Best Clear Coats for Kitchen Cabinets 2019 – Reviews and Buyer’s Guide

Best Clear Coats for Kitchen Cabinets 2019 – Reviews and Buyer’s Guide

When it comes to a nice decorative piece of furniture, the finish is everything. Even if you select the best wood with the prettiest grain and the perfect thickness, a bad finish can still ruin the look of the finished product and make all your efforts into waste.

Without a doubt, General Finishes Water Based Topcoat is №1 clear coat you can possibly get. While there are many other options such as oils or stains,  polyurethanes and lacquers are great clear finishes for kitchen cabinets. There is virtually no purpose for which they are not sufficient. The following types of clear coatings are judged to be the best clear coats for kitchen cabinets on the market. So, without any further delay, let’s take a look.

Top pick

There is no way you didn’t know of General Finishes. It’s one of the most trusted brands in wood finishing industry. General Finishes Top Coat is the most durable clear coat for your kitchen cabinets, period.

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Best Clear Coats for Kitchen Cabinets in August, 2019

 Clear coatCovers (quart)Recoat dry (hours)Sheen 
1General Finishes Topcoat
Editor's Choice
125-150 sq.ft.2flat, satin, semi-gloss, gloss Check Price
2Rust-Oleum Polyurethane100-125 sq.ft.2 satin, semi-gloss, gloss Check Price
3Minwax Polycrylic 125 sq.ft.2flat, satin, semi-gloss, gloss Check Price
4Minwax Helmsman 125 sq.ft.4 satin, semi-gloss, gloss Check Price
5Minwax Poly125 sq.ft.2-3 satin, gloss Check Price
6Watco Lacquerup to 290 sq. ft.1 satin, semi-gloss, gloss Check Price
7Deft Clear Wood Finish100 sq.ft.2gloss Check Price
8Minwax Brushing Lacquer125 sq. ft.2gloss Check Price
9Deft Interior Waterborne125 sq. ft.2semi-gloss Check Price
10Deft Polyurethane125 sq. ft.2semi-gloss Check Price

1. General Finishes Top Coat – The High-End Option

General Finishes is one of the most trusted and well-known brands on the market of wood finishes. This topcoat has many sheens including satin, gloss, and semi-gloss which are desirable for a lot of applications including kitchen cabinets of course. When you really want a high level of shine, a gloss will do the job. You could even use a buffer and obtain a higher shine, but that’s a lot of unnecessary work.

One thing I like about this coating is that it contains a UV stabilizer that keeps the suns’ ultraviolet rays from breaking it down. This is very good quality for outdoor furniture pieces such as deck chairs or patio tables. For anything made of wood that is intended to be kept outside, this would be a decent option. But it’s intended only for interior use and the durability of this clear coat is very useful while finishing kitchen cabinets: it delivers a tough, high-grade finish that can withstand harsh conditions and scratches for a long time.

I can say that this finish focuses on durability more than any other single feature. In fact, it is quite obvious that protective applications were the top priority when this product was invented.

My advice for this clear coat is to use it for applications that require strong protection of clear finish.

Pros
  • Water-based for faster drying
  • Nice thick coating, very hard
  • UV stabilizer
  • Has diverse sheens
Cons
  • A little on the expensive side

2. Rust-Oleum – A Trusted Name And A Well-Rounded Product

Rust-Oleum is one of the most trusted names in paint, and it shows when we look at this product. This is a crystal clear gloss, making it perfect for those applications that require perfect shine and maximum glossiness. This makes it a great choice for a nice piece of high-quality wood furniture.

When it comes to cabinets, this is a great choice because its crystal-clear nature will bring out the natural beauty of the wood. That being said, you should probably stain the wood first before applying this clear coat. It is so clear that it may look too plain and unfinished after coating. By combining a light stain with this clear coat, you can obtain maximum beauty and a finish that will last a long time.

This finish is water-based rather than oil-based, which means that it will dry both faster and harder.

Some people prefer an oil stain because it will darken the wood and bring out its natural tones a little more. However, that harder coating will be much better for surfaces like hardwood floors that take a lot of scuffing. In terms of price, this is the cheapest coating in this top five. The only thing I don’t like about this one is its thin consistency, which makes it a little harder to apply multiple coats.

