Water Based Topcoats

22 Water Based Topcoat Video Lessons

23 Water Based Topcoat FAQs

Why Water Based Finishes Are Better

As seen in Green Building and Design Magazine.


Water-based coatings are the future of finishing. You may not be using them today, but you will be in the next five years.

Wood coatings have reached a new inflection point in recent years. Where once the prevailing finishes were made of waxes, oils and toxic ingredients, there is now an emerging market of water-based wood finishes that surpass their traditional counterparts in quality and user expectations. General Finishes, a Wisconsin-based wood coatings manufacturer founded in 1928, has been a pioneer in the water-based technology revolution.

General Finishes works relentlessly to formulate high-quality water-borne coatings equal to or better than any oil or solvent finish. "Many people are surprised at the quality of today's water-based finishes and they're getting better all the time," says Ryan Denny, General Finishes Technical Director.

Here are a few reasons to make the switch to water-based wood finishes.


Water-based finishes don't pollute the environment like oil-based finishes do. They are low-VOC, non-flammable, easy to clean up with soap and water, and disposal is simple. They eliminate fire hazards. "They are noncombustible, so they lower insurance costs," explains Denny.

Solvent or oil-based products require additional solvents for clean-up. This creates hazardous waste that is costly to dispose of and has to be reported to the DNR, whereas water-based waste disposal is a fraction of the cost and does not need to be reported because it is non-hazardous.

Several General Finishes water-borne products are made with more than 50% renewable resources, formulated from sustainable materials that decrease the carbon footprint. Those products includeEnduro-Var II, an ambering water-based topcoat; Milk Paint, a premium interior/exterior acrylic paint for cabinets and furniture; Water Based Wood Stain; Exterior 450 Stain and Wood Turner's Finish.

In addition to being environment-friendly, water-based finishes are safer for your health. "There are fewer VOCs off-gassing, so the finishes don't give off harmful, unpleasant odors that can last for months," says Denny. The fumes and odors are so low you can finish work on-site without the headaches that solvent-based finishes can cause. General Finishes wood coatings are VOC-compliant in all states---that's critical considering the EPA is tightening VOC restrictions for all finishes.


The most common concern for architects and designers is color. Getting dark color, even over difficult wood species, is easy with water-based stains. "Wood likes water," says Denny. "It opens up and allows water to get deeper for better penetration of color."

General Finishes formulates a broad range of colors in paints, polys, stains, and glazes; and unlike other manufacturers, they may be custom tinted to closely match existing colors. We do color better than any other wood coatings manufacturer. And well customize colors to give our customer and the contractor what they need to do the job," Denny says.

The rich, dark colors of General Finishes water-based stains are unmatched by oil and solvent formulas, with little to no color pull. The high-quality micronized pigments in these stains impart exceptional color and clarity on challenging woods such as mahogany, walnut, maple, and pine.

General Finishes also has a portable, easy-to-use stain color-matching system for professionals, called the RTM (Ready-to-Match) Stain System. "We developed RTM years ago, based on the old solvent-based color system, to reduce waste of costly raw materials when color-matching," Denny explains. "The 13 stain bases in the system contain dyes and pigments to produce a unique, endlessly variable color palette with depth and grain pop. RTM is versatile without a lot of investment and pros like having the ability to color-match on site."


Some in the industry are still operating under the misconception that water-based finishes have slow dry time compared to lacquer and lack longstanding durability. However, with water-borne products, you can complete two or three re-coats in a day, depending on your equipment. Although water coatings won't flash off as quickly as lacquer, when you factor in sanding and spray times, the timeframe from start to finish is about the same. To speed up the process, experts advise using infrared light and increasing air movement.

General Finishes water-borne coatings are equivalent to or outperform, high-end solvent finishes in terms of overall durability and chemical resistance while maintaining environmental friendliness and fast dry times. Their business model is to produce premium finishes, using the highest quality resins, binders, and additives in their coatings. All of their products exceed KCMA performance requirements and are formaldehyde-free and HAPS-free.

