Questions for the Novice: Can I Leave Wood Furniture Unfinished?


Take a look around you, and you can likely spot at least three items made from wood in your direct vicinity. However, there are many different ways to care for and treat wood. If you are new to woodworking, then you might be curious about how to finish up your latest projects.

It is acceptable to leave it unfinished if you aren’t concerned with the effects of light exposure, potential water damage, or prefer the natural look of the wood you are using. Unfinished wood will stain easily, absorb moisture, and possibly crack or warp and quickly get ruined. Finished woodis alot less susceptable to these problems.

Wood is an incredible resource that can be shaped into some of the most beautiful creations. There are so many ways to work with finished and unfinished wood but determining how you would like to leave your project depends on the end goal you have in mind. Continue reading to understand the ins and outs of unfinished wood as well as how to achieve a finished look if you so desire it.

What Happens to Unfinished Wood?

When you sit at a beautiful cherry dining room table you are able to note all the different features of the wood it is made of. You can see darker tones, intricate patterns laced between the different leaves of the table, and can appreciate the smoothness of its tabletop as you set your glass of champagne on its surface to briefly rest.

Treated wood can be an exquisite thing, a work of art really, but there is not necessarily a dire need for it to be so. There is even a trend of leaving wood unfinished to create more of a rustic appearance on specific home projects. But, this is not always the best way to leave your wood if exposed to a variety of elements.

Unfinished wood resembles the tone of firewood more than it does the appearance of that beautiful dining room table. At first, the unfinished wood will likely have a more healthy appearance to it, as the wood has been freshly cut, sawed, or carved.

Over time though, the aging of the wood will cause it to become dull due to drying. Being exposed to air alone causes wood to lose its moisture and thus changes its appearance and shape. You might begin to notice some sagging or drooping in unfinished wood due to a warp caused by pressure or exposure to moisture.

Wood is also extremely absorbent, and if untreated, is essentially a sponge. If even just the bottom of an untreated door is exposed to water, it will likely leave a nasty stain. Of course, this can make the craftsmanship of the wooden fixture way less appealing. Along with the color, you will also notice a warp on the door causing it to be tough to close. Heat and humidity can also cause the wood to expand, while the cold can cause it to contract and shrink.

How Can You Tell if Wood is Unfinished?

This may seem like the most obvious of answers. Still, modern woodworking arenas have been able to advance so much that sometimes treated wood looks incredibly natural- so much so that the finish is almost difficult to see. This is great for those who prefer a natural look, but for someone wanting to spot a finished job at first glance, it can give you a run for your money. Fret not, though, as there are a few simple dead giveaways that will let you know if the item is unfinished.

First, the easiest way to spot unfinished wood is to look at how it takes on the light. If the wood, in natural or artificial light, looks shiny and nicely glossed, it has undoubtedly been finished. However, if the wood still seems very matte or even relatively dull, it has likely not undergone any finishing procedure.

For those of you who are not as familiar with wood, you can think of finished or unfinished wood as a woman wearing lip gloss versus a woman with a natural lip. One will glisten and have a more rich color- mainly popping in photos- and the other will look as natural as can be and have more of a dull, faded appearance in comparison.

Second, if you still are unsure if the wood is finished or unfinished, you can do a water test. What you want to do is either grab a sponge or a rag and dampen it with water. You do not need it to be completely soaked as too much water exposure can damage the piece you are working with. Simply take the rag or sponge, run it across the wood and see if the water permeates the surface.

You will tell this by whether or not the water leaves a mark on the wood. If water is visibly left behind and will not wipe away once put to the wood, then it is certain that your wood is untreated. However, if the water bubbles on the top and does not seep into the porous wood, it is most likely treated.

Does Unfinished Wood Need to Be Sanded?

Sanding unfinished wood can become a tricky question, as it depends on what type of wood piece you are working with exactly. If you are making something more sculpture-like with wood and want it to be relatively rugged, you do not need to sand the piece. Sanding is to ensure that the wood is smooth and can be used without anyone ending up with a splinter or to make the staining process more flawless.  

