sanding wood

Weekend How-To: Choose the Right Finish for Your Woodworking Project

There’s something immeasurably sublime about completing a project—the anticipation of the finished product, the sense of pride and accomplishment, the bragging rights. But for some projects—like woodworking—the final steps can be just as important as the long days, weeks or months you spent crafting the perfect piece.

Whether you’re creating custom cabinetry or a tiny keepsake box, it’s crucial to choose the right finish—both for aesthetics and durability. Here’s a helpful guide to choosing the best finish for your weekend project.

Types of Finish

wood finish

Waxes

Sold in liquid, paste, and solid stick forms, waxes are available in clear, amber, white and a range of wood tones. They are softer than lacquers and varnishes, are derived from mineral, vegetable and animal sources, and often contain solvents.

Examples: beeswax and carnauba

Pros

  • Easy to apply—simply rub on and wipe off
  • Foolproof, consistent results
  • Can be used with any type of wood
  • Prevent oxidation (graying) of wood
  • Resist food and drink stains
  • Shed water
  • Available in natural and eco-friendly varieties
  • Can be applied over any other finish for a soft sheen

Cons

  • Lack of durability
  • Not very heat-resistant
  • Melt at low temperatures
  • Very little protection against scratches and wear
  • Do not enhance the look of wood

Recommended Projects

  • Jewelry boxes, picture frames or other decorative objects that won’t experience much wear and tear
  • Great used as a polish over other finishes

Non-Drying Natural Oils

Non-drying oils are considered a treatment, not a true finish. They stay wet indefinitely, giving wood a rich look, but not much protection.

Examples: vegetable and mineral oils

Pros

  • Effect is richer and is more translucent than wax
  • Edible and non-toxic
  • Eco-friendly and natural
  • Easy to apply
  • Wood remains in true natural condition–shows character
  • No special tools needed for minor repairs
  • Can be “refreshed” immediately any time
  • Readily available and very inexpensive

Cons

  • Remain wet indefinitely
  • Wash off with soap and water
  • Do not dry to a solid film
  • Do not protect wood well

Recommended Projects

  • Items that come into contact with food, like cutting boards
  • Bowls and food storage containers

Tung Oil

A natural drying oil, Tung oil resists water better than any other pure oil and is available in pure Tung oil and heated or polymerized Tung oil. Heated or polymerized Tung oil dries much faster, penetrates more readily and is more commonly used than pure Tung oil.

Pros

  • Waterproof or highly water-resistant (on a well-maintained surface)
  • Resistant to alcohol, acetone, and fruit and vegetable acids
  • Stays flexible as wood expands and contracts
  • Accentuates the beauty, texture and grain
  • Easy to apply and re-apply
  • Natural, eco-friendly, non-toxic and food-safe (pure Tung oil only)
  • Polymerized Tung oil takes less time to dry

Cons

  • Less protection and durability than varnishes and other modern finishes
  • Produces a mildly disagreeable odor for a few days after application
  • Must be sanded after every coat
  • Usually requires 5-7 coats
  • Pure Tung oil takes 2-3 days to dry per coat
  • Pure Tung oil has poor penetration, scratches easily and is difficult to store
  • Not recommended for anyone with tree nut allergies

Recommended Projects

  • Wood bowls Wood countertops
  • Outdoor furniture
  • Decks
  • Wood siding
  • Wood flooring

Linseed Oil

Also known as flaxseed oil, linseed oil is available raw form and boiled, treated or polymerized form.

Pros

  • Easy to apply
  • Eco-friendly and natural
  • Edible and non-toxic in pure form
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Brings out the natural beauty of wood
  • Partially protects wood from denting by compression

Cons

  • Standard or raw linseed oil takes at least 2-3 days to dry per coat and requires up to 20 coats
  • Not suitable for outdoor projects
  • Less protection and durability than varnishes and other modern coatings
  • Provides no significant barrier against scratches

Recommended Projects

  • Any wood that has already been treated with linseed oil
  • Cricket bats
  • Pool cues
  • Surfboards
  • Stringed instruments
  • Wooden recorders

Oil and Varnish Blends

Also known as wiping varnish and wiping oils, these oil-based blends combine the easy application of oils with the durability of varnish.

Examples: Tung oil finish (or modified Tung oil), Danish oil and teak oil

Pros

  • Easy to apply with just a rag
  • Great for beginners
  • Take less time to dry than linseed and Tung oil
  • More resilient and protective than natural oils and waxes
  • Better suited to new projects than linseed oil
  • Dry harder than pure oils
  • Require fewer applications than pure oils
  • Resistant to heat, scratches and solvents
  • Durable
  • No brushes to clean or brush marks to rub out
  • Easy to repair
  • Can be built up in layers to be as thick and durable as varnish

Cons

  • Must be sanded between coats
  • Require as many as 4 coats
  • Not a great choice for outdoor use

Recommended Projects

  • Kitchen cabinets
  • Dressers, bookshelves and any indoor furniture that won’t endure overly excessive wear and tear

Shellac

Shellac is a resin made from the lac bugs of Southeast Asia and is available in a variety of warm shades. It has been around for hundreds of years and is still used today by fine furniture restorers.                                                                     Can be applied by spraying or brushing

Available as flakes, “buttons” and liquid pre-mixed form, shellac can be applied with a brush or sprayer.

