What is not to love about wipe-on poly? It is easy to apply; it dries quickly and just as hard as regular polyurethane, so what’s the problem?
Well, the first thing is the price. And the second thing is, well, actually, it’s just the price. For such a small quantity, you pay so much.
Luckily, if there is one thing DIYers love is doing things themselves, which includes learning how to make wipe on polyurethane yourself. This simple hack will save you a lot of time, money, and needless trips to the store.
But first, let’s go over the basics.
What is wipe-on poly?
This is a particular type of polyurethane that does just as the name applies. It is a pre-thinned version of the same polyurethane we know and love, but in a fancy container.
Unlike other variants of this product, this should only be applied by wiping with a lint-free cloth. Wipe-on polyurethane or wiping poly is too thin to be applied effectively using a brush or a roller. It is also worth noting that this type of polyurethane is meant to give a hand-rubbed look, which cannot be attained by brushing, rolling, or spraying.
While that might sound too restrictive, wipe-on finish was created for specific applications. For example, it comes in handy when:
- Applying polyurethane on vertical structures
- Working with tight curves or edges brushes can’t reach
- You are in a hurry
- To touch up minor errors
Wiping polyurethane can be used on any woodworking project, although it would be frustrating and slow on large projects.
How to make DIY wipe-on poly
Behind the mystique of Minwax’s wiping poly is a simple formula anyone can master. By learning how to make wipe on polyurethane, you can alter each batch to suit the project you are working on.
Tools you’ll need
- Oil-based polyurethane
- Mineral spirits or paint thinner
- Mason jar or plastic bottle
- Measuring cup
We are using oil-based polyurethane for this because it is the original wiping poly. Plus, water-based wiping poly can be tricky to work with, given the ridiculously fast drying time.
How to make wiping poly in 3 steps
Here are the quick steps to DIY wipe polyurethane properly.
1. Stir the oil-based polyurethane
Before you begin, you need to stir the oil-based polyurethane in the can. Satin gloss, in particular, has flattening agents that need to be mixed properly to give it an even consistency. If you don’t stir it properly, some parts of the wood will be glossier than others.
Also, you should not shake as it would introduce bubbles, which can be a nightmare to remove.
2. Pour the poly into a bottle
Once you have properly stirred your polyurethane, pour it into a water bottle, mason jar, or any other suitable container that can be tightly sealed.
This will prevent you from having to make a fresh batch every time you need to use wiping poly.
3. Pour some of the mineral spirits into the bottle
Next, you need to apply an equal amount of mineral spirits to the polyurethane. You can use a measuring cup or get an approximate mix by just eye-balling it.
This 50-50 mix is the most common ratio for wiping polyurethane, but you can use more or less mineral spirits depending on the project.
Test out the poly on a scrap piece of wood. Make sure it is thin enough to apply with a cloth but not too thick that it runs. Add more of either product until you reach the required consistency, and you’re done.
What are the different types of wiping poly?
Up until a few years ago, the only type of wipe-on finish was oil-based. Now you can also find a water-based alternative.
Oil-based wiping polyurethane finish is oil-based polyurethane that has been thinned with mineral spirits or paint thinner. It has all of the properties of oil-based poly:
- Scratch and scuff resistant
- It dries hard and is very durable
- It has an amber hue that gets darker over time
- It emits high levels of VOCs
- It is a clear coat; etc
Similarly, water-based wiping finish is thinned with water and has similar characteristics as oil-based. The main differences are that it:
- Dries clear and remains clear
- It emits lower levels of VOCs
- It has a bearable smell
In terms of durability, hardness, and protection, both types of wiping poly perform the same way.
Why should I make my own wipe on poly?
While it is definitely easier and quicker to buy it than make it, there are a few important advantages.
You save money
They say it can’t buy you happiness, but I sure am happy when I don’t get cheated out of my hard-earned money. Don’t you? As you’ll soon see, the process for making your own wipe-on polyurethane is so cheap and straightforward that it doesn’t make any sense to pay for it.
After all, you will have regular polyurethane in your shed anyway, so there’s no use buying a separate can. Sure, it’ll come in a fancy Minwax container, but that’s the only bonus.
You can mix it to your desired consistency
Every project is different. This could be due to the type of wood, the size, where the product will be placed, or how. As such, you might need to mix each batch differently.
For items that will see more traffic, you can make the consistency slightly thicker or thinner for decorative pieces. On the other hand, store-bought options only comes in one mixture. Diluting it further might thin the product too much, plus it defeats the aim of buying a pre-mixed finish.
It is a handy skill to have
As DIYers, we know that no two jobs are exactly the same. Even after all of your careful planning, you never know when you might urgently need wiping poly.
As you’ll come to realize, wiping poly can be a lifesaver even on big jobs like floors. It can provide a quick touch-up instead of having to use a roller or a brush every time you notice a minor imperfection.
So, if you need to, you can quickly whip up a batch in minutes instead of trying to order a new product from Amazon.
The disadvantage of learning how to make wiping poly is that you spent a few minutes reading an article. But, seriously, there is no downside to learning how to make wipe on polyurethane.
Why should you use oil-based polyurethane instead of water-based polyurethane?
Water-based polyurethane is much thinner than oil-based polyurethane, so it takes less effort to apply and dries much quicker. Interestingly, some professionals dislike water-based poly because it dries too quickly.