One example of the quality of their water-based products is General Finishes High Performance Polyurethane Topcoat, winner of Fine Woodworking's "Best Overall Choice Award." It is a fast-drying clear coat for interior use that provides high durability over raw wood, glazes, and stains.


Many people stay with solvent finishes because they assume moving to water will be a costly, complicated process. In reality, converting from solvent to water requires only small changes in equipment accessories and application technique.

"All you really need is to clean your spray guns really well and, possibly, new tips," says Denny. "In some instances, you might have to change a hose. Other than that, it's just a minor learning curve for the millage and pumps, and air pressure to achieve your desired finish. Most find that our water-based finishes easier to use than what they were using before."

"We're here to help, and we communicate well with our customers," Denny says. "We give them a solution to their finishing problems and exceed their expectations." Water-based coatings are the future of finishing. You may not be using them today, but you will be in the next five years.

What are the Renewable Resources in General Finishes Products?

General Finishes Renewable Resources - Water Based FinishesRenewable resources are a recent, eco-friendly advancement in the paint and coatings industry. 

They are comprised of plant proteins such as corn; as well as conventional and innovative oils derived from plants such as Euphorbia lagascaeVernonia galamensis from the sunflower family, and Calendula officinalis, aka marigold.

General Finishes products formulated with renewable resources meet the standard of excellence you have come to expect---including adhesion, coverage, color and durability---with all benefits of water finishes.

GF coatings made with Renewable Resources are: Enduro-Var II, Milk Paint, Water Based Wood Stain, Exterior 450 Stain and Wood Turner's Finish. Look for the green icon!

How Do I Correct Color Lift when Applying High Performance Over GF Water Based Dye Stain?

It is normal to see a bit of stain on the brush when applying the first coat of topcoat. Topcoats often pull a bit of color on the first pass, but good preparation will minimize this.

To prepare open grains woods such as raw Oak for a water-based stain, we recommend sanding with 180-grit followed by no more than 220-grit sandpaper.

300-grit or 400-grit sandpaper is too fine for preparing raw wood. Too fine of a grit changes the wood from a porous surface to one that is too smooth to absorb the stain, which causes the first top coat application to pull excessive color (it is like trying to apply stain to glass).

There is always a small amount of color pull when using water-based stains, but the smooth surface escalates this condition. This was evident in the areas that you used the brush to remove excess topcoat.

See recommended sanding schedules here.

Instructional Video: How to Prep Sand New or Raw Wood

Here are some options to try. Always test a small area before proceeding with your entire project.

  1. TONING: Lightly sand the light areas with a 220-grit sanding foam pad to open up the pores of the wood.

    Create a toning mix of 10-20% Dye Stain to 80-90% topcoat. Using a small brush, apply this mix over the light areas to blend with the darker areas.

    Let this dry 3-4 hours. Then apply another coat of the mix over the entire surface. If this is successful, then apply 2-3 coats of the topcoat.
  2. GLAZING: Glaze the light areas. This will change the look of your doors but is an easier remedy.
  3. START OVER: Optimally, you should sand down to bare wood and start over with this prep sanding schedule indicated able.

    You can apply the Dye Stain directly to the wood, or mix in 10% topcoat to help lock in the color.

How Important is the "Hardness" of a Wood Finish?

The hardness properties of a wood finish are formulated around the objectives of use. A hard finish is desirable on projects that get heavy wear such as kitchen cabinets or table tops. 

But in other situations, such as an outdoor topcoat, a desired property of the finish is elongation, which allows the topcoat to expand and contract through different extremes of temperature. 

A flooring finish is another example where hardness is not the major objective of the formulation. Just like outdoor furniture, wood floors expand and contract through the seasons of the year, responding to heat, air conditioning and changes in humidity. The floor finish needs to elongate or flex as the wood moves.

