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Types of wood finishes: Wood can become as dry and lifeless as day-old bread if it isn’t protected from the environment with a finish. Whether you stain or not, applying a clear finish to wood cabinetry, furniture, or trim adds richness and depth while protecting it from knocks, scratches, and the elements.
There’s a bewildering array of wood finishes available today, and they all serve different purposes. When you are new to woodworking (or not) it can be quite confusing, to say the least.
As a new woodworker, we’re sure you’re always looking for ways to improve your craft. One way that to do this is by learning about different types of wood finishes. Knowing what type of finish you need before starting your wood project can save you a lot of time and money.
We’ve done a fair bit of research into the different types of finishes and put together this list of consumer-level wood finishes for you to check out. As well as some info and advice on how to use them.
This guide is not meant to be all-inclusive, as there are far more types of finishes than we could possibly cover in this article. However, it should get you started on the right foot.
Let’s Get Into It and Learn About Types of Wood Finishes!
Enough chit chat, lets get into the nitty gritty of this and learn about wood finishes! There’s a lot to cover, so sit back, relax and get ready.
What Is A Wood Finish?
A wood finish is used to protect or enhance the appearance of a piece of wood. It also helps prevent moisture from penetrating the surface of the wood.
They are used to enhance the appearance of your wood in one way or another. Either bringing out its beautiful color and natural grain pattern or covering up the lack of it.
Now that you know what a wood finish is we encourage you to think about what you want your finished project to look like and what purpose it will serve when choosing the type you want to use on it.
This is especially important if you are a new woodworker (but you would be surprised by the number of experienced woodworkers who angst for days about which finish to use).
- Will my project be used indoors or outdoors?
- What type of wood am I working with?
- Do I want to show off the wood grain pattern or hide it?
- Do I want the finish to preserve the original wood color?
- Does my wood project need to be food-safe?
- Will a matte or a glossy finish be best?
Keep these questions in mind as we explore the different kinds of wood finishes available to DIY woodworkers today.
Types of Finishes
Most folks categorize wood finishes based on whether they are water-based finishes or oil-based finishes. Instead, we prefer to sort them by what they do. Essentially, are they a penetrating finish that sinks down into and coating the wood fibers? Or are they a surface finish that sits on top of the wood forming a barrier?
Based on the questions we’ve asked you to ponder, we believe this is a much easier way to think about and select the right finish for your special woodworking projects.
NOTE: Wood finishes range from simply messy to downright dangerous to work with. ALWAYS read your product’s label and keep your basic woodworking safety tips in the front of your mind as you work.
As a rule, wood finishes that sink down into the wood or “penetrating finishes”, enhance the beauty of the wood rather than change or hide it. For this reason, they are considered one of the most attractive wood finish types. Especially if you prefer a more natural appearance.
Except for stains and dyes, they harden as they cure, which also provides some limited protection to the wood. Depending on which kind you choose a penetrating finish can change the color of your wood as well.
Rub In Oils
These types of oils are quite easy to use. Simply wipe them on, give it a little rub, wait a few minutes (or hours) for the oil to sink into the wood, and then wipe off the excess. It will take time for the oil to be fully cured.
Tung oil and linseed oil are the two key contenders in this area. But there are a few others which we’ll discuss too. All of these rub-in oils will give your wood projects a beautiful satiny sheen, and a natural-looking finish.
All of them will dry or cure on their own if given enough time. (This is in contrast to other natural oils, such as canola or olive oil, which stay “wet” indefinitely and eventually go rancid.)
These oil wood finishes don’t really give the best wear or moisture protection. You should only use them on your woodworking projects that won’t be getting a lot of wear, OR on projects where you don’t mind reapplying the oil often.
A natural oil extracted from flax seeds. It has been used for centuries as a wood finish and preservative. Linseed oil is also used in paints and varnishes. It imparts a rich golden color and protects against moisture damage.
It used to be called “Boiled Linseed Oil”, and you can still find that today in specialty shops. The oil was boiled because raw linseed oil takes a very long time to cure.
Today cobalt/manganese salts are added to the oil to make it cure faster instead of boiling. Sadly, this makes the oil toxic and unusable as a finish for items that will contact food.
