This is 14 Easy Tips for Using Wiping Varnish, your guide to getting the best out of this fantastic wood finishing product. Wiping varnish is a very easy beginner finish, and it creates a look that is very high end. I’ll show you everything you need to know to start finishing like a pro. Enjoy.
Wiping Varnish is a Great Beginner Finish
Wiping varnish is a great beginner finish for a lot of reasons. Not only does the finish look outstanding, but it’s also very easy to apply. This is great news for beginners, because you can get a professional look very quickly and easily.
The reason wiping varnish is so easy to work with is the recipe. The only difference between wiping varnish and regular varnish is the amount of thinner. More thinner means slower drying, but also much easier application.
You can apply wiping varnish with a folded cloth or rag. This is much different than traditional varnish that requires a brush. The beauty of applying with a cloth is you can create a very smooth surface without any brush marks.
This style of application is where beginners can be very successful. If you can wipe an even coat of finish on the surface of your project, and let it dry, you pretty much have everything you need to be successful with wiping varnish.
See Also: 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing
The Beauty of Wiping Varnish
One of the big attractions to wiping varnish is the beauty of the finish itself. This is one of the most beautiful finishes that you can possibly work with, and you will see it immediately when you apply your very first coat.
Wiping varnish is a close to the wood finish, which means the finish doesn’t stand out very much. Rather than looking obviously like a coating on the surface, this finish tends to look more like a natural part of the surface itself.
This is also part of what gives wiping varnish very professional look. Close to the wood finishes are very natural in appearance, and they also look like they are much more difficult to apply than they are.
This makes you look more like an experienced wood finisher, even if you are not. Finishing itself has a lot of scope, but if you focus on finishes like this, you can do tremendous work without very much of a learning curve.
Where to get Your Own Wiping Varnish
Wiping varnish is sold in a lot of places, this includes physical stores that you can walk into you, and stores that are online. Most of the time, the product will not be sold under the name wiping varnish though, so you have to do a little research first.
One of the secrets to look for on a can of varnish is the drying time. The drying time should be several hours, even into the 6-8 hour region. This is because of the large amount of thinner that’s in the product, which allows it to be applied by hand.
That leads us to the next secret, which is to look for a varnish that can be applied by hand with a cloth. Traditional varnishes do not allow this type of application because they dry too quickly, and leave sticky areas on the surface of your project.
Those products work best with a brush, or spray equipment. When in doubt, you can always use products like: Waterlox, Arm-R-Seal, or Wipe On Poly. There are others of course, and if you have a particular brand preference you can see if they make it as well.
If you would rather save all the trouble, just pick up this wiping varnish from Amazon, and it will work really well. This is the kind that I use, and I’ve been using it for very long time. It will make you look very professional, and you will be amazed at how easy it is to work with.
Wiping Varnish Tips
Now that you know what a wiping varnish is, and how to get it, it’s time to go into the tips to make you successful. Even though this is an easy finish to apply, there are some best practices to follow in order to get the best results.
Each of these is important, and typically any tip that you find comes from a mistake that was made, so learning from tips is very beneficial. The more mistakes you can avoid while reading, the better, and it will mean a lot less waste of time in the shop.
Here is the list of tips so that we can become familiar with them, and I’ll go deeply into each one of them further down in the post. They are all very easy to incorporate, and will get you on the way to applying a fantastic finish that you’ll be very proud of.
- Prepare the Surface Really Well Before Finishing
- Finishes Magnify Problems
- Swirl the Product Instead of Shaking
- Apply Very Thin Coats
- Use a Clean Cotton Cloth Applicator
- Make Your Own Applicators for Less
- Buy the Right Sheen for Your Varnish
- Allow the Full Drying Time Between Coats
- Help the Coat Dry Faster With a Few Tricks
- Wipe off the Surface and Coat Again
- Evaluate After a Few Coats
- Don’t Over Coat the Project
- Close the Can Between Coats Every Time
- Finishing the Finish as an Optional Step
Prepare the Surface Really Well Before Finishing
The first part of a successful wiping varnish finish doesn’t actually have anything to do with the wiping varnish at all. It has to do with the surface of your project. You probably heard it 100 times, but it’s worth saying at least once more.
You’re finish is only as good as the surface to which it is applied. If you apply a finish to a lousy surface, you can only expect lousy results. It’s not going to make it better, no matter how much you do with your finish.
Thankfully, surface preparation isn’t very difficult. The thing that stops most people from preparing the surface for finishing really well is time. Surface prep takes time, and that means it can get kind of boring.
This is where most woodworkers give up. It’s not because they lack the skills to prepare a good surface, it’s because they lack the patience and will power. Take the time to prepare your surface well, and your finish will have the best chance to look outstanding.
