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How To Apply Wipe On Poly – An Easy Way To A Great Finish

A great hand-rubbed finish creates a really nice and professional looking piece of furniture. Sometimes it’s just not practical to brush on poly for various reasons. Or maybe you haven’t learned and perfected that technique. Whatever the case, you may be better off learning how to apply wipe on poly.

How to apply wipe on poly

I’ve finished most of the furniture I’ve built with wipe on poly. It’s easy and it looks great. The real downside is that the layers are so thin, it’s a slow process. I usually plan on finishing a piece of furniture for a week. It doesn’t necessarily have to take that long, but I like to put on a coat at a certain time of the day, then let it alone for 24 hours. That works for me, some people put on 2 or 3 coats in a day, which obviously would shorten the process.

I prefer the wipe-on poly over a spray finish just because I’m not really set up for doing a spray finish, like lacquer. I don’t have the required ventilation in my shop for spraying, and I don’t really have space outside my house to set up. Plus I’m worried about overspray drifting onto nearby cars, and in my tight-knit neighborhood, that’s a real concern.

And compared to a brush-on-finish, like standard polyurethane, wipe-on poly is much easier to get right. Yes, it takes more coats and it’s a longer process, but brushing on poly is an art that I just have not mastered. I’ve done it, and it comes out good. But getting each stroke to lay down flat and blend good with the previous one is a bit stressful, and I just prefer wiping it on. You really can’t go wrong doing it this way.

Here’s what I use when I apply wipe on poly to a finished piece of furniture:

  • Minwax clear gloss wipe on poly
  • Minwax satin finish wipe on poly
  • White, lint-free cotton rags
  • Nitrile Gloves (latex gloves will disintegrate during use)
  • Tupperware bowl
  • Flat sanding block (scrap piece of hardwood)
  • 1,200 grit wet/dry sandpaper

Wipe On Poly – Prep Work

First thing you need to do is prep the work area. Make sure there’s no dust on the furniture, or around it. You don’t want to stir up any dust while applying your finish.

To do this, I usually used compressed air and blow off all parts of the furniture to remove the dust. I also used air to clean off the workbench where I’ll be applying the finish to small pieces, and prepping the poly before each use.

Then I let the dust settle for an hour, and blow everything off again. Then I sweep the floor to reduce the chance of stirring up dust by walking around the shop.

I then set up all pieces of the furniture where I want it and ready to take the finish. Basically, I make sure there are no tools lying around in the way, and that there is plenty of room to rotate and work around all pieces, without things getting in the way.

How To Apply Wipe On Poly

A single layer of wipe on poly is very thin, compared to poly you brush on. So I like to apply 7 to 10 coats. Now this many coats of satin finish can make the finish look very mirky. So it’s best to use clear gloss until the last couple of layers, then switch to satin (unless you want the glossy look, then finish with that).

Holding poly-soaked rag over work piece

So the process is basically this. On day one, I take a rag and I apply a coat everywhere on the furniture. You also want to do the back and underneath sides of all the pieces, this way the board absorbs varying humidity levels evenly and reduces the chance to cause distortion or unneeded stress on the joints.

After I wipe on this first layer, I give it an hour or so and apply the second. The first layer really gets absorbed quickly, so you don’t have to wait long for the second.

Rubbing on poly with the rag

Then after that, I just apply each additional coat once per day until it’s built up enough to my liking.

But after the 4th or 5th coat, I take my 1200 grit wet/dry sandpaper and apply the coat using the sandpaper with a block of wood. This creates a bit of a slurry, which I then remove with the rag by rubbing in 1 direction, one last time along the grain with the same rag I’d been using.

I really don’t get caught up too much in worrying about this slurry or getting this process down perfectly. It’s kind of messy, and I always end up getting it splattered around a bit. But that’s just me, and the finished product still comes out really nice.

Wipe on poly on 1200 grit sandpaper with block

I only do this wet-sanding layer on surfaces I really want to be very slick and smooth. So anywhere that will get touched a lot I do this. These parts are the drawer fronts and at this point, I’ve already applied 4 layers with the rag. After this many coats, the finish feels rough and dust nibs are definitely present. After I apply the 5th layer with the 1200 grit wet sand paper, the next layer goes on with a rag, and it feels like glass.

Wipe on poly being applied with block and sandpaper

Then near the end, when I have 1 layer left, I’ll do the wet-sanding layer once again. This is usually enough to really make the final finish super smooth, and with a deep reflective sheen.

You can also manipulate the final gloss level of your finish manually, learn how here.

Final Notes

That’s my guide for how to apply wipe on poly. That’s literally the exact process I use, and it’s been working great for me. Here are a few tips that may help along the way:

Before finishing my furniture, I always sand up to 220 grit. This is plenty smooth for a great finish. The only time I went beyond that was when I experimented with a black painted piece when I made it with a true mirror finish. That required 1500 and 2000 grit wet sanding. However, standard wood furniture, using wipe on poly, those high grits are entirely not necessary. 220 is fine.

Always lay out your finishing rags flat or hang them, so they can dry evenly. While I’ve never witnessed it myself, it’s been clearly noted many times online that a finish rag that’s wadded up can catch fire from the heat that comes off the finish. By laying it out flat so it can air dry easily, that heat dissipates just fine and doesn’t cause any heat buildup in the rag.

Dust nibs are really noticeable in a finish. So do your best to keep the room entirely dust free. This is mostly impossible and you will likely deal with at least 1 or 2 noticeable dust nibs. The best thing to do is apply a poly layer with sandpaper afterward. This will knock it down and you’ll never even notice it again.

