What is the Best Polyurethane for Wood Countertops? (2024)

If you buy something through our posts, we may get a small commission. Read more here.

Polyurethane is a practical and aesthetically pleasing choice for wood countertops due to its durability and low-maintenance requirements. But using the wrong type can damage your countertops and even cost you more in the long run.

To help you buy a product that works, I’ll share the best polyurethanes for wood countertops I’ve been using for years and how to choose one for your needs!

Premium Option
Minwax Helmsman
Editor’s Choice
General Finishes ‎QTHS
Budget Option
Minwax 63010444
Minwax Helmsman
General Finishes ‎QTHS
Minwax 63010444
• Quick-drying
• Damage protection
• Glossy finish
• Non-toxic
• Dries in 1-2 hours
• For interior use
• Durable
• User-friendly
• Durable
• Clear finish
• Unique sheen
• Reliable brand
Premium Option
Minwax Helmsman
Minwax Helmsman
• Quick-drying
• Damage protection
• Glossy finish
• Non-toxic
Editor’s Choice
General Finishes ‎QTHS
General Finishes ‎QTHS
• Dries in 1-2 hours
• For interior use
• Durable
• User-friendly
Budget Option
Minwax 63010444
Minwax 63010444
• Durable
• Clear finish
• Unique sheen
• Reliable brand

Reviews of the Top Polyurethane for Wood Countertops

1. General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat

The General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat dries quickly, and you can touch it within minutes. It takes about an hour or two for the product to dry in between coats, which allows you to apply as many coatings as needed in a day.

It dries to a thick layer that will protect your oak tabletop for years. If you’re looking for a rigid polyurethane, go no further than this. Its resilience against scratches is remarkable.

The wood countertop will retain its pristine appearance for a very long period due to this formula’s quality. It is very resistant to the sun’s UV rays because of the abundance of UV stabilizers.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

2. Minwax Helmsman Water-Based Spar Urethane

The Helmsman is one of the best polyurethanes for wood countertops due to its unique mix that makes it effective indoors and out on various surfaces. 

Its excellent adhesion to multiple substrates makes it a popular polyurethane for these applications. So no need to stress over having to use up extra poly. Besides, its proprietary water-based solution ensures a flawless finish that won’t cloud or become yellow over time. 

Maintaining your wood’s original color for the long term is a breeze with this clear finish. Since the Minwax Helmsman Water-Based Spar Urethane does not yellow over time, you can count on the ultra-durable finish’s crystal clarity to last for years.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

3. Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane Protective Wood Finish

Due to its oil-based composition, this polyurethane from Minwax provides unmatched longevity in protecting kitchen and bathroom counters made of wood. It is one of the toughest coatings ever due to its oil-based composition.

After the Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane Wood Finish dries, the wood will retain its beautiful appearance for much longer. You may rest assured that this solution will keep your wood safe from the effects of moisture and accidental spills.

After waiting 4 to 6 hours between coats, you can apply a second coat of this polyurethane. Plus, adding multiple layers won’t always be necessary to achieve proper coverage, allowing you to complete a project within a single day.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

4. AFM Safecoat Acrylacq Gloss

If you have a wood countertop and are worried about stains and scratches, the AFM Safecoat Acrylaq is a solid choice I’d recommend. It’s fantastic for keeping away those nasty stains and scratches that come from everyday use. It is also highly resilient against discoloration—spills and mishaps don’t stand a chance.

Also, it can withstand the effects of the sun’s UV rays and the most common household pollutants. The gloss finish not only adds a sleek look but also makes cleaning a breeze.

More importantly, it can preserve the beauty of your countertop for longer because of the scratch resistance of these coatings. In addition, it may reflect a lot of light, making even the darkest kitchen seem more welcoming.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

5. Rust-Oleum 284470 Varathane Triple Thick Polyurethane

If you’re not a fan of recoating, I highly recommend this product for you. You may achieve the same level of protection as three regular coatings with just one coat. 

Its unique formulation hardens into a thick coat that provides exceptional resistance to scratches and stains on the countertop. One application offers the coverage of three, but it dries to the touch in just two hours.

The Rust-Oleum 284470 Triple Thick Polyurethane has a self-leveling composition that makes brush marks less noticeable. It makes it possible for someone with no experience with similar wood finishes to produce results that seem like they were done by a professional.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

6. Varathane 200261H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

The Varathane 200261H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane will provide the best protection for any wood countertop. It’s the fastest-drying polyurethane product ever created, and in just 30 minutes, it can be dry to the touch.

