What Finish Should I Use on My Woodwork

Woodwork not only adds a touch of elegance to our homes but also requires proper care and protection to maintain its beauty over time. One crucial decision when it comes to preserving the longevity and aesthetics of woodwork is choosing the right finish.

The finish you select can have a significant impact on the appearance, durability, and overall performance of your woodwork. In this article, we will delve into the various options available and provide a comprehensive guide to help you make an informed decision.

The right finish for your woodwork goes beyond just enhancing its visual appeal. It acts as a protective layer against moisture, UV rays, scratches, and other wear and tear that can damage the surface. Moreover, different types of finishes offer varying levels of durability, ease of application, and color options. Understanding these factors will equip you with the knowledge needed to choose the most appropriate finish for your specific woodwork project.

With so many choices available in today’s market, it can be overwhelming to determine which finish is best suited for your needs. That’s why we have compiled this extensive guide to walk you through every aspect of the selection process. From oil-based finishes to water-based alternatives, shellac to lacquer, varnish to polyurethane – we will explore each option in detail, highlighting their pros, cons, and recommended applications.

Ultimately, finding the ideal finish for your woodwork is essential not only for maintaining its natural beauty but also extending its lifespan. By considering factors such as your woodworking project’s use and environment and gaining a comprehensive understanding of different types of finishes available, you can make an educated decision that will result in enhanced protection and long-lasting beauty for years to come.

Understanding Different Types of Wood Finishes

Wood finishes are essential for protecting and enhancing the beauty of your woodwork. However, with so many options available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right finish for your project. In this section, we will provide a comprehensive guide to help you understand the different types of wood finishes available.

Varnish: Enhancing Natural Beauty

Varnish is a popular choice for wood finishing due to its ability to enhance the natural grain and color of the wood. It provides excellent durability and protects against moisture, scratches, and UV rays. There are different types of varnishes available, including oil-based varnishes and water-based varnishes.

Oil-based varnishes offer a traditional look and tend to have a golden hue that deepens over time. They are slower drying compared to water-based varnishes, but they provide superior protection and durability. On the other hand, water-based varnishes dry quickly and have less odor compared to oil-based varnishes. They also retain the clarity of the wood without adding an amber tint.

Lacquer: Versatility and Durability

Lacquer finishes are known for their versatility and durability. They dry quickly, making them suitable for projects with tight deadlines. Lacquer provides a hard protective layer that enhances the natural beauty of the wood while offering resistance against scratches, moisture, and heat.

  • There are two main types of lacquers: nitrocellulose lacquer and catalyzed lacquer. Nitrocellulose lacquer is easy to apply but not as durable as catalyzed lacquers. Catalyzed lacquers consist of resin components that harden when mixed with a catalyst, resulting in a tougher finish that offers more resistance to wear and tear.

Polyurethane: Finding Your Desired Look

  • Polyurethane finishes come in three different sheens: matte, satin, and glossy. Matte finishes provide a smooth and natural look that minimizes glare and hides imperfections. Satin finishes offer a slight shine and are popular for their ability to balance between durability and aesthetic appeal. Glossy finishes provide a high shine and emphasize the natural beauty of the wood.

Polyurethane finishes are known for their durability, resistance to moisture, chemicals, and heat. They are easy to apply and require minimal maintenance. Whether you prefer a modern or classic look, polyurethane finishes offer options that can suit your style.

By understanding the different types of wood finishes available, you can make an informed decision on which finish will be best for your woodwork project. Consider factors such as the desired appearance, level of protection needed, and the specific requirements of your project before making your final choice. Remember that experimenting with test samples beforehand can help you determine the best finish for achieving the desired results on your woodwork project.

Considerations Before Choosing a Finish

When it comes to choosing the right finish for your woodwork, it is essential to consider the specific use of the piece and the environment in which it will be placed. Different finishes offer varying levels of protection, durability, and aesthetic appeal, making it crucial to select one that suits your needs. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind before making your decision:

  1. Exposure to moisture: If your woodwork is going to be exposed to high levels of moisture or humidity, such as outdoor furniture or bathroom cabinets, you need a finish that can provide excellent water resistance. Water-based polyurethane finishes are often recommended for these applications due to their ability to form a protective barrier against moisture.
  2. Frequency of cleaning: If your woodwork requires frequent cleaning, such as kitchen countertops or dining tables, you should choose a finish that is easy to clean and maintain. Water-based finishes are typically more resistant to household cleaners and can withstand repeated cleaning without dulling or damaging the surface.
  3. Desired level of sheen: Consider how much sheen you want on your woodwork. Finishes like varnish or lacquer can provide a glossy appearance, while oil-based finishes tend to provide a more muted satin finish. If you prefer a low-reflective sheen with subtle shine and smoothness, then matte polyurethane finishes would be an ideal choice.
  4. Compatibility with other finishes: If you have previously applied a finish on your woodwork and want to add another layer or switch finishes completely, it is crucial to ensure compatibility between the existing and new finishes. Some finishes may not adhere well together or may react negatively when applied over one another.