Pros

  • Non-toxic and natural
  • Good durability and hardness
  • UV-resistant
  • Does not darken or yellow with age
  • Can be mixed with nearly any color
  • Easy to repair
  • No fumes
  • Safe for surfaces exposed to children and pets
  • Easy to repair
  • Can be stripped off easily with alcohol

Cons

  • Scratches more easily than most lacquers and varnishes
  • May need several coats
  • Does not hold up well to heat or water
  • Dries very quickly, making it difficult fix mistakes while applying
  • Hard to avoid brush marks
  • Can be blemished with anything containing alcohol and other chemicals like ammonia
  • Susceptible to white condensation and heat rings

Recommended Projects

  • Antiques and period pieces
  • As a primer to help stain go on evenly
  • As a primer for polyurethane finishes (de-waxed shellac only)
  • To repair wood furniture (de-waxed shellac only)

Varnish

Traditionally a combination of a drying oil, a resin and a thinner or solvent, varnish is used now as a generic term for a durable top coat. They can also be applied over wood stains for added gloss and protection. You can even find some products that combine both a stain and a varnish.

The type of resin (the component in the varnish that sets and becomes hard) determines the characteristics of the finish. These include:

  • Alkyd: Standard all-purpose interior variety with decent protective qualities
  • Phenolic: Predominantly for exterior use and usually made with Tung oil
  • Urethane (also called polyurethane): Offers the greatest resistance to heat, solvents and abrasions than any other varnish.

Pros

  • Durable and hardwearing
  • Available in transparent or colored, matte and high-gloss, and water-based and oil-based versions
  • Highlights and protects wood
  • For both interior or exterior use
  • Enhances natural wood color
  • Protects wood from dirt, sunlight and water
  • Most natural look of any product available
  • Easy to apply
  • More forgiving—brushstrokes are not nearly as visible as with paint and shellac

Cons

  • Can dull or yellow over time, especially if furniture is placed beside a window or an area that receives direct sunlight
  • Must be careful when mixing varnish or bubbles will appear when applied
  • Cleanup requires lacquer thinner or mineral spirits, whereas other types of finishes can be cleaned up using water

Recommended Projects

  • Outdoor projects
  • Exterior doors
  • Exterior trim
  • Items that are used near water or in water, such as beach chairs, boats and docks
  • Items that will endure wear and tear, such as kitchen tables and chairs

Lacquer

For an extremely intense gloss finish, lacquer is the go-to finish. Today, it’s available in spray-on and brush-on varieties for convenience and easier application.

Pros

  • Dries fast
  • Adds incredible depth and richness to wood
  • Extremely durable and resistant to damage
  • Rubs out well
  • Relatively easy application
  • Gives a sleek, glossy look
  • Lacquer-finished surfaces are easy to clean and wipe off
  • Less likely to deteriorate or crack
  • Mold-resistant
  • Easy to repair

Cons

  • Discolors and can become scratched as it ages
  • Spray application requires a high-volume, low-presser (HVLP) sprayer and a well-ventilated and spacious workspace
  • Low resistance to chemicals
  • May have to reapply year after year, sometimes more or less depending on wear

Recommended Projects

  • Any time you want a super high-gloss finish—like on Asian-inspired or ultramodern pieces

Water-Based Finishes

Water-based finishes contain some of the same ingredients as varnish and lacquer, but many flammable and polluting ingredients have been replaced with water.

One water-based finish—water-based oil-modified polyurethane—combines the durability of an oil base with the cleanup of a water base.

Pros

  • Dry very quickly
  • Do not alter the color of the surface
  • Not a fire hazard
  • Easy to clean up
  • Application process is non-polluting
  • Complies with tight emission laws

Cons

  • Difficult to apply in humid weather
  • Do not have a significant advantage over other varnishes when it comes to acid, humidity, water or heat resistance
  • Cost more than oil-based counterparts
  • Difficult to remove once dried
  • Most do not have the same solvent and heat resistance as oil-based counterparts
  • Don’t have the luster of oil-based finishes
  • May need to apply more coats than you would with an oil-based varnish or lacquer

Recommended Projects

  • Anything that won’t be exposed to extreme conditions, such as bookcases, desks, side tables and picture frames
  • Water-based oil-modified polyurethane can be used on hardwood floors