Which comes first wax or poly? As a furniture painter, I’m constantly asked the question of whether you can apply wax over polyurethane or polyurethane over wax. While it reminds me of that age-old question about the chicken and the egg, there is an actual answer and a few rules to the questions of wax over poly or poly over wax.
Poly vs. Wax
In most instances, a single protective topcoat is all you need; but sometimes there’s reasoning behind applying both wax and polyurethane protective finishes.
Polyurethane is an oil-base liquid hardens in less than 24 hours. Polyurethane is one of the best and most protective topcoats available on the market and can last for years (50+). However, even the satin polyurethanes are have a glossy finish.
There are water-based polyurethane’s (some known as polycrylics), but for simplicity purposed in this article, we’re discussing oil-based polys.
Wax is an oil-based paste that cures in 24 hours. Wax doesn’t harden to the capacity that polyurethane does, although it does protect furniture. Wax soften soften in direct sunlight or near heat so you do need to be careful not to place furniture in direct sunlight or next to radiators.
Wax has a soft sheen and buttery-smooth finish. It does wear down over time and may need to be re-applied after a few years. Dining tables may require re-application after just 3 to 5 years while dressers and coffee tables may only need re-application after 10 years or more.
Sometimes, people want the protection of polyurethane but the soft sheen and buttery feel of wax. So what is the correct way to use both wax and poly?
Poly First, Then Wax
This past Fall I refinished this antique dresser with a black Polyshades stain. Polyshades stain has an oil-based polyurethane built right into the mix. Another topcoat wasn’t required, but I wanted a soft sheen and buttery feel that only comes with a waxed topcoat.
The rule of thumb is to apply poly then wax. Wax should always be the final topcoat applied to a piece of furniture.
I once painted a cabinet that crackled after each layer of paint. I sealed it with poly, re-painted, and the paint continued to crackle. Apparently the cabinet had years of buildup of furniture polish (aka wax) and was not allowing the paint and poly to properly adhere.
If you prefer to poly a piece of furniture that already has a waxed finish, you must first remove the wax by wiping it down with mineral spirits or a TSP solution. Be sure the area is very well ventilated, wear protective gloves, and I always wear a P-100 rated respirator mask.
In this stained dresser example I showed you how we applied a wax over a polyurethane topcoat. You can also use this method over paint.
Have you used wax over poly? Please share your story in the comments.
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