Perfection is in Sight: What Finish Should I Use For Woodworking?

When you are woodworking, the finish you use can often have a big impact on the way that the final product looks. However, with so many types of finishes on the market, it can be difficult to know which one you should choose.

So, which finish should I use for woodworking? There are many types of finish for you to choose from. The most popular options are; oil, varnish, shellac, and lacquer. The best finish will often depend on the type of project you are completing and what you are looking for. It’s important to consider how it will be applied, how durable it is, and how long it will take to dry.

As you can see, there is a lot of things to think about when deciding which finish you will be using. Let’s take a closer look at the types of finishes available, so you’ll be able to pick the perfect one for your next project.

Why Is It Important To Apply A Finish To Wood?

There are several reasons why it’s important to apply a finish to the wood. First, it will improve the way that the wood looks and feels. It will also protect the wood against moisture and dirt. This will make sure that your pieces continue to look amazing for many years to come.

Once you’ve finished building, you’ll need to finish the wood. This has a few big benefits. First, it will allow you to improve the way that the wood feels. Even though you sand it, unfinished wood can still feel a little rough. Applying a finish solves this problem, making the wood feel smooth.

It also enhances the way that the wood looks. When you apply a finish, the wood becomes shiner. This can help make natural features and patterns more noticeable. As a result, people will have a greater appreciation for your furniture after you have finished the finishing process.

However, the most important part of the finish is to protect the wood from future damage. Wood is naturally porous. This means that it will absorb water, causing it to expand. If in a low humidity environment, it will release moisture and shrink. This can do a lot of damage to furniture. In this case, you might notice that the joints will come loose or the wood will begin to crack.

Finishing protects against scratches. When you apply a finish, you are putting a resin onto the wood. This forms a hard surface. This will help to protect the wood from getting scratched or cracked. Once dry, it will be difficult to remove these resins from the wood. This will keep your projects looking great for many years to come.

Each type of finish has a slightly different impact on the wood. For example, some might take a little longer to dry and be more challenging to apply. Because of this, you’ll need to be careful when choosing what finish, you are using. By getting the right one, you’ll be able to deliver much better results.

What Are The Different Types Of Finish?

Now that we have a better understanding of why finishing wood is so important, let’s turn our attention to the different types of finishes that are available. Most finishes can be classed into one of two groups. These are evaporative or reactive. Both of these groups have many subtypes.

The types of finishes are classified by the way that they work. Both of these will have pros and cons, depending on the type of project you are completing. Let’s take a closer look at the various types of finishes on the market.

It’s also possible that you will find a convalescing finish. These finishes are based in water. When the water evaporates, the resin will be drawn together and will harden. This leaves behind a solid film. This can be scratch-resistant, though it will be harder to recoat. These types of finishes tend to be the least popular options.  

How Do Reactive Finishes Work?

Let’s start by looking at reactive finishes. These types of finishes will use a solvent to make sure that they will bond with the wood. When the solvent evaporates, the resin will be tightly bonded. As a result, this type of finish tends to be the most resistant to scratches.

When using a reactive finish, you’ll need to apply a solvent. Typically, this can be a substance like a white spirit. This will cause the resin bonds to loosen, so you’ll be able to apply it to the wood. After the finish is used, the solvent will begin to evaporate.  

As this happens, the bonds between the resin will grow even stronger than they were previously. Also, the chemical make-up will change. This ensures that the solvent won’t be able to loosen the bonds again. Imagine it like forming a strong protective shield of Lego blocks around the wood. This will ensure that the wood will be very resistant to scratches. It can also offer protection against moisture.

However, this protective barrier can cause issues if you want to apply a second coat of finisher. There will be nothing for the molecules to attach to. To solve this, you’ll need to sand the wood before applying a second coat. Another potential issue is how long it can take for the finish to dry. Even once it’s dry, it will be hard to achieve the glossy sheen of an evaporative finish.

How Do Evaporative Finishes Work?

The second type of finish is evaporative. In this case, the finish will use an alcohol solvent, to break them down. When the solvent dries away, it will leave small spaces. Because of this, these finishes aren’t as good at protecting the wood from water or getting scratched. However, they will dry faster and will be the easiest type to strip in the future.

Like reactive finishes, you’ll need to use a solvent to get the resins of an evaporative finish to separate. This will allow you to apply it to your wood. Once you apply it, the solvents will evaporate, leaving only the resin. So, far this is very similar to the process described for a reactive finish.

However, evaporative finishes don’t change their chemical composition. This means that there will be some small holes left between the molecules. This type of finish can be compared to hardened spaghetti. Though it might be tough, there are small holes that water can slip through.

This can lead to a few potential downsides. For example, the wood won’t be as solidly protected against moisture. Also, it will be easier to scratch. In some cases, the resin can be damaged by heat. Depending on how many layers you apply, even the heat of a coffee cup can be enough to break down the resin.

It’s also possible that time might start to break down the resin. This is most commonly evident in commonly touched places, like doorways or the backs of chairs. To prevent this, you’ll need to re-apply the resin frequently.

