Just did a job with some water-based Varathane, not because I wanted to
use it, but because my client demanded it. As soon as I saw what the can
of stuff was, I said "I hate it", but I went ahead and used it.
Now I remember why I hate the stuff. It's milky-white; that's an
unnatural color, in my book, for something that's supposed to form a
clear film. It's awful to work with: dries too fast, difficult to brush
on smoothly, so thin it drips off your brush, just makes a mess.
So my question is, is anyone out there doing quality work with this
stuff? I guess I'm old-school in this regard; give me good old oil-based
(or solvent-based) varnish any day. Just refinished a desk of mine with
oil varnish and it looks bee-yoo-tiful. Finish lays down flat as a
In order to embark on a new course, the only one that will
solve the problem: negotiations and peace with the Palestinians,
Fine Woodworking has had numerous articles on selection, comparisons
between and to solvent-based, and application of water-based finishes
over the years. One of the finishing gurus is Chris Minick a
professional finishes chemist who writes fairly frequently and has a
comparison chart of a number of finishes that is at the link below.
A couple of issues have some very useful articles I happen to have
laying around -- if you're lucky and have a library which keeps them
on file, they're invaluable; otherwise I think the CD is worth the
price if do work regularly or there is a fee-based web access to the
archives (I don't know the fee, I've been subscriber since Vol I,
Issue 3, but there's an free trial period that allows for at least
some access, you'd have to explore the limitations/caveats).
Anyway, the following are useful articles
Issue #187 - Chris Minick
Issue #194 - Jeff Weiss
One of the most critical things w/ using water-based finishes and
perhaps a problem if you're used to solvent-based is the choice of
brush. Natural bristle brushes work best for solvent-based but not so
much for water-based. You need a very good quality synthetic bristle
brush to make it flow and it does not brush out like solvent-based
finishes; you need to lay it on and move on.
It is possible to do very fine work with them with practice and the
right tools. But, they are different and need some changes in
Also, need to be sure the finish chosen is intended for brushing as
another poster noted--some are, some aren't. A very nice benefit is
that one doesn't have the vapor problem when spraying from either the
exposure or fire/explosion standpoint that can be a problem w/ the
I go over oil-based stain with the Minwax water-poly version with good
results. Without applying some kind of oil-based stain or conditioner
to the bare wood, the water-based poly raises the grain too much. The
milkyness disappears. I do prefer oil for something like furniture
building. But having lived with varathane wood floors for 10 years
then in a second home lived with water-poly floors for 10 years, I'll
take the water-poly floors over the oil. For quick jobs I can get 3
coats on in a day with water-poly (including the between coat
sandings), with oil this would take a week. I did a whole buch of
dooors that came out fantastic with water-poly (minwax).
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