By carefully considering these factors before choosing a finish for your woodwork, you can ensure that you select one that matches its use and environment perfectly. Remember that each type of finish has its unique advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to weigh these considerations against your specific needs and preferences. Ultimately, the right choice will enhance the beauty of your woodwork and provide long-lasting protection.

Exploring Oil-Based Wood Finishes

Oil-based wood finishes are a popular choice for many woodworkers due to their unique qualities and versatility. They provide a durable finish that enhances the natural beauty of the wood while also offering protection against moisture, stains, and wear. Here are some pros, cons, and best applications of oil-based wood finishes.


  • Easy Application: Oil-based finishes are typically easy to apply and can be brushed or wiped onto the wood surface. This makes them a great option for both beginner and experienced woodworkers.
  • Enhances Wood Grain: One of the major advantages of oil-based finishes is that they penetrate deep into the wood, enhancing its natural grain and color. This results in a beautiful, warm appearance that showcases the wood’s richness.
  • Provides Durability: Oil-based finishes create a protective barrier on the surface of the wood, making it resistant to scratches, stains, and water damage. This makes them suitable for high-traffic areas such as floors or tabletops.


  • Longer Drying Time: Oil-based finishes typically take longer to dry compared to other types of finishes. Depending on environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, it can take hours or even days for the finish to fully cure.
  • Strong Odor: Oil-based finishes emit strong fumes during application and drying. It is important to work in a well-ventilated area or wear appropriate respiratory protection when using these finishes.
  • Potential Yellowing: Over time, some oil-based finishes have been known to yellow or darken certain types of woods. It is advisable to test the finish on a small inconspicuous area before applying it to the entire project.

Best Applications:

  • Indoor Furniture: Oil-based finishes are commonly used for indoor furniture such as tables, chairs, cabinets, and shelving units because they provide excellent durability and enhance the natural beauty of the wood.
  • Decorative Items: Woodwork items such as bowls, vases, and decorative boxes can benefit from an oil-based finish as it brings out the wood’s unique characteristics and provides protection against daily handling.
  • Exotic and Dense Woods: Oil-based finishes are particularly suitable for exotic or dense wood species that may have a harder time absorbing other types of finishes. The penetrating nature of oil-based finishes ensures even coverage on these types of woods.

Unveiling Water-Based Wood Finishes

Water-based wood finishes have gained popularity in recent years for their numerous benefits. These finishes are made with water as the carrier instead of solvents like alcohol or mineral spirits, making them a more environmentally friendly option. They offer a range of advantages over other types of finishes, but they also come with some drawbacks and specific recommended scenarios.

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One of the key benefits of water-based wood finishes is their fast drying time. Unlike oil-based finishes that can take hours or even days to dry completely, water-based finishes dry quickly, often within minutes. This allows for a faster turnaround time on projects and reduces the risk of dust or debris settling on the finish during the drying process.

Another advantage is their low odor. Water-based finishes have minimal to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which means they don’t release strong fumes that can be harmful to your health and the environment. This makes them ideal for indoor applications such as furniture or cabinetry where ventilation may be limited.

In terms of appearance, water-based finishes tend to have a clear, transparent look that enhances the natural beauty of wood without altering its color too much. They are available in different sheens, ranging from matte to glossy, allowing you to achieve the desired level of shine for your project.

However, there are also some drawbacks to consider when using water-based wood finishes. One common disadvantage is that they can raise the grain of wood more than other types of finishes, resulting in a rougher texture. This requires additional sanding and preparation before applying the finish.

Additionally, water-based finishes may not provide as much depth and richness as oil-based options. While they still provide good protection for wood against moisture and wear, some woodworkers prefer the warmth and depth offered by oil-based finishes.

Despite these drawbacks, there are specific scenarios where water-based wood finishes shine. They are particularly suitable for projects that require quick turnaround times or if working in an indoor environment with limited ventilation. They are also a great choice for lighter-colored woods where maintaining their natural color is desired, as water-based finishes tend to be more colorless.

