Types of Wood Finishes Common in Furniture Refinishing

I started refinishing furniture with water-based paints and water-based finishes. As my refinishing skills improved, wood began to take centre stage, and  I quickly learned that the top coats I was using at that time would leave a blue haze on the surface. This ruined the natural look of the wood. It was time to deep-dive into types of wood finishes, explicitly looking for a way to let the wood shine without the haze. 

 

Wood finishes protect the wood surface from moisture, scratches, stains, and other damage while allowing the natural beauty of the wood grain to shine through. They enhance the wood’s colour and figure and provide different sheens, from matte to high gloss. Different types of wood finishes are better than others for your woodworking projects or wooden furniture.  The best wood finish depends on what your need is.

Table of Contents

Common Types of Wood Finishes

Oil-based finishes: Penetrate into the wood and harden to provide protection. Standard options are tung, Danish, and teak oils.

 

Hardwax oil: a finishing product derived from natural waxes and oils- protects wooden surfaces by creating a water-resistant, repairable layer that enhances the wood’s natural beauty and grain.

 

Varnish:  Forms a transparent, hard, protective film on the wood surface. Polyurethane is a common varnish available in oil—and water-based versions.

 

Shellac: An older finish made from lac beetle resin. It provides a classic look but can be damaged by alcohol.

 

Lacquer: Fast-drying transparent finish that dries to a tough surface, usually sprayed on.

 

Wax: Provides a low-luster natural look. Multiple coats can build up a protective, water-resistant film.

 

When choosing a wood finish for your project, consider the level of protection needed, the look you want, durability, maintenance requirements, and how the finish interacts with the specific wood species.

Oil Finishes

Oil-based finishes are made from natural drying oils. When applied to wood, the oil penetrates the pores of the wood and dries to form a protective, thin film on the surface.

 

A few standard oil-based finishes include:

 

Tung oil provides a mild amber colour, enhancing the wood’s natural appearance while protecting against water and heat. It is known for its durable and water-resistant finish. It dries slowly, allowing for a deep penetration that strengthens the wood from within.

 

Danish oil – A blend of oil and varnish that enhances the wood’s grain with a warm, rich colour while providing a durable, protective coating. Offers a smooth satin sheen and is relatively easy to apply. Dries to a hard finish that is more resistant to spills and stains than pure oils, making it suitable for various wood projects. Typically used on vintage furniture.

 

Teak oil—Explicitly formulated for teak wood, it enhances and maintains its natural golden brown colour. It offers added protection against moisture and environmental elements and is ideal for indoor and outdoor furniture. It typically dries moderately fast.

 

Hemp oil—Known for its eco-friendliness and non-toxic properties, hemp oil is ideal for kitchenware and children’s furniture. It dries faster than many other oils, providing a quick and easy application process. It offers moderate water resistance.

The pros of oil-based finishes

Enhance natural wood grain and provide a smooth sheen, varying from matte to satin, depending on the oil of choice.

Easy application – wipe your oil on, allow the recommended wait time and wipe off any residue. 

Penetrates wood pores for protection from the inside

Allow the wood to breathe naturally

Easy to touch up and reapply new coats

The cons of oil finishes

Less protective than thicker film finishes like varnish and lacquer

Prone to watermarks and staining

Requires frequent recoating to maintain protection

Slow drying time between coats and for the final cure

It can turn yellow or darken over time.

Oil finishes work best on wooden items that only receive light use as this type of finish is not as durable as thicker film finishes. The soft, natural look created by oil finishes makes wood’s beauty shine. Traditionally, oil finishes are used on vintage furniture, so if you want to create a vintage look, oil should be your choice.

Hardwax Oil Finish

Hardwax oil is a popular finish that combines the durability of oil with the protective qualities of waxes, resulting in a finish that is both hard-wearing and visually appealing. It comprises natural oils and waxes such as linseed, sunflower, jojoba, and carnauba wax. Brands like Osmo and Rubio Monocoat are well-known producers of Hardwax oils.

applying hardwax oil a type of wood finish
applying hardwax oil

The Pros of Hardwax Oil

Hardwax oil can be easily applied in a process similar to applying oil finishes. 

