From dining tables to conference tables, wooden kitchen islands, and desks, tables are where we make many important decisions in our lives. They are also the most valuable pieces of furniture in our offices and homes, second only to beds, and they go through a ton of abuse from children and adults alike.
That is why it is crucial to choose the best polyurethane for table tops to maintain their surface beauty and longevity.
But don’t fret; we’ve done all the hard work for you. All you have to do to find the right one is to read our review and guide below.
In a hurry, don’t worry…
Best Polyurethane for Table Top
- General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat – (Best for Sunny Regions)
- Minwax 33050000 Fast Drying Polyurethane – (Best for Intricate Designs)
- Varathane 200241H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane – (Best Value for Money)
- Minwax 60910000 Wipe-On Poly – (Best for Small Tables)
- Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic – (Fastest Drying Time)
- Rust-Oleum 207008 Marine Spar Varnish – (Best for Outdoor Table tops)
- General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Oil-Based Topcoat – (Best for New Woodworkers)
Best Polyurethane for Table Tops Reviews (Updated List)
When finding the best polyurethane for table tops, we considered all the important criteria, from durability to odor, drying/curing time to ease of application and even cost.
We also researched real customer reviews to make sure the products we recommend are well-loved. Here are some of the best table tops polyurethane finish you will find in the market today:
1. Best for Sunny Regions–General FinishesWater-Based Topcoat.
- Do not apply clear topcoats over bright white paint, as yellowing may occur due to a reaction to the substrate. Light color paints may also experience yellowing due to topcoat application, but it will less noticeable.
- The hardest, most durable consumer polyurethane top coat on the market today
- Dry Time Between Coats is only 1 to 2 Hours
- Interior use only
We start this list with a bang. This product was voted as the hardest topcoat by Fine Woodworking’s ‘Best Overall Choice Award.’
General Finishes makes a complete line of woodworking products, and every single one has passed numerous tests by judges, critics, professional and amateur users alike.
This water-based poly is made for interior use and is very durable. It is great for high-usage tables and can also be used on floors. Besides providing exceptional protection, this product also contains an ultraviolet (UV) stabilizer, preventing UV rays from damaging the wood or causing it to discolor.
This is very rare for an interior finish and why it is popular for people in sunny climates.
As a result of that, you don’t have to be afraid of your tables sitting under direct sunlight all day long, such as a wood kitchen table.
Such a feature makes the General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat one of the easiest to apply. Within seven days, your table should be ready for light use and cure entirely in three weeks, provided the weather conditions are in favor.
- Very durable
- Contains a UV stabilizer
- Dries quickly – within an hour or two.
- Very hard finish
- Easy to clean
- Slightly more expensive than the competition
2. Best for Intricate Designs–Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane
- This product adds a great value
- Hardest of protective coatings
- Dries fast and offers long lasting beauty on both finished and Unfinished wood surfaces
- Hardest of protective coatings
Next up, we have the cheapest on our list, but that’s only because it’s the smallest. This aerosol can of Minwax is by far the easiest and fastest to apply.
The problem with most polyurethanes is that they can only be applied by brush, pad, or roller. This is limiting when applying finish to a table with fancy curves and crevices. In other words, polyurethane was made for boring tables.
However, if you have a fancy table, this aerosol is the most convenient method of application as opposed to wipe on.
This Minwax fast-drying polyurethane provides a very hard protective coat, which lasts a long time. It can be applied on both finished and unfinished wood and is available in three sheens: satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.
As this is a fast-drying product, you can apply subsequent coats in 4 to 6 hours. You will need at least three coats of this for maximum durability, particularly on a kitchen table as it will be used a lot.
- Very easy to apply
- Dries fairly quickly
- Durable, long-lasting finish
- It can be used on tables with complex designs
- It can only cover a small surface area
- The can may sputter occasionally
3. Best Value for Money –Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane
- Protects indoor wood surfaces such as furniture, windows, cabinets, trim and more
- Water based formula dries fast and cleans up with soap and water
- Dries to the touch in 30 minutes with coverage up to 125 sq. ft., recoat after 2 hours
- Durable formula provides outstanding stain and scratch resistance with excellent clarity
- Satin finish provides a classic and natural look
When you take your time to pick out a gorgeous piece of wood for your table top, the only type of poly you would want on it is a crystal clear water-based product, which is what Rust-Oleum delivers.