The Allure of Shellac Finishes

Shellac finishes have a long history in the world of woodworking and continue to be a popular choice for many craftsmen. This section will explore the allure of shellac finishes, explaining why and when they should be considered as a traditional option for finishing woodwork.

Shellac is a natural resin that is derived from the secretions of lac beetles. It has been used as a wood finish for centuries due to its unique qualities. One of the main advantages of shellac is its versatility in providing both protection and enhancement to wood. It creates a beautiful, glossy finish that enhances the appearance of the wood grain, giving it depth and richness. Shellac also acts as a protective barrier against moisture, scratches, and fading from sunlight.

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, shellac finishes are known for their ease of application and repair. They dry quickly and can easily be touched up if any damage occurs over time. Shellac can also be easily removed with denatured alcohol, allowing for refinishing or restoration if desired. This makes it a versatile option for both DIY enthusiasts and professionals.

When considering whether to use a shellac finish on your woodwork, there are several factors to keep in mind. Firstly, shellac is not as durable as some other finishes such as polyurethane or lacquer. It may not hold up well in high-traffic areas or on furniture that will be regularly exposed to moisture or heat. Additionally, shellac is alcohol-soluble which means it can be damaged by spills or exposure to certain household chemicals.

Despite these limitations, there are certain scenarios where using a shellac finish is highly recommended. Shellac works particularly well on antique furniture or pieces that require restoration work because it provides an authentic look that complements the age and character of the wood. It is also an excellent option for smaller woodworking projects such as decorative items or musical instruments.

Discussing Lacquer Finishes

Lacquer finishes are a popular choice for many woodwork projects due to their versatility and durability. In this section, we will delve into the characteristics of lacquer finishes, the factors to consider when using them, and the different types available in the market.

Characteristics of Lacquer Finishes

Lacquer finishes offer several advantages that make them suitable for various woodwork applications. One notable characteristic is their quick-drying time, which allows for multiple coats to be applied in a relatively short period. This feature makes lacquers an excellent choice for projects that require fast completion, such as furniture or cabinetry.

In addition to their speed of drying, lacquer finishes also provide a smooth and glossy finish. The high sheen achieved by these finishes enhances the natural beauty of the wood and gives it a polished appearance. Moreover, lacquers offer excellent clarity and depth, allowing the wood grain to show through beautifully.

Factors to Consider with Lacquer Finishes

When choosing a lacquer finish for your woodwork project, there are several factors you should keep in mind. Firstly, you need to consider the environment in which your piece will be placed. Lacquers may not be suitable for outdoor use or areas with high humidity, as they can be prone to damage from moisture exposure. Therefore, it is essential to assess the specific conditions under which your finished woodwork will be situated.

Another factor to consider is the application method of lacquer finishes. While spray-on lacquers offer an even and smooth application that delivers professional results, they require proper preparation and equipment for successful use. On the other hand, brush-on versions of lacquer may be more accessible for DIY enthusiasts but can be trickier to apply without leaving brush marks or streaks.

Types of Lacquer Finishes

There are different types of lacquer finishes available, each with its own distinctive properties and application methods. Nitrocellulose lacquers are the most common type and offer excellent durability and versatility. They are compatible with a wide range of wood species and can be easily repaired or refinished, making them a popular choice for furniture makers.

Another type is acrylic lacquer. Acrylic lacquers provide heightened resistance to water, solvents, and chemicals, making them suitable for high-traffic areas or items that may come into contact with liquids frequently. They also have low odor levels compared to other options.

The Classic Appeal of Varnish

Varnish is a popular choice for woodwork projects due to its classic appeal and unique qualities. This section will explore the benefits of varnish finishes, as well as the suitable woodwork projects where it can be applied.

One of the main advantages of varnish is its durability. Varnish creates a hard, protective coating on wood surfaces that helps to safeguard against scratches, stains, and moisture damage. This makes it an excellent choice for high-traffic areas or items that will be exposed to harsh conditions, such as outdoor furniture or wooden boats. Furthermore, varnish provides UV protection, preventing the wood from fading or discoloring over time when exposed to sunlight.

Another quality that sets varnish apart is its ability to enhance the natural beauty of the woodgrain. Unlike some other finishes that may alter or darken the appearance of the wood, varnish allows the natural color and texture of the material to shine through. It adds depth and richness to the wood while providing a glossy or satin sheen depending on your preference.

Varnish can be used on various types of woodwork projects ranging from furniture and cabinetry to detailed trim and decorative pieces. Its versatility makes it suitable for both interior and exterior applications. However, since varnish can take longer to dry compared to other finishes, it is important to allow ample drying time between coats and ensure proper ventilation during application.

