Varathane – The Best Polymer Clay Sealer

We all have our favorite shampoo and conditioner. We have pretty strong opinions about the best brand of mayonnaise (or we hate it entirely). So it should really come as no surprise that many people have chosen a favorite polymer clay sealer, Varathane. I don’t always use a sealer or varnish on my polymer clay, but when I do, Varathane is one of my top picks.

Do You Need to Seal Polymer Clay?

Varathane is the best general sealer for polymer clay. Read about it on The Blue Bottle Tree.One of the most common questions I am asked is, “Do you need to seal polymer clay?” The short answer is no. Baked polymer clay is a durable plastic and does not need to be sealed against the elements. Polymer clay is so durable that it will hold up to wear, weathering, washing, and use better than any sealer that you can put on it.

But the long answer is that sometimes you do need to seal it. Mica powders (such as Pearl-Ex or eye shadow) are perfectly durable on a sculpture that sits on a shelf. But when used in jewelry you’ll want to seal the powder to keep it from rubbing off. The same goes for powders such as metal pulvers or chalk pastels. Some techniques, such as a variety of crackle techniques, use metal leaf adhered to the surface of the polymer clay, and that does need to be sealed. Most acrylic paint is as durable as varnish so you don’t always need to seal it. But using a sealer or varnish can add an extra layer of durability.

You would also use a sealer on polymer clay when you want to change the look of the surface. If you want the surface to be more glossy or more matte then a sealer is a great way to do that. Adding even a thin layer of a sealer can intensify colors just like when you find a pebble at the beach then wet it to see the colors. Varnish also makes translucent clay more translucent, mica powders more sparkly, and colors much more rich and deep.

What is Varathane?

Varathane is a brand name of polyurethane varnish that’s been around since 1958. It’s used as a wood, furniture, cabinet, and floor finish. Chances are good that there is wood in your home that is finished with polyurethane. It’s been a favorite of polymer clay artists for over 25 years because it just works. It’s currently produced by the Rustoleum Corporation, but previously it was made by a company called Flecto. You might even see it referred to as Flecto from time to time. It’s the same stuff. It’s also undergone many label changes over the years and the can you have may differ from the pictures here.

Varathane polyurethane makes a great polymer clay sealer, varnish, and glaze.
Varathane has changed its label over the years. The one on the right is the most current (came out in 2016), but online listings might show the one on the left. It’s the same stuff.

Varathane does come in an oil based and a water based version. For polymer clay use, you will have much better results if you use the water-based version. If you need to use soap and water to clean up, that’s the right one. You don’t want the one that requires use of paint thinner or mineral spirits to clean it up. Oil-based Varathane can work on polymer clay, but it takes a long time to dry (days) and gives a yellow cast.

Varathane comes in half pint, quart, and gallon cans. It also comes in a spray. I’ve heard that some people have had success with it, but I find that it gives a rough and uneven spray finish. Sprays are always tricky, most of them aren’t polymer clay safe, so stick with the liquid in the can.

Characteristics of Varathane

Varathane is a milky white liquid with a slight bluish tint. It is slightly thicker than water, but not gloopy like many other varnishes that I’ve tried. Varathane has a very mild smell, not a whole lot different from lots of craft paints. It goes on easily with a brush and dries absolutely clear within minutes. You can recoat it again as soon as the first coat dries. But I do like to wait an hour between coats. (Okay, I admit it, sometimes I rush drying a coat by using the heat gun. I’m so impatient.)

You can use a brush, sponge, or even your fingers to apply it. Don’t “scrub” back and forth with the brush, though, or you will get bubbles. Anita’s article on Varathane goes in detail about how she gets a perfectly speck-free finish on her wonderfully fun polymer clay cherries. If you dip coat your beads, give them a quick spin to remove excess Varathane before putting them up to dry. It’s better to use several thin coats than one thick one. I use a very thin coat if all I’m doing is setting mica powder. But I use several coats to build up a thicker layer if I’m going for a glossy, glass-like finish. And yes, you can thin your Varathane with a bit of water to get an even thinner coat. This is sometimes the best way to get a smooth, low shine finish, too.

I like to decant my Varathane into these small containers and apply directly from there. That keeps my can from getting contaminated.

To keep your can of Varathane clean, don’t apply it directly from the can. Decant a small amount into a small bottle, and apply it from there. Prescription medicine bottles work particularly well for this. I also like to use these nifty containers I found at WalMart, too. I like the wide mouth, perfect for dipping beads.

