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Wipe-on or Brush-on Polyurethane: What’s the Difference

Polyurethane is one of the most common, durable, and best all-around finishes for the everyday diy-er. It’s relatively easy to apply, provides excellent protection, and gives the wood a beautiful luster. Depending on the project, I use either wipe-on or brush-on polyurethane on most of my work. I used brush-on poly for my coffee table and the lid of the blanket chest but decided to go with wipe-on poly for the mountain bookshelf and rustic mirror. Some of that was due to what I had in the garage … some of it was due to how many coats I wanted to apply and the final use of the project. They both provide the same protection, so the significant differences come down to method of application and number of coats.

Wipe-on or Brush-on Polyurethane

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Brush-on Polyurethane

Brush-on polyurethane provides excellent protection in just a few coats. However, it can be difficult to apply without brush marks and drips. Often, it is best to use brush-on poly for exposed flat surfaces that will see significant wear and tear, such as table tops. You still have to take care to avoid brush marks, but it is relatively easy to apply on the flat surface and will seal the project for significant use in as little as three coats. There is a little longer dry time between coats of brush-on poly (4-6 hours), but it’s pretty much a wash when you consider how many more coats of wipe-on poly would be necessary for the same amount of protection.

Wipe-on Polyurethane

Wipe-on polyurethane is simply standard polyurethane that has been thinned with mineral spirits. The advantage: there’s no need to worry about brush strokes, drips, or reaching difficult places. Simply dampen a lint-free cloth, wipe on, and apply the next coat after only 2 hours.

So what’s the downside?

It takes about three coats to build up the same cover as one coat of brush-on polyurethane.

In the interest of efficiency, it is best to use wipe-on poly on surfaces that won’t see quite as much wear and tear, such as furniture legs, trim, bookshelves, etc. They need some protection but won’t see as much abuse as a table top. A few coats of wipe-on poly are sufficient to protect and seal the wood and give it a nice finished look.

What about something like cabinets?

I’ve seen lots of discussions about sealing cabinets with wipe-on or brush-on poly. Personally, I would choose wipe-on polyurethane to ensure there were no brush strokes or drips. Cabinets see substantial moisture and use, so it would require quite a few coats to ensure adequate protection. However, it’s worth the extra time for a perfect finish.

You Decide

So when you’re going back and forth between wipe-on or brush-on polyurethane, ask yourself three questions: How much wear and tear does it have to withstand? How many coats do you want to apply? And what method of application do you prefer? There are pros and cons to both wipe-on and brush-on poly. But, ultimately, the decision comes down to your preference in those three areas.

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

And, if you’re not sold on using polyurethane, read some more about other wood finishing options.


Tuesday 22nd of June 2021

I am using a waterbased poly over my chalk painted project and have used two different brands of brush on that are creating streaks. The paint has cured for 3 days. I want to try a wipe on but minwax poly wipe on's flatest finish is satin. Can I wipe on the regular minwax wb poly in the can?


Wednesday 7th of July 2021

You'll have to thin regular poly in order to wipe it on. You can thin it with mineral spirits


Thursday 4th of March 2021

I used a water based stain on the banisters and wood beneath the balusters. The wipe on poly between the balusters is streaked and looks awful. Any way I can fix it?


Monday 15th of March 2021

Most likely, you'll have to sand the streaks off and redo it. It's hard to say exactly without being there to see it.

Mahbubur Rahman

Tuesday 9th of June 2020

This is great! Which gives a smoother fnish? wipe-on poly, or brush on poly?


Thursday 11th of June 2020

I usually do a coat or two of brush on, lightly sand with high grit sandpaper, and then finish it with wipe on poly. The wipe-on poly is thinner and wipes on super smoothly!


Wednesday 6th of May 2020

Can you brush on a few coats of polycrlic then finish it off with a couple coats of wipe on poly?


Tuesday 12th of May 2020

Yeah I do that quite a bit to get a really smooth finish.


Wednesday 2nd of October 2019

Can you brush-apply water based wipe-on poly?


Friday 4th of October 2019

I think so. The wipe-on stuff is typically just thinner but the same ingredients and all. Just make sure to use a synthetic bristle brush. Test it on a scrap piece ahead of time to make sure you like the result!

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