For your cutting boards, bowls, and other kitchen items we suggest giving Tried & True Original Wood Finish a try. It is FDA certified for direct food contact in both its cured and uncured states and is closer to a true boiled linseed oil without the additional chemicals.
Useful For… When a beautiful, natural-looking finish is desired on your wooden object. Walnut, Oak, Mahogany, Cherry.
Appearance… Enhances the look of natural wood with a golden hue and matte appearance.
Not Useful For… High traffic or heavy use items. Any wood you like the natural color of, especially light woods, will darken. Don’t use on Purpleheart wood. It turns its purple color to brown. Does not protecting against scratches.
Apply With… Rag, soft cloth, or paper towel.
Tung oil has a lot in common with linseed oil. The biggest difference is that raw tung oil will eventually dry out or “cure” completely if left alone long enough. That means it can be used in the raw form and does not need any boiling or additives to help it along.
As I’m sure you know, leaving well enough alone isn’t really something we do very well, so you can find heat-treated and altered versions of tung oil that help them dry or cure faster.
Pure tung oil dries to a warm honey color. You can apply tung to almost any wood.
Useful For… When a natural wood finish is desired. Walnut, Oak, Mahogany, Cherry. Or any wood honey tones will enhance.
Appearance… Enhances the look of natural wood with a golden honey hue and no gloss.
Not Useful For… High traffic or heavy use items. Light-colored woods you want to stay light. Purpleheart wood. Does not protecting against scratches.
Apply With… Rag, soft cloth, or paper towel.
Danish oil is made of a mixture of Tung and Linseed oil, often with a varnish thrown in for good measure. There are no standardized proportions so the exact blend will vary depending on the manufacturer.
It can also be blended with pigment or wood stain so be careful to read the label carefully to be sure you get the finish you are expecting.
It is a “hard drying oil” which means it will form a protective layer on top of your wood and can be used as a paint primer.
This makes your paint even more protective and is recommended when dealing with extreme weather conditions. For example, wooden furniture like painted Adirondack chairs that will be exposed to the weather most of the year.
When applied in multiple thin coats, Danish oil cures to a strong satin finish that resists liquid better than either Tung or Linseed oil straight up.
Because the completed coating isn’t glossy or slippery, it’s a good choice for food utensils or tool handles because it adds water-resistance while still giving the wood a dark tone.
Useful For… When a natural wood finish is desired.
Appearance… Depends on the brand you buy. In its “raw” state. Turns wood a deep golden honey brown. Can be worked up to a lovely high satin sheen.
Not Useful For… High gloss finishing. Any wood you want to stay light in color or keep its natural color. Does not protecting against scratches.
Apply With… Rag, soft cloth, or paper towel.
Cedar oil is NOT typically used for wood finishing. We felt the need to include it here because we are seeing it included on several folks’ lists of “types of wood finishes” showing up around the internet and we want to set the record straight.
Back in the time of the ancient Sumerians, cedar oil was used as a base for paint. But that was a long time ago.
Today cedarwood oil is commonly used for its aromatic characteristics, particularly to repel bugs. For example, it can also be used to refresh the scent of genuine cedar furniture like cedar chests.
The oil also has antibacterial and fungicidal properties which might be useful in some very niche woodworking applications. If you use cedar oil with your woodworking projects we’d love to hear about it. Please reach out.
Useful For… Restore the power of old cedar wood panels and extend their lifespan.
Appearance… Light golden honey color.
Not Useful For… A wood finish.
Apply With… N/A
Mineral oil is commonly used on kitchen wood items because it can be non-toxic, is “usually” food-safe oil finish that is simple to apply, and does not go rancid.
Mineral oil, like other oil finishes, permeates into the wood grain to provide some protection against fluctuations in humidity, making the wood less prone to cracking and warping.
It also improves the aesthetics of the wood by giving the grain more volume and bringing out the natural color of the wood. Keep in mind that this finish does not endure indefinitely and will need to be treated on a regular basis to maintain the wood’s beauty and integrity.