Varathane comes in gloss, semi-gloss, satin, and matte finishes.  (Not sure what that means? See pics to compare here.) I see very little difference between the gloss and satin, though, especially when used as a thin sealer coat. I think if you built up several layers you’d see that satin is less glossy than gloss. But it’s not matte by any means. I wouldn’t spend the money for the satin, by the way. I’d just use a thin coat of the gloss version if I didn’t want a very shiny finish.

How Durable is Varathane on Polymer Clay?

First let me say that I always use Varathane on polymer clay that isn’t waxy or oily. If you’re using Pardo or Kato Polyclay, give the clay a good wipe with alcohol before applying any sealer. (Even then, I do have trouble with any sealer sticking to Kato very well. It tends to peel off like skin after a sunburn.) Varathane will dry to the touch right away, but can take weeks to fully cure. To accelerate that curing process, I usually put sealed items back in the oven for another bake. I have often seen it recommended to use 200°F (93°C) for 10-15 minutes, but that seems to be info that’s “passed down” and I don’t know its source. I usually just bake it again at my clay’s favorite temperature. (Usually with the next batch of beads.)

Once cured, Varathane is water resistant and will easily hold up to washing. The surface is hard enough and durable enough that scratching with your fingernail will not tear through it (once fully cured). Yes, of course, you can scrape it with a knife or something, but don’t do that! Varathane will never fully cure to a rock hard finish on polymer clay because it is softened by the plasticizer in polymer clay. But it is hard and durable enough for jewelry use.

If you ever need to remove Varathane, you can dissolve it with rubbing alcohol. Not that I’ve ever had to soak dried Varathane off a brush or anything. 😉 Okay, I admit it. I’m always forgetting to wash my brush. Sometimes it’s hard to completely remove dried Varathane from polymer clay. It’s really very durable. But alcohol’s fairly safe and fairly effective at removing it, especially before it’s fully cured.

Is Varathane a Sticky Sealer?

There seems to be a fear out there about sticky sealers. And for good reason. If you use nail polish as a sealer or glaze, your project will usually turn sticky with time. If you use the wrong spray sealer, it can get sticky over time. And some acrylic varnishes, such as the green label Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish, seem to never fully dry and stay sticky. But I’ve NEVER, NEVER, EVER had Varathane remain or turn sticky. In fact, the feel of dried Varathane is sort of like a smooth plastic. I really, really like it. (How’s that for a scientific term?)

There are lots of articles about varnishes and sealers on this website.

Is Varathane Non-Toxic?

Even though Varathane is a wood varnish that’s commonly used on furniture and floors, that doesn’t mean that it’s a toxic substance. Yes, I know, it’s easy to think of the stinky cans of paint that you’ve used in the past. Well, this isn’t that. Totally different stuff!

If you’ll look at the label of many craft items, such as polymer clay itself, you’ll see that there is a seal that certifies the material is tested to be safe and non-toxic as a craft material. To get that certification, a manufacturer has to have the material tested. Since Varathane is a wood varnish and everyone expects a product used in that capacity to be possibly toxic, there’s no reason to pay to test and get certification for it to labelled as non-toxic.  That being said, it is a fairly non-noxious substance as paints go. It is not turpentine or paint thinner based. It is water based and doesn’t have volatile compounds such as any of the aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene and toluene.

The label does warn to keep it out of your eyes and use good ventilation while drying. The only compound the label lists as being worrisome (glycol ethers) are also in sunscreens, and totally evaporate during drying. Don’t drink it. But I wouldn’t hesitate using it to seal jewelry. Dried Varathane is non-toxic and perfectly fine for skin contact. UPDATE: Safety rules changed in 2015, and many varnishes contain N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP) as a solvent, in addition to water. This is a fairly low toxicity solvent, but it has been shown in some tests to cause reproductive harm in high concentrations. Wear gloves and be sure to wash your hands if you’re pregnant. The solvent evaporates, so fully dried varnish (as with finished jewelry) has no safety concerns.

Availability of Varathane

In the US and Canada, Varathane can be found in many hardware stores and paint stores. Again, make sure you get the water-based variety that matches the label you see above. I’ve heard that some people have found it at Home Depot and Menards. I couldn’t find it here in my town so I ordered it online. (affiliate link) But shop around, you’ll find it.

Minwax Polycrylic is not the same thing as Varathane and gives a slightly different result. But it is still a good polymer clay sealer or varnish.
Though it does make a good sealer, Polycrylic is not the same thing as Varathane.

Lately here in the US, all I can find in the hardware stores is Minwax Polycrylic. It’s not the same thing as Varathane. It WILL work as a polymer clay varnish. But it’s going to be subtly different from Varathane. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Varathane is available in North American and also in the UK from Amazon.co.uk. But if your country doesn’t have Varathane, see if you can find a water based polyurethane wood finish. Chances are that it will be very similar. The key thing to look for are the terms “water-based” or “water clean-up” and “polyurethane”. If you know of a another good polyurethane brand, please let me know!