The Rust-Oleum Varathane Ultimate polyurethane is a highly durable finish that can protect any of your indoor wood table from moisture, scratches, and stains. When applied, it dries very clear, so you get to appreciate the grain pattern of your perfectly finished table.
As you would expect from a water-based finish, this dries quickly. Within half an hour, it is dry to the touch, and you can apply a second coat in two hours.
In just 24 hours, your table will be ready for light use, which is three times quicker than most of the other water-based polys.
This crystal clear polyurethane is applicable on stained, bare, or painted wood surfaces. However, you should not use it on a white-painted table top, or it will yellow. This is a common problem with all water-based topcoats, not just this one, so no need to panic.
- Very fast drying time
- Low odor
- You don’t need to sand between coats
- It dries crystal clear
- You need at least four coats.
4. Best for Small Tables–Minwax 60910000 Wipe-On Poly
- Easy to apply - no drips or brush marks
- Protects wood against water, household chemicals, food stains and wear
- Provides a hand-rubbed look
- Protects against water, household chemicals, food stains and wear
- Made of a high quality oil-based polyurethane
This wipe-on poly can quickly come to your rescue during messes when working on a large project such as flooring, massive doors, or dining tables.
But, it isn’t just for cleaning up messes. It is arguably the best polyurethane for small table tops, where a brush might be too slow or a pad might be too big. Even better, it doesn’t leave any streaks or brush marks.
Not only is Minwax Wipe-On Poly very easy to use, but it also does an outstanding job of sealing tables. This high-quality polyurethane finish will protect your wood table and other furniture from water, stains, household chemicals, scuffs, and scratches.
Sadly, it does not dry clear for those who want the convenience of a wipe-on with the clarity of water-based.
One other impressive feature is how quickly it dries. After 2-3 hours, you can apply the next coat, making it just as quick as water-based polyurethanes.
The major downside is that it is pretty expensive, which is expected due to the added usability.
- Easy to apply
- It dries quickly within 2-3 hours
- Perfect for small tables
- It is always handy to keep around
- Limited application method
- Relatively expensive
5. Fastest Drying Time–Minwax Water-Based Polycrylic
- PROTECT WOOD SURFACES – Minwax Polycrylic Protective Finish protects and adds beauty to your interior wood projects, including woodwork, furniture, doors and cabinets. The clear top coat protects against scratches, spills, dirt and more.
- CRYSTAL CLEAR FINISH THAT LASTS – The crystal clear finished offered in this protective coating is ideal for use over all Minwax Oil-Based and Water-Based Stains and colors, as well as all wood species including light woods like maple, ash and birch.
- SATIN SHEEN – Give your wood projects a sleek finish with this satin clear varnish. It not only protects the natural beauty of the wood, but offers an attractive, classic sheen for a modern and subtle look. It’s non-yellowing, non-ambering and low odor.
- ULTRA FAST DRYING – Get more done with this protective poly coating. It’s a fast-drying clear coat, which allows for quick recoats after 2 hours, letting you get projects done faster. Be sure to apply with a high-quality synthetic bristle brush.
- EASY CLEAN UP – This water-based wood finish allows for easy soap and water clean-up, so you don’t have to stress about spills and big messes.
The Minwax polycrylic comes in various sizes, ranging from half-pint to a gallon, and it also has an aerosol option. To give you even more options, you can buy this product in five different sheens: clear matte finish, clear satin finish, clear semi-gloss finish, clear gloss finish, and clear ultra-flat finish.
With this much range and so many sheens, it is easy to find the one that suits your project. To top it all off, this finish offers exceptional durability and protection.
The Minwax Polycrylic Water-Based Protective Finish dries crystal clear, protecting the natural beauty of the wooden table top. The self-leveling formula makes it easy to apply.
What is probably most impressive is that this can be applied to a white-painted wood like a kitchen table or other wood surfaces without yellowing. This is rare for any type of polyurethane and requires a fair bit of patience.
