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I am building a closet organizer using plywood. I want to put a clear finish over the plywood to protect it. I am going with either Shellac or Water-based Polyurethane to avoid the nasty smell.

I would like to know, in your experience, how many coats is needed for such application? This is not high used furniture like tables. Just looking for reasonable protection while minimizing the time for finishing. There are lots of panels to cover thus you can imagine if I can do one less coat, it’s lots of time saved.

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I used to prefer oil based finishes, but the water based ones have gotten so much better over the years that I will now use them instead. For a simple closet organizer I suggest 2 coats, lightly sanding after the first coat. The main problem with water based finishes is they tend to "raise the grain" of the wood on the first coat, which requires light sanding to remove. Almost always the second coat doesn't. And if you aren't yet satisfied with the 2nd coat, another light sanding and third coat would almost certainly be sufficient.

But to be succinct, I really think for your purposes 2 coats of a quality, water based Poly would be fine.

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  • I read somewhere that we can wipe the surface with a damp cloth to raise the grain. I hope that avoids the third coat. Agree that oil based is better, but they smell bad and take too long to dry. But for a closet, there will be little abuse, thus water based should work just fine.
    – Quoc Vu
    May 27 '20 at 7:42
  • Yes, wetting it down will raise the grain. Sand lightly again and apply finish. It will still raise the grain again a bit, but another light sanding and 2nd coat you should be fine. May 27 '20 at 15:18

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