Pros
  • Inexpensive
  • Crystal clear
  • Water-based
  • Trusted brand
Cons
  • May be too clear for some applications
  • Very thin, making it hard to apply in some instances

3. Minwax Polycrylic – The Old Standard That Doesn’t Fail

This is a very common product that most home improvement professionals will be familiar with. One of the best things about this one is the fact that virtually everyone has used it at some point or another. It is available in a spray-on version, which is a favorite version of a couple of friends of mine, but a spray can just doesn’t allow for the same precise control.

This clear coat is formulated for fast drying, and it delivers in that department. A second coat can be applied within only a few hours of application. As this finish is pretty thin, it can be a little hard to apply to some surfaces. You may have to apply thin coats to keep it from running. It has about the consistency of maple syrup, and so it is best to apply it with a few used dryer sheets. Make sure that you shake out the dust and debris before use.

This is another water-based finish. That is a good thing because water-based coatings produce a harder surface and a much faster drying time. This coating is also formulated for low odor. It’s great when you happen to be working in a tight space. All those properties make this poly a great option for your kitchen cabinets. As a final bonus, this clear coat is really easy to clean up with warm water if you happen to spill it or get it on your hands.

Pros
  • Trusted product with a long history
  • Fast drying formula
  • Very low odor
  • Available in several versions
Cons
  • Kind of thin
  • Adds no tone or color- crystal clear

4. Minwax Helmsman – Maximum Durability At A Decent Price

If you are looking for something nice to finish your cabinets, this is a clear coat that is designed for maximum durability. Like our first choice, this one is well-suited for outdoor use. It has UV blockers in the mixture, much like our first choice. This keeps the suns’ natural rays from breaking down the polyurethane and making it peel away. But unlike our first choice, this finish goes a little further.

The Helmsman product is a little cheaper than the General Finishes, but it is actually more durable. Not only is it meant to resist UV rays, but it is also formulated to resist a wide variety of weather conditions. If you live in an area that experiences extreme heat or extreme cold, this is a good choice because it does a good job of resisting both. It’s a nice clear coat for kitchen cabinets if you want to get decent durability and protection.

Although this is not an oil-based coating, it does contain special oils. Trey allow the entire finish to expand and contract just as the wood itself expands and contracts. This is the main reason that this coating is so superior for extreme heat and cold. Wood will naturally flex with the temperature, and if the paint and coatings do not flex along with it, they are likely to flake off over time.

Pros
  • Meant to flex with the wood
  • Meant to resist UV degradation
  • Fairly cheap
Cons
  • Great protection for indoor/outdoor applications
  • Emphasis on durability over beauty

5. Minwax Wipe-On – An Oil-based Alternative Of The First Rank

This finish is the odd duck on our list, mostly because it is meant to be wiped on with a cloth rather than being painted on with a brush. This makes a little bit of a difference in the look of the final product. One thing I really like about this coat is the fact that it is available in either full gloss or clear satin. This means that if you want to variate the textures of your finish, you have more than one choice.

Products like this exist because some people really like that hand-rubbed look and this appearance only comes from the wipe-on products. One little issue is that a wipe-on poly will never be applied quite as thickly as a paint-on finish. However, for some purposes, a thin finish is just what you want.

Shows the beauty of the wood

I have found that this kind of polyurethane is optimal for porches, railings and cabinets. There are certain instances where you want to preserve the natural grain of the wood. For instance, a handrail next to the stairs will need to have a good texture so as to provide a good grip. A one hundred percent smooth staircase railing would be pointless, as it would be rather difficult to get the traction needed.

This is an oil-based coating, which makes it different from the others on the list. It will definitely take a lot longer to dry, so make sure you plan for the extra time. Also, an oil-based coating will form a slightly softer surface. This also makes it ideal for surfaces that will regularly be gripped such as kitchen cabinets handles. All in all, this one would definitely be the best choice for safety applications. Of course, there is another thing to consider about an oil-based clear coat.

An oil-based clear coat will slightly darken the wood when it is applied. While most of our choices on this list are water-based and thus crystal clear, this one almost functions as a stain on top of its normal protective function. If you have a surface that requires a little bit of darkening, this one would be a great choice for your kitchen cabinets.