Of all the polyurethane finishes we’ve reviewed, this one has the fastest drying time. Sure, you can apply another coat in 2 hours like the others, but your table top will be ready for light use within three hours and regular use in one day.
The only major problem with this otherwise near-flawless product is the price. However, with all you get, it is worth that bit extra.
- Very fast drying time – 2 hours tops
- Available in five different sheen options
- Available in a wide range of sizes
- You can use it on white paint
- Its application is limited to a brush or the aerosol
- It is quite expensive
6. Best for Outdoor Table Tops– Rust-Oleum Marine Spar Varnish
- Ideal for use on exterior wood surfaces above the water line, including trim, railings and wood furniture
- Oil-based formula expands and contracts with changing weather conditions
- Dries to the touch in 2 hours and covers up to 150 sq. ft.
- Durable coating provides excellent resistance to UV, salt and mildew
- Crystal-clear varnish leaves a beautiful gloss finish with maximum protection
If you have a table you plan on using outdoors once in a while, you need an exterior polyurethane, and there’s nothing stronger than this one.
The Rust-Oleum Marine Spar Varnish is meant for boats, so you know it is very durable. Its flexible formula allows the finish expand and contract with wood as the seasons change.
Besides being scratch resistant, it is also UV resistant, salt resistant and mildew resistant. That’s a lot of resistance in one product! This will protect your table if you mistakenly forgot it in the rain, or leave it out in the sun for months.
The manufacturer brags about this varnish being dry to the touch in just 2 hours, but that has caused a lot of misunderstanding. The surface might be dry in that time, but you will need to wait at least 24 hours to apply another coat.
Some users have reported having to wait three days for the coats to dry.
While reviews also complained about bubbles, it is likely the result of not following the instructions exactly i.e. do not thin this product.
Even though this takes a long time to put on, the end product is absolutely worth the wait.
- Good for interior and exterior wood
- UV resistant
- Salt and mildew resistant
- Extremely durable
- It takes a long time to dry
7. Best for New Woodworkers-General Finishes Arm-R-Seal
- Arm-R-Seal topcoats are made with only the highest quality urethane resin
- These topcoats are extremely durable and long lasting
- They are formulated to be wiped on with a cloth or applied with a foam brush
General Finishes really poured their heart and soul into making this beautiful topcoat. This is a tough product with a very smooth finish, and it is perfect for a dining table or a kitchen table.
It dries hard with just 3 coats and is arguably the easiest can-based finish to apply. You can wipe it on, use a natural bristle brush, foam pad or spray. Because this product is self-leveling, it is easy for anyone to apply without bubbles and streaks.
For best results, use a 100% cotton cloth when wiping on. Any other material will leave bubbles.
This protective finish is available in three sheens – satin, semi-gloss or gloss. As this is made from high-quality resin, even the satin gives a nice glow.
Once applied, you will get a hard finish that will stand the test of time. However, you have to be patient during the application process.
This is a slow-drying product and will take between 12 to 24 hours before you can apply another coat.
- High-quality resin makes the wood color pop
- Dries very hard
- Very easy to apply with a variety of tools
- Exremely durable
- It takes a long time to dry
- It will bubble if not thinned properly
What is the Best Protective Coating for a Wood Table Top?
When you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on a dining table, kitchen table or other wood surfaces, the last thing you need is water ruining it in less than a year.
The aim of protective coating is to keep the wood from abuse while also maintaining its beauty. You should also be able to restore the wood surface and prolong its lifespan. Wood, as we know, can be preserved for decades or even centuries, as long as it is maintained properly.
Different Types of Finish for Wood
There are four main types of wood finishes that can be used as a protective coating:
1. Oil-Based Finish
This type of finish has an amber hue that makes wood look richer and slightly darker. It dries clear, but gets yellower over time. It is a strong and reliable finish that can protect wood surfaces for up to a decade.
Oil-based polyurethane is for indoors, while spar urethane is meant for exterior use. See how Polyurethane compares with Spar urethane in specific areas.