Butcher block countertops, wooden kitchen equipment (cutting boards, cooking utensils, serving bowls), and wooden baby toys are all popular uses for this finish. It’s also frequently used in conjunction with another finish, such as beeswax.
Useful For… Food safe wooden surfaces.
Appearance… Transparent and odorless.
Not Useful For… Coloring wood. Doesn’t add luster. Not as water-resistant as tung oil. Does not protecting against scratches.
Apply With… Rag or paper towel.
Wood stains, by themselves, don’t protect your wood. What they do is change or enhance the color of the wood you are working with. They can also bring out the wood grain, making it more visible or prominent.
Colored pigments adhere to the grain and pores of the wood surface to create stains. Keep in mind the stain you choose will work best if it’s at least a little darker than the natural color of the wood you are making your project out of.
It’s best to consider a wood stain as the first step in your wood finishing process. Once dry, follow up with the protective finish of your choice. Stains work well under almost all kinds of finish except paint.
That said, wood stains do come combined with other finishes. In fact, there are so many I doubt we could count them all.
Should you choose to use one of these all-in-one products please be sure to read product details completely before purchasing to be sure it has all the characteristics and protective qualities you are looking for.
Useful For… Enhancing of changing the color of your wood.
Appearance… Varies in color and shade but is always transparent to let the wood grain show through.
Not Useful For… Protecting your wood.
Apply With… A bristle brush, foam brush or rag.
Much like a wood stain, wood dye is used to change or enhance the color of your wood. It does not protect it.
Wood dyes are made up of tiny microscopic particles that seep into the wood. Because dye molecules are so small, they penetrate deep into the wood and attach to it permanently, eliminating the need for a separate binder.
This is advantageous since no film is left on the wood surface, which could present problems when applying a protective finish.
Note: they are more susceptible to fading in the sun than pigmented stains.
It penetrates deeper into the wood, reducing the likelihood of subsequent scratches being visible. Allows for the use of deep, bold colors while keeping the grain visible. Wood dye is very suitable for dense or figured woods.
Useful For… Changing or enhancing the color of your wood while letting the wood grain show.
Appearance… Varies in color and shade but is always transparent to let the wood grain show through.
Not Useful For… Protecting your wood from scratches, weather or wear. Direct sunlight.
Apply With… A natural bristle or synthetic brush, foam brush, or rag.
Oil Varnish Blends
Blends of oil and varnish are a common wood treatment. They have the same ease of application as rub-in oils, but they’re strengthened with resins for added durability.
Other additives, such as dyes/pigments, driers, and UV inhibitors, may also be present. Depending on the blend’s composition, it may be easier to get a moderate sheen (semi-gloss) on the wood.
In most cases, oil-varnish mixes perform similarly to rub-in oils in terms of functionality. They absorb into the wood and leave an easy-to-apply thin, natural-looking surface. In terms of sheen and color options, they might be a little more versatile.
The finish’s durability is marginally greater than pure oils (because of the additional resins), but it’s still insufficient for high-traffic, high-wear items.
A significant disadvantage of these types of finishes is that what they are made of is a bit of a mystery. As a base, they almost always use linseed or tung oil, but beyond that, there’s no way of knowing what’s in each product.
To make matter worse, plenty of manufactures use marketing gimmicks to get more sales. They’ll use words like “teak oil” trying to get you to think it’s better than other things for your teak furniture. Same thing with “antique oil” for folks wanting to refinish or spruce up their antique furniture.
They can even be just an oil product that’s little more than a heavily thinned-down version of a pure rub-in oil with added driers to make recoats go faster.
So, can they be useful? Sure thing. But buyer beware. READ THE LABEL and talk to an expert woodworker to see if it’s something they do or would use.
If you are going to use one of these oil-varnish blends, we STRONGLY recommend you test it for color and gloss on a bit of scrap wood from your project before committing to it. Hopefully, it will live up to what’s printed on the label but if not, better safe than sorry.
Useful For… When a natural wood finish where the grain of the wood shows is desired. Obtaining a high sheen matte or semi-gloss finish.
Appearance… Enhances the look of natural wood with a golden brown or honey hue and matte, satin, or dull semi-gloss appearance.