This can be problematic for floors which are often subject to heavy use, including dogs nails. Pet nails will not scratch a good floor finish all the way through the wood, but the nails will indent or imprint the surface of the floor.

It is impossible to combine equal properties of flexibility and hardness in a floor finish, so you have to accept some limitations at the outset. You can improve the life of your wood floor finish by selecting a denser wood for your floors, hickory, maple or white oak instead of pine for instance.

Or just live with the indentations. This is another instance where dogs rule.

Heavy sunlight will also affect harder finishes applied in sun-saturated areas such as window sills, causing finishes to become brittle and crack.

You can keep costs down and have a better result if you match the properties of the finish to the needs of the project.

One of General Finishes hardest water based topcoats is General Finishes Enduro Conversion Varnish, which requires a catalyst and is recommend for use by professionals. It cures in half the time of most topcoats, allowing the finisher to pack and ship sooner, but the price point would make it overkill for other uses. Other factoids:

It is impossible to combine equal properties of flexibility, hardness and chemical resistance in a finish, so be sure to select the correct product for your finishing project.

How Can I Buff Enduro-Var Gloss to a Higher Gloss?

Contributed by Jeff Jewitt of Homestead Finishing Supplies

Day 1:

  • Prep sand the wood with 220-grit sandpaper.
  • Spray a wet coat of General Finishes Enduro-Var Gloss and dry for 2 hours.
  • Level sand with 320-grit sandpaper.
  • Spray a second wet coat and dry for 2 hours.
  • Lightly sand with 320-grit sandpaper.
  • Spray a third wet coat and allow to dry overnight.

Day 2:

  • Level sand with 320-grit sandpaper.
  • Wipe down with water mixed with 5% Denatured Alcohol.
  • Spray a fourth wet coat 2-3 mils thick and dry 1 hour.
  • Spray 3 more coats, 1 hour between coats, for a total of 4 coats the second day.

Let your project dry 1 week, then:

  • Level sand dry with Mirka P800.
  • Dry sand with Mirka P1200.
  • Dry sand with 2000-grit Mirka Abralon.

Note: Do not use any lubricants of any type for sanding.


  • Buff 3M Finesse-It Material on with foam buffing pad to high gloss.

How Can I Get GF Water Based Finishes Off of a Mirror?

Any GF water-based finish can be removed from a mirror using 0000 steel wool and Windex.

Wet the steel wool with Windex and buff the glass. (The steel wool won't harm the mirror but make sure that you don't apply so much liquid that it seeps into the backing.) Wipe the mirror down with a clean/dry paper towel.

However, you can prevent a mistake from happening by applying Frisket to your mirror BEFORE applying finish to the frame. Frisket is a clear finish that brushes on, dries and peels off when you are done painting.

*Windex Warning: Make sure you do not get Windex on water-based finishes. The ammonia in Windex may cause a cloudy appearance to the finish.

How Do I Buff Out High Performance Water Based Topcoat to a High Gloss?

There are several techniques by Jeff Jewitt of Homestead Finishing Products:


Using Mirka Royal Micro sandpaper, always start with 1500-grit sandpaper. Begin with a small area, make 2-3 passes, then evaluate results. Go to a heavier grit if surface irregularities are not fully removed. Finish with 1500-grit paper.


Start by dry sanding with Abralon 2000-grit, and then 4000-grit. Start slowly, monitor to see if buildup is occurring. A large sized table might take 5-25 sheets of paper.

If needed, lubricate by moistening with General Finishes Satin Finishing Wax, mineral spirits, or naphtha. Never use water as a lubricant.

If lubricated, one sheet of 1000-grit or 1500-grit should do the entire table.


