5 Best Clear Coats for Painted Kitchen Cabinets

By MWB-Team •  Updated: 09/22/23 • 

Painted kitchen cabinets brighten your kitchen space. However, adding extra protection is a must to make that great look last for years to come. A clear top coat protects painted kitchen cabinets while keeping the original color or enhancing the overall look. If you’re looking for the best clear coats for painted kitchen cabinets, you’re in the right place. You can also check out our informative guide on the best paint sprayers for cabinets.

Our Best Clear Coats for Painted Cabinets

Best Clear Coat for Painted Kitchen Cabinets

1. Minwax Clear Polycrylic Finish Satin

Minwax Clear Polycrylic Water-Based Protective Finish
$69.98 ($0.55 / Fl Oz)

This is one of the products we highly recommend if you're looking for a clear and protective coat for your furniture, cabinets, and other wooded products. It's easy to apply, has a beautiful finish, and is long-lasting.

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If you’re in the market for a top-quality protective finish for your painted cabinets or furniture, the best clear coat for your painted kitchen cabinets, the Minwax Clear Polycrylic, is your product. The product is available in different sheens, but we recommend semi-gloss or satin over painted kitchen cabinets. This creates a great balance between offering a protective finish and still enhancing the color of your painted cabinets.

One of the standout features is that it is water-based. This means it is easy to apply and also clean up after use. This is unlike oil-based poly, which uses solvents or harsh chemicals. It also has a low odor, which is great if you’re sensitive to strong solvents. It goes in a milky/whitish color and dries into a strong and crystal-clear coat within an hour.

Overall, we highly recommend this Minwax Clear finish. It’s easy to use, has a beautiful finish, and is long-lasting, which makes it excellent for the price. If you have a compatible polyurethane sprayer, the results will be much better as compared to brushing.

Another Great Option

2. General Finishes Water-Based Topcoat

General Finishes High Performance Water Based Topcoat

General Finishes is one of the go-to brands for wood finishing products. This clear coat is no exception and offers the best performance and superior durability. It is also easier to apply, dries fast, and has a very low odor during application.

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We’ve always been fans of GF products here at Make Wood Better. We’ve used several products from the company which have excellent results, and this clear top coat is no exception. It’s easy to apply and builds up very well to provide better resistance against moisture, scratches, and other elements.

It is available in different sheens, from flat, satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. When used over paint, it works and performs great. Like many other water-based poly finishes, it dries fast, but what we love about this is that it is more forgiving when applying it. It has a low odor and is very easy to clean up after application.

Compared to our best clear coat, the General Finishes water-based topcoat is expensive but worth the money. Overall, it is easy to apply, dries quickly, and leaves a beautiful finish. It also goes a long way and is very durable.

Best Lacquer Clear Top Coat

3. Watco Lacquer Clear Wood Finish

Watco Lacquer Clear Wood Finish

This is an excellent clear coat finish if you have a sprayer to apply it because we wouldn't recommend brushing it. If used correctly, it creates a nice and smooth protective coat that is also very durable.

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A lacquer topcoat is great for providing resistance against abrasive action like scratches. The Watco lacquer is a great product that leaves a shiny surface if properly applied. It is available in three sheens, which are clear satin, clear semi-gloss, and clear gloss.

This product dries very fast, so we would not recommend brushing or rolling it over your cabinets. This would result in orange peel, and you will not be able to get out brush marks. You’ll also need to sand every coat for a smoother surface. However, if you’re good, you can still brush it and get excellent results.

When sprayed, it leaves an even and smooth surface that looks great. The lacquer also fills cracks and dents on your kitchen cabinets for a more even surface. Overall, when applied correctly, this Watco clear lacquer delivers excellent results.

Best Wipe-On Clear Coat

4. Minwax Wipe-On Polyurethane

Minwax Wipe-On Poly

A wipe-on poly delivers a beautiful, smooth finish free from brush marks and other imperfections. This product is easy to apply, but you'll need more coats for better protection. However, the results are 100% worth it once you're done.

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If you prefer a wipe-on finish, this Minwax wipe-on polyurethane is the product for you. It’s easy to wipe on, and the final product you end up with is amazing. It’s even way better than regular polyurethane that is brushed. The finish is available in satin and gloss sheens.

The major disadvantage of wipe-on poly is that you’ll need more coats to get the same level of protection as standard poly. For this Minwax poly, the directions say 3-5 coasts, but you’ll definitely need more coats to build up the film and have adequate protection. Overall, just keep rubbing and building on each coat until you get the desired results.

Although It is an oil-based polyurethane, it dries faster, which is probably because of the thin coats applied. Beware that this oil-based poly will be slightly yellow as time goes on. If you prefer a warm finish, this is it. However, if you’re looking for a clear finish, there is still a water-based wipe-on poly by Minwax. Overall, the end results are top-notch.

Best Conversion Varnish Clear Coat

5. General Finishes Water Based 2K

General Finishes Water-Based 2K Conversion Varnish

This is the best clear coat you can choose for your cabinets and wood furniture that offers the best protection and durability compared to even poly. It dries rapidly, so you'll need a sprayer to apply it. You'll also require an NCO catalyst to go with it.

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Catalyzed finishes, like the General Finishes Water Based 2K, have long been used for institutional furniture and manufactured kitchen and bathroom cabinets. The finishes dry rapidly and offer the best protection and durability than even oil-based polyurethane.

