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A local company was hired to finish some restaurant tables and called me to ask what finish they should use. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the answer actually depends on how they intend to apply it. In other words, there is no “best” finish for all situations. Here are the choices.
For a pour-on finish epoxy resin is the best. In fact, it’s the most durable of all common finishes. Just like epoxy adhesive, it comes in two parts, which you mix before pouring it onto the surface and spreading it out evenly.
For a sprayed-on finish in a non-industrial setting, the best is conversion varnish, which also comes in two parts for you to mix before spraying. Right behind conversion varnish in durability is catalyzed lacquer, both one-part and two-part.
For a brushed-on finish, oil-based polyurethane is best. It is significantly more durable than water-based polyurethane for bar tops and restaurant tables because alcohol spills and the chemicals used for cleaning will soften water-based polyurethane over time.
In this particular case, the company intended to take the tables to their shop, and they were used to spraying, so they chose conversion varnish.