Spray Presta polish on buffing pad stuff to lubricate the pad. Apply a quarter-sized dab of polish to sand one section. Spread with pad. Continue section by section. Mist buffing pad with Presta lubricating material when it gets too dry. You should be able to use a buffing pad on 10-20 tables before washing and reusing.
When done, mist entire surface with and buff with a micro-cloth to remove splatter

NOTE: Never wet sand a water-based finish.

How Do I Prevent Orange Peel from Occurring When Spraying High Performance Gloss with a 2.0 Spray Tip?

The 2.0 tip is too large for General Finishes High Performance Gloss when working with an Earlex 5500 sprayer. We recommend that you use a 1.5mm tip instead. 

One of the causes of orange peel is the application of too much fluid and not enough atomization to break the product up into smaller droplets. It's similar to putting your finger over the end of a garden hose.

High Performance Gloss is going to be the most finicky of the sheens to spray. Both Critter and the Earlex devices are suitable but atomization can only be increased with smaller fluid tips or larger spray units


GF University FAQ: Orange Peel While Spraying High Performance Gloss

Orange Peel Occurring While Spraying General Finishes High Performance Topcoat Gloss

How Do I Remove Brush Strokes from the 3rd Coat of High Performance?

Sand down the final finish with a 220-grit foam sanding pad, and then add another layer of General Finishes High Performance Topcoat. Apply liberally than you did previously without heavy back-brushing.

Let the topcoat self-level a bit - it will tighten down as it dries.

If it's above 80°F or if the humidity is less than 70% in the space you're working, we recommend adding 10% GF Extender to the topcoat to improve open time.

Watch how to apply a water-based topcoat to a large surface with a paint pad applicator here.

Does Flat Out Flat Contain a Wax that Will Prevent Adhesion During a Recoat?

Flat Out Flat is safe to recoat with proper cleaning and scuff sanding.

General Finishes does not use a wax such as parafiin, carnauba or PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene) that cause adhesion failures in the finish Flat Out Flat.

We do use a very small amount of a different wax (part of the secret sauce) and it is used to improve matting, abrasion and mar resistance.

Can Brushable White Enamel Be Used Over an Existing Finish?

General Finishes Brushable White Enamel can be applied to raw wood or existing finishes. When applying over an existing finish, be sure to prep your surface properly.

Learn how to properly prep existing finishes by watching this video.

The use of General Finishes Stain Blocker wood primer is recommended on both raw wood and existing finishes to prevent dye or stain bleed-through.

Can Brushable White Enamel Be Tinted?

Yes, General Finishes Brushable White Enamel can be tinted to a light neutral or pastel shade with a zero VOC UTC colorant. A clear base would be required when tinting to a mid-range or darker color.

How Does Brushable White Enamel Compare to Enduro White Poly?

General Finishes Enduro Pigmented White Poly and General Finishes Brushable White Enamel have similar durability, but different polymer systems.

The ingredients that make Brushable White Enamel cause it to dry slower than White Poly, making it an impractical choice for professional cabinet refinishers who require fast dry stacking ability. Brushable White Enamel is designed for DIY'ers who want a professional type finish, similar to White Poly, but don't have the equipment to do so. 

Why Did the Finish On My Piece Become Cloudy After Top-Coating Milk Paint with High Performance?

The term for a cloudy, milky appearance in the finish is Blush. There are three causes:

     1. The most common reason is an incompatible stain. For example, using a water-based topcoat over an oil-based based stain. When the top coat is applied, the oil in the stain seeps up through the finish and reacts with the acrylic causing a chemical blush.

To prevent this, either use a quick-drying water-based stain or allow the oil-based stain to dry for 72 hours. You can also seal an oil-based stain with a coat of shellac or lacquer sealer to provide a barrier between the oil and the acrylic.

     2. Another cause for blushing is high humidity. Applying a water-based finish in humidities of over 75% may cause blushing because moisture becomes trapped beneath the finish and cannot evaporate.

You can prevent this condition by increasing air movement in the finishing area with a fan. All water needs to evaporate is sufficient air movement. You can also improve drying conditions by increasing the temperature in the drying area.

