Where, When and in What Order to Finish Countertops

When you are going to be installing new countertops there are a few tips to make the finishing and installation easier.

Where to Finish

If you have flexibility in where you are applying your finishes, there are a few factors to consider. There is more detailed information in the drying, curing and ventilation guide.

  1. Ventilation: Some of our solvent-based products (ORIGINAL, MARINE, and URETHANE) have strong solvent odors during and immediately after application. Pick an area that can get good ventilation and is not going to impact your main living areas for at least a few hours. With our other products (H2OLOX, UNIVERSAL Tung Oil Sealer, and TRUETONE), the solvents are minimal and odors are essentially non-existent, so ventilation is not as critical, but some fresh air flow is important.
  2. Minimize Dust/Debris: If you can thoroughly clean your finishing area, it will minimize dust/debris in the finish. Clean vents and ceiling fans if they are going to be used and try not to kick up too much dust in the area where you are finishing by cleaning near your project immediately following application. If cutting or other dusty work was done prior, you may want to allow some time for dust to settle before wiping down the surface and applying your finishes.
  3. Climate Control/Environment: Try to finish in an area where the project will not experience large temperature fluctuations if possible. It is not critical to keep the surface warm, but it does help. Also do not finish in direct intense sunlight or in high winds as this can cause the surfaces to skin over and not dry/cure properly.

When – Before vs. After Installation

This question is about before vs. after installation, not time of year. See our drying, curing and ventilation guide for more information about temperatures and times of year.

You can finish your countertops before cutting/gluing/installing countertops if it is easier to do so. It is also OK to fully install the raw wood countertops before applying any finish. The quick answer is to do what is most convenient for your situation. There are however a few tips and considerations that may help to come up with a plan:

  1. Apply some finish on the underside if possible (see Finishing the Underside of a Countertop). This is obviously much easier before installation. Using the UNIVERSAL Tung Oil Sealer for this task makes it very easy because you do not have to worry about runs or drips and it dries overnight without any concerns about dust/debris getting stuck in the finish.
  2. Save your final coat for after installation. If it is more convenient to finish your project somewhere other than its final place, then it is a good idea to save the final finish coat for after installation. That way you can address any issues or damage that may occur during the installation process.
  3. Use the appropriate adhesives/sealants/glues based on the surfaces you are applying them too. Some products work really well on raw wood and may perform worse on finished surfaces. Gluing up fresh cut ends might be different than cutting, finishing and then gluing.
  4. When cutting countertops, the newly exposed end grain may require some additional attention, especially if it may be exposed to water (undermount sink or faucet fixtures). See the Finishing End Grain guide for some more information.

What Order – Top, Bottom, and When to Flip

If you are finishing your countertop before installation, you’ll probably finish both the top and the bottom of your project. There are a few tips to make it easier to finish all sides in a timely manner.

  1. Start with one coat on the top first. If you put at least one coat on the top surface, it helps to eliminate any problems of runs or drips being on the top “show” surface. If you start on the bottom and miss any drips, it may change the way the top surface accepts the Waterlox and appear as a slightly different color (this is especially true on walnut).
  2. Use of UNIVERSAL Tung Oil Sealer or TRUETONE Color Infused Tung Oil as a first coat. These products are rubbed into the wood surface and will essentially eliminate runs or drips. Simply rub in the product, let sit 10-15 minutes and rub off the excess. Optimally, allow to dry overnight before flipping to do the other side, but you can essentially handle the surface (with gloves, especially for the colors) after a few hours.
  3. Do not “seal off” any finished areas. If you are finishing both sides, it is best to use something like saw horses that will allow airflow on both sides of the piece. Waterlox products are not curing when not exposed to oxygen, so try to maintain airflow over any finished surface when possible.
  4. Protect the finished surfaces. If you flip the piece over onto a finished side, you should protect that finish with proper materials. Plastic wrap or foam can stick to the finish or leave marks (especially if the piece is quite heavy) on fresh finish. Use Ram Board, red rosin paper or clean cardboard to protect the finish.

A Recommendation:

  1. Apply one coat on the top surface. Allow to dry overnight or 24 hours depending on product.
  2. Flip project over and apply coats to underside. One coat of sealer is OK for most projects (see Finishing the Underside of a countertop). Apply all necessary coats to the underside at this point, following the proper drying instructions.
  3. Flip project over and address any marks/issues before applying finishes. Lightly sand out any scratches or damage before finishing the top side.
  4. As noted above, if possible, save the final coat for after installation to deal with any issues that may arise.