In summary, varnish offers a timeless appeal with its durability, UV protection, and ability to enhance the natural beauty of wood. It is a versatile finish that can be applied to different types of woodwork projects both indoors and outdoors. Whether you are working on furniture or decorative pieces, varnish can provide a protective coating that not only preserves but also enhances the beauty of your woodwork.

DurabilityHigh-traffic areas, outdoor furniture, wooden boats
Enhances natural woodgrainFurniture, cabinetry, trim, decorative pieces
UV protectionPrevents fading or discoloration when exposed to sunlight

Comparing Polyurethane Finishes

Polyurethane finishes are a popular choice for woodwork due to their durability and versatility. When it comes to choosing the right polyurethane finish for your woodwork, one of the key considerations is the desired level of sheen or gloss. In this section, we will explore the different options available – matte, satin, and glossy – and discuss how they can enhance the overall look of your woodwork.

Matte polyurethane finishes offer a low-sheen or non-reflective appearance. They provide a more natural and subtle look that doesn’t draw attention to imperfections on the wood surface. Matte finishes are an excellent choice for rustic or antique furniture pieces where you want to maintain an old-world charm. Additionally, they are great for high-traffic areas or pieces that may experience wear over time since they tend to camouflage scratches and blemishes better than other finishes.

Satin polyurethane finishes strike a balance between matte and glossy options. They offer a soft luster with a slight sheen that adds depth and warmth to the wood surface. Satin finishes are highly versatile and can complement both traditional and contemporary styles.

They are often preferred for furniture pieces like dining tables or countertops, as their moderate reflection enhances the visual appeal without overwhelming the overall design. Satin finishes also tend to be easier to clean compared to matte options, making them suitable for surfaces that require regular maintenance.

On the other end of the spectrum, glossy polyurethane finishes offer a mirror-like shine that creates a polished and glamorous aesthetic. These high-gloss finishes reflect light exceptionally well, giving the woodwork a luxurious appearance. Glossy finishes are ideal for pieces where you want to make a bold statement or emphasize intricate details in the wood grain. However, it’s important to note that glossy finishes also highlight imperfections such as scratches or fingerprints more prominently than other options.

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Ultimately, when choosing between matte, satin, or glossy polyurethane finishes, consider the desired style and purpose of your woodwork. Keep in mind that each finish has its own unique characteristics and can significantly impact the overall look and feel of the piece. Experiment with different finishes on a small sample piece of wood or consult with a professional to find the perfect look that enhances the beauty of your woodwork.

Specialty Wood Finishes


In addition to the more common wood finishes like oil-based, water-based, shellac, lacquer, and varnish, there are specialty wood finishes available that offer unique qualities and characteristics. These niche options include wax, Danish oil, and more. While they may not be as widely known or used as other finishes, they can be a great choice for certain woodwork projects. In this section, we will explore these specialty wood finishes in more detail, uncovering their benefits and recommended scenarios.

Wax Finishes

Wax finishes have been used for centuries to protect and enhance the beauty of woodwork. These finishes are typically made from natural products such as beeswax or carnauba wax mixed with solvents. Wax provides a soft sheen and a smooth, tactile feel to the wood surface. It also helps to fill in small imperfections and scratches, making it an excellent choice for antique furniture restoration.

One of the main advantages of using wax finishes is their ease of application. They can be simply applied by rubbing the wax onto the wood surface with a cloth or brush. However, it is important to note that wax finishes offer minimal protection against moisture and wear compared to other types of finishes. Therefore, they are best suited for indoor use on pieces that do not receive heavy use or come into contact with liquids.

Danish Oil Finishes

Danish oil is another specialty wood finish that has gained popularity among woodworkers in recent years. It is a blend of natural oils (typically tung oil or linseed oil) and varnish that provides both protection and enhancement for wooden surfaces. Danish oil penetrates deeply into the wood fibers, creating a durable finish that enhances the grain pattern.

One of the key advantages of Danish oil finishes is their versatility. They can be used on both interior and exterior projects and are suitable for a wide range of wood species. Danish oil dries to a soft, satin sheen and can be easily maintained by reapplying additional coats as needed. It is also relatively easy to apply, requiring typically two to three coats with sanding in between.

It is worth noting that while Danish oil provides good protection against moisture and everyday wear, it may not offer the same level of durability as other finishes like varnish or polyurethane. Therefore, it is recommended for furniture pieces that do not require heavy-duty protection or areas with high humidity levels.