Not Useful For… Anything you want a high gloss finish on or that needs a durable, scratch, or weather-resistant coating.
Apply With… Foam brush, chip brush, or clean cloth.
Wood finishes that sit on top of the wood are “surface finishes”. They provide more protection than their penetrating counterparts but are often a bit trickier or time-consuming to apply. It can give your wood a matte or glossy look. Or, in the case of paint, it can hide the wood completely.
In some instances, you may want to use one in addition to or on top of a penetrating finish. Such as using wax on top of stained wood.
Varnishes are noted for their toughness and durability. They come in a lot of different sheens, ranging from satin to glossy. They’re usually oil-based with synthetic resins like phenolic, alkyd added for durability and shine.
The ability to build up numerous coatings (known as “film-building”) is the most desirable feature of varnishes since it allows them to excel at actually safeguarding the wood.
They’re known for giving wood surfaces a plastic-like look when applied with a brush in multiple thick layers. There are also thinned-down formulations that may be wiped on but still require a little more care than a strictly rub-in oil finish.
The mix of and quantity of resins used to make varnishes distinguishes them from one another.
Long-oil varnishes, which contain a larger percentage of oils and fewer resins, are more elastic and flexible, making them ideal for outdoor applications and locations that get a lot of moisture. (A really nice long-oil varnish is “Epifanes”).
Medium and short-oil varnishes, on the other hand, have a greater resin concentration and cure to a harder, very durable finish making them ideal for tabletops and floors (for this we like “Behlen’s Rockhard Table Top Varnish”).
Useful For… Varnishes should be used in any situation where toughness is required. Also, when the varnish is applied properly, its glossy characteristics can give a piece an eye-catching sophistication.
Appearance… Glossy, plastic, or glass-like finish.
Not Useful For… Tropical hardwoods that are oily (because may not cure correctly), as well as any job that calls for a natural or rustic finish.
Apply With… Applied with a natural bristle brush. Requires no buffing or polishing.
Polyurethane is a super-tough varnish made of microscopic resin molecules that bind firmly together when it cures. You can achieve the glossiest appearance on your wood project far easier with a poly than with most of the others.
You can also find polyurethane with UV protection to help preserve the color of your wooden furniture or other woodworking projects. Also note, traditional varnishes are far less resistant to water, solvents, abrasion, and impacts than this polyurethane.
To make things even more confusing, anyone who’s ever gone looking for a can of polyurethane knows it comes in a bewildering variety of colors. Yes, you can get all the types of polyurethane already combined with the stain of your choice.
One last thing. Polyurethanes come in interior, exterior, gloss, semi-gloss, high-gloss, wipe-on, spray-on, and brush-on varieties. No matter what wooden surfaces you are protecting, there’s a polyurethane for that!
The three common types of polyurethane are…
Oil-based polyurethane wood finishes turn a somewhat amber color, warming up the hue of the wood. In just a few applications, it forms a tough, long-lasting coating.
Since it dries slower than water-based polys, you’ll have to wait longer between applications. Because they contain more VOCs (volatile organic compounds) than water-based finishes, they are not accessible in every area of the nation. Mineral spirits are used to clean up.
In the can, water-based polyurethane looks a lot like thin milk, but it dries clear. If you want to keep a wood’s natural color, this is a good option. The downside is, because it’s so much thinner than oil-based poly, you need to apply more coats to get the same result.
Although it contains less volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and its drying time is much shorter than oil-based finishes, it still needs adequate ventilation during application. Bonus! Soap and water are all that’s required for cleanup.
WARNING! Do not clean the cured film using ammonia-based cleaners. Ever!
Water-Based, Oil-Modified Polyurethane
Water-based oil-modified polyurethane seems murky in the container but dries to a durable, amber-colored coating that resembles the oil-based poly.
It has about the same drying time as water-based polyurethane and is suitable for all types of wood. Water is used to clean it. It emits the same low amounts of VOC as water-based polymers.
This protective coating will give your piece of furniture or other wooden objects a lovely, lasting finish.
Useful For… Protecting any type of wood project with a tough, durable, water-resistant smooth finish.
