Clear Finish Buyer’s Guide

This buyer’s guide compares and contrasts clear finish materials on their environmental and health qualities, and includes selection tips. Use it to find the best clear coating for your specific project.

This clear finish buyer’s guide compares and contrasts finishes on their environmental and health qualities, and includes selection tips.

Use this buyer's guide to find the best clear coating for your project.

Material Selection Tips Pros Cons
Lacquer Acrylic-based lacquers are more durable for floors. Look for VOC levels below 250 g/L and avoid lacquers with xylene and toluene. * Nitro- cellulose binder is derived from wood or cotton * High VOC content

* Often contains solvents like toluene and xylene

* High impact on indoor air quality

* More susceptible to damage than varnish or water-based sealers
Natural Oils Check the product’s MSDS for carcinogens arsenic, beryllium, chromium, cadmium and nickel, and probable carcinogen lead. * Minimally processed

* Derived from renewable materials (seeds and nuts)

* Lower VOC content than lacquer or varnish
* Requires 3–6 coats and long drying times

* Must reapply yearly

* Lower water and surface protection
Shellac Avoid shellac made with methanol. For flooring applications, shellac is best suited for low-traffic areas. * Derived from renewable materials (insect resin, corn)

* Dries quickly, reducing duration of impact on indoor air

* Low emissions when dry
* High air quality impact during application

* Low durability if left unsealed

* Subject to wear and scuffs
Varnish Look for varnishes with VOC content of 350 g/L or less. Urethanes are more expensive but more durable than acrylic varnishes. * Most durable finish, so less frequent application

* Best heat, water and chemical resistance
* High VOC content

* Highest level of VOC offgassing during application

* Requires 3–4 coats and long drying time
Water-Based Sealer Look for products with VOC levels as low as 50 g/L. Dries totally clear, preserving surface color. Lasts almost as long as varnish. * Solvent is primarily water, reducing environmental impact

* More durable than other finishes (except oil-based varnish)

* Good water and scuff resistance

* Cleans up without solvents
* Environmental impacts of urethane or other synthetic binders

* May contain toxic glycol ether solvents


Other Resources

Check our natural wood finish Q&A here on GreenHomeGuide to see what other homeowners and contractors are saying about clear finish options like low VOC varnish, shellac, urethane, etc.

For a comparison of specific products, see The Green Guide's Wood Finishes Buying Guide here.