By exploring these specialty wood finishes, you can consider unique options for enhancing the beauty and protection of your woodwork projects. Whether you choose wax finishes for antique restoration or Danish oil for a versatile finish on exterior pieces, these niche options offer distinct qualities and advantages. Remember to assess your specific project requirements and consider the type of wood, expected use, and environmental factors before selecting the best specialty wood finish for your needs.

DIY vs. Professional Application

When it comes to applying a finish to your woodwork, you have the option of doing it yourself or hiring a professional. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to consider several factors before making a decision.

Factors to Consider for DIY Application

If you choose to apply the wood finish yourself, there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost is your level of experience. If you have experience with woodworking and have successfully applied finishes in the past, then a DIY approach may be the right choice for you.

Another factor to consider is cost. DIY application can save you money since you won’t have to pay for professional services. However, keep in mind that purchasing all the necessary tools and materials can add up. Additionally, if you make any mistakes during the application process, it may end up costing more to fix them.

Time is also an important consideration. Applying a wood finish can be time-consuming, especially if you are working on a large project or have limited experience. It’s essential to assess whether you have the time and patience to dedicate to achieve the desired results.

Factors to Consider for Professional Application

Hiring a professional to apply the wood finish has its own set of benefits. One major advantage is expertise. Professionals who specialize in wood finishes have extensive knowledge and experience in their field, ensuring that the final result is of high quality.

Efficiency is another factor to consider when deciding on a wood finish method. Professionals are often equipped with specialized tools and equipment that allow them to work quickly and efficiently, minimizing downtime for your project.

Additionally, hiring a professional can provide peace of mind. If you’re unsure about your skills or simply want someone else to take care of the job, leaving it in the hands of an expert can alleviate any worries or stress.

Ultimately, whether you choose DIY or professional application depends on your personal preferences, skill level, and the specific requirements of your woodwork project. By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision and achieve the desired finish for your woodwork.


In conclusion, choosing the right finish for your woodwork is essential in enhancing its beauty and protecting it from wear and tear. With such a wide range of options available, it is important to consider several factors before making your final decision.

Firstly, understanding the different types of finishes is crucial. Whether it’s oil-based, water-based, shellac, lacquer, varnish, polyurethane or specialty finishes like wax or Danish oil, each has its own unique qualities and characteristics. By familiarizing yourself with these options and considering their pros and cons, you can determine which finish aligns best with your specific needs and preferences.

Matching your woodwork’s use and environment is also an important consideration. If your woodwork will be subjected to high levels of moisture or heavy use, durability should be a top priority. On the other hand, if you want to maintain a natural look or prefer easier maintenance, a different type of finish may be more suitable. Evaluating the specific requirements of your project will ensure that you choose a finish that performs well in its intended setting.

Ultimately, whether you decide to take on the application process yourself or hire a professional, taking the time to properly prepare and apply the finish will make all the difference in achieving optimal results. Follow any instructions provided by manufacturers carefully and remember to test the finish on a small inconspicuous area before proceeding with full application.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best finish to keep natural wood look?

The best finish to keep the natural wood look is a clear, transparent finish such as varnish or lacquer. These finishes are designed to enhance and protect the natural beauty of the wood while preserving its original color and texture.

They provide a glossy or satin sheen that brings out the grain patterns and highlights the character of the wood. Additionally, clear finishes allow the wood to age gracefully over time, developing a beautiful patina that adds to its charm.

What is the most durable finish for wood?

When it comes to durability, one of the most reliable finishes for wood is polyurethane. Polyurethane forms a tough protective layer on the surface of the wood that can withstand heavy use and exposure to various elements. It provides excellent resistance against scratches, moisture, UV rays, and heat.

This durability makes polyurethane an ideal choice for high-traffic areas or items such as floors, furniture, or outdoor wooden structures. It is available in different sheens (glossy, satin, matte) to suit personal preferences.

What is the easiest finish for woodworking?

For those new to woodworking or looking for an easy finish application, Danish oil is often considered one of the simplest finishes to use. Danish oil is a blend of oils and additives that penetrates into the wood fibers to enhance its natural beauty while providing protection against moisture and stains.

Unlike traditional varnishes or lacquers which form a film on top of the wood surface, Danish oil is applied by simply wiping it onto the wood with a cloth or brush before allowing it to soak in and dry. It requires fewer coats compared to other finishes and does not require extensive sanding between layers, making it less time-consuming and user-friendly for beginners or casual hobbyists.

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