Despite this, there are a few reasons why people continue to use evaporative finishes. First, they dry faster than other types of resins. As a result, there’s a lower risk that dust will be able to get into the resin. Another benefit is that you’ll be able to remove them fairly easily. Because the chemical composition didn’t change, applying the same solvent will cause the resin to become sticker. Eventually, it will dissolve.

Because there are smaller holes between the resin, you’ll easily be able to add an additional layer of finish if you want. This is much easier than sanding off the old resin. 

What Types Of Finishing Products Are Available?

Now that we know a little more about how finishes work, let’s look at some of the available products. There are plenty of finishes to choose from. You can choose oil or varnish. You might want to get shellac or lacquer.

There are plenty of finishes that you might want to choose from. It’s important to make sure that you’re getting the right one for your project. To help you do this, let’s take a closer look at the most popular options on the market.


Many types of oil are available for you to choose from. For example, you might be able to get linseed oil or Tung oil. Many kinds of wood come with natural oils. However, these oils leave the wood as it dries out. When you use an oil finish, you are replenishing these natural oils. This will create a natural sheen. It will also protect the wood.

In most cases, the oil will be easy to apply. You’ll just need to paint it onto the wood. Then, wipe away any excess. However, it will take a while to dry. In some cases, you might need to leave it overnight.

 What Is The Best Oil Finish For Wood?

With so many oil finishes, it can be difficult to know which one will deliver the best results. In most cases, this will depend on the type of project you are trying to complete.

Each type of wood oil finish has been designed for a slightly different purpose. For example, Danish oil and Teak oil are characterized by their ability to dry quickly. When they are dry, they will form a strong protective barrier.

One of the most popular options is linseed oil. However, it can take a long time to apply. Most projects will require at least two coats of linseed oil. It also takes a long time to dry, sometimes as long as two days. Also, linseed oil generally won’t be suitable for wood that will be outside.

Tung might provide the best results, giving wood a natural sheen. It will also allow the wood to flex slightly, which can be a good way to deal with the aging process. However, it also has a big downside. The process of applying Tung oil is very complex. Because of this, only more experienced woodworkers tend to use this type of oil.


These resins tend to be mixed with oil. Because of this, the final finish tends to be more versatile than oil alone. A good varnish will be able to protect your wood from heat, water, and UV light. They usually tend to dry fairly clear. If you want, you can apply a layer of dye under the varnish. This will change the color of the wood while offering more protection.

The biggest downside of using varnish is that they can be stripped away by paint removers. In most cases, you’ll need to use a brush when applying varnish. As you do this, you’ll need to be careful that no air bubbles are forming in the varnish. Also, a varnish will take a long time to dry.


Another popular finish is shellac. This is a natural product, made from harnessing the resin from bugs. There are many different types of shellac. This includes pre-mixed, a version that you mix yourself, and flakes. The version that you pick will depend on the type of project. Generally, a pre-mixed version is easier to work with.

There are a few benefits to using shellac. First, it’s easy to apply. Also, it tends to dry quickly. It will provide a glossy finish, which can be a great way of bringing out natural features in the wood. However, this type of finish contains wax. This can decrease its resistance to water. It might also make it harder for other finishes to bond with it.


Next, you have lacquers. This is the go-to finish for many woodworking professionals. It’s an evaporative finish, which gets deep into the wood. This ensures that it will be able to bring out the natural gloss of the timber. It also ensures that the lacquer will dry quickly. Once it’s dry, the lacquer will be very durable, able to protect the wood from all types of damage.

There are a few types of lacquer for you to explore. Which one you choose will determine how you apply it. In some cases, you’ll need to brush it on. At other times, you might need to spray it onto the wood. The only potential downside to choosing a lacquer is that some types of lacquer will turn yellow as they age.


Finally, you might want to consider a mixed finish. This a combination of one, or more, of the other types of finishes. For example, a French Polish. This combines shellac and alcohol. This creates a shiny gloss. You’ll need to apply it with a rubbing pad.

Most mixes will retain the characteristics of the finishes that were combined to create it. There are many types of mix available. This gives you plenty of options to choose from. However, before you buy one, you’ll need to do your research. This ensures that you know what to expect and how often you’ll need to re-apply.

When Should Each Type Of Finish Be Used?

The type of finish that you’ll want to use will often depend on what you are looking for. Some more provide more durability. Others will bring out the natural gloss of the wood. Finishes that contain polyurethane will make the wood more water-resistant.

With so many types of finishes on the market, it can be difficult for people to know which one they should choose. There will be plenty of factors to consider. However, the most important concerns tend to center on how durable it will be and how long it will take to dry. Let’s look at these areas in more depth, so you’ll be able to pick the right finish for you.

What Is The Most Durable Clear Coat For Wood?

If you’re focused on durability, you’ll want to choose a lacquer. If you want something easy to apply, while still protecting the wood, you might want to go with oil. Wax and shellac tend to be the least durable.