- Ease of application: Moderate
- Cleaning and thinning: Mineral spirits or paint thinner
- Sheen: Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss and Gloss
- Solvent: None (it can only be removed by sanding or scraping)
- Recommended use: floors, tables, stairs, railings and fences
- Unique Property: Lasts for years without needing a recoat
- Drawback: Has a strong odor and is high in VOCs
2. Water-Based Finish
This has fast become the most popular urethane type finish because it dries very clear and doesn’t change color, except when applied over white-painted wood.
It is also very durable and, depending on the brand, can safely be applied around children and pets.
- Ease of application: Moderate
- Cleaning and thinning: Water
- Sheen: Matte, Satin, Semi-Gloss and Gloss
- Solvent: None
- Recommended use: floors and tables
- Unique Property: Dries in just 2 hours and cures in as little as 3 days
- Drawback: It raises the grain of wood, so requires more coats than oil-based polyurethane
Lacquer is a popular finish used on cabinets and a lot of high-end furniture. It is a very thin and fast-drying finish, so is usually applied by spraying polyurethane. It also requires a fair bit of skill.
- Ease of application: Difficult
- Cleaning and thinning: Lacquer Thinner
- Sheen: Low-Satin, Satin, Semi-Gloss and Gloss
- Solvent: Lacquer Thinner
- Recommended use: Cabinets, commercial furniture and fibreboard
- Unique Property: Best applied with a High Volume Low Pressure (HVLP) Gun Sprayer
- Drawback: It yellows over the years, so is not ideal for light-colored woods
Varnish is another clear protective coat similar to polyurethane. It is best suited for outdoor use as it protects against UV light. It is made from resins, oils, and solvents and is arguably the most durable finish of the lot.
- Ease of application: Difficult
- Cleaning and thinning: Mineral Spirits or Paint Thinner
- Sheen: Matte, Semi-Gloss and High-Gloss
- Solvent: None
- Recommended use: Decks and outdoor furniture
- Unique Property: Varnish penetrates the wood, instead of sitting on it like a plastic coat, which makes it extremely durable
- Drawback: It can be tricky to apply and if it’s not done properly, it is prone to cracking, bubbling and peeling
Shellac is a non-toxic wood finish made from the resin secreted by female lac bugs. It comes in a variety of finishes from clear, to amber and different shades in-between, depending on the effect you are after.
- Ease of application: Easy
- Cleaning and thinning: Denatured alcohol
- Sheen: All shellacs are glossy, but you can adjust the shine with steel wool
- Solvent: Alcohol
- Recommended use: Wooden furniture and floors
- Unique Property: Can be applied in different ways and dries quickly. You can recoat in as little as 30 minutes.
- Drawback: It is not waterproof or heat resistant, so avoid using on kitchen tables or dining tables
6. Tung Oil
This is probably the oldest wood finish in the world. Derived from the tung tree, this is an eco-friendly, non-toxic wood finish that penetrates deep into the grain of the wood.
- Ease of application: Easy
- Cleaning and thinning: Mineral Spirits or Paint Thinner
- Sheen: Pure tung oil is satin but resin-modified tung oil options are sold in satin, semi-gloss and gloss
- Solvent: None
- Recommended use: Household furniture, especially high-end furniture
- Unique Property: It is environmentally-friendly and has no VOC emissions
- Drawback: It takes about 24-48 hours for each coat to dry
What is the Best Table Finish?
Choosing the best table finish will depend on a few key factors:
- Where and how the table is going to be used.
- Maintenance. Do you want to add a fresh coat every year, or are you looking for something long-lasting?
- Your own skill level and what you can competently handle.
Taking into account the factors above, polyurethane is the best finish for wooden table because:
- It offers the flexibility of being usable indoors and outdoors
- It’s waterproof
- Doesn’t fade, and remains durable for years
- Can be used on finished and unfinished wood
- Polyurethane yields a smooth finish when using a product with self-leveling
- Polyurethane offers exceptional scratch resistance from as little as two coats
- The water-based protective poly finish is also easy to clean with just soap and water
- It comes in a variety of sheens and application options
None of the other finishes offer all of these advantages, especially when it comes to waterproofing for indoor and exterior use.
Features to Look for in the Best Polyurethane for Table tops?
Given how vulnerable a table top is and how expensive they can be to replace, it is critical to choose the right topcoat.