Looking for a Varathane alternative? Check out my article Testing Polymer Clay Sealers to see how 40 different varnishes and sealers performed on five brands of polymer clay.

UPDATES:

  • Craftmill, a UK craft supplier repackages a UK brand of polyurethane in smaller bottles. They say that it’s good for polymer clay. Might be worth a try.
  • María Eva Ramos of Niná Studio tells me that she has used VITRIO water based polyurethane wood floor finish for several years and has the same good luck that I’ve had with Varathane. She’s in Venezuela, though, but it might give you a brand name to look for in addition to Varathane. Thanks María Eva!
  • And Nicola Sutherland says that in Australia she uses Cabothane with great results.
  • In Latvia, Tin Liva has been using this polyurethane for 7 years and reports that it’s just like Varthane (which she has also used). Look for Synteko Pro – one-component polyurethane water based wood floor finish;Synteko Pro 90 (gloss), Synteko Pro 20 (matte), Synteko Pro 45 – (satin
    comes in cans 1l, 5l, 10l

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132 thoughts on “Varathane – The Best Polymer Clay Sealer”

  1. Do the regular water based formulas work as well as the “Heavy Use Formula”? I’ve tried to buy it from three different sellers, and they’ve all sent me the regular version. I plan to sell some jewelry so I really want to make sure I get it right! Thanks so much, your website has been very helpful.

      1. It seems to be working quite well, I sealed some pieces with 5 thin coats of the “Ultimate” water based Varathane in the white can and they are very hard. I accidentally dropped a few on my studio tile floor a day after sealing and they didn’t even scuff or scratch.

        Thank you so much for your reply! I’ve recently started working with polymer clay because I broke my ankle and needed a medium that I could make things with while keeping my leg elevated, instead of running all over my studio standing a lot with my resin work. Your site has been invaluable and I’m so grateful! I hope to buy the sea glass tutorial soon.

  2. I’ve been experimenting with other craft projects, and looking for a good sealer I could buy in bulk. I found this article, and went looking at Home Depot a few days ago.
    I didn’t find the Varathane water based at Home Depot, just the Polycrylic one by MinWax.

    I checked Michaels though, and found much smaller bottles of what I think is the same as Varathane, just another brand?
    I found an Americana “DuraClear Gloss Varnish” which is labeled as a “Polyurethane Gloss Varnish”.
    I also found an Americana bottle of “Matte Varnish”. I believe both are water based.

  3. I know that this post is old but… I but I did buy the exact brand of polyurethane posted and made my first piece with it. After letting it dry for 2 day it was still tacky. I am wondering why this would be? I use Super Sculpy and the piece was a small thin sanke earing. I dipped the entire snake into a cup of the polyurethane and hung it to dry. I was wondering if I did something wrong?

    1. How very odd. Thousands and thousands of clayers over 25 years have relied on this product. I’ve not personally heard of this happening before. At least not with this specific formulation. The only thing I can figure is that your clay might not have been thoroughly cured. Or perhaps the formulation has changed. Would you mind sending me a pic of the can?

  4. hi! i found this review tonight, after reading up on this product in every possible site online. i’m wondering if you’ve noticed much yellowing with this product? a fellow blogger said she’s never had an issue w/ it (the first she’s found, actually) yellowing white cabinets. can you give your opinion on this? i’m about to dive into painting my light oak kitchen cabinets and i’m SO nervous to use the wrong product and then have them yellow in a short amount of time! 🙁 every DIY’er says i’m over thinking, but i really don’t think i am. i need them to be durable and last longer than a few years and doing my due-diligence in research will hopefully pay off.

    1. I can really only comment on the use of Varathane on polymer clay. The variety shown in the article does not yellow whatsoever. I have used it on wood in my home as well, and it looks great. Keep in mind that all varnishes will intensify and enrich the color of wood, sort of like making it wet would do.

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  6. Thank you so much for all the great information! I’m definitely considering using this now, but I was just wondering if you knew how well this glaze reacts with acrylic paint on polymer clay? Because recently I’ve had a problem with Triple Thick glaze cracking on pieces that I’ve painted with acrylic paint, even after watering the glaze down and using a thin coat. And after looking into the Varathane a bit more, I came across someone who said that when they use it over acrylic paint, especially black paint, it can make the paint smudge. So I was just wondering if you had any experience with Varathane making paint smudge. Thanks so much!

