Ultimate Guide to Wood Finishes

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It can be a headache to discern which finish to use, especially if you’re not a seasoned wood worker and don’t even know what to ask.

There are quite a few contenders on the market, which offer varying degrees of protection, durability, aesthetic, and ease of application. This guide will get into the nitty gritty and help you confidently choose the right wood finish for your project. 

Please note that all finishes have their own merits and limitations and there is no ‘perfect’ finish. However, I am sure there is an option or two that will be suitable and make your project look great!

The Basics of Wood Finishes

You can classify wood finishes under two umbrellas: surface finishes or penetrating finishes. Some are used alone and some in conjunction with others.

Wooden table about to be applied with a wood finish

Surface finishes provide a hard, protective layer that seals the wood from elements–elements such as light, water or moisture. They are durable but don’t look very natural. Common types of surface finishes include lacquer, shellac, polyurethane, and varnish. 

Penetrating finishes, on the other hand, infiltrate wood pores and look quite natural. They have a low sheen, take a while to dry, and are mostly oil based. Many house flippers will use a penetrating finish to highlight or add colour to the wood grain of old floors–livening them up. Common types of penetrating finishes include Tung oil or linseed oil.

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While using a penetrating finish or staining wood is more for aesthetic purposes, applying a surface finish is essential in protecting the wood’s surface. Without a surface finish, wood can easily deteriorate or swell if exposed to moisture–as wood is a porous material. 

If you have kids, you also know the dangers of not protecting your beautiful, antique furniture from bumps, scratches, spills, and other hazards. All in all, surface finishes are definitely a better choice for everyday pieces that will receive a lot of wear and tear.

Unfortunately, many of the options available are quite toxic. Interestingly, due to rising health concerns connected to toxic wood finishes, many people have started using vegetable oils recently. A study published by the International Caucasian Forestry Symposium elaborates on this trend. 

Below you will find some detailed information on each kind of wood finish. However, before you read on, make sure you know the answer to these two questions: What do you want the wood to look like? And, how durable do you want the finished surface to be? 

Types of Wood Finishes

There are plenty types of wood finishes, and we’ve highlighted everything that you need to know below:

Oil Based

Oil based wood finishes are easy-to-use wipe on stains designed to be applied over raw wood surfaces. People usually apply with a brush or rag to furniture and low-traffic areas. Oil based wood finishes are popular because they penetrate the wood grain and enrich its color. 

However, they dry slowly, have a strong aroma, are toxic, and can be flammable or explosive. Therefore, you will want to wear a respirator to avoid breathing in the high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and dispose of used rags properly. 

When to use it:

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  • Use an oil based finish if you want the wood to have a deep, rich, warm hue. 
  • Oil based stains are also far more durable than water based stains and thus require far less maintenance.
  • If you are a beginner, you may prefer oil based finishes because they dry more slowly than water based stains and thus maintain a more even finish.

When not to use it:

  • While oil based finishes are more durable than water based finishes, they are not the most durable finish on the market. Wood with an oil based finish can still be very easily dented. If you’re looking for the most protection, you should use hard finishes such as lacquers or shellacs.
  • If you are sensitive to VOCs or if someone in your home–especially a child–has asthma, you may want to reconsider choosing an oil based finish. 
Man applying oil-based finish on wood

Water Based

A water based finish can be applied on bare, stained or painted wood and provides a clear sheen that does not yellow with age. However, if you do in fact want your wood to have an amber glow, there are water-based sealers made with color enhancers to do just that. 

It dries quickly (in about one hour) due to its thin consistency but is not as durable as others and you will need to apply a few coats (four to be exact). Be sure to use a synthetic brush to avoid marks/streaks. 

Many prefer water based finishes because they have far fewer VOCs, lack the strong odor of oil based finishes, are not flammable or explosive, and clean up is easy. 

When to use it:

  • If you want to keep the natural colors of the wood, choose a water-based finish. 

When not to use it:

  • Since a water-based finish dries so quickly, you will need to apply it correctly the first time. So if you’re a beginner, possibly reconsider or get a professional to help you apply it.
  • Water based finishes are–as stated before–not the most durable option on the market so you may want to consider another option if you are looking for something that will stand up to a lot of wear and tear.

