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Those who have been following me for a while probably already know my affinity for wiping varnishes. In fact, the first DVD I ever made focused on my application method for wiping varnishes called A Simple Varnish Finish. By the way, the title is still available on DVD or digitally via The Guild. As much as for my own curiosity as everyone else’s edification, I wanted to do a side by side comparison between some popular variations of wiping varnish. I’ve used all of these finishes in the past but I have never used them side by side. By finishing some test boards, I figured I could not only gather information about their application characteristics but also the resulting look of the finishes and how they might hold up to various durability tests.
I polled the audience to determine which tests I would run and I received a lot of great suggestions. What I demonstrate in this video is just a small sampling but I feel they represent a decent variety of real world situations. Are they truly scientific tests? Nope! Do they cover every scenario? Nope! But they just might give you some valuable insight into which product you should select for your next project.
I summarized my test results into a convenient Google spreadsheet for those who need a quick reference. The list is too long to publish directly in this article so please feel free to access that here. The spreadsheet contains color coding to denote “best” and “worst” performance. With many of the tests, the results are subjective and no color-coding was applied.
Here are the products I used in the shootout:
During this experimentation process, I not only answered a few questions of my own but also had a chance to confirm or deny some opinions I’ve seen stated about these finishes over the years.
Waterlox is better because it’s easily repairable
Waterlox is indeed repairable, but so are Arm-R-Seal and Minwax Wipe-On Poly. Where Waterlox Sealer might have an advantage is if you need to do a spot repair. Because the material is thinner and there’s less of a film on the surface, you might very well be able to spot sand one area and reapply the finish without having to treat the entire surface. But that seems to be more a property of the dilution than it is about the particular varnish in the can.
Poly looks like plastic
In the past, I have denied this with regard to wipe-on poly. I used Arm-R-Seal for years (which contains poly) and never thought it looked like plastic. So I’ve recently started using a lot of Minwax Wipe-On Poly due to its convenient availability and I’ve been quite pleased with the results. But during this experiment, I was able to look at the gloss versions of these finishes side by side and the Minwax Wipe-On Poly did indeed have more of a plastic look to it. Most of my projects are finished with satin or semi-gloss finishes so it’s something I might not notice on my projects. But at least when comparing the full gloss material, I have to admit that Minwax Wipe-On Poly does indeed look more like plastic. But we can’t forget Arm-R-Seal also contains poly and does NOT appear like plastic. So the problem could be brand specific, coming down to the proprietary mixture of resins, and we probably shouldn’t throw all poly-containing products under the bus.
You Get What You Pay For
If this were true, I’d be buying Waterlox products from here on out. But in many areas, Waterlox was outperformed by Arm-R-Seal which is the least expensive product in the lineup. Furthermore, Waterlox was outperformed in several areas by Minwax Wipe-on Poly, a finish that is often shunned by self-proclaimed finishing “experts.” So just because Waterlox is the most expensive certainly doesn’t mean it is the best for every situation. In fact, you should make absolutely sure the Waterlox products have the attributes you want before you plop down nearly twice as much for them.
X brand is just better than Y brand
If there are any take home messages I don’t want you to miss they would be the following:
1 – ALL of these finishes are capable of producing a high quality, durable, beautiful finish.
2 – No single finish is best at everything.
While I never intended to pick a winner, something became obvious to me as I was further refining my spreadsheet. Wherever possible, I assigned “Best” and “Worst” status to the appropriate finishes. If you look at those results and you give each test equal weight, it is technically possible to select a “winner.” Notice I keep putting that in quotes? That’s because there is no true winner. It all depends on what you’re looking for out of a finish and what wood you’re putting it on. But that said, Arm-R-Seal has the most “Best” designations and the fewest “Worst” designations out of all four finishes tested.
Disclaimer: These tests are not intended to be scientific or absolute in any way. Instead, it was a quick and dirty way to do a practical examination of these four finishes in some real world scenarios. Your mileage may vary.