Canadian Woodworking

Finishing Touch: Waterborne finishes

Author: Carl Duguay
Photos: Rob Brown (Product photos by Manufacturers)
Published: October November 2019
waterborne finishes
waterborne finishes

Waterborne finishes have improved quite a bit over the past few years – to the point where they make an excellent finish for just about any woodworker.


In particular, waterborne (aka water based) finishes offer a lot of advantages for DIYers and hobbyist woodworkers, especially those working in small shops. You can use a waterborne finish in place of just about any other film finish (varnish, polyurethane or lacquer) on just about any wood surface (furniture, cabinetry, trim work and flooring). While it can be sprayed on, it’s likely that most DIYers and hobbyists will brush it on, which is what I do.

Starts White
Water-based polyurethane is white in the can but turns clear once it's on the wood's surface.

A Clearer Finish
Oil-based finishes add a darker, richer look to most woods, and that involves imparting a yellowish tinge to the wood. Water-based finishes don't add nearly as much yellow to the overall colour of the finished wood. This is especially important for people finishing a light-coloured wood, like the maple frame in this cabinet.

Smooth the Surface
Water-based finishes raise the grain of wood, mainly after the first coat has been applied. Sanding between each coat will smooth the surface for the next coat to go on smoother.

Brush Options
Some woodworkers swear by a foam brush when applying a water-based finish. Others prefer a more traditional synthetic bristle brush.

What is waterborne?

If you’ve been woodworking for any length of time you’ve no doubt heard about waterborne finishes, even if you haven’t tried them. Essentially, it’s any finish that uses water as a thinner and some kind of organic compound, such as glycol ether, as a solvent. If the product says to “clean up with water,” then it’s a waterborne finish. Waterborne is just another name for water based – though perhaps a more accurate moniker. Unlike shellac or lacquer, which can be dissolved, respectively, by alcohol or lacquer thinner, a waterborne finish can’t be dissolved with water.

Waterborne finishes also contain resins (along with some chemicals) that are dispersed in the water, so you’ll see these products variously labeled as waterborne varnish or waterborne polyurethane (containing a urethane or urethane/acrylic resin blend) or waterborne lacquer (containing acrylic resin). The water and solvent evaporate, and the resin coalesces (merges) into a film on the surface of the wood, which is why they’re referred to as coalescing finishes. As with any other film finish, they’re available in gloss, semi-gloss and matte sheens.

While there have been various problems associated with these finishes in the past, the new generation of waterborne finishes are pretty darn good. Manufacturers are constantly improving both the quality of the resins they use, and their formulations (the secret recipes) for blending the various ingredients, to make the finishes easier to apply, tougher, more durable, and more resistant to scratching, heat and solvents.

Advantages of waterborne

There would be no reason to switch to a waterborne finish if it didn’t offer some tangible advantages. The most important reason, in my mind, is that they offer a level of toughness and durability comparable to other film finishes. They are also a lot quicker drying so that less dust will settle and dry on the finish. You can usually re-coat your project within a couple of hours.

Waterborne finishes are also the clearest finishes you can get, and they won’t yellow over time, as is common with oil-based finishes. However, some waterborne finishes, such as General Finishes Enduro-Var now have an amber cast that mimics the traditional oil-finished look.

They are also better for your health and the environment, and are safer to use. They have very low VOC (volatile organic compound) levels, they’re non-toxic, non-polluting, virtually odour free, and they’re non-flammable.

Cleaning up after applying a waterborne finish is a piece of cake. Water, a bit of soap, and you’re done.

Some issues with waterborne

A common complaint with waterborne finishes is that they raise the grain – which shouldn’t be surprising, given that there is water in the finish. While you could moisten the wood surface to raise the grain and then sand away nibs before applying the finish, it’s quicker to use the first coat of the finish as a sealer. It’s unlikely that anyone’s shop is so dust free as to preclude denibbing between applications of finish anyway. I use P320 or P400 sandpaper between coats.

Waterborne finishes are, however, more finicky when it comes to temperature and humidity. They like to be applied when the temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees, and the humidity is no more than 70%. If your shop is too cool, turn up the heat. You can even warm up the finish by putting the can in a bucket of warm water. If your shop is too warm or too humid, add a dry-time extender or small amount of distilled water to thin the finish. You’ll find this also helps when finishing a large project. Make certain you use an extender specifically designed to work with waterborne finishes. The only one I’ve used is General Finishes Enduro Extender.

The characteristics that make waterborne finishes exceptionally clear, which is often desirable on light-coloured woods, are not so attractive on darker woods that tend to look drab. To enhance the grain you can stain or dye the wood before applying the finish, or add a dye directly to the finish.

Brush on

Because I now work in a fairly small shop, I apply finishes with a brush. I’ve found that I get much better results on waterborne finishes using a fine synthetic bristle brush with flagged bristles (Chinex or Taklon are good choices, along with Gramercy synthetic badger-hair brushes). I’ve not used foam brushes or applicator pads, so can’t attest to how well they work.

You’ll need to modify your technique a tad. Because these finishes don’t flow as well as other film finishes, and they dry very quickly, you don’t want to go back over your work. Lay down a single coat, and then walk away. Don’t worry too much if you miss the odd spot – you’ll cover it on your next application. The finish will be dry in a couple of hours, enabling you to lay down a follow-up coat. Because of their high solids content, waterborne finishes build up quite fast – typically three or four coats is all it takes.

It’s a good idea to use your brush solely with waterborne finishes, and to clean it thoroughly after each use. Work the bristles back and forth under warm water to remove the excess finish, and then add a little dish soap to the brush and work it through completely. End off by rinsing the bristles thoroughly, and wrap the brush in Kraft paper or Scott towels held in place with an elastic band. This allows the bristles to dry while maintaining their shape, and keeps shop dust from contaminating the bristles (and your finish).

Once a can has been opened, I always strain the finish through a paper paint strainer before I use it again. Any dried bits of finish that fall into the can won’t re-dissolve – they’ll just end up on your project.

Rubbing out

Just like other film finishes, you can rub out a waterborne finish. It’s best to wait at least a couple of weeks, longer if you can. I use the same technique as when rubbing an oil-based finish, except I use synthetic pads rather than steel wool and substitute mineral oil for mineral spirits. I’ve had better luck rubbing out waterborne lacquer finishes than waterborne polyurethane, possibly because there’s more acrylic in the lacquer finish.

If you’ve not used a waterborne finish before, or it’s been quite some time since you last used one, give it a try. I think you’ll be quite pleased with the results.


Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.


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  2. This is a good article and covers the basics of waterborne finishes. One quibble however is the statement that they do not yellow. Even General Finishes website strongly suggests their water based topcoats can yellow in many uses. i’d love to see an article on comparing the topcoat options and strengths/weaknesses of products available here. Thanks!

  3. Hi Carl – any thoughts on the pros or cons of using waterborne finishes on musical instruments as an alternative to lacquers or nitrocellulose lacquer traditionally used on stringed intruments?

    1. Hi Rick. Today’s waterborne finishes are very durable so I’ve no doubt they would be a suitable alternative. However, they lack the clarity of traditional finishes. I’ve no experience finishing musical instruments, so don’t want to muddy the waters. But here is a review (rather long) of waterborne on guitars that you might find interesting:

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