Can You Apply Polyurethane With A Rag? (How-To)

Yes, you can apply polyurethane with a rag. Applying polyurethane with a rag is a good way to avoid paint bubbles, brush marks, and also helps you to paint hard-to-reach surfaces. 

There are many different ways to apply polyurethane, but the most common methods include spraying it or wiping it on with a rag.

Polyurethane has become the choice of professionals due to its many advantages that no other topcoat provides. Due to its qualities like ultra-durable, easy application, better protection, and water-resistant, it has replaced the shellac and varnish on a larger level as the topcoat.

Earlier, most professionals preferred to apply polyurethane with a brush. But with the development of new formulations, polyurethane can now be used with a rag, or you can even spray it on the surface. Therefore, you only have to decide which way is more convenient for you.

Why Should You Use A Rag To Apply Polyurethane?

The most significant advantage of wipe-on and spray polyurethanes is their thinness. In both ways, it can be applied in ultra-thin coats, resulting in less buildup on nooks and crannies if you don’t apply too much at once.

The conventional way of putting a layer of polyurethane over a surface has some disadvantages. Applying polyurethane with a brush causes dripping and building up of bubbles, bumps, few brush marks.

And, some parts of the surface are left uncovered sometimes. On the other hand, applying polyurethane using a rag prevents drips or bubbles and provides a consistent coat with a beautiful finish.

Moreover, few surfaces have very narrow corners, or some sophisticated designs on the surfaces are unreachable when using a brush. A rag has an advantage over a brush in these areas; it applies polyurethane very neatly without any buildup.

Therefore, the wipe-on method of applying polyurethane will benefit you if you are working on a tricky project like vertical surfaces and fine details.

However, there are also a few disadvantages of using a rag to apply polyurethane over a surface. The main downside is that you will need to apply some extra coats to get a more refined finish, like when you get with a brush.

That means if you are applying three coats of polyurethane with a brush, you will need to apply at least eight coats with a rag to get the same kind of finish.

Moreover, by mistake, if you use a cloth or rag with lint to apply polyurethane, then it can cause a very uneven finish on top of your paint.

Related Read: Can You Apply Polyurethane Paint on Metal?

What Kind Of Rag Do You Need For Polyurethane?

Can you use any kind of rag to apply polyurethane? No. So, what kind of rag do you need to apply polyurethane?

You can use a lint-free cloth or microfiber tack cloth to apply polyurethane over a painted surface for a smooth finish.

Applying polyurethane with a rag is very easy and preferred by most professionals as it provides a thin layer of top coat and dries quickly between the coats. Many companies are manufacturing particular kinds of polyurethane, which will be easy to apply using a rag.

Choosing a rag is a primary task during the application of polyurethane. If you selected a bad quality rag, then you may not get the result which you desired. Therefore, you should always consider using an excellent quality rag for applying polyurethane. If you already have an old rag, then never forget to remove the dust before using it.

Moreover, there are specially designed microfibre tack rags in the market, which can be a beneficial alternative to a rag. Although the purpose of both the products is the same, the microfiber tack rag provides a better finish.

Using a microfiber tack rag means there will be no problems related to grain. And, they absorb polyurethane in a limited amount which further helps in a much smoother finish.

Remember that you never use an old cloth used earlier for top coating because rag absorption power will be reduced. It can cause inconsistent layering of polyurethane over a surface.

Related Read: Can You Mix Polyurethane With Chalk Paint?

How To Apply Polyurethane With A Rag?

Polyurethane varnish is a paint product that can be challenging to apply. However, you can avoid common brush strokes and bubbles complaints by applying it using only the rag method.

Suppose you are working on a wooden piece and applying polyurethane over it. Then you will need to follow these steps.

1. Prepare The Surface

Place the piece that you are going to work on in a properly ventilated area. You can choose outdoors but only if there is no wind or moving dust.

Before applying polyurethane, you should sand the wood adequately. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper-like 120 grit papers and finish with 220-grit sandpapers.

After sanding, there will be a lot of dust present on the surface. Remove entire dust using a vacuum cleaner or with a microfiber tack rag.

Wipe down the surface using a lint-free rag dipped in some mineral spirits.

Then, you can stain the surface if you wish to, according to the stain manufacturer’s instructions. This part is not compulsory for all, and you can skip it if you don’t want to stain the surface.

2. Dip The Rag Into The Polyurethane Paint

Grab a can of polyurethane, avoid shaking the can before opening as it can cause air bubbles in polyurethane. Pour it into a container carefully.

Take a lint-free rag or microfibre tack rag, dip it into the polyurethane in an even amount and wipe it on the surface in fine strokes.

Overlap the strokes to ensure optimum coverage and move it in a lined motion with further progress to other parts of the surface. Don’t apply thick layers; keep it thin.

3. Sand The Surface

Leave the coat to dry for a few minutes or leave it depending on the time it takes to dry according to the brand you are using. Always apply the second coat when the first coat has dried completely. Otherwise, it can ruin the final finish.

When the first coat gets dried completely, lightly sand the coat with 320-grit sandpaper. This will ensure better adhesion between coats. Also, clean the surface properly after sanding using a lint-free rag dipped in mineral spirit.

Related Read: Why Should You Sand Between Coats of Polyurethane?

4. Apply The Second Coat Using a Rag

After completion of all the steps, apply the second coat of polyurethane using a rag in the same manner. Repeat the process of sanding and cleaning between any number of coats that you need.

Moreover, the steps are identical for applying polyurethane with a rag on almost every surface.

Related Read: How To Apply New Polyurethane Coat Over Old Polyurethane?

Do You Wipe Off Excess Polyurethane?

Yes, it is always better to wipe off the excess polyurethane to prevent any runs and drips. Many polyurethane manufacturing companies print this instruction on the can so that users get a smooth finish.

When applying polyurethane using a rag, there are chances that the layers will have excess polyurethane that can cause an unsatisfactory finish. If you don’t wipe off extra polyurethane between the coating and the final layer, it can cause running and dripping of paint from the surface.

If the layer of polyurethane dries in that condition, the only way to make it correct is to sand it again. But sanding the drips can cause the removal of the whole layer if you accidentally apply pressure while sanding.

Therefore, wiping off the excess layer when the paint is a little wet is always a better way. So, after applying the coat, leave it for approximately thirty minutes and then wipe off the extra polyurethane.

To remove excess polyurethane from the surface, you only need a clean, lint-free rag dipped in mineral spirit.

Don’t damp the rag with too much mineral spirit as it can cause the removal of the complete layer. Hence, be cautious while performing this task and never forget to wipe off the extra polyurethane for an excellent final finish.

Related Read: Can Polyurethane Paint Be Tinted?


If you want a thin and clear topcoat, then consider using polyurethane with a rag. A clean and lint-free rag is the best way to apply it as an alternative to spraying or brushing it on because this gives you more control over how much goes onto your surface. You can also use multiple layers of polyurethane if desired for thicker protection against wear and tear.

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