left no brush marks as long as I went with the grain. It dryed fast so allowed me to keep the project going forward with no hang ups like you get with oil based poly. Very little ordor and clean up so easy it was scary. I used a gallon on trim and one raised panel door, need to get more as will do the head board and bed frame on the next part of my project. Those wil be made of oak so looking forward to how that finish turns out. I must say I was very satisfied with poly and will use again.

  • Richard

    I’m building drawers with cherry fronts and have been very pleased with this product. I apply one to two coats of gloss poly followed by a final coat of satin. Heavy application of poly moving a dense foam brush slowly across the wood works well. As stated, it does self level.

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  • Robyn

    I’m very late to this conversation, but I’m hoping you can help with a question. Do you know how well this product works over paint? I’m redoing my kitchen cabinets, and have been practicing on other pieces. I’ve been using Crystalac Super Premium satin top coat and am very frustrated. It’s bubbly and streaky – I’m using a high-quality brush. I’d prefer not to have to buy a spray gun for this project. I appreciate any advice you can give me. Thanks!!

  • Kate Jacobs Spak

    I purchased a table from Restoration Hardware it has metal legs and the top looks like an aged barn wood. It is pretty rough. I can tell that it will absorb liquids right away and they will stain the top. Since it looks like a dull, crude wood I want to maintain the look but l would like to seal it so it’s safe to sit glasses on it. An interior designer said that she heard there was a polyurethane finish that is dull and adds no sheen to it. Any suggestions for such a product?