This general finishes conversion varnish is one of the best clear top coats you can apply to your kitchen cabinets for ultimate protection. It is easy to spray and goes on thin, but a lot harder and tougher than most top coats. Because of its rapid drying time, this product is better sprayed for the best results.

If you choose to go with this conversion varnish, you’ll also require an NCO Catalyst to go with it. The catalyst is mixed with conversion varnish before you spray it. Once you mix them, you’ll have 6-8 hours to use it all up. However, with the fast drying times of this conversion varnish, you can spray several coats in a day without worry.

Top Clear Coats Buying Guide

Why Apply a Clear Top Coat?

Top coats extend the life of your kitchen cabinets and wood furniture and also protect your investment. Paint can peel away, chip, or get scratched without a top coat layer.

Your kitchen is prone to different elements, such as moisture, chemicals, and dirt. All these can shorten the life of your painted kitchen cabinets in the long run. A top coat protects the kitchen cabinets and also provides a tough surface you can wipe in case of any problem.

For painted kitchen cabinets, a clear top coat protects them while also enhancing their appearance. Topcoats also add a sheen or gloss factor that can bring warmth and life to your wood cabinets.

Polycrylic vs. Polyurethane

Both polyacrylic and polyurethane are protective top coats applied over wood projects. However, although they sound similar, they are very different.

Polycrylic is a water-based finish that Minwax only makes. It is available in both liquid and aerosol spray cans. Polyurethane can be water-based or oil-based, and even polycrylic is a type of polyurethane. The Minwax polycrylic dries into a crystal clear finish, which is great for lighter woods.

Minwax Polycrylic

Minwax Polycrylic

Polyurethane, either water- or oil-based, does not dry as fast as polyacrylic, but they are easier to apply and have better resistance against water, heat, and abrasive damage. polycrylic is runny, which makes it harder to apply on larger and vertical surfaces.

Overall, both polyacrylic and polyurethane can be used for the same purpose. They both offer good protective top coats, provide a good seal, and also enhance your wood projects. Having both at hand is better so you can choose the best option for different projects.

Polyurethane vs. Lacquer

Polyurethane and lacquer are great protective finishes providing an extra layer of protection over wood projects. Lacquer is based on nitrocellulose, which is made by treating cellulose fiber in cotton and wood with sulphuric and nitric acids. Polyurethane is available in water and oil-based finishes, and it’s a type of varnish that forms a very hard surface once cured.

The major difference between poly and lacquer is drying time and versatility. Lacquer dries very fast and is usually sprayed rather than brushed. Brush-on lacquer is also harder to apply because of its faster drying time. Water-based poly is the fastest drying type of polyurethane, but it takes around two-hour compared to lacquer, which dries rapidly.

Polyurethane is more versatile, and it can be used on different surfaces. Lacquer is mostly used on high-end wood surfaces that are not often exposed to different elements. Polyurethane works on cabinets, furniture, and even wood flooring. Check out our informative guide on poly vs lacquer for tabletop.

Lacquer vs. Conversion Varnish

Conversion varnish, also known as catalyzed varnish, is a lacquer finish that is chemically cured and usually needs an acid catalyst. The catalyst is added just before you spray the conversion varnish to provide additional durability when combined with the heat-curing method.

Conversion varnish dries more rapidly than lacquer but forms the hardest and most protective coat on different wood products. It’s also more elastic, needs fewer coats for better protection, and is easier to clean. However, you’ll need better skills to spray conversion varnish perfectly. It’s also more expensive compared to most lacquers.

Brushing vs. Spraying Kitchen Cabinets

Brush painting and spraying are great ways of applying paint to kitchen cabinets. However, both of these methods come with their pros and cons. For a larger project, spraying is much easier and faster than brushing. You’ll easily cover more in less time, and you’ll also get harder-to-reach areas.

Minwax Wipe On Poly

Minwax Wipe On Poly

Brushing is great for smaller projects and for a budget DIYer who does not have to get a spying system. You’ll also save more on paint because spraying results in more paint wastage in the form of overspray.

Overall, spraying will result in a smoother and better-looking surface compared to using a brush. Some finishes, like conversion lacquer, cannot be brushed because of their rapid drying time. Check out our informative guide on brushing vs. spraying cabinets for an in-depth read.

Yellowing Explained

Some clear coats are perfectly colorless. However, others will add a slight orange coloring, which is usually referred to as yellowing. Most finishes, except water-base and wax, will impart some degree of yellowing or warmth to the color of the wood.

Lacquers and most-two part finishes will add a slight degree of yellowing. Also, any finish with oil, like varnish and oil-based polyurethane, will add some color and yellow as it ages.

Yellowing is usually acceptable on darker or dark-stained woods. In fact, it is an advantage because the finish will look warmer. However, yellowing can be questionable and is usually not desired for light, lighter-stained woods. A water-based finish is the best way to avoid yellowing with age for lighter wood.

Satin vs. Semi-Gloss vs. Gloss

When choosing the right sheen for your kitchen cabinets, there are satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. Each of these has its pros and cons, which affect its overall look, durability, and ease of cleaning.

There is no right or wrong when choosing between satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes. Each of these sheen levels has its pros and cons, which can help you narrow down your preferred look. Ultimately, choose a finish that you love and is practical for your space.


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