What’s impressive is its coverage; a single gallon can coat up to 125 square feet. This means more protection with less product, making it not only efficient but cost-effective. It’s a product I also often suggest for those sensitive to strong odors or who suffer from allergies, as it emits low odor.

As a bonus, the water-based composition ensures the color stays bright and vivid over time. 

What I Like

What I Don't Like

Is Polyurethane Food-Safe?

The best polyurethane for wood countertops is safe for use with food. According to the FDA, the completed surface needs time to dry and cure before it can be a food-safe polyurethane. 

Also Read100% Food-safe Wood Finishes

Because different polymers have different curing durations, it’s essential to follow the instructions on the packaging. 

Before a polyurethane surface is fully cured, you should not use it to handle food. If you utilize the product before it’s fully cured, you may experience some unpleasant side effects due to the chemical vapors and scents it emits.

Polyurethane Types for Countertops

There are various types of poly you can use covering wooden countertops in the kitchen:

Water-Based Poly

Water, not a harmful solvent, is the basis of this polymer. Because of its low toxicity and incorporation of water, water-based poly is often a preferred option for indoor use, including wooden countertops.

The curing period for this polyurethane is less than that of oil-based poly because it cures more quickly. Using the poly is hassle-free because you can clean it with just soap and water.

Since water-based poly has a low profile of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), you can apply it to your counter without specific breathing equipment.

Similarly, most water-based poly can dry transparent and maintain their opacity over time. Compare that to polyurethane made from oil, which can turn yellow with time. You’ll also get yellow hue in some oil-based polyurethanes over time. For more options, check out the best non-yellowing polys here! 

However, water-based poly may need to be more sturdy or heat-resistant. But this poly continues to be the superior option for interior uses.

Oil-Based Poly

These liquid coatings include potentially very flammable solvents; therefore, they must be handled carefully and kept away from ignition sources.

Due to the solvents, oil-based poly has a more significant toxicity profile; thus, it’s essential to protect yourself by using a respirator or mask.

The substance may continue to produce toxic fumes several weeks after application. Therefore, it’s important you pay close attention to the curing period to know when the polyurethane surface is fully cured and safe to use.

Despite this, oil-based poly’s durability and scratch resistance are umatched. Although they offer varying degrees of glossiness, the product dries to a glossy finish.

You’ll need to use a solvent like turpentine [1] or mineral spirits to clean oil-based poly. 

Polyurethanes for Wood Countertops Buyer’s Guide

Food-Safe Quality

Most of our time in the kitchen is spent at the counter. The coating material you choose must be suitable for contact with consumables since food poisoning is a real possibility.

However, you should also seek out pet- and human-friendly countertop woods like maple.

Levels of Sheen

Polyurethane can have a satin, high gloss, matte, or semi-gloss finish. Glossy coatings reflect the lightest, whereas satin and matte polyurethane coatings do the opposite. 

A kitchen with limited natural light may benefit from a shiny surface reflecting more available light.

Read Next: Satin vs Semi-Gloss Poly Finish 

Durability

If you want a polyurethane countertop that lasts as long as possible, you should not assume that all brands are created equal. Find a product that offers the most value for your money that will save you cash in the long term.

Environmental Friendliness

During the curing process, the chemical solvents that makeup solvent- or oil-based polyurethanes could release vapors that are harmful to humans. The emission of VOCs or volatile organic compounds from such items is generally detrimental to ecosystem health. 

(So, is polyurethane toxic to your health and the environment? Find out next!) 

Low volatile organic compound (VOC) levels are a hallmark of water-based finishes, which are thus more eco-friendly. Therefore, consider these safer options and select them wherever possible.

Dry Time

Some polyurethanes can be touched again in 30 minutes, while others can take up to six hours to dry.

The substance is dry to handle in a half-hour, and you can recoat it in approximately two hours to finish in a few hours in a single day.

However, the product may need an additional two hours before you can recoat once it has dried to the touch, so plan accordingly. Because of this, it’s possible that utilizing poly will prevent you from doing the task in fewer than three days.

When feasible, it’s wise to use a quick-drying poly to speed up the process and get your work done.

How to Seal Butcher Block Countertops Using Polyurethane

Step #1: Gather all the necessary tools and set up your work area.

Step #2: Make the wood countertop smooth by sanding it with the grain instead of against it.

Step #3: You can remove sanding dust using a tack cloth, and the wood should be allowed to dry before polyurethane is applied.

Step #4: Use diluted poly to properly seal the wood. You can dilute polyurethane (poly) that is oil-based by mixing it with mineral spirits (2:1) or water (1:1) in a glass jar. Without disturbing or shaking the mixture, stir it carefully using a stick to avoid introducing bubbles. Use a brush to spread it everywhere.

