Cabinets may endure some heavy wear and tear when in high traffic areas such as kitchens and living areas. Top coats are not only a must to protect your cabinets from wear and tear but also easier to wipe clean. Depending on your top coat choice, these finishes may also bring your cabinets to life and make them a feature in your home.

The best top coat paints for painted cabinets include water-based clear coats such as the General Finishes Top Coat and the Rust-Oleum Varathane. A great oil-based top coat for wood is the Varathane oil polyurethane, and the Minwax Wipe-On is excellent for a durable, hand-rubbed aesthetic.

Top coats provide several benefits, both practical and aesthetic, and are an excellent option for your home cabinets. If you seek some advice on what the best top coats are for your cabinet surface and intended environment, please read on for some advice and great products for 2021.

1. General Finishes Top Coat for Painted Cabinets

General Finishes is a trusted brand in top coats and has been around since 1928. General Finishes High-Performance Water-Based Polyurethane is a high-performance top coat for painted cabinets. It is particularly suited to kitchens and bathrooms with high moisture and high sunlight exposure.

The General Finishes High-Performance top coat is available in various sheens and scores particularly well for durability and stain resistance. The coat dries quickly and emits low odor and VOCs, so it is kind to humans and the environment. The General Finishes top coat delivers a tough and durable finish that can withstand harsh conditions and scratches, and general wear and tear.


  • UV protection for high sun structures
  • Quick-drying water-based polyurethane
  • Hard drying and durable coat
  • Available in a variety of sheens.

2. Rust-Oleum® Varathane® Crystal Clear Water-Based Polyurethane

Rust-Oleum is another great name in the American top coat industry and has been offering quality products since 1921. The Rust-Oleum Varathane Water Based Polyurethane provides a crystal clear gloss with a quick-drying time and enhanced durability and hardness of its finish.

Rust-Oleum brings up the beauty of surfaces, particularly wood, while offering superior scratch resistance and works beautifully on stained wood cabinets. The top coat also has a low odor and is easily cleaned with water-based soaps, making it excellent for busy kitchens.


  • Competitively priced top coat option
  • Crystal clear and durable finish
  • Easy to clean with a water-based soap
  • Enhanced stain and scratch resistance
  • Varathane does not darken over time.

3. Minwax Polycrylic Based Protective Finish

Minwax is another iconic name in the top coat industry and was established in Brooklyn in 1924. Minwax formulated this clear coat for quick dry time, and you may apply a second coat after only an hour or two after application and is also available in a spray-on aerosol version for ease of use.

The coat clears into a clear and hard finish with good scratch resistance and is water-based, so there is low odor and harmful VOCs. The water-based finish is easy to clean with soap and warm water and easy to remove from your hands if you mess during application.


  • Available in a variety of versions
  • Water-based and low odor
  • Non-yellowing over time
  • Durable and easy to clean
  • Quick-dry time

4. Minwax Spar Urethane

Minwax Spar Urethane is an excellent finish for cabinets exposed to temperature extremes and bright sunlight and is a highly durable and clear finish. Suitable for outdoor furniture, the Minwax offers enhanced UV blockers and formulated to withstand extreme heat and cold. Although the Minwax is water-based, it includes special oils in the mix to allow wood surfaces to expand and contract to protect the painted surface beneath.

The Helmsman is an excellent alternative to high traffic bathrooms and kitchens and stands up well to various external conditions. What stands out about the Helmsman is that the coating does not discolor, such as oil-based polys but offers the protection and expandability of oil-based polys.


  • Competitively priced
  • Expands and contracts with wood in temperature and seasonal changes
  • Durable not staining clear finish
  • Resists rain and water damage
  • Enhanced UV resistance.

5. Minwax Wipe-On Poly Finish Clear

Minwax formulated their Minwax Wipe-On Poly Finish to give items such as bathroom and kitchen cabinets extra protection from wear, food stains, and household chemicals. The Wipe-On also adds a moisture barrier to your cabinets, making them stand up well to spills and water damage.

The Minwax wipe-on version has the added hand-rubbed finish effect for aesthetic appeal on wood and surfaces. The Wipe-On is oil-based and is easy to apply with a clean and lint-free cloth, and has low drip and marks susceptibility.


  • Highly moisture and chemical resistant
  • It comes in two sheen options: Satin and Gloss
  • Easy to apply
  • Durable and elegant finish.

6. Rust-Oleum Triple Thick Polyurethane

For people who want minimum fuss with multiple coatings on their cabinets, the Rust-Oleum Triple Thick Polyurethane is the answer. The water-based super thick formula offers a self-leveling drip-resistant coat that you may apply in one go. The triple thick poly also provides excellent scratch resistance and durability with easy soap and water cleaning.