The most crucial aspect of finding the best polyurethane for table top might be deciding between oil and water.
So, before you choose, here are the main things to know about these two types of polyurethane.
Just ten years ago, there was no argument that oil-based polyurethane was more durable than water-based poly. And truly, oil-based was the best polyurethane finish for a wood table top, floors, and furniture in general.
However, things have changed. Research got better, technology got better, and companies got smarter.
Now, some people argue that water-based finishes are more durable than oil-based finishes. So far, we have no conclusive evidence either way. The GF water-based topcoat may be the hardest polyurethane, as they claim.
Of course, some people still argue that oil polyurethane, like the Arm r Seal oil-based topcoat, is more durable, but it’s safe to call this a tie.
2. Drying Times
This category is not a tie.
- A water-based protective finish will always dry quicker than an oil-based protective finish, just as water dries faster than oil.
- Other oil-based polys take at least 4 hours to dry, and that’s for the fast-drying variation. The regular ones can’t be recoated for at least 8 hours. And the final coat may take several weeks to dry.
3. Curing Times
This is when the polyurethane would have been fully absorbed by the wood, making it completely safe from scratches and water damage,
- Water-based polyurethane needs an average of 7 days to cure and it’s ready for light use. Give it another two weeks, and it is good for heavy use.
- Oil-based finishes need about 30 days to cure.
So, if you have a time bound project, go for a water-based formula. The water-based Minwax is phenomenally quick, as it is ready for regular use in just 24 hours.
4. Odor and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
When working with polyurethane, it is important to know what you’re in for.
- Most oil-based polyurethanes have a strong odor and release significant quantities of VOCs. So, always use a respirator and work in a well-ventilated area.
- Water-based finishes rarely smell, but there are occasional complaints of people who notice a pungent odor.
The good thing is once the polyurethane dries on the wood surface, the VOCs are no longer harmful.
5. How it Looks After Drying
When you open the can, oil-based polyurethane looks brownish, while water-based poly looks milky. But what happens after application?
- Oil-based polyurethanes don’t dry clear, despite what you might read on the can. Instead, they dry with a bit of an amber hue, though some brands are more yellow than others. As the coat gets older, it becomes even more yellow.
- Water-based polyurethane dries clear and remains clear – you can even use them on a white-painted table top.
The major knock against water-based polyurethane is the high price.
However, since water-based formula dries quickly it can reduce your work time from 4 weeks to 3. As a result, you can complete more jobs and recoup your costs.
With a water-based formula, you also don’t need to spend as much money on sanding equipment.
7. Ease of Application
If you want polyurethane that won’t stress you out during application, keep these factors in mind:
Self-leveling – A self-leveling finish means you don’t have to work as hard to yield a smooth result.
Number of Coats – How many coats would build a proper protective layer? Water-based polyurethane needs more coats than oil because it raises the grain of the wood.
Tools Needed– for example, natural bristle brush, synthetic bristle brush, foam brush, lambswool applicator, pad, cloth, spray, roller and aerosol.
Cleaning up – In case of messes, you can easily clean the water-based finishes with soap and water. The oil-based polyurethane finishes need mineral spirits or turpentine, as well as soap and water.
Need for sanding – A finish that doesn’t require sanding between coats is a woodworker’s best friend. This is more common with water-based finishes.
When you look at all of these factors, it is clear to see that water is indeed, easier to apply than oil.
How to Choose a Polyurethane for Table Top
Of all the categories we have looked at so far, the water-based polyurethanes have yielded more advantages.
It might appear that the best polyurethane for table tops would be a water-based formula. Well, not exactly.
There are still a few other things to consider, which we will discuss below, in order of priority.
Location of the table
Consider where the table is going to be used and placed before picking a polyurethane finish. For example, dining room tables and kitchen islands will endure more water spillage than a coffee table in the living room or an office table.
If there will be a lot of contact with water, you might prefer an oil-based polyurethane. Water-based polyurethane finishes often have a terrible habit of turning milky when there is a lot of water on them.
If you are going to use the table by a window that will get direct sunlight, then you need the General Finishes topcoat because of its UV stabilizer.
