An excellent finish for first timers (and beyond).
Wiping varnish might be the most popular hand-applied finish used by woodworkers. It’s popular because it’s just as easy to apply as oil finishes but much more moisture, scratch, heat and solvent resistant.
You can make wiping varnish yourself by thinning any oil-based alkyd or polyurethane varnish about half with mineral spirits (paint thinner), or you can buy it from a large number of manufacturers.
Unfortunately, these manufacturers create confusion with their labeling. Most use uninformative names with the intention of making you think you’re buying something unique. The variety of names used also puts up barriers to the treatment of this finish as a category, similar to lacquer or water-based finish, with application instructions that apply to all brands.
I’ve written about wiping varnish a number of times because I believe it’s the best finish for most of those woodworkers who just want a finish that’s easy and foolproof, it and produces great results.
Traditional Application Methods
The easiest way to apply wiping varnish is to wipe or brush the finish onto the wood and wipe off the excess before it dries. After overnight drying, sand lightly with #320- or #400-grit sandpaper (with just your hand backing the sandpaper) to remove dust nibs. Then remove the dust and apply another coat just as you did the first.
Apply as many coats as you want to get the appearance and protection (thickness) you want. You will end up with a near-perfect finish.
The downside of applying wiping varnish in this manner is that each coat is very thin, so you usually have to apply four, five or six coats (maybe more) to achieve an acceptable result.
You can get the finish to build faster by brushing and leaving, just as you would brush full-strength varnish. But wiping varnish is so thin that it will run on vertical and complex surfaces, so this application method works only on flat, horizontal surfaces such as tabletops.
A Better Method
In this article I’m going to show you a method of brushing wiping varnish that will produce almost the same perfect results as wiping off the excess but will build faster, and it can be used effectively on all surfaces.
Apply Wiping Varnish
The first step is simply to get the wiping varnish onto the bare wood or over a previous coat of finish. You can pour the wiping varnish onto horizontal surfaces and spread it around; you can soak a rag and apply the finish to vertical or complex surfaces; or you can brush on the finish just as you would brush paint (but you don’t need to brush with the grain because it doesn’t matter).
Just get the wiping varnish onto the wood and don’t worry about runs or bubbles because the next steps will take care of them. You may want to use a cloth to remove drips running off edges, however.
The next step is to remove most of the excess wiping varnish and make the thickness even. You do this using a dry brush.
You can use the brush you used for application as long as you shake out the excess finish and wipe the bristles fairly dry with a clean cloth. You can use any type of brush, but natural bristles work a little better than synthetic (plastic) bristles. Inexpensive “chip” brushes shed bristles that you then have to find and pick out. Foam brushes soak up too much finish and are difficult to wipe dry.
It’s best to use an approximately $6- $8 2″ natural-bristle brush.
Use the brush to make single strokes to remove some of the excess finish. After each stroke, wipe off the finish you have picked up on a clean lint-free cloth. Then make another stroke and wipe the brush dry again.
On small or narrow surfaces, you can make several strokes before wiping. The objective is to remove the excess wiping varnish so it doesn’t puddle or run anymore; no more brushing than this is necessary.
You can work from the bottom up or the top down, and you don’t have to brush with the grain for this step. You’ll get the feel very quickly.
The next step is the same as the last, except you make light brush strokes with the grain this time. You may not have to dry your brush after every single brush stroke.
This step should remove any remaining bubbles and leave a totally brush-mark-free and run-free surface. Just to be sure, look over the entire surface in light reflected from a window or overhead fixture. If you see any runs or other problems, brush them out.
Let the finish dry overnight. Then sand lightly and apply another coat in the same manner as the first. Continue applying coats, sanding between each, until you’re happy with the way the finish looks.
You can use a satin finish (instead of gloss) for all coats or just the last one if you want a satin sheen, but it’s often difficult to get the satin entirely streak-free. To improve the result, rub the last coat with #0000 steel wool, then apply more coats of satin wiping varnish or gel varnish and wipe off all the excess.
To remove fine dust nibs from the last coat, rub lightly with a folded brown paper bag after the finish has cured for several days.