The advanced formula still has an excellent drying time of two hours, and 32oz covers 50 square feet. The matt finish is clear and offers stain resistance for areas such as kitchens with potential spills.


  • Time-saving one coat formula
  • Quick-drying time
  • Stain and scratch-resistant
  • Advanced self-leveling formula.

7. Rust-Oleum Varathane Interior Oil Polyurethane Semi-Gloss

The Rust-Oleum Varathane Oil polyurethane is a top-quality oil-based ploy that allows the beauty of your wooden cabinets to show through. The Varathane offers high clarity and maximum scratch and stain resistance, and a color that becomes richer over time and enhances your wood aesthetic.

The formula is self-leveling to avoid drips and brush marks and gives a clean look to your cabinet surfaces. Although it is oil-based, the Varathane dries to the touch in only 2 hours, and you may apply a second coat in only 4 hours. The oil finish gives increased flexibility and wood protection with a similar drying time to water-based polys.


  • Superior wood finish of oil-based polyurethane
  • Quick-drying time
  • High scratch and stain resistance
  • Color becomes warmer and deeper over time
  • Self-leveling formula
  • Smooth and glossy finish.

What Top Coat Is Best for Painted Cabinets?

Besides personal preference, there are specific considerations one must take into account before deciding on a top coat. The function and placing of the cabinet are essential considerations and the frequency of use and the occupants of your household. High traffic areas with children, for example, would need a surface that you can easily clean off fingerprints and smudges.

Other considerations are the aesthetic choices in terms of your decor and design and your cabinet’s material. Other factors to consider when choosing a top coat are:

  • Daily use. If your cabinet is in a kitchen, for instance, one should factor in wear and tear. Oil-based polyurethane is an excellent option for durability and wear and tear resistance.
  • Exposure to humidity and UV rays. If your cabinets are in a sunny room or exposed to high humidity areas such as bathrooms, one would need a top coat that protects from UV damage or expands and contracts with temperature changes such as water-based polyurethane with specialized oils.
  • Your cabinet materials base also dictates which top coat to use. Some clear coats add a rich amber tone to cabinet surfaces, ideal for a wood finish. However, light-colored surfaces or white surfaces would benefit from clear drying type coats.
  • Ease of application. There are a variety of top coats with varying degrees of difficulty of application and drying times. For jobs on the go, you may opt for a cloth application top coat with minimal fuss.
  • Cleaning. Some top coats only require soap and water for cleaning, while other surfaces require mineral spirits. In a high traffic area with exposure to marks and spills, a water-based cleaning system is more manageable and eliminates high odor cleaning substances.

Related post: Best Protective Top Coat for Painted Countertops

What Is the Best Sheen for Top Coats on Cabinets?

As a rule of thumb, the higher sheen finishes are more durable because they use a higher concentration of binders. However, the higher the sheen, the greater the daily smudges and dirt will tend to be highlighted, so they need more frequent cleaning. The high gloss may lend itself to a display of sticky little fingerprints for a family with small children more quickly than a more matte finish.

There are various sheen levels available, ranging from matt to and satin to semi-gloss gloss and full gloss. The primary difference in these finishes is the amount of light that they reflect off your surfaces. Lower sheen is less likely to show up scratches and dirt.

Matte and Satin Sheen

Matte finishes can hide imperfections and dirt but can appear dull. With virtually no light reflection, matte surfaces may appear relatively ‘flat’ in your kitchen or bathroom. The satin finish is quite popular and offers a medium to low sheen/luster, and still hides minor scratches or dirt to the naked eye. It is still clear enough to show off color finishes and or wood grain without dulling the surface.

Semi-Gloss and High Gloss Sheen

Semi-gloss is next up in the luster scale and correspondingly increases in upkeep and cleaning. The high light reflection, smudges, and marks in higher traffic areas will need regular cleaning to look neat, which is not ideal for children’s sticky fingers.

Full gloss is beautiful with full light reflection and can make the underlying surfaces come to light beautifully. Full gloss emphasizes paint finishes colors and highlights their effect. However, these finishes are high maintenance in high traffic areas like kitchens and dining rooms and benefit cabinets in quieter and less often used areas.

Why Do You Need a Top Coat for Your Cabinet?

There are many benefits to having a top coat on your cabinets beyond the apparent protection it affords your cabinet surfaces. Top coats can prolong the life of wood and painted surfaces and provide an aesthetic appeal through your choice of sheen.