Pros
  • Darkens and protects at the same time
  • Ideal for applications that require traction
  • Easy to use
Cons
  • Takes much longer to dry
  • A softer surface may not be ideal for some surfaces
  • Better for thin finishes

6. Watco Lacquer Clear Wood Finish – The Choice For Convenience

This is a classic example of a high-quality lacquer. Although it is one of the more expensive coats on our list, lacquer has certain inherent advantages. One of the best things about this lacquer (and most lacquers, for that matter) is the fact that it can be used to fill in small gaps and cracks. This means that you won’t have to fool around with wood putty.

Lacquer gives a very clear finish, adding almost no color when properly applied.

This particular product has a self-leveling formula that helps it to be applied properly. If you don’t know anything about “self-leveling” finishes, you have been missing out. Although (as we can see) this kind of finish tends to be more expensive, it is much easier to apply.

Self-Leveling? What Does That Mean?

A self-leveling finish has a tendency to spread out on a flat surface, maintaining even coverage throughout. This kind of topcoat is great for those who use a spray gun, but it’s well-suited for application with a brush as well. The leveling feature will help prevent the brush strokes from showing, so it’s a good choice for very visible pieces of furniture such as your kitchen cabinets.

When it comes to coverage, that factor isn’t so bad either. For a one-quart can, you get 290 square feet of coverage. This helps a lot to offset the higher price point associated with this product since you can do a big job with fewer cans.

It’s worth mentioning that this product produces a strong, hard finish that can withstand normal wear and tear for a much greater time than most others. Kitchen cabinets will see a lot of wear and tear so this product will be a good choice.

Pros
  • Never turns yellow
  • Takes the place of wood putty by filling in cracks
  • Creates a very durable finish when compared to polyurethane
  • Self-leveling
  • Crystal clear, even when using multiple coats
Cons
  • Slightly expensive
  • Has to be cut with thinner for use in a spray gun
  • No UV resistance
  • Water resistance isn’t particularly good

7. Deft Interior Clear Wood Finish – Great Value Overall

This is another type of clear lacquer, but it’s quite a bit different from our previous choice. Deft CWF is made from 100% nitrocellulose, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. These types of lacquers have been in use for a long time, and are still very popular for the finishing of musical instruments. They are used for musical instruments because these lacquers do not deaden the acoustical properties as some clear coats might do.

What Is Nitrocellulose?

Nitrocellulose is the same substance that can be found inside of a modern bullet. However, gunpowder is made from tri-nitrocellulose, while lacquers and old-style ping-pong balls (as well as old film reels) are made of di-nitrocellulose. What is the difference, you ask? Di-nitrocellulose is nowhere near as flammable, so you can’t really use it in a bullet. However, it is still flammable enough to warrant special precautions.

It is not recommended to store large amounts of this finish for any longer than necessary. Also, it is made from some noxious chemicals that are harsh on the nose and even harsher on the environment. If you are living in a relatively clean and natural area, you might want to pass on this one. That being said, the noxious smell will go away when the coating dries.

What’s great about this product

This is a glossy finish, so it’s great for those who want their kitchen cabinets to shine and glisten in the sunlight. Nitrocellulose also does not yellow with age, making it suitable for long-term applications. Because of its unique properties, this type of lacquer dries pretty quick, requiring only 30 minutes to achieve full dryness.

Finally, it should be noted that this product is a great budget option. For one gallon, you will get about 400 feet of coverage. Although this only comes out to 100 square feet per can, this lacquer is by far the cheapest option on our list. By the time you factor in the cost reduction, this paint becomes a very economical choice.

Pros
  • Very glossy; provides a shiny surface that impresses
  • Formulated to resist yellowing with age
  • Very economical in terms of both price and coverage
  • Dries in touch in only 30 minutes
  • Very resistant to scratching
  • Each coat blends together smoothly, saving you some work on sanding
Cons
  • Highly flammable
  • Some chemical components are not environmentally friendly
  • Cannot be used in a spray gun
  • Smells terrible until it dries

8. Minwax Brushing Lacquer – Tried And True

This is another example of a nitrocellulose lacquer. It is meant to be brushed on, and is not suitable for use in a spray gun unless you water it down with lacquer thinner or denatured alcohol. As you might imagine, it shares more than a few common qualities with the Deft coating that we looked at earlier.

A Word About The Hazards

Like before, you need to be aware of the safety hazards that are inherent to this type of lacquer. Never smoke around this finish, even if the lid seems to be tightly applied. In most cases, nitrocellulose lacquer is suspended in a solution of Acetone or Toluene. Acetone is the main component of nail polish remover, and Toluene is a popular paint thinning agent. Both of these substances are toxic and have a tendency to produce flammable vapors.

