The Best Wood Finishes That Don’t Yellow

One of my very first projects was a drop down sewing table. I painted it white, but now four years later it’s very yellow. Why? Because I sprayed the wrong polyurethane on it.

To avoid a yellowing wood finish, use a water-based polyurethane instead of an oil based polyurethane. The best water-based polyurethane is Minwax’s Polycrylic, which is formulated for easy consumer use.

There are other excellent types of non-yellowing wood finish as well, which may be better suited to your specific project, so keep reading!

Types of Wood Finishes That Don’t Yellow

Unlike oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane, shellac, wax, and epoxy resin all remain the same color over time. Each has pros and cons, which I’ll discuss below.

Water-based polyurethane is durable, protective and dries completely clear. It has a short dry time, and multiple coats can be finished applied in a day, making it the perfect choice for time-sensitive projects. However, it cannot be applied on top of oil-based stains due to adhesion issues.

Shellac comes in different shades and is rarely completely clear. However, it does not yellow over time, so what you apply initially is what you’ll have long-term. It also bonds to anything, and can be used on top of any sort of stain, making it a rather trouble-free product. Shellac also dries quickly, and multiple coats can be applied in a single day.

Waxes are the perfect product to use over paint. They repeal water, and create a little bit of extra protection. However, they are a weak finish on they’re own, and because of this not recommended for a bare wood application. Waxes are easy to apply, and typically only one coat is required.

Epoxy resin is a thick, two-part finish that is poured onto a piece. Because of the thick nature, it’s primarily used for flat applications, such as a tabletop or artwork. However, it dries completely clear, is incredibly durable, and doesn’t yellow over time.

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The Best Non-Yellowing Water-Based Polyurethane

The best non-yellowing clear coat is Minwax’s Polycrylic. It’s easy to use, dries within a few hours, can be applied multiple times within 24 hours, dries completely clear, and doesn’t yellow over time. It comes in a variety of sheens, including satin, semi-gloss, and gloss.

Polycrylic is also one of the more durable picks on this list. Waxes are best over paint because they lack protection, and while shellac is durable, it doesn’t hold up to alcohol.

One caveat to polycrylic is that it must be applied in thin coats. I used to hate the product because I felt it was still sticky after drying. This was because the coats were too thick. Use thin coats as you apply, and it’s a great product to use.

Polycrylic and other water-based polyurethanes are sensitive to weather as well. Try to apply polyurethane during a neutral day – not too humid, not too dry, not too hot, not too cold.

The Best Shellac (That Won’t Yellow)

Come learn which wood finishes do and don't yellow, and of the ones that don't yellow, which ones are the very best!

Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat is the best shellac if you’re looking for a non-yellowing finish. It doesn’t contain wax, meaning it has a long shelf life and can bond with just about anything, simplifying application.

Note that Zinsser sells multiple premixed Shellacs. The Sealcoat version is the only one that doesn’t contain wax, and therefore the only one I recommend. Zinsser markets it as a sealer, but it makes a great finish when multiple coats are applied.

It works even better when cut with some denatured alcohol, thinning the solution. I typically make of mix of half Zinsser Sealcoat, and half denatured alcohol.

Shellac is one of my favorite finishes, because it’s so easy to use and dries within one to two hours, meaning I can get a project finished in one day. However, it does have some disadvantages.

First off, shellac does not hold up to alcohol. If your project is tabletop or other piece that might get exposed to an occasional splash, you’re better off picking a different finish.

Secondly, Zinsser Sealcoat only comes in one sheen – gloss. If you want to dull the sheen, you’re going to have to purchase a flattening agent, which might be a little much for someone trying shellac for the very first time.

Finally, shellac does provide a little warmth to really light woods, so if you’re looking for a completely clear product, water-based polyurethane is the way to go.

If you’re considering shellac for the first time, and want to know exactly what to do, check out my Fabulously Finished Reference Guide. I walk you through applying and troubleshooting all the finishes on the market, including Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, so that you create the perfect finish on the very first try!

The Best Wax That Doesn’t Yellow

The best non-yellowing wax is Behr’s Clear Interior Decorative Wax. It’s readily available, affordable, easy to apply, and adds a beautiful finish to painted pieces.

Wax really shines as a additional finish on top of painted pieces. I would hesitate to use wax as a stand-alone finish, as no wax is very durable, including Behr’s.

Other quality waxes are available, however many tend to be pricy and sold in boutique stores only, so I hesitate to recommend them. I’ve used and liked both Annie Sloan’s chalk paint wax, as well as Miss Mustard Seed’s Antiquing Wax. However they’re much more expensive, and I don’t think they’re markedly better than Behr’s product.

The Best Non-Yellowing Epoxy Resin

TotalBoat’s Crystal Clear Epoxy Resin is the best product on the market. It’s easy to use, dries hard, and creates a perfectly clear finish.

Air bubbles frequently appear during the pour, however applying heat with a heat gun makes those disappear. Only one coat is necessary for most applications, with a dry time of 4-5 hours, and a cure time of 72 hours.

To use, mix the two parts according to the manufacturers instructions. Then pour the finish onto your piece, using a plastic spreader to move it around. Remove any air bubbles using a heat gun, then let dry.

As discussed earlier, because this finish is meant to be poured, it really only works well on flat surfaces.

Yellowing Wood Finishes To Avoid

Any oil-based finishes are going to yellow over time. While this might seem simple, many products are not transparent about what they contain, so I thought I’d quickly make a list of common finishes that yellow.

  • Any Oil-Based Polyurethane, including Minwax’s and Varathane’s.
  • Lacquer
  • Tung Oil Finish
  • Waterlox
  • Watco’s Danish Oil
  • Seal-A-Cell
  • Arm-R-Seal

When in doubt, look for something identified as water-based. Since oil is what causes the yellowing, water-based products will not yellow over time.

How to Fix Yellowing Polyurethane

If you’ve already applied an oil-based polyurethane, and are facing a yellowing product, you have a couple of options depending on what tools you have in the house.

My first pick would be to grab an orbital sander and some medium grit sandpaper (80-120 grit,) and sand the polyurethane off of the piece. You’ll need to refinish when you’re done, and if your piece is painted, you’ll need to be careful not to sand away the paint.

However, this should go pretty quickly if you’re working with a power sander and a flat surface. If your surface is curved, or you don’t have an orbital sander, stripping the finish off with a chemical stripper might be a better option.

I love CitriStrip for stripping furniture, and it would work well for stripping off yellowed polyurethane as well. If you’re considering doing this, be sure to check out my full post on stripping furniture, which will walk you through the whole process, as well as the big secret for avoiding a sticky mess.

Unfortunately, if your piece is painted, the chemical stripper will strip off the paint as well.