Enhances wood’s natural beauty without creating a surface film.

More durable than traditional oils.

Easily repairable by reapplying new hard wax oil to the existing finish without sanding or stripping the entire surface.

The Cons of Hardwax Oil

Hardwax oil takes longer to cure than some other finishes.

It requires maintenance in high-traffic areas, to maintain its protective qualities.

Generally more expensive than basic oil or wax finishes.

ARt Deco cocktail cabinet with glossy hardwax oil wood finish
Hardwax oil finish

Hardwax oil is better suited than oil finishes for high-traffic areas. It is a versatile and practical finish with enhanced durability and protection for those looking for a natural, vintage look. It is ideal for anyone who appreciates the beauty of wood and is willing to invest in a finish that lasts longer and performs better than traditional oils and waxes.

Varnish Finish

Varnish is a clear, hard film finish that protects wood surfaces. The two main types of varnish are oil-based and water-based. Oil-based varnishes are known for its durable finish and being water resistant. Water-based varnishes provide a low-odour, low-VOC option but require more coats for maximum protection.

Cathedral walnut veneer, coated with clear shellac and varnish
Walnut Veneer with Shellac and Water-based Varnish

Some Pros of Varnish Finishes

Protects wood with a thick film from moisture, spills and wear

Dries to a smooth, hard finish, that doesn’t require maintanence

Oil-based varnishes like polyurethane are extremely durable

Some Cons of Varnish Finishes

Oil-based varnishes have strong fumes and can yellow overtime

Water-based varnishes can cause a blue haze with multiple coats

Requires sanding between coats

Water-based is less durable than oil-based

Midcentury modern after refinishing and restoration work, with water based top coat as type of wood finish
Shellac with Water-based Varnish

Varnish is ideal for items that need maximum protection, like tabletops and high usage cabinets. The hardness and low-maintenance requirements can be a huge selling point for customers who are hesitant to care for oiled furniture.

Shellac is a natural resin secreted by the lac insect. It is harvested and processed into flakes or dissolved into alcohol to create liquid shellac. Shellac has been used as a wood finish for centuries and is known for its warm, natural look.

Veneer on a cabinet door front with shellac finish
Wanut Veneer with Shellac Finish

Some Pros of Shellac Finish

Enhances the natural colour and grain of wood 

Dries very fast, allowing multiple coats in a day

Comes in a variety of colours, from clear to ruby reds and deep browns to bring out the natural wood’s beauty

Doesn’t require sanding between coats

Provides a smooth, glossy finish

Easily repaired and recoated

Some Cons of Shellac Finish

Not as protective as finishes like varnish

Prone to water rings and damage

Scratches and dents relatively easily

Alcohol-based, so it is not suitable for surfaces which will come into contact with alcohol.

 

Check out this detailed list for more pros and cons of shellac.

How to make your own shellac - tools required
You can make your own shellac Easily

Shellac is commonly used on fine wood furniture and other decorative wood pieces. It brings a rich warmth in woods like walnut, cherry, and mahogany. Shellac is also famous as a sealer under other finishes and for French polishing.

 

I personally like to combine a base layer of shellac and top it off with a water-based durable varnish.  Permitting the durability of a varnish with the rich wood enhancing abilities of shellac. 

 

You can also make your own shellac with this easy to follow recipe.  This permits you purchasing the base materials at better prices then buying ready made shellac.  And while you are saving money, consider this handy brush trick to save you even more. 

 

Want to apply shellac, check out these handy tips to get you started.

Video: How to Make Your Own Shellac

Lacquer Finish

Lacquer finish is a clear, protective finish that dries to a durable, glossy coating. It is made from resins dissolved in a solvent. There are different types of lacquer, but the most common is nitrocellulose lacquer. This is made from nitrocellulose cotton and solvents like acetone or alcohol.