Step #5: Once the sealer has dry, use natural brushes (for oil-based polyurethane) or synthetic bristles to apply the poly to the surface (for water-based poly).

Step #6: If you need more coatings, wet sand the area between applications.

FAQ

What is the best finish for wood countertops?

The best finish for wood countertops should have non-toxic properties of Tung Oil and other white mineral oils. Unfortunately, much like butcher block oil or walnut oil, they need regular reapplication to maintain their protective properties.

Is polycrylic or polyurethane better for countertops?

Polyurethane that’s oil-based is better for countertops over polycrylic. While polycrylic is good for kitchen counters, oil-based polyurethanes offer better protection against heat, scratches, and moisture.

How do you seal unfinished wood countertops?

To seal your unfinished wood countertops, you can use butcher block oil, like the kind used to seal cutting boards. But the water-tight seal needs to be reapplied frequently.

This sealing process will create a protective barrier, preventing moisture and stains from penetrating the wood. It will also keep your countertops looking beautiful and well-maintained for years to come.

Is dried polyurethane food safe?

The FDA has deemed polyurethane to be safe once dried for use in food production. However, the group stresses the importance of waiting for the clear wood finish to cure completely before putting it in touch with food.

How many coats of polyurethane you’ll need for countertops?

You will need two coats of polyurethane for optimal coverage and protection of wood countertops. Lesser coats will not provide the best protection and durability.

Is wipe-on polyurethane food safe?

Wipe-on polyurethane is suitable for use around food. After curing, experts claim that all tough clear finishes are safe for consumption.

Should you apply polyurethane to butcher blocks?

Butcher block countertops are wood and should be sealed with polyurethane to preserve them. Poly must first be wholly cured and dry to the touch to be used for food handling.

Also Read: Does Water-Based Polyurethane Yellow Over Time?

My Top Pick For a Polyurethane for Wood Countertops:
General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat

The best polyurethane for wood countertops is easily the General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Topcoat for me. The formula is easy to apply and quick-drying. It doesn’t take much effort for beginners to enhance the appearance of the wood. 

Durability is where this product truly shines. I’ve seen it in action over several years, and it has consistently kept countertops unmarred and smooth, a testament to its tough-as-nails formula.

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

2 thoughts on “What is the Best Polyurethane for Wood Countertops? (2024)

  1. Hi, I just read your article on polyurethanes for wood. I am putting birch butcher block in out kitchen. I would say it has less natural light as theres one small window and that is on the north side of the house where the sun doesnt hit directly. I would like to use a product that is glossy looking and provides the longest protection possible. How long just roughly guessing how long can the finish last indoors if treated right? My wife would like to leave the wood natural so it wouldnt be stained before hand. Which product would you reccomnd to use? Thank you, Brad

  2. Brad,

    The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re going to use your butcher block as a butcher block; that is, for cutting. If you are, then I’d avoid using any sort of polyurethane. It’s not that the polyurethane isn’t food safe, because it is. But if you’re going to be cutting on it, you’ll be scratching up the surface. That would be much more visible on a glossy countertop, than it would be on a matte finished one. At the same time, there’s always a possibility of slivers of the finish being cut loose and ending up in the food. Again, that’s not dangerous, but it’s not appetizing either.

    Another advantage of matte, over gloss, is that every water drop or spill will show up on that glossy finish. It might look pretty; but it’s more work to keep it clean enough to keep looking pretty, especially if you have hard water.
    If you’re not going to be cutting on the countertop, then any semi-gloss polyurethane will work. In the environment you’re talking about, I would expect that you could get 20 years out of that finish, before needing to refinish it. Of course, that’s assuming that you take care of it, as you stated.

    Another option to consider is using a Spar Varnish. This is marine varnish and is much more water resistant than polyurethane. While the polyurethane should hold up fine in your application, Spar Varnish will withstand flooding the countertop with water, allowing you to place wet pots and pans directly on the countertop to dry, without anything to soak up the water.

    If you’re going to end up using the countertop as a cutting board, even if that is only occasionally, I’d move away from varnish and use a hard wax finish instead. You can buy hard wax finishes or make your own by melting beeswax and mixing it with mineral oil, at a ratio of one ounce beeswax to ½ cup mineral oil. You’ll need several coats, as it will soak in; but then, you’d need at least three coats of the gloss or semi-gloss varnish too. Wax finishes do require maintenance, in the form of rewaxing the countertop about every six months. You can get a really high shine, by buffing it with an electric buffer of the type that is used when waxing a car.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Related Articles
Join our community on facebook and get 3 woodworking plans for free!