See Also: 17 Important Tips on How to Sand Wood
Here are some tips to preparing your surface for finishing:
- Fill in any large void’s or gaps with wood filler and sand flush.
- Start with aggressive sandpaper to remove scratches and defects.
- Progress to finer sandpaper in order to remove all visible scratches.
- Work on one area of the project at a time. This helps build momentum.
- Discard sandpaper after it becomes worn or clogged, because it’s less effective.
- Sand most projects down to 220 grit, or 320 if you like.
- Blow off or wipe down the project to remove all sawdust and check for scratches.
- Address all of the scratches and recheck until they are all gone.
- Do one last final wipe down to remove all sanding dust before finishing.
Finishes Magnify Problems
The problem with wood finishes in general is that they don’t hide problems, they magnify and enlarge problems. This is where surface preparation is very important, and is definitely not something that you should skip.
One of the worst things that could possibly happen is that you apply a finish to a porous surface, and when it turns out poor you feel like you are not a very good wood finisher. This is of course not true, you’re just not a very good surface preparer.
This is similar to thinking you are not very good with a hand plane because you’ve never used a hand plane with a very sharp iron. Using a dull iron can make you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere with a hand plane.
Applying a finish to a poor surface can make you feel the same way. Without understanding how important the surface is, you can end up thinking that you are not a good finisher, which is definitely not the truth.
That’s my final plea to get you to spend time preparing the surface before you spend even one second applying the finish. I promise, it’s well worth your time.
See Also: The Secret to Wood Finishing
Swirl the Product Instead of Shaking
Wiping varnish needs to be mixed prior to application. There are both solids and liquids in the formulation, and the solids have a habit of clustering at the bottom. Before you apply it, they need to be evenly distributed throughout the liquid.
Finishes are a little different than stains, and it’s very important that you don’t shake them in order to agitate the contents. It’s far better to swirl the can and incorporate everything into solution that way.
When you shake a can of finish, it causes tiny bubbles to be created. These tiny bubbles can sometimes be so small that you don’t see them, and they stay in the finish for a very long time.
What happens when you apply the finish is that these bubbles interfere with that application process. They end up staying under the surface, and cause problems with the way the final finish looks.
With the wiping varnish it can be a little bit easier to deal with bubbles, because you wipe on a very thin layer of finish. In general though, make it a habit not to shake any of your clear finishes and you won’t have to worry about which ones are better or worse.
See Also: Easy Wood Finishes for Beginners
Apply Very Thin Coats
If you only get one thing from this entire post, then this needs to be it. If you only do this one thing right, then pretty much everything else will fall into place and you will not have to worry about applying a very good looking finish.
Apply thin coats. Read that over 10 or 20 times if you have to. Apply very thin coats that almost feel like you are wiping everything off the surface. It should almost be like you are just trying to get the entire surface evenly wet.
Don’t look for a film or a layer to be on the surface of the wood when you apply very thin coats using this method. Since the coat is very thin you will not be able to see a visible layer, only a difference in tone due to the coated area being wet.
Don’t feel like you aren’t applying enough product, you definitely are. This is the long game approach to applying a good finish. New finishers and impatient finishers slop on very thick layers, thinking that they are getting ahead of the game.
Not only is this not true, it’s actually counterproductive. Very thick finishes take a much longer time to dry, and that’s if they even dry at all. When that happens, you might have to remove the finish with a chemical stripper, and the minutes you saved turn in to hours you’ve lost.
Do yourself a favor right from the beginning, and promise yourself that you will apply thin coats when you are using your wiping varnish. This applies to many other finishes as well, and it can be the one thing that makes you look like a professional wood finisher the fastest.
See Also: 7 Ways to Get Better at Finishing
Use a Clean Cotton Cloth Applicator
Wiping varnish is best applied with a clean cloth. You can purchase special applicator pads if you want, but the finish is not that fussy. If you have some clean white cotton cloth available, like an undershirt, then you have all the finishing tools you need.
Depending on the size of the project, you can use a larger or smaller pad. Don’t make a gigantic pad however, because it will encourage you to hose your project with finish, and that’s definitely the exact opposite of what you just read.
For most projects, a pad that ranges from 2“ x 2“, all the way up to about 4“ x 4“ is all that you will ever need. Besides, anything larger than that becomes difficult to coat with finish before applying that finish to your project.
See Also: Understanding Wood Finishing
Make Your Own Applicators for Less
In my shop, I finish most projects with a pad that is about 2“ x 2“, and made by folding over a piece of cloth that is about 8“ x 8“. This makes a nice little bundle that you can grab with your fingers, with a nice flat space for wiping against the wood.
Cut yourself a piece of cloth that is 8“ x 8“. Fold the left and right ends into the middle, and then fold the top and bottom ends into the middle. Repeat this process a second time, and you will have a tall bundle that’s about 2“ x 2“.