Pros of lacquer finishes

Dries very fast, allowing multiple coats in a day  

Provides a very smooth, glass-like surface

Excellent clarity that doesn’t yellow over time

Very durable and resistant to scratches/wear

Crystal clear finish when applied correctly

Cons of lacquer finishes

Toxic fumes during application require proper ventilation

It can be difficult for beginners to apply smoothly

Susceptible to damage from alcohol or acetone

Prone to clouding if too many coats are applied

Requires spray equipment; such as spray gun and spray booth

Lacquer is best suited for finishing fine furniture and other high-end wood projects where you desire a crystal clear, glass-smooth finish. It is not a finish for beginners and requires the ability to spray and apply in a ventilated area. 

 

Of the types of wood finishes listed here; Lacquer is the only finish I have not yet tried personally.  I simply do not have the set up for spraying a finish.  Perhaps one day….

Wax Finishes

Side oak table with liming wax
Oak Table finished with liming wax and clear wax

Wax is one of the most straightforward finishes applied to wood. The main types of wax finishes are paste wax, liquid wax, and solid wax. Paste wax, such as Minwax or Briwax, is the most commonly used for finishing and protecting wood surfaces. Liquid wax is thinner and penetrates more deeply. Solid wax comes as blocks or bars that must be melted and brushed on.

The Pros of Wax finishes

Easy to apply

Provides a gently lustrous, low-sheen finish

Enhances the natural colour and grain of the wood

Doesn’t obscure the texture of the wood like film finishes

Easily renewable – new coats can be added on top of existing wax

The Cons of Wax finishes

It offers relatively little protection from moisture, stains, or scratches. 

It requires frequent reapplication to maintain its protective qualities and lustre. 

Wax shows scratches, dust, and wear more readily than harder film finishes.

liming wax and clear wax type of wood finish

Wax is best suited to surfaces with light use and wear, such as antique furniture that won’t be subjected to heavy use or traffic. It brings out a soft glow in wood grain. Owners of waxed furniture need to be prepared to apply new wax probably yearly.

Choosing the Right Finish

With so many types of wood finishes, it can take time to decide which is suitable for your project. Here are some key factors to consider when selecting a finish:

Appearance

Think about the look you want to achieve. Oil, shellac and hard wax oil finishes enhance the natural wood grain, while varnish and lacquer will not.

Use and Exposure

Consider the finished piece’s end use and exposure. A protective finish like varnish is best for a protective finish. Hardwax oil and oils provide a natural, vintage look but offer less protection and require re-application every few years.  Wax will require yearly updating by clients. 

Application Method

Certain finishes are easier to apply than others. Oils, waxes and hardwax oil can be wiped on, while varnish and shellac need to be brushed. Spray finishes like lacquer provide the smoothest coats.

Durability

When you need maximum toughness, varnishes and lacquer finishes provide the most durable coating. Shellac, Hardwax oils, oils and wax offer little protection and some water-resistance.

Maintenance

Consider your clients.  Are they willing to reapply finishes every few years?  Or are they looking for a no-maintence piece? How much upkeep the finish will need can be a very important question to ask yourself. 

Hardwax oil finish on teak veneer.

Final Thoughts

Determining the right type of wood finish for your project is a difficult question to answer.  It comes down to what results you want to achieve and what your clients wish to have.  If no maintenance is important for your clients, then you can achieve the best results with a varnish.  However, if a natural wood beauty and a vintage look is what you want to achieve, then reach for that hardwax oil.

 

I will experiment in the workshop with the variety of wood finishes available to deepen my knowledge and share all the details with you.

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Hey, I'm Sarah, the owner of Bold Wallflowers.

I'm on a self-taught journey through furniture refinishing and restoration, loving every experiment in my workshop.

Join me as I share my discoveries and gained knowledge with our vibrant community of fellow refinishers!

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