If you are working with a wood item that will be used regularly, though, yes, you should go ahead and sand the piece. For the elements that will be in use, it is certainly more aesthetically pleasing to see one sanded enough to where it is nice and smooth to the eye. Even more so, it is nice to be able to touch it without wincing back due to its unkempt and grainy surface. There are a few things to consider when sanding, though.

Many times, newer woodworkers will go straight for the finest sandpaper to get straight to the smooth results they desire, this would be the most efficient route, right? Wrong. You want to sand your wood gradually with various grit levels.

You should start sanding with a random orbital sander if you have one. If not, You can sand the work by hand. First, start with a sanding grit that is not so fine. Start sanding with 100 grit sandpaper. Manually sand the piece in the direction of the grain of your wood in motions that are somewhat slow and very steady.

My video below describes the proper way to sand wood.

Once you have sanded the surface evenly with this grit type, work your way up to a finer grit like a 220 than 400. You have to work your way up to the finer grit sandpaper, so the whole piece is smooth. As with many other things, sanding takes time and patience, but taking the proper steps will result in a much smoother finish with a more consistent surface all around.

How Do You Clean Unfinished Wood? 

As you already know, wood is extremely porous, which means it is a champion for absorption. Because of this, the trick to cleaning unfinished wood is to avoid anything that will soak into its surface. For most people, this would also include all of those pleasant household cleaners that you have sitting under your sink – they will not work for unfinished wood.

Although options may seem bleak for cleaning, there are a few tricks to get your wood back to new. Consider using sandpaper or lukewarm water and dish soap.

Sandpaper

For more surface-level stains, sandpaper can be one of your best bets. Instead of using something liquid-based that could potentially set in your wood, fine sandpaper can buff out scratches or marks without having much effect on the surface appearance of your wood. This is excellent news for those of you with unfinished wood items around your house, as you do not have to worry about ruining your wood with liquids to get it spic and span.

To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure that the surface of your wood is clean. Mainly, you want to rid it of any dust or debris, as this can lead to dust streaks when sanding, leading to an even bigger cleanup.

The easiest way to clean the spot without too much pressure on the area is by using some sort of clean paintbrush. This will remove the dust without pushing it directly back into the wood.

  1. Grab a damp – not soaking wet – cloth and wipe down the area you intend to sand. Ensure that your cloth is as free of excess water as possible and gently wipe the site without putting pressure onto the rag.
    Remember, wet wood is no good, so have a very light touch with this step. Once you have wiped down the area, be sure to give it enough time to dry as sanding damp wood will not work. It must be dry to work cohesively with the sandpaper.
  2. Once the wood is completely dry again, grab your sandpaper and get to work on the area you want to go to. Use a 120, 150, or even a finer grit to buff away the imperfection gently.
    For this, you want to make sure that you are sanding by hand rather than with an electric sander. Sanders, for this sort of product, is a bit too aggressive and could lead to way more wood being taken away than you would like. Gently sand, going with the grain.
  3. After a few minutes of sanding, the blemish should be gone. If you have a stain such as paint or wood stain – those that are a bit deeper – you can treat the wood with acetone or lacquer thinner.
    Wipe the area with a cloth that has been saturated with either of these solvents and work to remove most of the stain by hand. Once the bulk has been taken away, you can sand off the rest without worrying about staining the wood. These solvents do fine with unfinished products.

Lukewarm Water and Dish Soap

Sanding your stains away may seem a bit more involved, but it is honestly just as easy as this following method: cleaning your untreated wood with lukewarm water and dish soap. This method is super simple, easy as pie, and you will likely have everything you need right in your kitchen. Even better, you will not be using any harsh chemicals to get your wood back to perfection, which is a win for your work and you!

  1. Get a cup of lukewarm water and dash a couple of drops of dish soap in it. Make sure that you mix the two well, bonus points if you can get bubbles to appear.
  2. Once you have them mixed, dip a soft cloth or sponge into the mixture and get it good and soaked. However, please don’t leave the cloth or sponge soaked, but be sure to wring it out, leaving as little excess water behind as you can.
  3. Rub the cloth over the spot you are trying to remove and be sure to go with the grain, even when cleaning with a softer object. Continue this step until you see all your worries disappear. If you need a bit tougher of a cleaning tool, try using a toothbrush to get down and dirty with tough stains.
    Still, try to keep from scrubbing too hard as it can upset the grain of your wood and cause it to become noticeably rough in that particular area.