    1. Glaze? Do you mean the Varathane varnish? It works well, even over paint. It’s one of the few that does. Any varnish can smudge the paint used under it if the paint hasn’t dried, or if the paint contains materials that the Varathane would dissolve. But I’ve not experienced this. Triple Thick doesn’t work well as a varnish over paint…it seems to cause stickiness down the road.

      1. Oh okay, it’s good to hear that it works well with paint! I’ll definitely be giving Varathane a try, thank you so much!

  7. Heather Victoria

    I love Varathane too it is exactly as you explained!

    Although i like to use guilders wax & rub n buff on some of my jewellery pieces, but i think due to it being water based on top of a wax base that it doesn’t work as well 🙁

    Not sure if anyone has any ideas on sealing rub n buff? But i think i’m going to try a thin layer of liquid fimo.

    Thank you for your review, it’s these sorts of pages that help me decide what products to buy and saves me wasting my money 🙂

  8. Really love all the effort you put into testing and supplying information. Your information has allowed me to answer so many of my customer’s questions. Really hate staring back at them with that deer in the headlight look! I have a question, have you used Varathane 3X? Right now i am going back and forth between varathane and minwax. Both seem to work well, but I am dipping my product up to 5 times and allowing it to drip to get a smooth thick coat. Varathane is saying 3X is three times as thick. It would be great to get away with one or two coats instead of as many as I do. Please let me know what you may have learned about this product. Thanks

  9. I’ve been working in pottery clay for a while now and decided to try out polymer. I’m doing transfers on the clay which need some kind of sealant. I tried using Magic Glos for the first time today, which was an abysmal failure. My piece is curved and the gloss ran off or pooled. I’m going to give the Varathane a try next. My question is what happens if the piece gets wet? As an example, I am making pieces for an upcoming pirate festival, and if someone buys my product (pirate eye patch) and it rains, how will the Varathane hold up?

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  11. Hi Ginger, I have a problem with applying chalk pastels then sealing with polyurethane. I recently made a lovely pendant using pastel as colouring, baked and cooled as usual but when applying the varnish it diluted all the chalk colouring! I’m also having the same problem with Mica Powder. I live in the UK and Pearl Ex isn’t available here at a reasonable price so I bought some powders online which said was craft grade for polymer clay but the colours do not seem to stick? I have used Fimo and black and white Premo. Also would just like to say what a great site full of valuable information which has been so much help to me. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jo, I don’t think anything is wrong, it’s just a matter of knowing what to expect. Putting a varnish on anything is essentially like making it permanently wet. So the chalk gets dampened and therefore the color of the underlying clay can be seen through it. Also, make sure that your chalks are densely pigmented. If they’re very inexpensive, they might be more “chalk” and less pigment. Also, try adding a thicker coat of pastel.

  12. Deni Lindgren

    I read a blog once that said if the nail polish stays sticky, just put another coat on and it’s fine. I don’t know this for myself, but it couldn’t hurt to try.
    The new thing I’m trying is a light coat of water based polyurethane and then clear nail polish that I got in bulk from a nail art supply. This is working out great so far, but I have yet to see what the long term results might be.
    Has anyone else tried this?

    1. It might work, certainly. The problem is, there are hundreds if not thousands of brands and formulas of clear nail polish available worldwide. Some work well, many don’t, and it’s impossible to know which one will work or not. If you have one that works…fantastic! But from my position it’s hard to recommend that anyone do this because of the extreme variability in what my readers will have sitting in their makeup drawer.

  13. I wish I had seen this article earlier! Unfortunately I already applied some nail polish to my polymer clay sculpture. 🙁

    Is there any other downside to usingnail polish, other than the fact that my sculpture now feels a little sticky even though its dry?

    Do you think I can fix this by glazing over the nail polish with Varathane?

    1. The downside to using nail polish is that it very often remains or becomes sticky over time. That is bad because the stickiness will attract dirt, fibers, fur, and can often be scraped off with a fingernail. Yes, you can sometimes fix it by giving it a coat of Varathane, but only if it’s very slightly sticky. I don’t think it will work if it’s really sticky.

  14. Hi, I have a question. I have been working in ceramic clay for a long time, but I had an idea for a piece to put in my planter garden in polymer clay. My research has brought me to your website, which I really enjoy btw. Because it is outdoors and I know I want to use Pearl EX colors and Kato clay, but what I am having a hard time figuring out is sealer. On another post you posted pictures of hearts that you have outdoors and mentioned sealing with “future”, but I did not see that on the list. I keep reading about this verathane as acceptable for outdoor use, but the can says interior. Am I missing something or does it come in different varieties? And if so, if I do not want it too glossy, by only putting 1 coat, is that acceptable coverage for the outdoors? Thank you, I value your opinion and appreciate the posts you write.