Appearance… Clear or colored, Glossy or semi-gloss.
Not Useful For… Antique furniture. Any woodworking project with a rustic look.
Apply With… A bristle brush, a sponge brush, a clean cloth, or a spray can. Read the label for instructions on the brand of your choice.
Wax is usually thought of as a temporary finish or an additional finish. It’s something we add to a wood surface that has already had an application of wood stain for example. Or wax application over dyes gives the wood dye for another. Essentially, it is used to enhance and protect an existing finish.
One of the advantages of using a coat of paste wax or two is that it’s simple to use and apply, and it leaves a great shine. Wax finishes, on the other hand, frequently need to be reapplied and only give modest protection. They are simple to remove, making this a somewhat noncommittal finish option.
Despite the fact that alternative finishes are now more practical in most cases, paste wax still has a role. To begin with, many older antiques were treated with wax, therefore paste wax is the obvious choice for restoring such items.
Paste wax is also used to finish a lot of the rustic pine Mexican or hacienda-style furniture prevalent in the Southwest. When repairing, altering, or adding to any of these components, it’s important to strive to match the color of the previous or current wax.
Old wood usually benefits from the application of wax. It helps to hide or mask imperfections like scratches and such. Personally, some of our most liquid-resistant and beloved furniture is finished with beeswax. It has withstood toddler orange juice spills a-plenty!
Useful For… Adding an additional layer of protection to another wood finish. Hiding scratches.
Appearance… Usually, a paste but can be a liquid. Plain or with added wood stain colors.
Not Useful For… Is not a stand-alone finish.
Apply With… A rag or other clean cloth.
If you want to completely hide the wood your project is made of the finish you want is paint! It is the one wood finish with enough pigment to completely conceal the wood under it.
Paint is also the strongest, longest-lasting most durable finish you can put on wood. After all, there is a reason we paint the outside of our houses. So if durability and protection from the elements are your primary concern, nothing beats a coat of paint!
Coats of paint have been around since ancient times when people painted their homes and temples. In modern times, paints have come a long way. Today, they’re much easier to work with than ever before.
The best thing about painting? You get to choose what kind of finish you want. You can even create a “faux wood” finish giving a plywood project a fine furniture look.
For outdoor wood projects, your best choices are semi-gloss or high-gloss paint sheens. Their non-porous, smoother finish is easy to clean, and moisture beads on these surfaces rather than being absorbed, preventing the paint coat from weathering or fading over time.
Oil-Based or Water-Based Paint: What’s the difference?
Basically, oil-based paints can give you a higher sheen. However, that sheen will dull over time. They also take a long time to cure or dry. Water-based paints give a lower sheen but they maintain that sheen for a very long time. They are usually dry to the touch in a matter of hours.
Useful For… Exterior wood projects and those that you don’t want to wood to be visible on.
Appearance… Ultra high-gloss to extreme matte finish. Any color.
Not Useful For… Any wood project where you want the actual wood to show. Fine furniture for example.
Apply With… A bristle brush, sponge brush, or roller.
Evaporative finishes are different from varnishes or oils in that they’re made up of a solvent and a resin, and they rely on the solvent to evaporate, leaving the resin behind.
They dry relatively quickly because they rely on evaporation (rather than oxidation). An evaporative finish is film-forming, sits on top (not in) the wood, and come in a variety of sheens, just like varnishes. They provide better protection than oil or oil-varnish mixes but lack the varnishes’ superior hardness.
Shellac and lacquer are the two most common evaporative finishes used today.
Shellac combines a natural resin secreted by lac bugs in India and Thailand with a denatured alcohol (DNA) solvent. It’s been around since ancient times and was THE finish for fine furniture in the 1800s. Now replaced by more protective synthetic finishes like polyurethane.
It is a clear evaporative finish that has no odor. It keeps moisture out. Shellac is known for being compatible with a wide range of surfaces and topcoats. There’s even an old saying about it, “Shellac sticks to everything, and everything sticks to shellac”.
You can use shellac as a stain, odor-blocker, tannin-blocker, sanding sealant, and as a high-gloss varnish.
