As you can imagine, there are many different types of wood finishes to consider, so it will depend very much on many factors, such as, what type of wood you are dealing with, how you want the project to ultimately look like and even how easy you would like the follow up treatments to be.
Wood finishing is the basic technique of adding more visual appeal to your woodworking tasks. It gives your project the perfect finish and protects the wood from environmental damages and prolongs its life span.
While you can use paint to protect your wooden project, it does not offer the best protection, which is why you should consider putting a finish on wooden surfaces.
Wood finish can change any wooden object into a vibrant decorative feature without hiding its original wooden beauty. It’s important to understand the type of wood finish to use for different projects because using the wrong finish can make the wood dry, swell, crack, and deteriorate.
Suppose you are starting your project or just recently finished one. In that case, this article will guide you through the different wood finishes, factors to consider when choosing a finish, and all other relevant information.
What Is a Wood Finish
The perfect wood finish acts as a protective layer on the wood surface. It safeguards your wood projects and furniture to ensure that humid and harsh weather conditions don’t deteriorate the wood.
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Just as importantly it creates a cosmetically attractive appearance to your job . It leaves the surface capable of withstanding the harsh treatment it will encounter over the coming years. If you’re a carpenter, these wood finishes will make your woodworking projects much more appealing and will definitely promote your skills to all those that see your work.
Why do you Need to put a Finish on a Wooden Surface?
For those new to woodworking, you might be wondering why you have to go through the trouble of coating your deck, furniture, or other items made out of wood. Well, there are numerous reasons for applying a finish, with some being for aesthetic purposes while others are practical.
To Protect the Wood
Wooden objects tend to age with time due to sunlight oxidizing the surface and countless human interactions that leave dirt and oil. By applying a finish, you are adding a layer of protection that makes it easy to clean or repair damages.
Wood is also very porous and will absorb moisture, oils, and chemicals. A finish acts as a sealant for protection purposes.
However, the finish you use for wood protection will vary depending on the intended purpose of your wooden project.
Stabilization of the Wood
In addition to being porous, wood is also hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb and release moisture.
Over time the exchange of moisture generates stress, which causes warping, splitting, and weakening of joints. Applying a finish reduces the rate of moisture exchange, lowering the amount of stress on the wood.
Improves the Look of the Wood
Applying a wood finish is important aesthetically because it changes how the wood feels and how it looks. There are many ways you can decide to decorate wood, but for wood finishes, aesthetics are split into color, texture, and sheen, which is the amount of gloss the finish has.
A finished wood surface is also easier to clean and keep sanitized. Finishing is also a great way to improve the appearance of low-quality wood.
Types of Wood Finishes
Though there are different types of wood finishes, they are mainly categorized into two groups.
The first category is applied in layers and leaves a coating. The second ones are oil-based and penetrate the wooden surface without leaving a coating.
When choosing the type of wood finish to use, you can easily get overwhelmed by the many options available in the market. To help you narrow down the options, your decision should be guided by the project’s requirements.
Here are different types of wood finishes, their pros, and cons, and which types of projects are ideal for each.
1. Oil-Based Stains for Treating Wood
Oil-based stains are penetrating wood finishes that contain oil, typically natural oil like Tung or Linseed, combined with varnish.
Oil-based finishes penetrate the wood where the stain is soaked up, making it durable and long-lasting.
Since oil is much thicker, you’ll have to wait at least two or three hours for the stain to penetrate the wood’s pores before you can work on it again.
Though oil doesn’t provide much protection on the wooden surface, it forms a barrier just below it, which slows the moisture exchange rate.
To achieve the best wooden surface protection using oil, you should apply a continuous coat without any voids. It’s important to note, using binders and oils like linseed increase the chances of mold growing over time, especially if the coats weren’t applied correctly.
Types of wood oil finish
With so many types of wood oil finishes to pick from, it can get quite confusing. However, oil-based finishes can be divided into two main categories based on how quickly the finish cures, whether the finish hardens after curing, and whether the finish wrinkles severely when it cures thick.
Straight oil Stains for Finishing Wood
These oil-based stains cure slowly compared to other types of wood finishes and often cure to a satin sheen even after applying several coats.