The height and the thickness of the bundle is actually a good thing. The layers of fabric underneath the surface will hold varnish, and you will be able to actually dispense a little bit more as you go by applying more pressure.
Also, the thickness of the bundle allows you to grab a portion of the applicator without getting the finish on your fingers. You should be wearing gloves anyway, but the less sticky substance you have on your fingers the better.
One of the easiest ways to get a large volume of cotton cloth and expensively is to recycle some of your old undershirts. Cut away any sections that have deodorant residue on them or that are overly Dirty. From what you have left, you can cut out squares for pads.
Another thing that you can do is head to a fabric store and buy a couple yards of clean white cotton cloth similar in feel to a T-shirt. This soft cloth is excellent for making finishing pads, and a couple yards can last you a very long time.
See Also: How to Store Wood Finish
Buy the Right Sheen for Your Varnish
One of the nice things about wiping varnish is that you can select your sheen right on the can when you make your purchase. Instead of having to polish out of finish to get a different looking sheen, all you need to do is pick the right can from the start.
For most projects, a flat or satin is perfect. Unless you were intentionally going for a very high gloss and shiny look, it’s best to use flat or satin. Most furniture that you own is finished in this sheen, and it looks very good.
Finish sheens range all the way from dead flat to very high gloss. There are several stops in between, and when in doubt take a look at a sheen guide in order to get an idea of how glossy the layer will be on your project.
Select the gloss level that makes the most sense, and buy that product. This will cut out a very large amount of work in polishing the finish simply by making a two second decision before going to the cash register.
Allow the Full Drying Time Between Coats
Getting back to being impatient, just like applying very thick coats in order to save time is actually a waste of time, coating again before the first coat is dry is also a waste of time. Make sure to let each coat completely dry before moving to the next.
Wiping varnish has a lot of thinner in the mixture. That’s one of the secrets to how it works, and how it’s such a forgiving finish for woodworkers. That finish takes a lot more time to evaporate than if you are used to working with the traditional varnish.
The drying times that you are accustomed to are far longer with a wiping varnish, and the effects are just as negative if you were to coat again to quickly. Instead of rushing the process, just give as much time as the manufacturer recommends before applying another coat.
Don’t worry though, because wiping varnish is meant to be a close to the wood type of finish, you don’t actually need to apply very many coats to get the look. Even though you might be waiting a little longer, the job is still shorter in general.
Help the Coat Dry Faster With a Few Tricks
Though it is very important to wait for each coat to dry fully before applying the next coat, there are some things you can do to speed the process along. These are not a method of cutting corners, but a way to encourage the natural drying of the varnish.
Finishes in general dry faster and better in places that are warm and that have a low amount of humidity. They also dry better in a ventilated area that has good circulation of fresh air around the project.
You can create these ideal conditions in your shop and it will help your wiping varnish dry much better in between coats. Even the small steps make a big difference. Consider warming the room a little more than normal, or finishing indoors.
Some outdoor shops can be prohibitive to the finish drying in any reasonable amount of time simply due to the weather. If you enclose the space enough to make it warmer and dryer, it can perform better.
Obviously you need to take into account ventilation and air movement, which can simply be an open window to allow fresh air in, and a small fan to keep the air moving. This will help keep you safe from fumes, and also provide circulated air to help the finish dry.
Don’t take this to the extreme though. A room only has to be about 10 degrees warmer than normal in order to have a significant effect. A small dehumidifier can also reduce the humidity in the room, and a small fan is really all you need for airflow.
These steps encourage the finish to dry better by creating an environment where the solvents evaporate much easier. After all, that’s really what happens when you finish dries, the solvents simply evaporate way, leaving all of the solid material behind.
Wipe off the Surface and Coat Again
Most wiping varnishes can be coated again without the need to do anything to the previous coat. The only thing that is important to do, since the drying time is so long, is to wipe the surface before applying the next coat.
Especially if you are finishing in your shop, after waiting six hours for the finish coat to dry there can be quite a bit of dust accumulated on the surface. You definitely don’t want to mix that with your next layer of varnish, so it’s important to dust the surface.
You can either do this with an air line, or a soft cloth. The goal is to simply remove the dust, which is all you need to prepare the surface for the next coat. Some polyurethanes will ask that you lightly scuff with steel wool between coats, and if that’s the case go ahead.
It’s important however that you realize that the entire world isn’t applying very thin coats like you know how to. Because of this, you’ll want to very lightly use the steel wool instead of using normal pressure like if you were to have applied a thicker coat.
The reason to use steel wool in between coats is to create a microscopic scratches on the surface for the finish of the new coat to flow into. This creates a mechanical joint between the two layers, and can help them stick together better.