Using a wiping version will therefore be redundant. However, if you must make wiping poly with water-based polyurethane, perhaps due to breathing difficulties, you can thin it with water.
What are the advantages of using wipe-on poly?
No streaks, runs or drips
Undoubtedly, the best way to apply polyurethane to a small object is with a brush. However, regular polyurethane is notorious for leaving brush marks, bubbles, and occasional drips.
These nuisances are not present with wiping poly. Lint-free cloths don’t leave any noticeable marks. Plus, given how thin the coat is, drips don’t form, and any bubbles will disappear quickly.
It is easy to apply
Applying polyurethane is not particularly difficult, but it can take some skill to do so without leaving streaks, roller lint, or puddles. However, you don’t have to worry about that when wiping polyurethane.
Expert or not, you can get a smooth finish nearly 100 percent of the time.
It dries faster
Every artisan knows that when you don’t want tacky polyurethane, you need to apply thin coats. However, there is a limit to how thin a coat you can get with a brush or roller.
Wiping poly applies almost as thinly as water, so it dries really fast. You can expect it to be hard and ready for a recoat in 2 to 3 hours, compared to 12 to 24 hours for oil-based polyurethane.
Even fast-drying oil-based poly needs 4 to 6 hours to dry.
It can get in anywhere
When you’re working with really tight corners or crevices, applying polyurethane with a brush can be challenging or impossible. Luckily, wiping poly has no limits.
As long as your finger can get into that space, you can apply wiping poly. Plus, you can put the cloth on a smaller object to reach even tighter spots.
It isn’t as prone to dust nibs
Another common problem with applying polyurethane is dust nibs. Because polyurethane takes a long time to dry, there’s more than enough time for dust to end up in your finish. The only way to remove dust nibs is by sanding the surface.
However, since wiping poly is a thinner coat than the regular version and dries quickly, this is rarely a problem. As you also can’t sand wiping poly too deeply without ruining the prior coat, it’s a good thing dust nibs are not a common issue.
What are the disadvantages of using wiping poly?
– It is not as thick or durable as regular polyurethane
There are very few finishes that can rival the durability of oil-based polyurethane. That is one of the reasons why it is very popular. While wiping polyurethane does an admirable job of carrying the family name, it isn’t as thick or as durable as regular polyurethane varnish.
That is understandable as wipe-on finish is meant for more cosmetic applications. If all you’re doing is adding a bit of waterproofing to decorative cabinets, this type of poly is fine. But on surfaces that will see a lot of wear, you need something tougher.
If you want to build up durability, you will need to apply many coats, which then defeats the aim of using wiping poly.
– You can only use it for small projects
Wiping poly isn’t meant for dining tables, floors, or any other project that will see a lot of traffic, and this is by design.
Of course, nobody should be upset about this because that is not the intended purpose. Not that it won’t protect the surface, it will just take a remarkably long time to apply, especially with the numerous coats.
– The used rags can be a fire hazard
Polyurethane is highly flammable and can be unstable. If you don’t properly dispose of the rags you use to apply the poly; they can spontaneously combust. This tends to happen as the rags oxidize, releasing heat.
To prevent unexpected fires, put the used clothes in a metal can and fill it up with water. Cover the metal can tightly and contact your local garbage disposal company to know how to get rid of it.
What is the benefit of using wipe-on poly versus regular polyurethane?
Wipe-on Poly is easier to apply than traditional or brush-on polyurethane. It can also be used in cracks, crevices, and other difficult-to-reach areas. Wiping Poly also doesn’t leave brush marks, so you don’t have to sand as aggressively between coats.
Can I use wipe-on poly for floors?
Technically, you can, but no, you should not use wipe-on poly on floors. While it can be used to retouch floors with minor imperfections, it is not durable enough to handle floors alone.
You are better off using water-based poly for floors, as it can be applied with a roller and dries just as quickly.
Is water-based wipe-on poly any good?
Yes, water-based wipe-on poly is good. However, it is not a necessary product to have. Water-based polyurethane dries quickly anyway and can be wiped on, given how thin it is. So, a wiping version doesn’t really add more advantages.
While it is convenient, water-based wiping polyurethane isn’t a game-changer the same way the oil-based alternative is.
Do you need to sand between coats of wipe-on polyurethane?
Yes, you need to sand between coats of polyurethane, but it needs to be very gentle. Aggressive sanding will take off the thin coats entirely.
You can use 400 grit sandpaper to gently scuff the top coat. If you have heavily diluted the wiping poly, you might be better off using 0000 steel wool to lightly scuff the surface.
How many coats of wipe-on poly do I need?
You need to apply at least 3 coats of wiping polyurethane to get a durable coat. Depending on the project, you might need multiple coats, anywhere from 5 to 7. Of course, this will also depend on the mixing ratio you need.
The thinner it is, the more coats you’ll need.
To wipe or not to wipe
Congratulations, you’ve learned how to make wipe on polyurethane! Now that you know how to make wipe-on poly, you no longer have to buy the expensive branded stuff.
Remember to observe all safety precautions when applying wiping poly, especially when getting rid of
them, as the rags are highly combustible.
Now, you might be wondering if wiping polyurethane is worth the trouble since you need to apply more coats. Say no more, and look no further than our comparison of wipe on poly Vs. brush on poly for all the answers.