     3. Another common cause is a wet object or a water spill left two long on the surface. In most cases, the white mark will recover and fade within an hour if the spill is cleaned up in a timely manner. If the water has been sitting on that area for an extended period of time then it might not be able to bounce back.

To fix this, the surface needs to be scuffed and sanded first. Second, we recommend applying a sanding sealer to protect the top. Sanding sealer has a larger resin particle, so it will provide a better build for the next sanding step. Then finish with your topcoat.

Can I Change the Sheen of the Topcoat? The One I Applied Is Too Shiny.

If you want to change the sheen, you can re-coat with a different sheen over top. The second layer of topcoat will replace the appearance of the first.

Sand lightly with a used 220 sanding PAD to knock down the original finish before re-coating. It may take two or 3 coats to get complete coverage.

What is the Best Applicator to use for Milk Paint and Water Based Topcoat?

Either bristle or foam brushes will work well with Milk Paint and Top Coat. The folks at GF might use several types of brushes for a project.

For example:

  • We like to use a bristle brush (which loads up more paint) to get Milk Paint on the surface, and then use a water or Extender dampened foam brush to smooth out the finish.​
  • ​​​​​​Bristle brushes are particularly helpful on vertical and detailed surfaces but they can produce subtle texture.
  • Foam brushes tend to produce a smoother finish which can be particularly helpful on flat horizontal surfaces.
  • Pad Applicators or paint rollers are also helpful on larger horizontal surfaces such as a table top.

For folks who don't want to invest in several brushes, the foam brush is our recommendation.

The very best application method is spraying.

Why is High Performance Streaking When Applied over Annie Sloan Chalk Paint?

This is a guesstimate as GF cannot assist with the performance of another manufacturer's product used in conjunction with our own finishes.

It looks like Annie Sloan Chalk Paint is absorbing some of the topcoat because it is so porous. High Performance does not streak over a sealed surface when properly applied. Most likely the chalk paint is so dry it is pulling some of the solvents away from the High Performance, causing an uneven finish or the appearance of streaking. This happens on the original powder Chalk or Milk Paints also.

Possible solution: Porous paints such as chalk paint may require additional coats of High Performance Topcoat to seal off the paint. If the first coat absorbs into the paint it will require multiple coats of High Performance to build a film of sealer above the paint. Using a foam brush will accent the streaking due to the number of strokes needed. We suggest a fairly liberal application with a large applicator such as a foam roller or a pad applicator.

Always test before proceeding with the entire project when using General Finishes projects with other manufacturer's products.

Can I Mix General Finishes Flat Out Flat and High Performance Topcoat?

No, you should not mix Flat Out Flat and High Performance topcoats. They are engineered with different resin systems.

You can mix High Performance topcoats to adjust sheen. For example, you can mix HP Flat and HP gloss to obtain a different sheen.

Why Do I Sometimes Get Metal Marks On Cabinets I Have Painted with White Poly?

This is very common in pigment coatings and paints. Is called metal marking and it is a characteristic that is very difficult to eliminate. You can even see it in dinnerware like white plates. We usually test with wedding rings and forks. It a constant focus and improvement project for General Finishes, especially the whites. The difference with tinted clear is that the amount of pigment varies from color to color, so sometime it will occur with the lighter paints.

How Can I Remove Permanent Marker from My New Water-Based Topcoat Finish?

You can remove the permanent marking using one of the following methods:

  1. General Finishes Orange Oil or WD-40 and #0000 steel wool.
  2. A very small amount of denatured alcohol on a cotton swab
  3. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser


How Can I Tell if a Water Based Topcoat is Dry?

If the finish feels cool to the touch, it's not ready. When you can sand it to a dry powder, it is ready for the next coat. Dry times will be longer if it is raining, cold, or humid. When in doubt, waiting longer is always better.