How Do You Finish Unfinished Wood?

So you have decided that you want your unfinished wood to become a finished masterpiece. This may seem like a difficult feat, but really, there are three easy steps to get your wood piece where you want it to be. All you need is to: 

  1. Sand the Wood
  2. Stain the Wood
  3. Apply a Finishing Coat

Sand the Wood

I mentioned earlier the different types of sandpaper needed to achieve the most smooth surface, and that advice still stands. Sanding is so essential to achieving an excellent stain as well as a smooth surface.

You want to gradually start with coarse sandpaper such as 80 or 110 grit and progressively lead up to the finer types to give you a super smooth finish. If you are working with a larger piece, go for a random orbital sander.

Time-saving is always welcomed, but if you have a small project, hand sanding will do just as well. Ensure that you sand in the direction of the grain and do not fixate on one area too long.

You want the sanding to be consistent across the entire surface so pay close attention to how much time and sanding you give to each area of your furniture. Once it has been sanded to the degree you desire, you can move forward to staining.

Stain the Wood

A great staining job is directly related to how well you sanded, so be sure that the first step has reached perfection. If the sanding is uneven, your stain will immediately reflect this, and your project may come out looking somewhat botched.

There are droves of different stain colors out there and certainly one to fit your taste. Grab the color you like and test it first on a piece of wood that is as identical as possible to the work you are choosing to stain.

If you like the color, go ahead and get to staining. Apply the stain with a brush or rag, and don’t worry about being super neat. Just make sure that you are getting the stain evenly across the surface. If you want a lighter stain, wipe the excess off immediately.

If you want a deeper stain, then leave it to sit for at least ten minutes so it can permeate the surface. After this, wipe all excess away in the direction of the grain, and your stain is done!

Apply a Finishing Coat

After you have stained the wood, you want to ensure that the surface is protected correctly rather than still unfinished and exposed. To achieve this, you need to apply a finishing coat to its surface.

When the stain is completely dry, apply your finishing coat and let it sit overnight. Sand it and apply another coat. Be sure to repeat this two more times. On your last coat, do not sand again, and the surface should be smooth and shiny.

If you have ever painted or finished anything before, you know how important it is to use thinner coats that take a bit more time between than it is to try to use one thick coat. Using thinner coats allows for even distribution and permits the finish to dry completely throughout the finished piece of wood.

What Finish Will Not Darken Wood?

It may seem impossible that any sort of finish would not cause your wood to look even a bit different, but there is one sort of product that will keep your natural wood looking natural. And, if you are already on the fence about finishing your unfinished piece of wood, then it can seem a bit frustrating to find products that will not change the look of your wood.

For the best finish that will not darken wood? Do not fret. There are plenty of options for using a finish that will not darken your wood. If your goal is to keep your piece of wood looking as natural as possible, you want to look for a finish that is known as “water-white.”  

This finish type will go on wet and shiny, but within a few minutes, it will dry and leave your wood looking matte and natural. This is an excellent option for those who want a natural finish and desire to keep their wood protected from everyday life. When adding this product to your wood, try to keep the coats at a minimum, though, as too many coats can begin to change the appearance of your wood.

What is the Best Oil to Use on Unfinished Wood?

Finding the best oil to use on unfinished wood can be a complicated area that has many different avenues that depend on your wood type, where your wood piece will sit, and the type of finish that you desire for each particular piece. The biggest thing to keep in mind is how the oil will interact with the wood type you are using.

What is the best oil to use on unfinished wood? If you have a cedar or rosewood piece, you want to use either linseed oil. With maple and oak wood, tung oil can be used. For mahogany and cedar, your best bet is tung and linseed oil. For beech and ash wood, go for a danish oil.

For each different type of wood, there will be a pair that is best suited for the specific grain and color of the wood. Remember this, and you will have no issues getting the oil to work exactly as you hoped it would. Then, you can choose the right type of wood and finish that will go perfectly in your new room (or wherever you desire for your project to end up).

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