Wax, Poly or Top Coat - How to Finish Your Piece

big top how to finish your piece topcoat wax

After putting in a bunch of work into painting a piece of furniture you want to make sure that you finish it right.  You would hate for it to immediately get damaged and all your hard work be ruined.  When I started painting furniture I was very confused by all the topcoats out there like polyacrylic and wax. I made many mistakes and had to repaint many, many, many pieces.  Maybe I can save you all the time by sharing what I have learned and what works best for me.

I have used a variety of paints and a variety of finishes.  I have learned what I like and what is easiest.  In the process, I have fallen in love with DIY Paint and all the DIY Paint finishes.  If you want to learn more about DIY Paint check out my blog post Why I Love DIY Paint. I love DIY Paint so much that I have become a DIY Paint retailer and sell all the DIY Paint products and finishes in my booth #134 at Plaza Antiques & Collectibles Mall in Lincoln Park, MI and on my online store.

DIY Paint is all-natural, water-based, clay paint, and if left unfinished it can be damaged by water and normal wear and tear.  I do know a few people that have just painted with DIY Paint and left the piece to weather naturally.  I have also heard that the paint will cure in 30 days and be less resistant to damage. I have never tried this because after I paint a piece I want it to last.

My rule for finishes is that if it will be getting heavy use then you need to use a topcoat.  Heavy use usually includes top of all pieces of furniture.  Let me first talk about polyacrylic.  I, no longer use polyacrylic on painted furniture at all.  Polyacrylic seals and protects well but can yellow over time.  It also is not all-natural and the fumes, if used indoors, can irritate and be harmful.  I have finished beautiful pieces and then had them yellow months later.  I put too much work into all of my pieces and I don't want to risk that to ever happen again. In all my years of painting, I have had many failures and have learned a lot.  I have tried many other top coats from many other companies and my favorite is Big Top from DIY Paint.

 Picture courtesy of DIY Paint

 Big Top is an all-natural, water-based topcoat.  That means easy cleanup and no worry about fumes or yucky smells.  You can use it indoors with children or pets around.  It is also the only topcoat that is non-yellowing.  I am also obsessed with the smell of it.  Other retailers have compared it to the smell of banana Laffy-Taffy.  I am not sure I agree, but I love the fresh smell. Big Top can be applied within 8 hours of painting, but usually, I wait for twenty-four hours before I apply.  To use Big Top pour a small amount into a plastic cup and brush on.

My favorite brush to apply topcoat is a Paint Pixie #12 (natural bristle) or DIY Paint #12 Well Rounded Brush (synthetic).

Picture courtesy of Paint Pixie

Picture from Debi's Design Diary - DIY Paint

 The #12 brush holds a lot and allows you to apply long and even strokes.  You can also use a foam brush to apply the topcoat.  Allow the first coat to dry for at least twenty minutes (more if it is humid). After the first coating of the top coat, I use 320 grit sandpaper to get even a smoother finish.  Make sure to remove all dust before applying your next coat.  I always sand in between each coat. Usually, I apply between two to three coats of Big Top.  If you are working on a dining table I recommend at least five coats. The more you work with it the better you will be at figuring out how much you need.  If you think it needs another coat then apply it.  More is always better than not enough.

DIY Paint -Clear Wax (picture courtesy of DIY Paint)

Waxing furniture is a scary idea to most people, but it is really quite simple.  I use wax on all small items like candlesticks and frames.  I also use wax on areas that will get light use like the sides of a piece.  If you can wait for the wax to cure completely (usually 30 days) wax can be used on all items that will receive light use like end tables, chairs, or dressers.  Since most of my pieces are taken directly to the mall to sell right away I always top coat the top of every piece. One of the reasons to use wax over topcoat is for the finish it creates.  When you wax a piece of furniture it wakes up the paint and makes it look even better.  Waxing and buffing are some of my favorite steps.  If you have used other brands of wax or other wax brushes you might be doubting me.  Most wax is very hard.  Most wax brushes are extremely stiff.  I remember being told by a retailer years ago that I would know when I was an accomplished furniture painter when my wax brush began to relax.  Waxing furniture used to be difficult and trying to get hard wax applied with a hard brush made my hand, arm, and shoulder ache, but I loved the look, so I continued.  Since then I have discovered wax from DIY Paint and the process is so much easier.  DIY Paint Wax is smooth and creamy.  Some people even use it on their hands like a lotion.  The DIY Paint Relaxed Fit Wax Brush is also like no other wax brush. It is flexible and with it, you can easily spread the wax.  With DIY Paint you have immediately become an accomplished furniture painter.  Wax can be applied right after the paint has dried.  I always take a bit of wax out of the container and put it on a paper plate and apply it from there.  To apply wax dip your brush into the wax (less is more) and apply to the piece.  Some use circular strokes, some use long even strokes - do what works for you.  Please be aware that because DIY Paint is clay-based it dries lighter and when you apply the wax it will reactive and get much darker in color.  This process is called "Wax Freak-Out" and please do not worry.  When the wax dries the color will lighten back to what the paint looked like when it was applied.  I actually love that the paint changes colors as it dries and it helps me know when I can move on to the next step.  Most pieces need at least two coats of wax.

Wax Freak Out
Notice the color change as the wax dries.

After the wax has dried buff with a cloth or a buffing brush.  One of my favorite buffing brushes is the Buffy Small Waxing Buffer Brush from Paint Pixie, which I sell in my booth.  I like the smaller size and I am able to use it everywhere on most pieces.

Picture courtesy of Paint Pixie

 Wax also comes in different colors.  I always recommend applying a coat of clear wax first. After that first coat, you can use white, dark, or black wax to change the whole look of the piece.  If you use clear wax first you can have better control to wipe back the colored wax if you think it is too much.  You can also apply more clear wax to erase the colored wax. But you don't have to use clear wax first.  My best advice for furniture artists is to trust your gut.  Paint and wax how you want.  Innately I believe that you know what is best. Trust yourself. You can apply colored wax first.  Try it to see what works best.  Remember wax is always the last step.  Nothing can go over wax except wax.

If you want an extra super-duper finish for your piece and want an extra layer of protection I recommend you use two coats of Big Top (or more) and then apply a coat or two of clear wax over that.  Using Big Top and then clear wax will apply a water-resistant topcoat.  If someone accidentally sets a glass down on your piece the water ring will not sink in and it can be easily wiped away. The finish needs 30 days to cure and will not be water-proof, but it will be even more resilient than just topcoat alone.

I hope you find all this information helpful in making the best choices for finishing the piece you worked so hard on. Taking time to finish a piece the right way will allow you to create that heirloom piece that you can keep around for years.

Happy Painting!

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