3 Best Clear Finishes That Won’t Darken Wood Color

When you don’t want to darken wood color you should use a clear finish. Clear finishes preserve the natural color of the wood without darkening it. There are many different finishes that fall into this category, so, what wood finish will not darken the color of the wood?

Currently, the best clear finish that won’t darken the wood is a water-based polyurethane finish. It provides a good amount of protection to the wood, dries fast, and most importantly; it never yellows, so the wood color is protected from darkening. Alternatives for water-based polyurethane can be shellac and clear lacquer that also will not darken the wood.

Clear finishes can be used for a wide variety of wood types. They can be water-based or a mixture of multiple composites such as resin and water. Read on to find the best clear wood finishes, the best methods to apply them, and how to identify “clear” finishes.

Finish 1: Shellac

Shellac is secreted by lac bugs in the form of “flakes”. These flakes are then combined with alcohol to make shellac to use as a wood finish. Shellac is usually found in clear or amber colors and can even be modified to change color by adding different tints.

Certain advantages of using shellac are:

  • It is non-toxic: Shellac has no fumes which are harmful which makes it safe for most households (especially where pets and/or children are present)
  • Easy application: shellac can be applied easily by a brush or spray and dries quickly.
  • Doesn’t yellow with age
  • Easy repair: if repairs are needed you can apply shellac over old finish and can easily remove it with alcohol if needed.

As a wood finish shellac enhances the natural grain of the wood and gives it a smooth feel. It can be applied over most topcoats and best of all: it has UV resistance. Therefore, shellac is very much recommended for areas with direct sunlight, due to its UV protection.

Extra care is needed with shellac finish especially with items containing alcohol as they can damage the finish. Too much heat also softens the shellac so avoid putting hot items directly on surfaces with a shellac finish.

The storage time of shellac is also limited, as after some time the shellac can start to deteriorate in the alcohol. Thus, it’s best to buy only the required amount, use it straight away and refrain from keeping shellac for a longer time in storage.

Shellac is the best option to use for finishing when you want UV protection for the wood you are applying finish on. Shellac’s built-in UV protection is better than any other available clear finishes so opt for shellac when UV protection is a priority.

Finish 2: Water-based polyurethane

Water-based poly is considered to be the best choice for most applications as a clear wood finish. This is due to its level of protection, quick application, and drying which makes it more efficient for most wood finishing needs

Certain advantages of using water-based polyurethane are:

  • Safer and healthier: water-based poly gives off no toxic fumes, and is not flammable like oil-based poly. It also gives off no odor.
  • Fast drying time: water-based poly dries faster which means that any area which has water poly applied can be used in as little as 24 hours.
  • Durable: water-based poly is more durable than other finishes as it maintains the wood surface it’s applied to for years without wearing off.
  • Maintains natural look: application of water-based poly to wood does not change the color of the wood which means it is best for users who wish to keep the natural look of wood.

While water poly is great in many areas, it does have few shortcomings. It is expensive (almost double the price of oil-based poly), requires more coats to be applied as compared to oil poly, and does not impart the rich glow to wood that oil-based finishes give.

If you are looking to buy Polyurethane, we would recommend using Varathane 200061H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane that you can see below. It is Amazon’s top choice product, and when we used it, it dried on wood in 25 minutes and there were no issues with it after a year of application, which is all you need from a sealer.

On certain wood types, you will need to reapply polyurethane to floors after just two years. The clear finish is given by water-based polys also means that you should mark the floor after application as it is hard to see.

Water-based poly is the best option to utilize when you want the best overall protection and quality and money is no issue. The durability, quality, and protection that water poly provides is well worth the price you pay.

Currently one of the best choices to buy is the Varathane water-based poly finish which is available on amazon. It is the best for interior wood applications and is available in gloss finish.


Finish 3: Lacquer

Lacquer has become one of the most used products by woodworkers due to its many advantages. Having most of the advantages of oil and water-based choices with fewer disadvantages makes it a leading choice for wood finishes.

Certain advantages of using lacquer are:

  • Fastest drying time: lacquer usually dries within fifteen minutes only. This means that most lacquer finishing jobs can be done in as little as an hour.
  • Ease of use: lacquer comes ready to use and can be applied with a brush or sprayed on. With a brush, it makes fewer stroke marks as compared to other finishes.
  • Easy to clean: easy to clean or remove using a lacquer thinner without any issues.
  • Longer lasting: lacquer is more durable than other finishes and lasts for years without any flaking or chipping.
  • Less expensive: considerably cheaper than shellac and polyurethane, lacquer also only needs two coats for a good-looking finish which brings the cost down even more.
  • No yellowing: lacquer does not yellow with age, meaning the look of wood is maintained

Even with the above advantages, certain disadvantages of lacquer mean it is not suitable for everyone. Factors such as a humid room or lower room temperature can have adverse effects (such as blushing) on the final result of the finish.

Application of the lacquer too fast (or in a cool room) can cause an “orange peel” look in the lacquer polish. This is especially bad because it is only visible until after the lacquer has dried.

On the other hand, if the room temperature is warmer, air can get trapped under the lacquer as it dries causing bubbles. These stated issues can mean that newbies who want to apply the wood finish themselves can be discouraged from choosing lacquer.

A lacquer finish should be utilized when you want waterproof protection for the wood above all else. The best protection against water is one of the underlying factors of using lacquer finish over other choices.

 What makes a finish clear

There are two types of clear finish: a penetrating finish and a surface coat. A penetrating finish goes inside the wood and seals it, whereas a surface coat, forms a layer on top of the surface of the wood. You can use either, depending on your requirements.

A clear finish can be in the form of polyurethane, shellac, or lacquer. Usually “clear” finishes are named as such, not because of their clear color (although many finishes are clear in the can) but because they dry “clear” on wood.

Thus, clear finishes are chosen specifically for their clear look. When using these finishes you can maintain the exact look of the wood without compromising on features such as durability, quality, and protection.

Tips to keep a natural color when applying a finish

  • Test first: before applying the finish to the required wood, test it first by applying the finish to a test piece or small area of the wood.
  • Raise the grain first: Before applying a water-based finish to raw wood. Apply distilled water on raw wood (a brush, sprayer, or sponge can be used). Leave it overnight to dry properly and then use grit paper to sand the wood.
  • Mist your wood: before applying the finish, spray the wood with distilled water. This will ensure that the color is consistent throughout the whole wood.
  • Apply water-based poly with a pad: this will ensure the application is smooth resulting in a consistent application.
  • Apply thin coats: always apply a thin coat of your clear finish. Thicker coats will cause uneven application and will take longer to dry. For varnish: for your first coat use a mixture with 20-25% thinner and for further coats use 5-10% thinner.
  • Follow the grain: the finish should be applied by following the grain of the wood so that the final result is even.
  • Apply and sand: after applying the finish, let it dry and then sand it lightly. After sanding clean the dust and apply another coat if needed. Make sure to use sandpaper and NOT steel wool for sanding.
  • Use new finish: an older product that has been in storage for some time may have lumps. These will cause inconsistent results in your application, so always buy a new finish whenever possible.
  • Don’t shake: make sure to not shake the can of the finish as this can create bubbles and cause issues in application.

Final thoughts

We have gone through the pros and cons of clear finishes and how best to utilize them depending on your need. Then depending on your need, you can either go for water-based poly (considered the best choice) or the shellac and lacquer options.  

Use shellac when you want UV protection, water-based poly when you want the best overall solution, and lacquer when you want to waterproof wood. Either way, you must ensure that you read the instructions properly and follow the safety requirements. Good luck!

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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