It is available in a wide spectrum of warm colors, from light blonde to dark brown, with various shades of brown, yellow, orange, and red in between. The color is determined by the sap of the tree where the lac insect lives and the harvest season.
Shellac is traditionally made by dissolving shellac flakes in alcohol, but premixed commercial variations are also available. The drawback is that shellac has a rather short shelf life (about one year from the moment it is mixed).
Though you can make your own shellac. “SealCoat” by Zinsser is a great shellac product that is pre-mixed and shelf-stable.
Ideal for interior projects with a moderate amount of traffic If you have a project with a lot of colorful woods or elaborate details that you want to show off in all its shiny splendor, go with an evaporative finish.
Padding very thin layers of shellac over the surface of the wood (a method called “French Polish”) until an exquisitely clear shine emerges has historically produced some of the most dazzling and recognized wood finishes in the world.
Useful For… Indoor projects that will get mild to moderate wear. Decorative objects. Very colorful woods and those with a fancy grain pattern or lots of intricate details. Colorful exotic woods.
Appearance… High gloss
Not Useful For… Anything you want a low sheen or matte finish on.
Apply With… Fine, natural bristle brush, or China bristle brush.
Lacquer is another evaporative finish. It is a harder and more robust finish than shellac. Many professional furniture producers have separate spray booths where they can quickly apply lacquer in one continuous layer to their pieces.
Until it dries, nitrocellulose lacquer, often known as “classic” lacquer or “solvent-based” lacquer, smells. It’s a solvent-based finish that creates a coating when the solvent evaporates rather than through a chemical reaction.
The solvent in consecutive layers of the finish will cause the fresh coat to “melt into” or “burn into” the prior coatings, resulting in a single finish that is fully integrated. Because it stays a homogenous liquid as long as the solvent (thinner) is present, some folks don’t bother even cleaning the spray gun.
There is lots more to know about this type of lacquer and if you are a fellow “wood nerd” we recommend you check out this article. In it you’ll learn all about acrylic-modified lacquer, catalyzed lacquers, catalyzed lacquer bridges, and a great many other interesting things.
That said, we really can’t recommend you use a traditional or nitrocellulose lacquer today. It gives a lovely finish but produces some very toxic fumes and it really requires specialized knowledge and training to use safely.
The lacquer you are most likely to find in your local hardware store or home center is going to be an acrylic-modified lacquer. This basically means that the solvents and resins are suspended in water which keeps them from reacting until the water evaporates.
This makes everything much safer and far less smelly!
Brushing lacquer and spray cans of lacquer offered at hardware shops can still give you many of the benefits of lacquer, even if you don’t have pricey spray equipment.
Apart from the potentially toxic solvents in lacquer, the only other disadvantage is that the nitrocellulose resin (found in regular lacquer or nitrocellulose lacquer) tends to yellow over time, which may be a concern on lighter-colored lumber.
Useful For… Indoor projects that will get mild to moderate wear. Decorative wood items.
Appearance… Any sheen, from matte to ultra-high gloss.
Not Useful For… High traffic or heavy wear wood projects.
Apply With… Spray gun or bristle brush.
- SAFETY! Always take proper safety precautions when working in your woodshop. Always wear safety glasses, a dust mask, and any other product-specific safety equipment when finishing your woodworking project. Remember that many of these wood finishes produce toxic fumes so ventilation is key to staying safe.
- Always buy enough to finish the entire surface of your project from the same lot! Slight differences in manufacturing between batches can cause slight color changes to your finished project.
- How many coats of finish you need will depend on what type of finish you chose and what your project is. Always read the label and consult with an expert.
- Always wipe down the entire surface of your project with a tack cloth before applying any finish.
- Drying time between coats varies from product to product. Always read the label of the product you are using or again, ask an expert.
Final Thoughts On Types Of Wood Finishes
So as you can see, there’s a dizzying assortment of wood treatments to choose from, all of which serve distinct functions. Which one you choose for your special woodworking projects will make a huge difference in how it ultimately looks and in some cases functions as well.
We hope you found our guide on types of wood finishes helpful and informative. If you’d like to share anything else please feel free to do so by reaching out to us right here!