I and most of the customers are happy with the coverage factor, so it gets a pass in this department. 125 sq. ft. per quart is a pretty good performance.

Drying Time

Like most of these kinds of lacquers, the Minwax lacquer dries in touch within 30 minutes, but it takes an additional 2 hours before you can apply another coat. For the extra money, one would expect better, but the drying delay isn’t all that bad.

The good news is that, when the time comes to apply that next layer, you won’t need to worry about sanding the surface.

Nitrocellulose lacquers consist of a filler and a solvent, and the solvent melts the filler. This means that two layers will basically melt each other and blend seamlessly to create a crystal-clear finish.

Pros
  • Never turns yellow
  • Dries to the touch within 30 minutes, and completely cures within two hours
  • Layers are meant to blend together so that sanding isn’t needed
  • Provides a strong finish that won’t crack or peel
Cons
  • Much more expensive than some others on our list
  • Can only be applied with a brush
  • Finished surface feels a little rubbery
  • Strong odor until it dries

9. Deft Interior Waterborne Clear Wood Finish – The Pure Water-Based Option

This is a water-based acrylic, which means that we have gotten away from harsh chemical odors, risk of fire, and any toxicity concerns. As a semi-gloss coat, it is good for those who want a little shine to their cabinets without creating a glare. This kind of finish is especially good for darker types of wood that don’t require a high level of sheen in order to look good.

The Benefits of A Low-Odor Paint

In many ways, this product is a cousin to the nitrocellulose-based finish that we examined from this same company. However, its components are different, and its performance will vary accordingly. I recommend this kind of water-based acrylic for any situation that requires coating in a confined space.

For instance, let’s say you are refinishing your bathroom, and you want to put some lacquer on the bathroom cabinets. Chances are, that bathroom does not have a window, and if it does, it is likely to be a small one. In this situation, you could put a fan in that tiny window, or the doorway of the bathroom, but it would be much easier to go ahead and use water-based finish in the first place. But of course we’re talking about kitchen cabinets in the first place, I just gave you an example.

A Few Little Issues

One little problem with water-based paint is the fact that its layers do not blend in the same way that a chemical-based coating would do. This means that you will have to give each layer a light sanding before you apply the next layer. Depending on how many layers you want to use, this can add a lot of time to the application process.

Some customers have made complaints about this product. For instance, some have claimed that it tends to turn yellow after applied and that it doesn’t even take very long. However, these reviews are not consistent enough to make a conclusive judgment. I haven’t had such a problem.
Pros
  • Easy to apply on most surfaces
  • Can be used with a gun or a brush
  • Resistant to common household chemicals
  • Dries pretty quickly
  • Low odor
  • Totally non-toxic
Cons
  • Thin consistency makes it harder to apply vertically
  • Requires a little bit of sanding between coats
  • Some reviewers say that this lacquer will turn yellow before long
  • Not suitable for outdoor use
  • Most expensive paint on our list

10. Deft Interior Exterior Water-Based Polyurethane – The Hybrid Option

This is a very durable and multi-functional kind of coating. Although it is also one of the more expensive finishes on our list, the price is at least somewhat justified by the wide range of uses to which this paint can be put. You can use it indoors, outdoors, or for marine purposes. It is supposedly able to adhere to any material, so this is the catch-all option.

Who Would Most Likely Prefer This Product?

An option like this can be very nice for those times when you aren’t entirely sure what you are going to do. Many of us prefer to make detailed plans before starting a new job, but some of us prefer to wing it, and this product would be a good fit for those kinds of people.

Not only does this polyurethane do a good job of resisting the weather throughout the year, but it also resists UV rays. UV (ultraviolet) rays can, unfortunately, have a very negative impact on paint and coatings like these. Although the effects will not be seen for a long time (possibly several years) a paint that is not UV-protected will eventually be broken down the sun’s rays and this will be followed by a lot of cracking and peeling. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about that when you buy this coating.

This Is Both A Water and Oil Based

Although this is a water-based finish, it is not entirely made of water. It also contains a small amount of oil base, so that this polyurethane has some of the qualities of both water-based ones and an oil poly. Like most water-based finishes, it is easily applied and provides a very hard coating. This kind of topcoat would be an ideal choice for kitchen cabinets or any other piece of wood that is used on an everyday basis.