    1. I’ve never done any long term outdoor tests with any varnishes on polymer clay, so I really don’t know. I did use “future”…which is now called “Pledge Home Care”, which is a clear acrylic liquid used to put a shine on kitchen floors. Outdoor Varathane may work, but I’ve only use indoor Varathane on clay. Really, the best thing is to take your chances and see what happens. Try it and see. Good luck!

      1. Thank you so much. I bought some outdoor varathane and will test it out. Thank you so much! I’ve enjoyed your posts and have learned so much. Love learning new artistic mediums.

  15. My Home Depot said it depends on what state you are in to be able to get the water based Varathane. In NH you can only buy the oil based version, at least in HD. I ordered mine through Amazon.

  16. Thank you so much for this handy article!

    After reading, I went on a journey for the fabled Varathane. After going to Kroger, Keltons, Tractor Supply, Nothern Tool, Walmart and Lowes, the only thing I could find is Polycrylic, but the stuff is not nearly the same as Varathane according to a lot of reviews. I wanted to get the good stuff asap, because I plan to sell a lot of my glaze-awaiting polymer clay pieces.

    I talked to an associate at Lowes and he told me they stopped selling Varathane months ago and started putting up Polycrylic. I wonder why this is?

    Turns out the only way for me to get my hands on this stuff is to order it online. A lot of the hardware stores I visited have it listed on their website, but not in-store.
    Just wanted to let everyone know. Best price I could find was on Amazon.

  17. Ginger..just a quick question….i’m reading that you prefer a water-based poly….i did have an oil-based laquer on hand…i tried it on a spare clay piece and itvseems fine–beautifully glossy….is your preference just because of easier clean-up?…or are there other reasons?

    1. Clean up is certainly a factor. And the longer drying times of oil varnishes can be an issue as well. Sometimes a varnish won’t fully dry on polymer clay and the oil based ones seem to be the ones people report problems with. Lastly, the oil based varnishes seem to be amber colored and will be slightly yellow on white polymer clay. They also tend to get more yellow over time. This isn’t an issue on wood, of course, but for Santa’s beard, it would be a problem! However, if your tests look good and your varnish is behaving well then certainly go ahead and use it.

  18. wow, this is great! Thanks for this, its a huge help!
    I was curious to know if you would recommend this for air dry clay too?
    I’m having trouble sticking fabric to air dry clay, without it becoming cloudy and ruining the finish. I was using Modge Podge (it was recommended) to stick the fabric, but I need to find another glue that doesn’t ruining the finish. But now I’m thinking if I can find a suitable glue, I could finish the work off with this to make the work really look and feel finished and protect it.
    Anyone have any thoughts?
    PS I’m enjoying your site, pleased I stumbled across it!

    1. Varathane seems to be a very nice finish for lots of surfaces. I see no reason why it wouldn’t work for air dry clay as well. I’m not sure, exactly, what you’re doing with the fabric, so it’s hard for me to give any recommendations. But Varathane (or another polyurethane varnish) is a good one to have on hand for a variety of great crafting applications. I’m glad you’re enjoying my site. Don’t be a stranger! 🙂

  19. Hello there! Thank you for great article!
    I’m from Poland so.. No chance to get Varathane. I also tried few varshines. Some really became sticky. But I’ve got an idea about Sculpey gloss. I’m using it now and yet it’s perfect. It’s dry in no time and does not get sticky. I think, it’s because of the clay, that people sometimes dislike it. I noticed that not every varnish is usable for every brand of clay. For example: I’ve had one decoupage varshish which was sticky on Premo but wasn’t sticky on Fimo.

    Currenly I’m using only Premo clay and I must say that Sculpey gloss goes very well with it. Also I don’t think they would produce a product not suitable with their own products.. Maybe that’s the problem with Sculpey 🙂

    1. I agree with you that different varnishes will act different on various brands of clay. I have experienced the same thing. Sculpey Glaze isn’t a terrible glaze, and it does a good job in many cases. But some people don’t like it, perhaps merely because they like Varathane better. I did find it to be a bit gloopy and thick. But if it works for you, then that’s excellent!

  20. Is it safe to use water-based Varathane on polymer clay earrings that have been previously coated with Sculpey gloss glaze?

    1. I haven’t tried that particular combination, but I have used Varathane over other sealers without any ill effects. You might get crackling, but you won’t know til you try. 🙂

      1. Thanks! I’m new to polymer clay and I didn’t know that Varathane would be a better choice until after I bought the Sculpey glaze. By the way, your articles have been super helpful for me! 🙂

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