Choosing between shellac, varnish, lacquer, natural oils, and polyurethane for your wood finish can be a tough decision, especially when there are so many variables to consider. However, you might be wondering if there is a “most ideal” option for your given woodworking project.
Oil-based polyurethane is one of the most durable wood finish products, but it leaves behind a yellow/amber hue. Water-based polyurethane is highly durable, though you should avoid exposure to water and other chemicals. Lacquer is also highly durable, with varnish, shellac, and natural oils being less so.
Still, this does not mean that every type of wood finish will work as the ideal wood finish product on your woodworking project, especially considering your unique projects will have their own purposes and designs. Continue reading to learn more about the most durable wood finish products for a variety of purposes.
Most Durable Wood Finish for Floors
By their nature, floors will be one of the types of woodworking projects that take the most beating. Consider that their sole purpose is to support everything that rests, stomps, or slides on top of them. Because of this, you will want to ensure that the type of wood floor finish you opt to use highly durable and not prone to damage by scratches, water, oil, or exposure to natural wear and tear.
With that said, there are a few different options when finishing off your hardwood floors. Deciding on which option is right for you can come down to your budget, how long you are willing to vacate the space you are finishing, your desired aesthetic appeal, your willingness or lack thereof to refinish your floors should you find scratches, dents, etc., and personal preference.
Here are a few of the most durable wood finish options for floors:
- Oil-based polyurethane. If you are looking for a product to finish your hardwood floors with high durability in terms of scratches and exposure to water, heat, alcohol, and other chemicals, then oil-based polyurethane is a great way to go. This product is, in a sense, going to coat your hardwood floors like thin liquid plastic.
However, the oil-based component allows this type of product to adhere well to the floor and not fall victim to your children’s spilled milk (literally). Along with that, the oil-based polyurethane is known to hold up to prolonged periods without having to be refinished.
One downside to using oil-based polyurethane on your wood floors, though, is that it has a higher amount of VOCs, so you will have to be sure to use a respirator and air out your home before letting anyone back home.
In fact, it can take as long as 10-hours to apply each coat of oil-based polyurethane on your wood floors, and you will have to apply roughly 3 layers depending on your situation. Along with that, you will need an additional 48-hours for the product to completely dry before you can walk on your floors.
During this time, you will not want to be around your floors because they will give off a very potent odor– one that is not safe to inhale. However, if your family can leave your home while you apply this with appropriate safety gear on (or while a professional applies it), then you will be thankful for the time and patience it took to apply this highly durable finish.
Keep in mind, though, that the oil from this type of product will inherently change your wood’s color, providing it with a light yellow or amber tone. This is especially the case for lightwood. If you do not want your hardwood coloring to be affected, this will definitely be considered.
- Water-based polyurethane. If you are looking for a durable polyurethane product that will not alter the coloration of your hardwood floors, then you can consider using a water-based polyurethane. Unlike the oil-based polyurethane, this durable wood finish applies mainly clear in a way that will bolster the natural color of the hardwood floors in your home.
While water-based polyurethane is not quite as durable as its oil-based counterpart, considering it is slightly less resistant to water, alcohol, heat, and other chemical exposure, it is still a highly durable product in terms of scratches and general wear and tear.
Along with that note, it is more popular in terms of hardwood floor finish selection because it has significantly fewer VOCs, so it will not require the same amount of ventilation. In fact, it only takes between 4-6 hours to dry between coats (with a 3 coat application of this wood finish recommended).
Then, you should be able to walk on your floors within 48-hours. You will need to avoid placing heavy furniture on it to avoid scratching it until it is completely dry.
Still, this is a faster drying option that can be touched up, so it is highly appealing to many homeowners who have families- especially those with children who cannot vacate their home for long. You will not have to worry about the same type of odor when applying water-based polyurethane. However, you will still be able to experience a higher durability level than some other types of wood finish.
- Moisture-cure urethane. If you are looking to finish off your wood floors in a commercial setting, you might consider moisture-cure urethane. However, this is not for an individual or homeowner’s use- it is designed more for a bowling alley setting that will require extremely durable floors.
This type of wood finish uses the moisture in the atmosphere to cure it (hence the name), so it is susceptible to the atmosphere that it is applied. For this reason, especially in unpredictable conditions, this type of wood finish can take up to two weeks to finish.
Still, it is most definitely the most durable option you will find for wood floors, but remember that this is not for household use and is recommended for commercial floors. If you are a homeowner looking to finish their hardwood floors, opt for an oil-based or water-based polyurethane instead.
- Aluminum oxide. Another highly durable wood floor finish that should be noted is aluminum oxide, but keep in mind that this type of wood finish can only be applied to pre-finished wood. So, you will not have this as an option for placing on top of your already-installed hardwood floors.
Still, it is worth mentioning this because it is a top-rated wood finish product for pre-finished wood floors. That said, if you are looking to install prefinished wood, look for a type that has aluminum oxide as its wood finish; the durability is incomparable on this type of wood floor.
Most Durable Wood Finish for Tables
Unlike hardwood floors, wood tables do not require the same type of protection. It is unlikely that you will be standing and stomping on your kitchen table (although, who knows). Instead, you will need a wood finish capable of protecting your beautiful piece from destruction via exposure to water, heat, food, and other chemicals.
Fortunately, almost all types of wood finish products are food-safe once it has completely dried. So, you should not have to worry about that as long as the wood finish is heat-resistant. For this reason, among the reasons that your table will need to be protected from general wear and tear, you will want a high-quality product to do the trick.
Here are the most durable wood finish options for tables:
- Oil-based polyurethane. Again, oil-based polyurethane takes the cake as one of the most durable types of wood finish for your project- this time, tables. You will find that it is popularly used on a wide variety of woodworking projects because of its high durability.