Again, with wiping varnish being such a close to the wood finish, and since you are applying extremely thin coats anyway, you shouldn’t have to steel wool at all for the first few coats.
Evaluate After a Few Coats
After you have applied 2 to 3 coats, allow your piece to dry for several hours and then go back and check on the progress. At this point, look for signs that the finishing process is basically done, and that you have a nice even coating over the entire project.
During this evaluation, look for areas that may need more finish, have too much finish, or if there were any mistakes made in the process. You want to address all of these by either sanding and removing them, or applying more finish as necessary.
In most cases, if you’ve been applying thin coats and working your way around the piece carefully, there should be nothing to address. It’s also at this phase that you should decide whether or not you are happy with the thickness of the coat.
Don’t Over Coat the Project
The thickness of the coat itself is very important. Not only do you want a finish that is strong and reliable, but you also want an even look. On top of that, having chosen wiping varnish, which is it close to the wood finish, it needs to look natural.
Typically after the first few coats, you will have everything you’ve ever wanted in a finish, and a very natural look. However, if you want a little thicker of a layer, then go ahead and apply one or two more coats the same way that you did the first few.
Complete your evaluation after those coats have dried, and decide if you like the look. At this point there should be plenty of finish on the project, probably even a little bit more than really should be given the goal of this type of finish.
Wiping varnish should look very natural, almost like it’s part of the wood itself. After you apply your first few coats, you should have this look. Going for anything thicker or more plastic looking is actually a job for a different finish.
Trust me when I tell you that less is more with wiping varnish. Allow yourself some time to get used to the pace with the finish that is on it, and you will really like the look.
Close the Can Between Coats Every Time
Another tip that’s helpful when working with wiping varnish is to close the can in between coats. Wiping varnish does take a long time to dry, however even with an open can, or a partially cracked open a can, the product itself can begin to dry.
You can leave the can open the entire time that you are applying the finish. After you are done, replace the lid, and either hammer or screw it back in place tightly. This is important for a lot of reasons, and will keep your product fresh.
Partially dried wiping varnish will actually start to perform more like varnish. Regular varnish doesn’t have the same amount of thinners, so it won’t wipe on the same way, and it wont level out the same way.
Since you bought wiping varnish to begin with, and you obviously have an interest in applying to wiping varnish because you’re reading this whole post, then it’s important not to accidentally remove the best qualities of a wiping varnish by leaving the lid off.
See Also: A Beginners Guide to Woodworking
Finishing the Finish as an Optional Step
If you did everything right up to this point, you should have to do nothing to make your finish look any better. The surface should be smooth, and the finish should already look awesome. The product itself is great, so your finish should look great too.
There are however some among you that may want to take your finish to the next step, and that next step is bringing out even more gloss. Remember, if gloss is the goal, then you should pick a glossy varnish right from the store.
The process of buffing or polishing a finish will only work as well as the starting point of that finish as far as the sheen level goes. This means if you start with a flat, you are going to have a lot of work to get up to a high gloss.
It’s much better to start with a high gloss wiping varnish, and then come back with buffing wheels and compounds to make it even glossier. With the right polishing, you can actually make this finish look like it’s still wet.
One of the easiest ways to do this is with a product called the Beall Buffing System. This is what I use in my shop, and it’s been with me for many years. You can either use a small motor to turn the buffs, or if you have a lathe you can use it to provide the power.
I’ve written extensively about using buffing wheels and compounds to finish your projects, and to make the existing finish even better. Take a look at how to buff wood to a high sheen and you can see the product in action as well as a video.
See Also: How to Buff Wood to a High Sheen
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know all the wonders of using the wiping varnish, it’s time to take action. This is an amazing product, and if you want to be able to apply a very good looking finish without a lot of effort, then it’s definitely the product for you.
I love easy to use finishes. One of the most frustrating things for me as a new woodworker was all of the hype that comes with wood finishing. The people that guard the secrets to wood finishing definitely make it out to be far more difficult than it really is.
The truth is that there are a lot of easy finishes to apply, and just because they are easy doesn’t in anyway mean that they are inferior to a different finish. There are actually great finishes that perform at high levels that are very easy to apply. Wiping varnish is just one of them.
Now, hop on Amazon and buy yourself a small can of wiping varnish, and when you get it to the shop try it out. I recommend that you take a few pieces of wood of species that you commonly use, and prepare them for finishing by sanding down to 320 grit.
Apply a coat to each one of them, and let them dry for several hours before adding your next coat. Maybe go for three, but you should be able to tell after two coats how awesome a wiping varnish really is.
Hopefully, this becomes one of your favorite easy wood finish. If you have any questions. please Post a Question in the Q&A Forum and I’ll be glad to help. Happy building.
- More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
- 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
- Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
- Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post.