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When to Polyurethane Painted Furniture

Are you wondering if you need to apply polyurethane over your painted furniture to add durability?

A question I get asked a lot is…

When is a polyurethane or clear top coat necessary over painted furniture?

Especially after people read my , easy nightstand makeover with paint, My Favorite Furniture Paint and Why, and review of Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel.

If you haven’t guessed, I have some serious paint project experience and am an expert in painted finishes. So you’ve come to the right place!

After 5 years of working for Valspar paint company, in the group that trains the Lowe’s Home Improvement paint department staff, I know when you should and shouldn’t apply polyurethane over paint!

Typical Paint Types for Furniture

If you are wondering if you should top coat your paint project, you’ve probably used one of these different paint types.

Types of Paint for Furniture

  1. Acrylic latex paint
  2. Chalk paint
  3. Hybrid enamel paint
  4. Oil based paint

If you don’t know much about hybrid enamel paints (my favorite), read Best Cabinet Paint for Kitchens and Bathrooms

Painted with Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel / Semi-Gloss Sheen

Each type of paint has different properties and will determine what type of a polyurethane to use and when you MAY need to clear coat.

Not all paint types require a clear top coat of polyurethane!

If you are still just researching and haven’t painted your furniture, when faced with a sheen choice, please always use a SEMI-GLOSS sheen.


  • Flat/Matte
  • Eggshell
  • Satin
  • Semi-Gloss (best for cabinets and furniture)
  • Gloss

Mid-range sheens are most commonly used for painting furniture, so you could consider a Satin.

Semi-Gloss and Satin finishes give you a nice balance between being easy to clean and also resisting scratches or other damage, but without being too shiny.

Too low of a sheen will not be durable against scratches and general wear which is important.

One caveat to this is when you use a CHALK PAINT.

Chalk paint is a matte/flat finish straight out of the can.

Chalk Painted Finish

If you’d like to learn more about chalk paint read:

Chalk paint REQUIRES a sealing coat over the paint, which can be wax or polyurethane.

When to Polyurethane Over Painted Surfaces

Realize there are SO many variables when looking at deciding whether to polyurethane or not.

Each piece of painted furniture is unique, so I won’t to cover every scenario, but can at least give you some general guidelines.

I’ll use some painted furniture examples from my home and how I made the decision to coat with polyurethane or not.

Faux Finish Table with 2 Coats of Polyurethane

When to Polyurethane painted furniture

You are not going to like my answer because “it depends”.

It depends on two things:

  • Type of paint
  • Possible wear and tear

My general rule of thumb on deciding to add a clear coat or not comes to some simple rules.

Polyurethane over the painted surface when:

  • It’s chalk paint (you must seal it)
  • Children’s furniture
  • Heavily used horizontal surfaces

The table picture above is in my son’s “entertaining space”, so it is used for eating, playing games and I use it for wrapping gifts.

Plus the painted table has a faux driftwood finish, so I wanted to protect it and make it so I could clean the table without damaging the surface.

When my son was a toddler, I painted all of his bedroom furniture with a white acrylic latex paint in semi-gloss.

Painted Toddler Furniture with 3 Coats of Semi-Gloss Polyurethane

To keep the furniture protected from toddler activities and messes, I applied 3 coats of semi-gloss polyurethane sanding in between.

That furniture stood up to years of abuse and looked great until the day I sold it!

Sorry for the crummy old picture, but you get the idea.

Other examples of when to apply 2 to 3 coats of polyurethane over painted furniture:

  • Kitchen table top
  • Coffee table top
  • Nightstand top

All of these horizontal surfaces are likely to get spilled on, get water ring marks, and have items placed on them that could scratch off the paint.

Always think of the USE the painted furniture will be getting and how much you will need to CLEAN the surface.

Polyurethane will add a higher level of durability to your painted furniture.

Anything that falls into the heavy use / need to clean category will typically need 2 or 3 coats of polyurethane.

I always recommend a water based polyurethane! My favorite is Minwax Polycrylic.

What is nice is you can choose ANY SHEEN you would like, so if you want a glossier or duller finish go for it!

Chalk Painted Armoire with 2 Coats Matte Polyurethane

Water based polyurethane is better because unlike an oil polyurethane it won’t yellow over time plus it is soap and water clean up!

Recently I used the Matte finish on a chalk painted armoire that doubles as a garden shed.

It looks great and is protected from the wear and tear it sees.

Plus I was able to keep the chalk paint matte finish that so many people love.

Hopefully, that will help you decide when to polyurethane over your painted furniture.

Pin it for Later!

When NOT to Polyurethane Over Painted Surfaces

Now let’s talk about when you can skip sealing paint or protecting in with polyurethane.

This gets a little trickier, so you will ultimately have to decide what to do.

NO, don’t apply polyurethane over painted furniture when:

People are surprised to hear I haven’t polyurethaned most of my furniture!

That is primarily because I use Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel.

It doesn’t require a top coat because it dries to such a hard durable finish.

Here are the top 10 things I LOVE about Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel (read my in depth review here):

  2. This is a paint technology that acts like an oil and cures to a hard tough finish
  3. Water based, which means soap and water clean up
  4. Low odor, low VOC (volatile organic compounds/gasses)
  5. Available in almost all of Valspar’s paint colors (2,000+) plus custom tintable into other manufacturer’s colors
  6. Flows and levels beautifully, which means virtually no brush marks!
  7. Dries to a durable scratch and scuff resistant finish
  8. Non-yellowing like the old oil paints
  9. Can be sprayed or hand applied for a smooth finish
  10. Easy to touch up when needed

Here are the items I’ve painted and have never sealed with polyurethane:

  • Bedroom armoire
  • Nightstands
  • Coffee table (upholstered top)
  • Kitchen chairs
  • Foyer table
  • End table
  • Dresser

They have all held up beautifully!

Foyer Table Painted with Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel – No Polyurethane

If this foyer table / console was painted with a regular semi-gloss acrylic latex paint, I would have applied 2 coats of polyurethane just to the top in the same sheen as the paint to match.

Because I used an enamel hybrid the finish is hard and durable.

The table has held up to my many accessory changes, WITHOUT any polyurethane.

Oil paint dries to the same hard finish, so you likely can avoid adding a coat of polyurethane.

I don’t recommend oil paint in general due to the difficult clean up, high VOCs, and because it yellows overtime.

It is really up to the original decision tree of USE and DURABILITY required of the painted piece.

Bedroom Armoire Painted with Valspar Cabinet and Furniture Enamel – NO Polyurethane

This armoire has been painted four years and even with all of the opening and closing never has it gotten scratched or chipped.

Looking for my paint colors? Please visit home tours with paint colors

One other painted furniture item I want to mention are chairs either accent, kitchen or barstools.

If you think you will be rough on them, then by all means polyurethane.

I typically don’t polyurethane over painted chairs, so I can easily touch-up the paint if it gets scuffed.

My hope is ALL of these examples help you make your decision on whether to polyurethane your painted furniture finish or or not.

There are no hard and fast rules, so hopefully this guide gets you thinking about how the painted piece is used.

Then think if the painted finish is durable or not. If the answer is no, apply POLYURETHANE.

Simple, right? Good luck in your painting adventures 🙂


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Until next time…



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  1. I am, right now (!) applying water base poly to my dining room table top! I am using a 220 sanding sponge between coats. Varathane water base is the best. Thanks for the info!

  2. What white did you use in the cabinet above? I need to paint over a dark green bookshelf and an oak table that’s never been painted. I need a white and an aqua. What would you recommend? Thanks.

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