Oil-based polyurethane is likely to leave behind a yellowish tint to your table, but if you have a darker dining table in the first place, then you likely will not notice this amber tint.
Along with that, you will not have to worry about vacating your home. At the same time, you finish your table with oil-based polyurethane as long as you move this project outside or into your well-ventilated garage (a major pro when applying to a type of wood project that is not flooring).
Using oil-based polyurethane for your table consistently yields positive results. It can withstand the heat that comes from leaving a hot cup of coffee (or casserole) on it, you will not have to freak out when a glass of water is spilled (because it is highly water-resistant), alcohol can touch it, and it will not crumble with exposure to other chemicals.
Unlike water-based polyurethane that is consistently noted for having to be reapplied, oil-based polyurethane seeps into the wood on your table, and you should not have to worry about it chipping with natural wear and tear as you might with other types of wood finish. If you are looking for something that is spill-proof on your wooden table, oil-based polyurethane is a durable option.
- Lacquer. Lacquer is another highly durable wood finish product that is consistently applied to many different types of woodworking projects. You will find that it comes off more matte than it does shiny, but you can apply shellac underneath it to enhance the shine. Then, add the lacquer for enhanced durability.
Unlike other types of wood finish, lacquer is particularly resistant to water, heat, alcohol, and exposure to other chemicals. Similar to oil-based polyurethane, this type of wood finish can be applied and is sure to last. Along with that, you will be able even to scratch this type of wood finish and then smooth it out on the spot (depending on how deep the cut is, obviously).
Lacquer is consistently applied to many different types of woodworking projects as a highly durable wood finish, and it can work great on your table. You will need to apply it carefully in 2-4 layers of thin application to take a little bit to do work. However, if applied carefully, it will leave a solid protective layer between you and the beautiful wood that makes up your table.
Most Durable Wood Finish for Furniture or Small Wooden Pieces
If you are looking to add a protective wood finish to your desk, picture frame, crown molding, or another type of wood product that is neither exposed to high levels of wear and tear nor water, heat, alcohol, or other chemicals, then your options for wood finish expand a bit. This is where many people will opt for a less protective varnish, shellac, or natural oil finish product.
However, if you are looking for a durable wood finish for your furniture or small wooden piece (like a nice wooden board, decoration piece, etc.), you will want to avoid using varnish, shellac, or a natural oil finish product as the sole protective layer for wood. These can be less water-resistant and can even be penetrated with high levels of humidity.
For this reason, when looking for a durable wood finish for furniture or small wooden pieces, you can use these options:
- Oil-based polyurethane. Again, although you might not need the high level of durability that oil-based polyurethane can add to your piece of furniture that sees less roughhousing or a small wooden piece like a picture frame, oil-based polyurethane is sure to keep your piece protected.
Keep in mind that when applied on smaller levels, you will still need to make sure that you are properly ventilating the area and potentially running a respirator to ensure safety when exposed to the VOCs from this product. Still, if you are using it on a smaller piece, you will likely not be required as much time for this product to completely dry.
- Lacquer. Lacquer is often more popular with pieces of wooden furniture like desks, end tables, and other small wooden pieces because it does not alter the piece’s color in the same way that the oil-based polyurethane can. However, it does add a high level of durability in terms of resistance to water, heat, and chemical exposure.
Along with that, lacquer can be applied effectively in small crevices of designs without harming the pieces or causing any issues, so it is highly sought after (and consequently accessible). Even if you are not expecting as much wear and tear to your wooden furniture, you still want it to last a long time, and lacquer can help ensure that this is the case.
- Water-based polyurethane. Unlike your hardwood floors and table, other wooden furniture pieces like a desk or end table, or even a picture frame or another small piece will not have the same exposure to spilled milk, heat, or alcohol. Because of this, it can be safer to use water-based polyurethane.
Many people like to use this product on these types of pieces because it is easy to apply with few VOCs, and it is still going to offer a high level of durability since it is polyurethane. Along with that, it will go on clear and will not affect the color of your woodworking piece the same way that its oil-based counterpart will.
If you are looking for a durable wood finish but do not want to use lacquer, you can use water-based polyurethane on your woodworking pieces that will not have as much exposure to the elements.
Most Durable Wood Finish for Butcher Block Counters
If you are looking to add a protective wood finish to your butcher block countertops, you might be looking for a different durability type than other types of furniture. In this case, you would be preparing to do your kitchen preparations (chopping, dicing, etc.) right on your counters. So, you will need something capable of holding up without accidentally being chopped right into your beef steak.
That said, you will want to avoid polyurethane and lacquer, considering these have more likelihood of needing reparations after being used as a consistent chopping block. While they might provide high durability with other types of wood structures, the optimal wood finish for butch block counters is butcher block oil or a natural oil finish.
Two specific types of butcher block oil that can be used include Waterlox and Rubio Monocoat Hardwax Oil Finish. Waterlox is particularly popular but can cause problems for those who have nut allergies. However, it sets in more deeply and is more absorptive into the wood.
Contrarily, Rubio Monocoat Hardwax Oil Finish is often used because it has zero VOCs and is highly durable. It has been known to leave a slight bit of oily residue behind, though, so you will want to be sure to rub this in. (Check out its current price on Amazon here)
Of course, other types of wood finish that you can apply to your butcher block counters, but these are the two most repeatedly purchased and highly praised types of wood finish. This is different from almost every other type of wood finish because the durability you are going for will look far different.
With that said, it is important to note that these types of wood finishes will need to be reapplied consistently, considering they are not made for long-lasting wear and tear like other types of wood finish products (as described in the other sections) would be. Again, it is all about the woodworking piece’s purpose and what the wood finish is needed to withstand.