When making the farmhouse dining room table, one of the most important decisions was choosing the right clear topcoat for the finish.

When choosing a clear coat, you must weigh several factors: durability, dry time, hue, odor, and how it’s going to look overall.

51O4sHy+DVLOil-based finishes were the standard for many years until recently. Water-based finishes are starting to take over now, but which is better?

At the big box stores, you typically find the usual suspects. Should you stick with these? Or, should you dig a little deeper by going to a specialty store or finding something on the Internet?

What look are you going for?

The clearcoat you choose will depend on what you’re looking for. Different projects will call from for different types of clear-coats. In this article, I’ll take you through my decision-making process and why I chose Enduro-Var from General Finishes.

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Oil vs Water-Based Finishes

The first decision I had to make was whether to use an oil-based or water-based finish. In the finishing process, there are number of layers. Typically, I start with a really good sanding job, followed by pre-stain wood conditioner or sanding sealer, followed by one or more coats of stain, followed by 3 to 5 coats of clear urethane finish.

In deciding whether to use oil or water-based urethane, you must first consider whether the coats below are oil or water-based. The safest way to go is to use the same throughout. But, it is possible to use a water-based urethane on top of an oil-based stain, as long as you let the stain dry completely.

Farmhouse Dining Room Table Top Finish

A closeup of the finish after five coats of clear semi-gloss urethane, 1 coat of stain, and 1 coat of pre-stain wood conditioner.

Oil-Based Finishes

At the beginning of my grandparents woodworking days, Oil based finishes were the only option. Toward the end, water-based urethanes were introduced and now my grandmother swears by them.

She was the first person I called when I started my research because she has finished hundreds of projects over the years with my grandfather. He would cut, assemble, and sand; and she would finish.

The first thing she told me is to get the water-based finish. She was very adamant about this, and I was somewhat skeptical at first. In my head, oil-based finishes were more durable and had the nice amber tint that I was going for.

Cleanup and Dry Time

She cited the fact that water-based finishes were much easier to clean up, dried faster, and didn’t fumigate you out of your home. In her day, she would use an oil-based stain (the only option she had), and a water-based urethane (that she always called varnish). When I told her that today, they make water-based stains, she thought it was a great idea.

She was correct about quite a few things. (Isn’t it funny how Grandmas tend to be right?)

Water-based urethanes dry in a matter of minutes versus hours for their oil-based counterparts. Considering that I apply up to five coats, this can be a huge help if you don’t want your project to drag on for several more days.

Farmhouse Dining Room Table Corner Closeup

A close up of the table corner featuring the semi-gloss urethane finish.

Fumes

She was also correct about the fumes. Oil-based finishes are very very strong to the nose (and I’m sure not very healthy either). If you are applying the finish inside the house, (which many people do to avoid the dust from the workshop), this can be another important aspect.

An oil-based finish will fill just about every room in your house with its fumes.

The cleanup process is different between the two. Oil-based messes are cleaned up with mineral spirits. Water-based finishes can simply be cleaned up with water. Being able to clean up with water is much easier and makes your life a lot easier as well.

Amber Hue

One reason I was leaning towards oil at the beginning was that oil based urethanes give an amber hue to your finish especially when reflected in the light. This is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preference and project, but I really liked the effect.

I just about went against my grandmothers better judgment and went with the oil-based urethane until I discovered Edurovar by General Finishes. This finish emulates an oil-based finish with an amber hue. Plus, it scored very highly in a side-by-side test with many other finishes on a variety of factors.

(Here’s a link to that study)

Durability

So why would anybody use oil-based finishes? Well, it used to be the oil based finishes were more durable. Technology has caught up to the point where some water-based finishes are just as good.

A dining room table is a surface that gets beat up quite a bit. Elbows, watches, plates, forks, knives… I wanted a finish that would stand up to this challenge. In fact, I wanted something that was fairy thick, but still displayed the grain of the wood and the stain.

Enduro-Var is somewhere between a consumer and commercial grade finish. If I were finishing a bar top for a restaurant, I would want a commercial grade finish that’s so thick you could seal coins under it; but that was a little much from what I was going for. Enduro-Var was just thick enough, but elegant enough for the dining room.

I decided to go with a semi-gloss to give it a bit of shine and make it easy to clean. You could also go with a flat finish if you wanted more of a natural look, or a high-gloss if you wanted it to be super easy to clean.

Farmhouse Dining Room Table Top Finish

A close up of the table top finish. Notice the nice amber glow from the urethane finish.

Where to Find Enduro-Var

You can’t just find General Finishes in most big-box stores. I had to go to a local specialty store that featured exotic woods and finishes. I’m sure you could also find it online.

You will also pay a premium. I could only find it by the gallon, and it was around $40. I consider it money well spent.

Cumulative Layers

Here are the layers I used on the farmhouse table after a solid sanding up to 300 grit with a random orbital sander:

Application

Applying water-based urethane is not quite as tricky as it seems. Your initial instinct maybe to work very slowly, but I was instructed to channel a bus-boy quickly getting a table ready for the next customer.

Since water-based finishes dry quickly, it’s important to apply a lot of product and allow gravity to smooth it out before it dries.

Instead of a brush or a rag, I elected to use application pads that I found a big box store for a couple of bucks. I liked that they held a lot of finish, they were easy to clean, and the finish went on smoothly.

Another option that I would love to try is using a spray gun. I believe it’s the only way to get a completely smooth finish; but, I’ve never tried it so I can’t say for sure.

My grandmother instructed me to use wet/dry sandpaper between each coat to lightly sand the rough edges of the finish. I used an 800 grit, lightly damp, by hand, between each coat except the final one.

Dust and Runs

One concern when applying the clear coat is dust. It can land on your wet surface area and could threaten a smooth finish. Wipe down the surface before each coat with a lint free cotton rag that is lightly damp, (think t-shirt that has been through the laundry 100 times).

You also have to be careful of runs, especially on the edges and the bottom of your surface. I found that I had to watch for bubbles forming underneath the table top.

It was exciting to watch the finish develop after each layer. After the first layer, you could still see the woodgrain and some of the wood through the finish, but with each consecutive layer the shine increased.

I was extremely satisfied with Enduro-Var by General finishes. I will continue to use it on future projects and recommend it to anyone who asks. Here is a link to where you can try it for yourself.