Polyurethane (and urethane)

Although polyurethane and urethane are often used interchangeably, they are two distinctly different compounds. The main difference is the number of urethanes within the actual product itself. Possibly why these two products are used so interchangeably is because they basically do the same thing. However, you will notice polyurethane is more widely shelved at your local Home Depot, such as a Varathane.

Polyurethane is a synthetic, clear, highly durable, water-resistant finish available in satin, semi-gloss, and glossy sheens as well as oil- and water-based versions. It offers lots of protection against scratches or water, and is ideal for kitchen cabinets, doors, furniture, floors, and trims. 

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When combined with an epoxy primer, it can be applied on most types of material. The versatility of polyurethane is one of the reasons why it is one of the most widely used coating materials–especially within the construction industry. 

Both water and oil based polys dry relatively quickly, although you don’t want to rush the process or you might have worse results. 

Be sure to layer it on because, although it’s termed a surface finish, most of the first coat is absorbed into the wood. This makes polyurethane difficult to remove after application. 

Also be sure to wear appropriate personal safety equipment because while polyurethane does not emit harmful vapors after it is cured, it is toxic to breathe in during the application process. 

When to use it:

  • Use polyurethane if you need a durable top coat that protects surfaces from scratches and water damage.
  • If you need a versatile finish that can be used on a wide variety of surfaces, choose Polyurethane. 
Man holding a can of Polyurethane

When not to use it:

  • Polyurethane is not recommended for outdoor use as it may yellow or crack in sunlight unless formulated to be UV-resistant. 

Related: Learn about how to clean polyurethane and how to remove it from wood when needed. 

Polycrylic

Sometimes confused with polyurethane, polycrylic is a water-based protective coat available in high gloss and satin finishes. Apply with a spray bottle or roller to furniture, woodwork, doors, and cabinets. It works well over water based wood stains as well as light wood surfaces because it has no tint. 

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Polycrylic is very affordable and readily available at hardware stores but the runny consistency makes it a pain to apply. Far less smelly and toxic than polyurethane, you won’t need to don protective gear to apply it. 

While both polycrylic and polyurethane are durable products, polyurethane is known to be more durable.

When to use it: 

  • For those looking for both function and aesthetic, polycrylic is a great choice. Not only does it protect against various forms of damage, like water damage, but it also looks quite beautiful. 
  • You’ll want to use and apply polycrylic, which is less toxic than polyurethane, especially when working in a poorly ventilated area.

When to not use it:

  • Polycrylic is not ideal for very small and intricate projects since it requires a roller to apply smoothly. So, if you need to finish smaller pieces of furniture, you shouldn’t choose this option. 

Varnish

Varnish, which consists of a synthetic resin, a drying oil and a solvent or thinner, is an extremely durable finish that works well on exterior wood surfaces exposed to UV light or submerged in water. 

According to a study from the Department of Furniture and Decoration, the moisture levels of the wood can adversely affect the performance of the varnish. This is important to keep in mind when choosing what type of wood you want to use in your project. 

Many choose varnish over polyurethane simply because it is less expensive but possibly the most desirable attribute of varnish is that it’s a film-building finish, which means it truly protects the wood. You can use varnish on top of a wood stain for desired coloring. 

Get it in a variety of sheens from satin to glossy and apply to a dust-free surface with a clean brush. Be sure not to shake it as that will create air bubbles! 

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When to use it:

  • Varnish, known for its durability and toughness, is suitable for exterior wood surfaces such as boats, decks, and outdoor furniture as well as high wear areas such as flooring, tables, and cabinets.

When not to use it:

  • If you desire a natural or rustic look, do not use varnish. 
  • Sometimes varnish has problems curing on oily, tropical hardwoods so you may want to avoid using it on those. 

Lacquer

Lacquer is an evaporative finish that is considered one of the best wood sealants by professionals. Typically made with a solution of nitrocellulose and solvents, it is moderately durable, has a faster drying time than other finishes (just 15 minutes), and can be easily sprayed on. 

You can get it in three varieties: dull, medium and high-gloss. Many like the look of lacquer and its similarities to an enamel paint

Brush being used to apply wood finish

What many like about lacquer is that you don’t need to use more than two coats to get a good-looking sheen. This contributes to lacquer being able to be applied very quickly. Lacquer is great if you’re trying to finish a lot of wood pieces. 

