Well I for sure didn't until I got in there, got my hands dirty (VERY dirty) and experimented for myself.
When I first started, I believed that the only thing you could top coat chalk paint with was wax, because that's what "everyone else did". So I ran out to the hardware store and picked up the Minwax Paste Wax because it was readily available and inexpensive - about $12. Annie Sloan has her own wax of course...I don't have experience personally applying it but I know hers runs around $30-$40 for the same sized can.
Well, very long story short, don't use cheese cloth! Perhaps I did something terribly wrong, but did that darn cheese cloth not leave white lint EVERYWHERE on the waxed finish, and you basically cannot get that stuff off once it's in there. So I got really ticked off at this wax until I realized that using a lint free cloth actually worked awesome...then I fell in love!
This paste wax is exactly that - a thick paste that you scoop out in a ball and place it inside a LINT-FREE cloth, then twist the cloth to allow the wax to seep through the pores of the cloth and on to the furniture. You rub it into the furniture, then take another (you guessed it) LINT-FREE soft cloth and buff until it shines up nice. Buffing is my favourite part! Can take a little muscle but so worth it!
As time went on I realized that although the wax looks beautiful (it really deepens the colours of the paint), it isn't always practical. I started reading more and more about the most durable finishes, and unfortunately, wax didn't rank in the top spots. Since I was finishing and selling pieces, it was important to me that I was putting out a product that was not only nice to look at, but something that would last a long time.
I didn't initially like the look of poly because it was too shiny and "fake" looking. I have experimented with a few different kinds of satin-finish poly's, but I have settled on the Diamond Varathane as my absolute fave product.
This varathane appears milky in the can, unlike the Minwax Polycrylic which looks more oily and yellow (not to mention it definitely DOES yellow your paint job even though it claims not to!). The varathane is actually the least amount of yellowing I have had with any of the top coats, which is a huge plus in my book.
So, after having used both these products, and talking to a LOT of wood workers and hardware store employees, I have come to the conclusion that wax is (for the most part) decorative for those of us that love the look of vintage furniture.
YES the wax provides a protective layer, but it is a SOFT layer, not meant to take much abuse. Not to mention that wax can melt if left in direct sun, or if you place your hot cup of morning coffee directly onto the surface!
I have tried really hard to blend both style and function, using both these mediums depending on the type of piece I am doing. Bar none I will use varathane on all table tops/buffet tops/etc because the wax is just not strong enough (in my opinion anyways). I prefer, where I can, to maintain the beauty of the waxed chalk paint by using it on the legs of tables, the body of a cabinet, or other places that do not see a lot of wear and tear.
To sum it all up for those of you contemplating which top coat to use - consider the following points...
WAX looks great and is functional on surfaces that do not have a lot of traffic
POLY is a little shinier than wax but dries harder and can be more protective on table tops/high traffic surfaces
At the end of the day it really comes down to personal preference - whatever you think will work best in your home. I am just a firm believer in doing your research and not following trend just because everyone else is doing it :)
Questions about top coating? Feel free to message me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading,