In a time crunch, you need a finish that cures to a sandable hardness fast enough for you to apply that critical second coat.
The trick to clear-coating a project quickly, says finishing expert Bob Flexner, is in the second coat. The first application of any finish acts as a sealer, filling pores and locking any errant wood fibers in place. But the second coat begins to add visual depth and protection. In a time crunch, you need a finish that cures to a sandable hardness fast enough for you to apply that critical second coat.
A few caveats, though: Film-forming finishes start their journey to film-dom when solvents or thinners begin to evaporate, a process that happens best in warmer temperatures. In cooler-than-ideal conditions, accelerate the drying speed by circulating the air around -- not on -- your project using small fans. This keeps air flowing without blowing dust directly into the drying finish.
You could run into the opposite problem in a warm shop: Dry winter weather causes some finishes to dry too quickly, broadcasting brush strokes and locking drips in place. Where necessary, thin finishes for easier application.
And crack a window or door to keep a fresh air exchange even if it means cranking up the heat for a time. Then check the calendar and choose one of the following fast-drying finishes.