Because it’s so thin in consistency, lacquer penetrates deeper into the wood than other finishes. Like varnish, lacquer is film-building and sits on top of the wood, but is not as tough as varnish. In fact, few things are. 

Many people use lacquer for furniture as it delivers incredible depth and richness to wood. We recommend that you use multiple layers and that you do not use it over old paint or varnish. 

The main downside of lacquer is that it tends to yellow with age, which is more obvious on lighter-colored woods. It is also not as durable as polyurethane

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Additionally, since it gives off strong fumes when applied, make sure your work space is well-ventilated and you wear personal protective equipment. 

When to use it:

  • Lacquer is great for interior surfaces with a moderate amount of wear and tear. As stated above, varnish should be used for the most demanding applications. 
  • Lacquer can be applied quickly with a sprayer, so it is great for furniture and cabinets. 

When not to use it:

  • If there is a high level of humidity in your work space, “blushing” may be a problem. You’ll notice “blushing” if there is a milky white blotch on your cured surface. It is literally moisture in the finish that can remain there. 

Related: Learn about how to remove lacquer.  

Shellac

While you may think of shellac as a nailpolish or a liquid finish found at a paint store, it is–in its purest form–a natural waxy resin secreted by the lac insect. It provides only minimal protection and is somewhat overshadowed by  most other modern finishes. 

It is a hard finish that dries quickly and doesn’t yellow with age. However, the main reason why people love it so much is because its compatibility with a variety of surfaces. In other words, it sticks to everything. Why people may not choose shellac is because it has a relatively short shelf-life (about one year from the time it’s mixed). 

You can buy shellac in a premixed form or in flakes and apply it easily with a brush, can, or sprayer. The premixed form is obviously the most convenient option, however, the flakes come in a wider variety of colors. You can even use shellac to restore antiques, but you’ll want to be careful about how you approach it. 

Man spraying a can of shellac over wood

When to use it:

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  • You can use shellac on items such as jewellery boxes and antiques that are not subject to heavy wear or moisture. 
  • Any project striving to create or restore a french polish finish should use shellac. 
  • Those desiring a food-safe, non-toxic finish should also consider shellac. However, be sure to wear a mask when sanding between coats as the fine dust is a health hazard.

When not to use it:

  • Shellac is easily damaged by alcohol (it dissolves the finish) so be careful about using it on surfaces that you could spill on. 
  • Additionally, some people may be allergic to shellac so make sure you’re not before purchasing it. 

Tung Oil

Tung oil, native to Asia, is derived from the seeds of the Tung tree and has been used for centuries by fine furniture craftsmen. It provides a rich, satin finish and is very natural looking. You can apply it on furniture as well as low traffic areas with a rag for a thin layer of protection. 

People may choose Tung oil because it is a strong, plant-based option. However, you’ll want to make sure to check the ingredients before you purchase it as a number Tung oils on the market are not purely Tung oil. Many will contain solvents, and/or metal compounds. Also note that Tung oil is on the pricier side of oils and can set you back as much as $50. 

While most oils are slow to dry, Tung oil dries pretty quickly–making it easier and less time-consuming to apply. It is also very versatile. You can finish wood, bamboo, concrete, stone, brick, and even metal surfaces with Tung oil. It is a favorite for finishing guitars and other musical instruments.

Interestingly, many people falsely believe Tung oil emerged in 1965, when Homer Formsby put his Tung oil on the market. You can read more about the origins of Tung oil in China and how it came to the United States in the early 20th century here

When to use it:

  • If you’re looking for a versatile, environmentally friendly, antique style finish that doesn’t yellow over time, then Tung oil is for you.

When not to use it:

  • Don’t use Tung oil if you are looking for a glossy, high-sheen finish. 
  • Don’t use Tung oil if you are looking for a lot of protection as surfaces finished with Tung oil are susceptible to stains and scratches. 

Linseed Oil

Linseed oil, an alternative to Tung oil, is pressed from flax seeds and is one of the most useful oils. It is used as a preservative for wood and concrete and is an ingredient in paints, varnishes, and stains. While cheaper than Tung oil, it still gives the same rich warmth to the wood surface.  

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Perhaps, Linseed oil’s most redeeming quality is that it’s cheap since there are quite a number of commercial wood preservatives that exceed Linseed oil’s performance. Most of the time, it’s just used as an additive.