  • Makes surfaces easier to clean. Top coats can provide a glossy surface that is easier to wipe and clean than wood or paint finished surfaces.
  • Water resistance. Polyurethane surfaces provide excellent water resistance for high moisture areas such as bathrooms and kitchens. Top coats protect the surface underneath from stains and water damage.
  • Helps avoid paint degradation. Cabinets in high light areas can discolor over time due to the effects of UV rays. Top coats offer UV resistance and prolong the life of the surface beneath them.
  • It helps prevent paint damage. Temperature changes cause the paint to shrink and expand, causing the paint to chip or flake over time. Top coats protect from temperature changes and increase the lifespan of your cabinet surface.
  • Modern touches. High gloss furnishings such as brightly painted cabinets can liven up a drab room and give a modern flair to your home.
  • Adds interest without having to introduce color. Placing a top coat adds to light reflection without resorting to color to liven a drab space. High sheen top coats can highlight your paint effects beautifully and make your cabinets a feature.

What Is a Polyurethane Top Coat?

A polyurethane (PU) product is a coating system created from the chemical reaction between a polyol resin and a polyisocyanate curing agent. Ploys are a kind of enhanced varnish that uses microscopic molecule chains that bind tightly with each other as it dries. The resulting finish is more resistant than traditional varnish to factors such as:

  • Water
  • Solvents
  • Abrasion
  • Impact
  • Scratches

Polyurethanes come in two different varieties, namely, water-based and oil-based polyurethanes (polys.) Both polys act as armor for your cabinets and protect the underlying surface from damage. Both polys provide a ‘sacrificial layer’ which takes scratches and wear marks instead of the underlying surface.

Water-based polys have acquired a reputation for being less durable than oil-based polys, but that assumption stems from the early days of water-based poly technology. Water-based polyurethanes now have the advantage of high durability and, when correctly applied, will last equally long if taken care of properly.

Should You Use Water-Based or Oil-Based Poly?

Both water and oil-based poly are excellent alternatives to finishing and protecting your cabinets. The main differences are in function suitability and the material and positioning of your chosen piece of furniture. The vital differences between the two rest in the following factors:


Oil-based poly dries to a warm amber hue, whereas water-based poly dries from cloudy to a clear, transparent finish. Oil-based polys also tend to darken over time, while water-based polys don’t discolor over time. Users should take care that they don’t use an oil-based poly on white or light-colored cabinets as they will yellow over time.

Curing Times

Oil-based poly takes a substantially longer time to dry and cure and may need 24 hours between coats. Water poly is fast drying, and you can apply several coats a day. On average oil-based poly takes two to three times as long to dry as water-based poly. Water-based poly allows multiple layers, while oil-based poly tends to be prone to ‘sheeting’ scratching and denting when applied in multiple layers.

Hazardous Fumes

Oil-based poly has a pungent smell and has a strong chemical odor as well as hazardous fumes. These polys require the use of a respirator, and one should never directly inhale the fumes in the application. Oil ploy contains many Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), making it hazardous for human health, while water-based is user friendly. Water polys are safe to apply without a respirator and don’t create a chemical smell, making them a breeze to use.

Thickness and Hardness

Oil-based poly is thicker than water poly, but it is softer and more susceptible to dings and dents. Water poly is thinner but has a harder surface finish. Thus water-based poly requires several coats, while two coats of oil poly will suffice on your cabinet surfaces. Some say that oil polys have a smoother finish, but water-based polys are as smooth to the touch when applied correctly and in sufficient layers.


Water-based poly is a more expensive purchase for quality brands with good durability. This price is because you need more layers of water poly. After all, these polys have 30-35% solids vs. the 45-50% solids of an oil-based poly. When you choose a multiple-layer effect for high traffic areas, your costs increase with water poly due to the extra quantity needed.

You might also want to read: Can You Put Polyurethane Over Paint?

Water-Based Oil-Modified Polyurethane

A great alternative to water or oil polys is the best of both worlds, the water-based oil-modified polyurethane. This poly appears cloudy in the can but dries quickly to an amber film like the oil-based poly. It has the same VOC levels as water-based polys and offers the durability of oil polys and the easy cleanup of water-based poly finishes.

The combo poly can be applied with a foam roller or rag and synthetic brushes, much like water polys and are low odor. This poly is also versatile and is compatible with all woods giving users greater flexibility. Oil-modified polys have the added benefit of using both oil and water-based finishes of your cabinets.


Whether you seek to increase your cabinets’ lifespan or wish to make them a stand out feature in your home, there are plenty of options available. Ensure that you get the right coating to suit both the cabinet materials and the environment you intend to use them in. Polyurethanes make a great choice and combine practicality with a wide variety of glossy sheens to enhance your cabinet’s appeal.

Write A Comment