Like oil-based finishes, this product tends to soak into the wood and provide a very slick-looking finish. Although it is only semi-gloss, the oil component gives it a little something extra in the shine department.
Pros
  • Can be used outdoors or indoors
  • Resistant to UV degradation
  • Base is a blend of water and oil, but mostly water
  • Provides a rock-hard surface that resists weathering, scuffing, and impact
Cons
  • Fairly expensive
  • Doesn’t blend its layers like a chemical-based paint

Buyer’s Guide

For the purposes of this article, we didn’t attempt to look at every single kind of finish that you could use for your kitchen cabinets. To do that would be a very large endeavor, and would be outside the scope of this article. Instead, we’ve focused on polyurethane-based finishes. I have chosen to do this because polyurethane is probably the best choice for general use.

Whenever you are trying to choose the best clear coat for your kitchen cabinets, you need to carefully consider your needs and expectations. Think about exactly what you want your final result to look like. It would be virtually impossible to judge any one of these products as being “the best.” This is because all of these coats are meant for slightly different applications and situations. This means that I cannot make your decision for you.

However, I am willing to unequivocally assert that choice number one, the General Finishes, is better than choice number four, which is the Helmsman. This is because both products are similar in terms of their function and strong protection, but the first one is much more time-tested. The General Finishes coating is able to withstand a wider variety of conditions and temperatures but at a slightly higher price. Any time you have a product that does more job (and better job) even though with more cost, it is sure to be a superior choice.

What to condiser

For a set of kitchen cabinets, you need to think about what they already look like. For instance, if your kitchen cabinets are totally unfinished you should probably opt for an oil-based finish just so you can get rid of that “raw” look and protect it from weathering at the same time. If you don’t choose an oil-based coating, you will need to stain your wood before applying the clear coat, which means more time and trouble to get the job done.

You should also consider the method by which the coating will be applied. Extremely thin coatings can be a slight problem to apply with a brush. This is because they have a tendency to run off the brush and drip from the surface as you are trying to apply the coat. This forces the user to use thin coats, and this, in turn, forces the user to do more coats. In short, it means a lot more time and a lot more work.

Do not forget that considering the texture (sheen) is quite important. Gloss, semi-gloss, and satin are the three most common choices, and each one has a different level of smoothness. In general, rougher textures are better-suited for any surface that will regularly be in contact with hands or feet. A hardwood floor should definitely not be treated with a full gloss, as this will make it easier for a person to slip and fall. As we already mentioned, handrails (and all things that are meant to be gripped) also need a rougher surface for maximum safety.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is very important to choose the right coating for the right job. This is one of those products for which every type seems alike…until you look more closely and realize that there is a high level of planning and intelligence that goes into the design of these products.

Remember, every paint company has at least one person who is paid to come up with scientifically formulated recipes. As such, every finish is different. I hope that this article has been both informative and interesting and that you are able to find the best clear coat for your kitchen remodeling needs.

4 thoughts on “Best Clear Coats for Kitchen Cabinets 2019 – Reviews and Buyer’s Guide”

  1. Hi Mr. Stewart,
    I enjoyed reading your article. Based on what I read, I think a polyurethane product will be best for my needs. However, I still have questions for which I can’t seem to find answers.

    When a finishing product has UV protection, will it retard the natural color change occurring within the (natural maple) wood over time?

    Also, I have raw maple moulding to be affixed on top of my nicely-aged natural maple Wood-Mode, Brookhaven cabinets. They are a ~1997 install.
    I don’t think I want to match the moulding to the current cabinet color, since I think the moulding would eventually become darker than the cabinets. I have no way of knowing the clear finish type applied to the cabinets in 1997.

    How does one then determine which product to use if one wants the raw wood to eventually blend with the older wood? Thanks for any knowledge that you might share with me.
    Lisa

    • Hi, Lisa.

      UV protection protects the wood from fading caused by sunbeams, this is especially relevant for outdoor wood. But it can’t slow the natural color change.

      As for your molding and cabinets, it’s very tricky to make both wooden pieces have the same color.

  2. Hi William,

    I recently had my kitchen cabinet bottoms painted a dark blue/grey and they are chipping terribly. can I apply one of these clear coats on top of the paint to protect them and minimize chipping? If so, which do you recommend?

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