Introduction: How to Apply Wipe-On Varnish

About: Project videos and tutorials that show the creation of home decor and furniture. I specialize in DIY woodworking, building custom items for clients, friends, and family, showing a variety of woodworking tools…

This video shows how I apply a wipe-on varnish finish for woodworking projects. I discuss what a varnish is and how to tell the difference between varnish and a pure oil. I discuss Danish Oil, Tung Oil Finish, and Wipe-on Poly, all commonly used varnishes.

General Finishes’ Arm-R-Seal is my go-to woodworking finish so I specifically show how I apply it in order to get a beautiful finish, without streaks or runs. If you want to know more about the product, you can find it here:

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Here are the common supplies that I use for applying wipe-on varnishes:

  • Nitrile Gloves
  • Mineral Spirits
  • Clean Shop Towel or Cotton Rag (old T-shirts work great!)
  • Varnish / Wipe-On Finish of choice
  • Small, disposable container
  • 600 Grit Sandpaper
  • 2000 Grit Sandpaper

Step 1: Sand Your Project

Begin by sanding your project thoroughly. You can opt for using a handplane and/or card scraper. The lower the sandpaper grit number, the more aggressive it is. Sand your project, working your way up in grits from 80 to 220 grit sandpaper.

Step 2: Clean Your Project

Using a shop vacuum, thoroughly vacuum all surfaces of your project to ensure no dust remains on the surface. Then, with a clean rag, apply mineral spirits on the rag and wipe down the project, ensuring you cover the entire surface and corners. Depending on how dirty your project it, you can repeat this step multiple times. Ensure you are wearing Nitrile gloves while using mineral spirits and varnish. Latex gloves may dissolve with these chemicals.

Step 3: Apply Varnish

Varnishes generally require stirring or shaking prior to use. If your varnish is in a paint-style can, open the lid and stir it thoroughly. If in a can with a pop top, leave the lid closed and shake it for approximately ten seconds. Pour some finish in a clean, secondary container and place the lid/cap back on your varnish can.

Fold a clean shop towel or cotton rag to form a small rectangle. Dip the rag into your container. You do not need much; only enough to apply an even, wet amount that covers the surface of your project.

Moving with the wood grain, gently wipe the surface, using overlapping strokes. You don't need to scrub the varnish into the grain. Applying a lot of pressure could result in streaks. Ensure the entire surface is covered and that you didn't miss any spots. However, refrain from wiping over an area after you already applied finish. Allow the finish to dry according the drying time listed on the can.

Step 4: Lightly Sand Your Project

After the first coat of finish is dry, use 400 or 600 grit sandpaper to lightly sand the project. Do not sand aggressively. Instead, only apply light pressure and aim for a uniform, smooth feel.

Using a clean towel, wipe the project with mineral spirits to remove any dust.

Step 5: Reapply Varnish

Apply 1-2 more coats of varnish until the projects looks acceptable. I find that three coats is perfect for me. Between each coat, repeat the previous step of sanding with 400-600 grit sandpaper and wiping the project with mineral spirits. Ensure that you are using a clean rag to apply each coat of varnish.

Optional: After the final coat dries, you can very lightly sand the project with 2000 grit sandpaper. This will give you a buttery smooth surface!