How to Seal Wood and Furniture for High Traffic Areas

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Painting and upcycling furniture have become very popular in recent years. As well as distressing and using chalk and milk paint to do so. A lot of people have awesome projects that they want to enjoy, possibly for many years to come.

But what can you do to prevent them from elements, heavy use, and life? How to seal wood/furniture for high traffic areas that they last?

When should you seal wood/furniture

Many paints on the market will not need a top coat and will give your surfaces a beautiful, hard finish. The interior/exterior hard-surfaced enamel or mineral paint would be excellent. General finishes have self-sealing milk paint, but this actually is an acrylic, mineral paint rather than a natural milk paint that comes in a powder form.

Sealing furniture is essential in several cases. If you’re using chalk paint or traditional milk paint, applying a top coat is crucial for the paint to stay intact. The same goes for using a stain on raw wood. Unless it’s a self-sealing type, you should seal it to protect the wood. Even if you not using any finish like paint or stain, the raw wood should be sealed as well.

What should you use to seal wood/furniture for high traffic areas

We now know that you should use a top coat to seal your furniture, but not all sealers are equal. The question, we want the answer to, is:

 What to use for high traffic areas such as tabletops, desktops, kids’ furniture, and any other places that will get a lot of use?

Wax Vs. Poly For Durability

While using wax to finish a painted piece has its perks, it won’t be a good idea to do it in this case. Wax gives you a finish no other topcoat will, but it doesn’t work at all for high traffic surfaces. Enters water-based poly. It’s durable, doesn’t yellow, and comes in a variety of sheens-flat, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. 

Unless you use dark wax to antique the painted surface, I’d always go for water-based poly. Hey, you can even use wax over the poly to add another layer of color if you want. Just remember to use flat or any low sheen poly and apply wax as the last coat.

You may be interested in:
How To Stain Wood – The Ultimate Guide For Upcycling and Pallet Projects
How to Paint Furniture – the Ultimate Guide on Upcycling
What is Chalk Paint and How to Use it – a Beginners Guide
Removing Paint from Wood– Tips, Tricks, and Techniques

What else can I use?

If you using chalk paint, Annie Sloan has a chalk paint lacquer that you can use for surfaces like kitchen cabinets, etc. It comes in two sheens-gloss and matt. Another one is a Though Coat from Miss Mustard Seed, which is basically water-based polyurethane that dries to a matt finish.

I also found some great info that you can use a water-based wax, like Dixie Bell’s one and then their Clear Coat, finishing with Gator Hide. This combination will give you super strong protection and easy clean-up. Just keep in mind that the wax coat has to be fully cured before applying the clear coat.

Using Polyacrylic and Sheen Changes

When using poly, especially with dark-colored paints, you have to keep in mind that it can alter the paint color. In some cases, it will make the paint look darker in other even a bit cloudy. Always test if possible, of course.

Flat vs. high gloss vs. semi-gloss

When choosing your finish, you should also consider the sheen. Most brands offer a variety of choices, from flat to satin to semi-gloss and gloss. The glossier the sheen, the more durable the finish is, but choosing a high gloss finish is not always desirable.

For chalk type paint, I’d go with at least 3 coats of a flat finish. Unless you want it to have some sheen or the piece is going to be heavily used, then use a satin or semi-gloss.

Best brands of Poly for high traffic areas


Fusion Mineral Tough Coat

This is a water-based matte wipe-on poly. After stirring gently, use a lint-free cloth to apply at least 2 coats. Although it gives you extra durable finish, it’s not recommended for medium or dark colors as it will come out streaky. 

In this case, you can either use the natural stain and finishing oil or go for the “Tough Coat sandwich,” where you apply another coat of paint on top of the though coat finish. This makes the paint super durable and fantastic for very high traffic surfaces.

Rustoleum Chalked Protective Topcoat that you wipe or paint on.

 This is a water-based wipe-on finish for chalk painted surfaces. It gives you extra protection and dries to a matte finish. You’d need 1-3 coats for the best results. 

Although most users have great results with this finish, some of them reported yellowing of the paint(even the Rustoleum chalked paint) or paint cracking.

And while following the manufacturer’s directions will end up with desired results in most cases, some pieces of furniture are harder to work with. Especially upcycled ones that haven’t been properly prepped.

General Finishes Poly Acrylic –  Flat out flat or High Performance 

  Flat out flat is a water-based top coat for chalk or milk paint. It mimics the look of a wax, and although it’s great for busy areas, it’s not as durable as GF High Performance finish.