As we discussed, many professional woodworkers tend to prefer to work with lacquer. This is because it offers a lot of protection. It also rubs out very easily. This will make it easy for you to remove any imperfections from the surface of the finish.

Another good durable choice that you might want to explore is an oil-based finish. This will offer a lot of resistance from scratches. This ensures that woods that are protected by oil finishes will stay in good condition for a long time. If the oil ever starts to fade, you’ll find it easy to apply another coat of oil.

Some people might prefer to use wax. However, this tends to be one of the least resistant finishes. The biggest issue with shellac is that it isn’t very resistant to acids. This means that an alcohol spill might be enough to remove the finish.

Does Polyurethane Make Wood Waterproof?

Polyurethane won’t make wood waterproof. But it will make it water-resistant. This will limit the amount of moisture that the wood can absorb. The best way to protect wood is by making sure that you regularly re-coat with polyurethane.

If you’re planning on creating an outdoor area, you’ll want to protect the wooden boards from the elements. To do this, you might want to use polyurethane. This finish won’t make the wood waterproof. However, it will make it water-resistant. As long as the boards aren’t going to sit in the water for a long period, this will be good enough to protect them.

How water-resistant the wood will depend on the way that you choose to apply the polyurethane. When you put on a single coat, it won’t be enough to protect the board. Often, there will still be some small holes in the polyurethane. This will allow the water moisture into the wood.

However, when you apply multiple coats, you’ll be able to seal up these holes. This will make it harder for the moisture to get into the wood. It’s recommended that you apply at least three coats of polyurethane. This will give you a lot of water resistance.

You also need to remember that polyurethane will break down over time. This can be accelerated with outdoor boards, as they will expand and contract. As a result, you’ll need to re-apply polyurethane regularly. If you don’t, the boards will eventually start to become discolored. They might turn grey or black. When this happens, it’s best to remove and replace the boards.

Which Finish Is Easiest To Apply

There are a few factors to consider when deciding which type of finish will be the easiest to apply. First, you’ll need to think about whether it arrives pre-mixed, or whether you’ll need to mix it up yourself. It’s also important to consider whether you’ll need to spray it or brush it on.

When deciding which type of finish, you want to use, you’ll need to think about how easy it will be to use. You don’t want to pick a finish that you don’t have the equipment or time to apply properly.

When you get a finish, you’ll need to prepare it. You might be able to get one that comes pre-mixed. This means that you’ll just need to open the can and you can start painting instantly. In other cases, you will need to mix it yourself. This can mean adding solvents and alcohol. The finish will come with detailed instructions about how to mix it.

Then, you’ll need to think about how you will apply the finish. It’s important to make sure that you have the right equipment. In most cases, you’ll be able to brush it on. However, some finishes, like lacquers, will require you to spray. If you don’t have spray equipment, you’ll need to hire some. This will greatly increase your budget for the project.

It’s also worth considering how easy it will be to apply a second coat. For example, you’ll be able to brush over the top of an existing oil finish. However, if you get a varnish, you’ll need to sand it first. This will provide something for the resin to stick to.

How Long Does It Take For A Finish To Dry?

The type of finish you are using will impact how long it will take to dry. Lacquer and shellac will dry fastest. Anything based on water will also have a fairly fast drying time. If you choose to get a varnish or oil, you might need to leave them to dry overnight.

The drying time of the finish is one of the most important things to consider. This will have a big impact on the quality of the finished product. The longer that it takes to dry, the more likely that you will end up with dust in the finish. If this happens, you might need to remove the finish and apply the finish again. Even a small amount of dust can impact how effective the finish will be.

How long a finish takes to dry will depend on a few important factors. For example, the temperature and humidity will tend to have a fairly significant impact. For some finishes, this will be more pronounced. However, you might be able to add some additional chemicals to the mix, to minimize the effect. As a general rule, you’ll be able to get the best results if you dry the finish in a warm, dry room.

The type of finish you use will determine how long you can expect to wait for it to dry. Lacquer and shellac will dry the fastest. In many cases, you’ll just need to wait for a few hours before they will be dry and you’ll be ready to apply the next coat.

Water-bases finishes are the next fastest drier. In this case, you’ll need to wait for the moisture to evaporate from the wood. The humidity of the room will have a big impact on how long this will take. The more moisture in the air, the slower the evaporation rate will be. Generally, though, it will only take a few hours for this type of finish to dry.

The slowest drying finish will be varnish and oil. For each coat, you’ll need to wait for several hours for it to dry. Many woodworkers will leave on the heater, and try to limit the humidity. If you do this, you will still need to leave it overnight until it will be dry. If you choose one of these finishes, you’ll need to think about how you are going to protect the wood from dust.

Final Thoughts

When you complete a woodworking project, you’ll need to apply a finish. This will protect it from scratches and moisture. While it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the number of finishes available, it’s important to remember what you are looking for. So, use this information to narrow down your selection and find the perfect finish for you.  

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