Size of the Table
The size of the table determines the quantity of polyurethane finish needed. The quart cans cover between 125 – 150 sq. ft, which is overkill for most tables.
For bedside tables and corner pieces, what you need is an aerosol like the Minwax Fast-Drying polyurethane.
The advantage of the oil-based Minwax is you can use it as an aerosol, can, or wipe-on poly. So, whatever the size or design of the table, this can handle it.
When you apply polyurethane finish on a kitchen table, you probably want to stick with something basic like a matte finish or a satin finish.
However, when you’re applying poly on table tops, you need it to be functional and stylish, so the sheen is significant.
There are four major sheens:
- Matte: this is the polyurethane finish with the least luster. This stain and scratch resistance finish has a dull surface look. It reflects the least light of the four. It is ideal if you don’t intend to retouch the finish frequently or if you are going to use it in high-traffic areas.
- Satin: The satin finish has a bit more luster than the matte finish. It reflects more light, showing more of the wood’s beauty and more of the scratches. It is ideal if you want to see more luster while also not having to maintain it too frequently.
- Semi-gloss: semi-gloss finish reflects a lot of light. It brings out even more of the wood’s natural look than the previous finishes. However, it also shows more of the scratches and dirt. It is a good finish for low-traffic areas.
- High-gloss: this is also known as a gloss finish and it is true to its name! It is absolutely stunning, but it will reveal scratches and stains more easily. It is best for very low-traffic areas, like a home office or a no-shoe zone.
One final sheen option is the ultra-flat, which is only available with the Polycrylic. You will find that everyone has at least satin finish and gloss finish. High gloss finish is not as common for wood tables and floors, even though it’s great for other furniture.
But which one will give a durable finish? Fortunately, all sheens offer the same level of staind and scratch resistance, they are just more visible with the shinier finishes.
How Do You Apply Polyurethane Finish on a Table top?
You can learn how to polyurethane a table top in detail, but here’s a brief guide of the process.
- Sand the surface of the table to a smooth finish
- Clean it with a vacuum cleaner or a tack cloth
- Apply the first coat of polyurethane with a brush – natural bristle brush for oil-based polyurethane or synthetic for water-based poly
- Wait for the table to dry. This will take at least 2 hours for water-based polyurethane and 6 hours for fast-drying oil-based polyurethane
- Abrade the table using 220-grit sandpaper or finer
- Apply the second coat of polyurethane
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you have a smooth finish
- Wash your tools and store the polyurethane in a safe place
Can I Use the Same Polyurethane for Table Top and Floors?
Not every interior polyurethane can be used for both table top and floors. Only the High Performance Topcoat and the Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane can be used on floors from our list.
As floors experience considerably more traffic and accidents, you need a much tougher finish than what you would apply on a table top, cabinets, doors, and other furniture.
Should I Use Interior or Exterior Polyurethane on a Table Top?
If the table is inside the house, you can use either interior or exterior polyurethane, with the former being the better option.
However, if the table is going on your deck or patio, you should only use exterior polyurethane. This is the only form of polyurethane that will protect your outdoor woodwork from rain, sun, snow, and constant temperature changes.
The only product that comes close to being suitable for exterior use is General Finishes Topcoat, but it only protects from UV, not rain.
Can I Apply a Water-Based Finish on Oil-Based Stain?
Absolutely. You can apply any type of poly on an oil-based or water-based stain, provided you follow the instructions on the can. Wait until the stain is fully cured, sand, and apply the polyurethane as usual.
What Kind of Polyurethane do You Use on a Dining Table?
You can use water-based polyurethane or oil-based polyurethane on a dining table. If the dining table is a light-colored wood, you might prefer water-based poly as it doesn’t yellow.
What is the Best Polyurethane for table Top
The best polyurethane for table tops is the Minwax Polycrylic.
Following our comparison of oil vs water poly, the water-based Polyurethane came out on top, and this one is the best of the bunch.
Polycrylic offers an unmatched range of both sheens and sizes, making it perfect for any type of project. The only negative is that it is slightly more expensive than its competitors.
However, with all of the advantages it gives, including its blazing quick drying and curing times, the price is worth it.
Read more: Can I put Polyurethane over Polycrylic