The latter comes in a flat finish as well, and it’s recommended to apply at least 3 coats. It can be brushed, rolled, or sprayed on.

If you have experience with using a sprayer, I’d suggest checking out the Enduro Water-Based Clear Poly. It’s a high-performing commercial-grade topcoat that will give you tough and abrasion-resistant finish.

It comes in flat as well, so no need to compromise to use glossier sheen. But if you ever need to, it also comes in satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.

Minwax Poly wipe-on and regular polycrylic

If you’re looking for a budget option, check out these two topcoats. Both water-based. The wipe-on version comes in satin and gloss and the regular one in ultra-flat, matte, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. 2-3 coats are recommended.

Word of caution, though. Some users reported this topcoat turning yellow and streaky on white or pale paint. It’s difficult to find a reason behind this as different paint brands have different ingredients. In some cases, a chemical reaction with these ingredients can cause the finish to yellow. You should always test if possible.

Benwood Stays Clear by Benjamin Moore

This one is an acrylic polyurethane that comes in flat, low lustre and high gloss. It can be brushed on or if diluted by 10% works fantastically in a sprayer. Hard-wearing, durable, and non- yellowing. 

It’s water-based, so easy to clean-up. It’s one of the best quality topcoats on the market, but there are a couple of drawbacks, though. The first one is availability. You can only buy it from Benjamin Moore stores. Otherwise, you can find several online stores that sell it as well. The second one is the price. It costs around $40 a quart. Ouch!

Miss Mustard Seed’s Tough Coat

This is another excellent topcoat for high traffic surfaces such as tabletops, seatings, doors, and even floors. All you need to protect your piece from general wear and tear marks, food stains, or water damage.

It’s a water-based polyurethane and can be applied by roller or brush. Typically needs two coats with 2-4h dring time in between, and it dries to a matte finish. 

The only thing that needs consideration is that it can look cloudy on dark rich colors, and it’s even more expensive than the Benwood finish.

SUPERIOR PAINT CO. Top Coat Sealer

This is a company I came across during my research on chalk paint brands. It offers a variety of products needed for DIY painting and upcycling, including their own recipe paint. 

The topcoat comes in true flat and semi-gloss in a pint, quart, and gallon size. It’s a professional-grade, eco, child, and pet friendly. It’s water-based and designed especially for furniture and cabinets.

The true flat doesn’t have a sheen at all, and for high traffic surfaces, you’d need at least 3 coats. You can either brush it on or dilute it by 10% and use a damp cloth to wipe it on. Or use a sprayer for even faster application. 

The only thing that scares me off it’s the price – $60.95 for a quart(!). You can buy it a smaller size to try it out, but this doesn’t come cheap either- $34.95. 

Chalk paint lacquer by Annie Sloan

This topcoat comes from the inverter of the chalk paint – Annie Sloan. It’s a water-based polycrylic with built-in UV protection. It’s a hardwearing varnish that comes in matt and gloss finish. It’s excellent for any kind of high traffic surfaces like tabletops, kitchen cabinets, and even outdoor furniture. And it’s classed as toy safe as well.

It’s perfect for sealing chalk painted surfaces but cannot be used on wax. You can use a brush or roller to apply, and for even finish, 10% dilution is recommended. 

For more robust, extra durable finish use 1-2 coats of gloss and then finish with a 1 coat of matt. Similar to Miss Mustard Seed’s Tough Coat, the Matt lacquer should be used sparingly over darker colors. It’s mostly because a build-up of flattening agents can give a white haze to the finish. 

You should always patch test the lacquer on wooden surfaces as it can draw tannins or stains from the previous finish to the surface, causing yellowing. If that happens, seal the surface with shellac or stain blocker before painting.

The link above is from one of the online retailers that sell this lacquer but if you want more choice you can find the nearest Annie Sloan stockist here.

Summary

Protecting your upcycled projects is crucial if you want to enjoy them undamaged over time. The super hard and durable finish will prevent dirt, grease, scratches, stains, and it’s easier to clean too. While wax has its advantages and I’d still use it for specific projects, I’d recommend sealing the high traffic areas with a good quality poly finish in a sheen of your choice. 

I hope you enjoyed this article and that it helped to answer your questions about how to seal wood/furniture for high traffic areas. However, if you have more questions, just leave a comment below, and I’ll try to help you as best as I can. 

Don’t forget to pin this article to your furniture upcycling tips board! Thanks! :)

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