Straight oil finishes are highly penetrative and can’t create a protective layer on the wooden surface. They also have a distinctive nutty smell, which makes it easy to differentiate them from polymerized oils which have a mineral spirit smell.
Some of the most common straight oil finishes are Linseed and Tung oil.
Polymerized oil For Wood Finish
Semi-curing oils (cure very slowly but never harden completely) such as soybean oil and walnut oil can be heated to around 500℉ in a vacuum to reduce their curing time and increase loss and hardness.
Oil finishes produced in a similar manner are known as polymerized or heat-bodied oil and tend to cure quickly and harder while being resistant to water and moisture exchange.
Polymerized oil finishes aren’t that common because they are expensive, but many gun owners use them on their gun stocks.
2. Water-Based Stains Used on Wood
If you are worried about mold or the slow dry time of oil-based stains, you should consider water-based stains. These finishes use water as the thinning agent and contain water-based dyes that give the wooden object its final color.
Though environmentally friendly, water-based stains are watery and tend to run more. To that end, you must be diligent to guarantee an accurate and smooth finish.
Start by carefully cleaning and preparing the wooden surface to remove any blemishes. As a surface-based finish, these stains don’t penetrate the wood and are likely to fade more quickly than oil-based finishes.
- Fast dry time
- Environmentally friendly
- You need to clean and prepare the wood before
- Shorter lifespan
- Can drip and run
3. Gel-Based Stains for Wood
Compared to water and oil-based stains, gel-based stains are relatively new in the market. These stains use the gel as the binding agent, and due to its high viscosity, it doesn’t drip or run.
The high viscosity means gel-based stains can’t penetrate wood, meaning you have to reapply the finish sooner than oil-based stains. Because the gel is too viscous to be sprayed, you must apply the stain manually using a brush or cloth and wait several hours for it to dry.
- It doesn’t drip or run
- Requires little to no preparation
- Effectively hides blemishes and stains
- Slow dry time
- Too dense to spray
- It doesn’t penetrate the wood
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4. Shellac on Wood
Shellac is one of the most underrated wood finishes in the market mainly due to its weakness in heat, water, chemicals, and solvents.
However, shellac is the only finish with a proven durability track record dating back to the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century.
Shellac forms a protective barrier on the wood which is highly effective in minimizing moisture exchange and silicone contamination.
Shellac wood finish dries up quickly and is an ideal touch-up solution for repairing scratches and gouges.
You can apply shellac using a brush or spray it on a wooden surface as long as the shellac is not too thick. For the best results, you should consider using the French Polishing technique which uses a cloth pad instead of a brush or spray.
- It’s non-toxic with no fumes
- It dries up quickly
- Provides a non-yellowing hard finish
- Easy to strip off wood by using alcohol
- Resistance to water-vapor exchange
- Anything with alcohol can blemish the finish
- Weak resistance to heat and chemicals
- Short shelf life
5. Lacquer as a Wood Finish
When lacquer became available in the market, it was thought of as the ultimate finish because it had the superior features of shellac, but with increased resistance to heat, water, and chemicals.
There are two main types of lacquer finishes for wood, nitrocellulose lacquer and cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB). Nitrocellulose lacquer is used more commonly than CAB because it has a much more amber color and doesn’t yellow over time.
Lacquer finishes are made to be sprayed, but you can also use a brush by thinning the finish with a retarder. Lacquer finishes dry very quickly, often within just 15 minutes and you don’t have to wait for the coat to cure completely before applying another one.
However, curing time will vary depending on the solvents used to put the lacquer into the solution.
- Cures very quickly
- Excellent clarity and depth
- Gives you control to pick slow or fast evaporating thinners
- High solvent content which is toxic and flammable
- Moderate heat, wear, and chemical resistance
- Moderate water-vapor resistance
6/ Types Of Varnish For Wood
Varnish is one of the most common type of wood finish due to its high versatility. It can either be transparent or colored and are traditionally made of resin, drying oil, and a thinner solvent.
Varnish penetrates the wood and forms a protective film over the surface while maintaining aesthetics.
Essentially, varnish dries up in two ways: immediate and gradual hardening. Immediate hardening varnishes dry up immediately after the solvent evaporates and takes several hours to harden.
Gradual hardening varnishes can take several days to harden up and cure fully due to ongoing reactions between the resins and oils after the solvent has evaporated.
