I have stripped all the woodwork in my 170-year-old home of its varnish, paint, coal dust and grime. I’ve applied more quarts of oil-based Varathane than I care to count, then sat back to admire the smooth glossy beauty of the restored finish. I was immediately drawn to the idea of high gloss Varathane on my painted furniture. But twenty years have elapsed and as a society we are now loath to use oil-based products. In fact they’re rapidly being removed from market shelves. Plus that glorious golden yellow that mellows over time would distort the bold colours of these painted surfaces.
In recent years, Varathane has offered a water-based Diamond Wood Finish promising durable, crystal clear protection. Despite initial skepticism, I gave it a go and have been delighted with the results. Protecting painted surfaces has its challenges. Flaws, scratches, dents, dirt specks and lint remain glaringly evident on bright paint, compared to being all but invisible in the grain of natural wood. Varathane’s watery nature leaves it more prone to drips, and experience has taught me to be vigilant about catching them in corners, edges, overhangs, carved areas and vertical sections. As I work, I place items on their sides or even upside down to paint individual surfaces. It’s slower work but drips are easily managed. Repeated coats even out marks, fill in gaps and render a lovely polished look. The finish dries pretty quickly: within the space of 20 minutes. Bits of debris can become permanently etched in the layer unless removed immediately. I practice several techniques to reduce this:
- I scrupulously clean the item first by vacuuming it, then I wipe it first with a damp cloth and second with a tack cloth.
- I pour some varathane into a smaller, scrupulously clean glass jar.
- I use a foam brush – dust and dirt is easier to manage.
- I keep this brush under a dust cover and I fastidulously wash it after each use.
- I place my projects on a waist-high work surface, away from fans or heating vents.
- I avoid woolly or fleece clothing.
- I don’t vacuum the area near painting time.
Though reduced in number the specks still show up. They’re highly evident when the varathane is freshly applied in its milky white state. As it dries to clear, they fade somewhat over the underlying colour but remain annoying to the discerning eye.
Tips for a Smooth, Clean Finish
- Plan on at least 3 coats.
- Buy one quart at a time unless you’re working on a huge surface area; the product is thin and goes a long, long way.
- Pour enough varathane for the project into a clean glass container with a tight lid, so that debris will not affect the larger container.
- Don’t wipe your brush along the rim of the main can. Not only will you drop debris inside, the lid won’t close tightly by the time you’re halfway through your supply (although the finish will remain workable for a couple of weeks).
- Don’t shake the can (even at the store at time of purchase); simply stir. The solution remains well suspended for weeks. Directions on the can talk about bubbles, etc., but I’ve never had a problem. Tiny bubbles may be visible as you brush but they quickly smooth out and disappear. I sometimes paint one colour, varathane it with a single coat to set it, then paint an adjoining colour with a little less care because I can wipe smudges off easily from a varathane-covered area.
- Consider keeping a separate container for covering deep colours. The colour will bleed slightly onto the brush with the first coat, then from the brush to the container, even though the paint seems fully cured (no doubt because its water base softens the paint slightly).
Coat 1: Apply thinly, taking care where two colours meet to ensure they don’t run. Since this layer soaks in quickly, you can work with the item upright without much concern for drips. Coats 2 and 3: Apply more thickly. It is best to place the item so that the section being painted is horizontal; it means waiting a bit longer for areas to dry smoothly but is well worth the trouble. Working briskly, apply a relatively thick layer over a small area, then quickly restroke to smooth it out. Do not be tempted to keep retouching! You’ll only marr the surface as it smooths.
Be vigilant about catching drips and blobs, especially along edges, details and overhangs. Regularly check all sides and give them a quick, feathery stroke to incorporate drips into flat areas. Paint using the flat side of the foam brush as its final movement –whereas the tip will leave edge lines, the flat does not seem to.
Removing Lint, Specks, and Tiny Hairs This is not a problem with bold colours such as oranges, reds, greens, blues and purples. They simply don’t show. It’s a big problem with whites, creams, yellows and pastels.
With each coat, watch diligently for lint, threads, hairs, or tiny dots. They can be removed during the application if you work quickly.
- Remove specks with a stroke of the foam brush, then wipe the brush on a cloth (or pick off the debris from the brush with your finger).
- Remove specks with tweezers.
- Remove specks with your fingertip (much like wetting your finger to pick up food crumbs).
Once removed, the area can be smoothed out with your brush if you get to it while the paint is still quite wet, or at the time of the next coat. Smudges and brush strokes are less of a problem on subsequent coats. Sometimes when you are about to add another coat, you note hairs or specks that you missed and which have already hardened. You’ll find that as you apply the top coat, it softens the undercoat a wee bit, often enough to allow you to scratch off the offending bit with a fingernail while your top coat is still wet. In the end, 3 coats of varathane provides a beautiful finish to any brightly painted conversation piece!