Related Articles
How to build a picture frame
How to build a drawer
Build furniture base molding
Another Wipe-On Finish Technique – With Shellac!

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About The Author
Adam has been woodworking for the last 10 years. He considers himself a 'Small Shop Woodworker' and practices his hobby in his garage. With the lack of time, space, and proper tools, he always finds ways to get great results without over-complicating or over-thinking the process. Various shop jigs, table saw sleds, and tricks of the trade have served him well. God has blessed him with a beautiful family, as well as a passion for teaching others about woodworking. You can read more about Adam here.

9 thoughts on “How To Apply Wipe On Poly – An Easy Way To A Great Finish”

  1. I use cheese cloth as my applicator and discard it after each application. I use a piece about 10 inches long. I sand between each coat very lightly to a smooth finish with progressive grits of 150, 18o,220,320 and 4oo. The boards are satin smooth or glossy but very very slick. When I sand I am not trying to take any wood off so it is very lightly. I wait 1 day between coats.

  2. I still had some runs doing this method which I have sanded but now I’m some spots I will need to touch up the paint – will this be a problem? Suggestions please

    • Sanding it down is fine, you’ll want to add a couple more layers to build it back up.
      But when you say touch up the paint, so you poly’d over a painted surface? And when sanding down you went through some of the paint? If so, yes you can touch that up.
      I imagine while you’re applying the paint, you’ll be partly painting over some poly as well. Just sand an area bigger than where you’re touching up to ‘rough-up’ the poly, and the paint can stick to it.
      Afterwards, additional poly can be applied and made smooth again.
      I hope that makes sense!

  3. great walk through! i am using minwax oil based wipe on poly on a guitar. i used a metal flake paint for color. I definitely have some dust nibs in the last coat i put on. I would say i probably have about 20 coats on there so far. I really like the idea of applying a layer with the 1200 grit. Do you think that is advisable for my project? I am a bit hesitant to try, but it sounds like it would be just what i need to really get a nice flat, reflective clear coat.

    • Johnny, thx for the kind words. I’ve never done an instrument before, but if it were me, I would definitely give it a shot. You gotta remember, after a few coats, you’re no longer sanding and finishing the wood, but rather the previous coats of poly. So you say you have 20 coats? Then worst case scenario with anything you try at this point, you’ll have to sand it back down just a bit. You’ve got plenty built up so that’s not a problem. Go for it!

  4. Thank you for sharing your methodology on wipe-on poly. I take a different approach. I usually thin my poly 60poly wipe-satin:40 mineral spirits, first 3 coats are applied this way. Then I do a damp/wet sand using anywhere from a 320g to 1000g. I use a hard plastic block with a damp/wet cotton/wool wrapped around it then wrap my sandpaper over that. Make a few uni-directional passes. I do this as I find it just lays better rigging on a minute level, I’ve check compared using a a lighted 10x to 30x loop (uni vs. bi-directional sanding strokes). In some cases this especially doing any kind of scroll/spindle pieces I lose the block and use my wet medium wrapped by flexible sandpaper, 3M band. Then I wipe the piece/section clean/dry. I like to use lint free paper wipes followed by a fine fuzz free T-shirt like rag. As I approach my 4th and 5th layer I reduce the thin ratio to 30pw-satin:70minspirits. Then followed by my wet sand technique. Followed by 6th coat at 90:10mix gloss poly. I will wet sand again-lightly, then wipe dry. Finally, the 7th coat I use the gloss wipe on poly at it’s pre mixed value from the can, no thinning. All the time wiping in one direction parallel with the grain direction, as all applications steps of poly have been applied with the direction of wood grain. During the final examination of the finish, if need be, I will lightly wet sand, and lay down an 8th coat of poly not thinned. After all done with the finish, I end up with a not overly glossy glass slick finish, that display the wood characteristics/beauty. Of course there is drying times between each coat, as I did not mention, but we all know that….hopefully. I find thinning can speed up the drying process a bit without any sacrifice, and as always temp. & humidity play a important roll as well. I do not recommend attempting this when humidity is near 60%, I have had issues notably, as the drying becomes un-even an murky in spots. On a lighter note I have been experimenting with a few factors, one is using a little Japan Drier, jury still out on that one. Secondly innovation through tragedy. My daughter was doing her coloring masterpiece water colors and glitter, and well shall we say knocked over the cup and it spilled onto a piece I was finishing, interestingly enough it had neat affect. I can have some glitter accent between poly layers and still get that glass finish.

    • Dennis, Thank you so much for sharing your method. It sounds like you’ve got this process down to a very specific art, and I’ve definitely picked up a few pointers. Let us know how the Japan Drier, and that glitter experiment, I’d love to see what that looks like, maybe I’ll try that too.

  5. Adam,
    I really like this article you have added to Pinterest. It provides a great clear concept for applying the Poly. I have a couple of questions, one may be of interest to you.
    (1). Do you ever provide a quick download for the information on Pinterest? If so, I have missed it.
    (2). Do you have adown-load access on your own site? I hate copying and pasting, because of all the extra add materials.
    (3). Have you ever tried a newer product called Poly Whey? It is one step Poly stain finish. The product is a Vermont Product. “Vermont Natural Coating. Stain and Finish”. I read the article on a site called, “Saws on Skates”. I know I m must be your biggest pest.
    I hope this may be of some interest to you.


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