There is a huge range of varnishes in the market, with each manufacturer using varying amounts of each ingredient to make their varnish different.
Here are some common types of varnish of wood and when you might use them:
1. Acrylic varnish
These are non-toxic and quick-drying water-based varnishes with high resistance to ultraviolet rays, making them ideal for outdoor wooden artifacts exposed to sunlight.
They are more versatile than other varnishes because they can be used on materials other than wood. Since it’s water-based, acrylic varnish doesn’t penetrate the wood and doesn’t spread uniformly. They are mainly available in matte, gloss, and stain finishes.
2. Exterior varnish
Exterior varnishes are specifically designed for outdoor use thanks to additional layers of ultraviolet protection. They are micro-porous, meaning the wood can “breathe,” They also feature fungicide to prevent termite infestation and mold growth. Though exterior varnish tends to dry up much quicker, they take longer to cure fully.
3. Polyurethane varnish
Polyurethane varnish forms a hard surface making it ideal for areas and floors that are highly likely to result in wear and tear. Though they are heat resistant, polyurethane varnish cannot withstand ultraviolet rays, so if you want to use it outside, you need to find one with extra UV protection.
In addition to heat resistance, the varnish is resistant to mild spills of acids, solvents and other chemicals. These varnishes don’t penetrate the wood and have to be primed with an oil-based stain. However, don’t try to apply an oil-based finish on top of polyurethane varnish because the two materials can’t bond.
4. Yacht varnish
Also known as marine or spar varnish, yacht varnish was originally designed for boats to prevent water from penetrating the wood. To achieve their original goal, yacht varnish had to be highly flexible and rigid. Aesthetics were a secondary feature for yacht varnish, meaning they didn’t have much gloss.
But that has changed, and now most yacht varnishes have a high gloss-based of phenolic resins and Tung oil. Yacht varnish is ideal for outdoor wooden items but not too great for surfaces that experience high traffic.
7/ Types Of Veneer Finish
Veneers are one of the most used types of finishing in residential and commercial settings. Veneer finishes are thin layers of fine wood mostly used for interior furniture and paneling. They are especially ideal when you want a uniform finish in offices, desks, etc.
They are natural environment-friendly products and can easily be recycled when used later. Veneer thickness plays a vital role in determining its durability and also determines whether the damage can be fixed or not during a repair.
There are three main types of veneer finishes depending on the application:
- Paper-backed veneer: This type of veneer is joined by a paper backing it up. Paper-backed veneers are mainly used when trying to attach and match curves to ensure the veneer doesn’t crack or get damaged. You can find these veneers inside intuitive dashboards and interior columns.
- Wood-on-wood veneer: They are glued to another wooden veneer to ensure it stays intact. The veneer used on the back is of lower quality since it can’t be seen. Wood-on-wood veneers are mostly used for the decorative interior finishing of an apartment or office.
- Phenolic-backed veneer: These veneers are backed by polymer and have a decorative and soothing veneer on the front. Since its backend is made of plastics, phenolic-backed veneers are water-resistant and can bend. You can cut these veneers using a knife, meaning you don’t require power tools to work with phenolic-based veneers.
Types of Wood Sealers
Unlike wood finishes, wood sealers are primarily used to protect wood surfaces from damage. It protects the wood from stains, moisture, and also provides a protective barrier against wear and tear.
Using wood sealers is a great way to protect the wood from the elements and extend its life. When applying a wood sealer, always start by testing the sealer on a small area to ensure it generates the results you want then use a brush to apply the sealer evenly and in multiple thin coats.
While there is a wide variety of sealers in the market, the type of wood sealer you decide to use should depend on the specific requirements of the project. For example, outdoor wooden products will require a different sealer than indoor furniture.
Additionally, there are also several ways you can use a sealer on wood and the best method should be determined by the type of wood you are working with. Here are the two main types of wood sealers:
- Water-based sealers – they are easier to clean up and less toxic, but they can’t penetrate the wood deeply.
- Oil-based sealers – they provide better protection because they penetrate deeper into the wood, but they are difficult to work with.