Keep in mind that it can get sticky in humid weather and works best if it is boiled as boiled linseed oil is thicker and dries quicker. However, some people report that Linseed oil is sticky regardless of the climate and find the drying process a pain.

Like pure Tung oil, pure Linseed oil does not contain any dangerous chemicals. Unlike Tung oil, Linseed oil encourages mildew growth. 

When to use it:

  • If you want to preserve or protect a large wood surface at a low cost, Linseed oil does the trick. 

When not to use it:

  • Avoid using Linseed oil on woods like padauk, purpleheart, or cocobolo.
  • Also avoid using it if you don’t have the patience to let it dry properly.  

Teak Oil

Teak oil, which is made of Tung oil or Linseed oil with extra additives mixed in, is used on teak wood furniture and boats. People incorrectly assume it’s called teak oil because it’s derived from the teak tree, native to Southeast Asia. 

Man applying finish on a block of wood

Some criticize teak oil for not being a long lasting product and having an exhausting upkeep schedule. And even if reapplied multiple times, teak oil does not provide adequate UV protection, leaving outdoor furniture vulnerable to fading. 

However, teak is an extremely resilient wood that generally cares for itself so you may not even need extra help. In fact, it is such a high quality wood that global demand for teak has exhausted the available supply and caused deforestation, leading the Myanmar government to ban the harvesting of teak

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When to use it:

  • Ultimately, you probably shouldn’t use teak oil. However, a teak sealant would do a better job at caring for teak wood. It also only needs to be reapplied once a year!

When not to use it:

  • It is best to only use teak oil or sealant on teak wood since it was made specifically for it. Don’t use it on other woods. 

Danish Oil

Today’s Danish oil is a mixture of varnish and either Linseed or Tung oil and was initially used to water-proof ships. It provides adequate protection to the wood, comes in a variety of colors, and can be easily applied to care woods with a rag or foam brush. It’s also non-toxic, which is always a plus!

While Danish oil is easy to apply, it takes a full 3-4 days to dry and requires consistent and careful protection. Many don’t have the time or patience for that. Also, surfaces finished with Danish oil are susceptible to scratches. You can look at this in a positive way, however, because if you don’t end up liking the final look–just sand it off. 

When to use it:

  • Some use Danish oil as a primer. Use it on bare wood before exposing it to any kind of paint.

When not to use it:

  • While waterproof and fast drying, its soft coat isn’t very durable. So if you are looking for a durable finish, don’t use Danish oil. It won’t hold up well against everyday wear and tear.

Epoxy

Epoxy is made of a resin and a curing agent or hardener. It is known for its versatility–use it as an adhesive, a paint, a coating or sealant, or a repair agent. Finishing wood with epoxy showcases the beauty of the wood grain and gives the wood a much thicker coat than other options such as polyurethane. 

Epoxy also resists humidity/moisture and is super long-lasting, which gives it a lot of points in our book!

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When to use it:

  • If you need something more durable than polyurethane, choose epoxy. Many people choose epoxy to finish a floor with because its strength is so reliable. 

When not to use it:

  • Certain chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, for example, will react less with epoxy. This may or may not matter for your project but you should definitely look into it. 
Person applying wood finish

Enamel

Enamel, or enamel paint, is yet another glossy, durable finish that is used for coating outdoor surfaces or surfaces that are subject to a lot of wear and tear. Enamels are available in a broad spectrum of colours or sheens and can be both water-based or oil-based. 

While water-based enamels are easier to work with and dry faster, oil-based enamels last longer and have a harder finish.

If you are interested in learning details on the history of enamel paint, this article presents an overview of developments in oil-based enamel paint technology during the first half of the twentieth century. 

When to use it:

  • Enamel paint is much more durable than standard paint used on a wall. If you have young kids with sticky fingers or boys who like to wrestle, you may want to consider this product. Many love enamel not only because it is durable, but because it is super easy to clean. 
  • Enameled woodwork can also handle higher humidity and is mildew resistant, which makes it a good choice for bathrooms. You can even buy enamel paint made with extra heat resistant properties. 

When not to use it:

  • Oil-based enamel paints have strong odors that can be very irritating and sometimes harmful. If you have sensitivities, avoid using it. 

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re interested in a shellac, oil-based, or epoxy finish, our ultimate guide above should answer all your questions about when, how, and where to use these wood finishes. 

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An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.