To avoid getting confused, it’s important to understand that there are only two main categories of wood polish, surface wood polish and penetrating timber polish. Out of these two, we get the same products as wood finishes including
- shellac wood polish
- varnish polish
- polyurethane polish
- wax-based wood polish
- water-based wood polish
- oil-based wood polish
There are different types of wood preservatives available out there depending upon their indoor and outdoor wood applications.
Guidelines For Selecting Best Type of Wood Finish
If you’re new to this finishing process, there are some guidelines that you can follow to take your dream projects to new heights.
- The penetrating finishes are ideal to be applied on virgin wood. If you use it on a surface that already has some coating of finishing applied, the end result will not be favorable. The reason is because the already applied finish will obstruct the new material to penetrate the wood surface. More importantly, if the chemicals of both the finishes aren’t compatible, they can leave stains on the wood.
- Another thing to consider is to use the right finishing product according to the type of wood material. Some products can easily penetrate into the planks, while some take time to be absorbed. Some finishes are temporary such as wood wax, while some need some special skills for the mixing of solvents and in solubles, for instance wood dye. Take time to analyze all the information you can before starting the process.
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Last but not least, some wood finishes can change the entire look of your timbers, so try to find a perfect colored match for your furniture in that case. A perfectly chosen finishing material can double the worth of woodworking projects.
FAQ’s-Types Of Wood Finishes
1.How to finish live edge wood?
In order to finish the live edge sab, start with filling voids with 2 parts ethoxy and one part tint of your choice. Spread the material to all the visible voids to leave the surface smooth. Now start the surface preps and sanding with a suitable sander. Once you’ve finished the surface to 120 grit, start applying the finish.
2. How to repair damaged wood finish?
First of all, start sanding the old finish smoothly with 600 grit paper. Now choose a wax stick that perfectly matches the shade of your furniture. You can also mix two colors to achieve your desired shade. Lastly, scrape the excessive wax carefully after the gouges are filled. Apply the paste wax on the furniture and you’re good to go!
3. How to get a high gloss finish on wood?
To start the work, sand the wood as smoothly as possible. The more work time you put into preparation the better your end result. Now apply the varnish or lacquer and after that go for wet sanding once the varnish is dry. In the end, do some buffing to ensure the sleek and glossy look of wood.
4. What is the most natural-looking wood finish?
Varnish, oil-based stains, and shellac offer a natural-looking wood finish, but they are not easy to apply.
5. Is it better to oil or varnish wood?
It depends on what you are trying to achieve. Varnish gives the wood a hard coating while oil penetrates deep into the wood. You can apply a varnish finish to oil-stained wood for maximum benefits.
6. Is it better to wax or varnish wood?
The varnish offers more protection and increases wood durability, while waxing is mostly recommended for decorative purposes.
7. What is an alternative to polyurethane?
Natural oil-based stains like Tung oil can replicate the same results as polyurethane, but they are much safer because they are non-toxic and environmentally friendly.
8. What wood finish is not yellow?
Most solvent and water-based wood finishes are among the best solution for a non-yellow finish as well as waxes and some lacquer finishes.
9. Is linseed oil better than varnish?
Linseed oil is better than varnish because it penetrates the wooden surface, provides protection, allows the wood to retain moisture, and doesn’t shrink.
10. Should I oil the wood before varnishing?
Though it’s not a must, you can oil the wood before varnishing. Oil-based finishes penetrate the wood allowing it to soak the stain, and varnish will form a protective coating on the wood’s surface, increasing its durability.
11. What do you use to seal raw wood?
You can use polyurethane, shellac, and sealants to cover raw wood, but first, you have to prepare the surface by sanding it smooth.
Final Words On Types Of Wood Finishes
The type of wood finish you choose will heavily depend on the outcome you want to achieve. For outdoor wooden items, you should consider a UV ray protection finish. In contrast, interior wooden objects require a finish that penetrates the wood to avoid reapplying over a short period. Now, you understand some basics of different wood finishes, which can help you choose the right finish for different projects.
We hope you had a great time reading the article, if you like to know more about woodworking keep reading our blog.
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I’m Thomas Steven with more than 12 years of experience in woodworking. It has always been my passion to become a successful woodworker. I have completed hundreds of successful projects. This blog is a way of sharing my woodworking experiences and what tools get the best results. I write about woodworking while being an associate with Amazon and I earn a little commission from every qualifying purchase.