How to Choose the Right Wood Finish

Whether you are building a new fence, putting up a wooden railing, or working with fine wooden furniture, the wood should be treated with a protective wood finish to keep it from getting damaged by UV light, rain, or even high humidity. If the wood isn’t protected from these environmental factors, it can dry out, crack, swell, or even rot.

Wood that has dried out or rotted won’t be able to hold as much weight, so choose a wood finish to protect your next woodworking project. To choose the right wood finish for the job, you should learn more about the different types of wood finishes and keep a few key buying tips in mind.

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Before Buying a New Wood Finish

At a home improvement store, it can be tempting to buy the first wood finish you see. But there are many different ways to finish wood.

Take the time to learn about the different wood finishes so you can choose the one that will work best for your project. It’s also a good idea to find out if the product is flammable, gives off toxic fumes, or causes long-term damage to the environment. If you need to use a dangerous wood finish, make sure you have the right personal protective equipment (PPE) before you start, and take any leftover wood finish to a local recycling center.

Buying Considerations for Wood Finish

Durability and Resistances

When you use a wood finish on a woodworking project, one of the main reasons is to protect the wood from damage. Wood finishes add a physical layer of protection that can keep scratches, chemical wear, and solvents from hurting the wood.

Not all wood finishes are as resistant to moisture and UV rays, so if you are working on a project outside, you need to find a wood finish that will help keep the wood from cracking, drying, swelling, and rotting.

Ease of Use

Another thing to think about when looking for a wood finish is how easy it is to use. This has to do with the specific product, but you should also be honest about your own skills. For example, you can use a brush, a cloth, or a sprayer to put a finish on the wood. If you haven’t used a sprayer before, it’s probably not the best choice for fine furniture or other high-quality woodworking projects.

Consider using a test piece of wood or even a test project if you want to try out a sprayer or a complicated process like French polishing. This will help you decide if your skills and this way of applying are right for the job. Keep in mind that not all finishes for wood can be put on the same way. Some wood finishes are made to be used with a fabric dabber, while others can be put on with a paint roller. Before using a product, you should always check the instructions that came with it.


The main reason to use a wood finish is to protect the project from environmental and physical damage. However, depending on the type of wood finish, the project can also look very different. Varnishes and oils, like tung oil, linseed oil, and danish oil, give wood a natural look and a slightly yellow or golden tint. Shellac and lacquers aren’t as easy to use as many other types of wood finishes, but they make the wood look deep and rich.

If you want to keep the look of the wood, water-based finishes are a good choice. Paint or stain, on the other hand, can completely cover the wood grain for a more uniform look. To get the result you want, give the wood finish enough time to dry and cure completely. This time frame can change depending on the finish of the wood, so check the manufacturer’s instructions to see how long it should take to dry.

Types of Wood Finishes

Wood finishes can be broken down into two main groups based on how the finish affects the wood, how the wood looks, and how well it protects the project. Penetrating finishes, like tung oil, linseed oil, or cedar oil, are one type, and surface finishes, like varnish, polyurethane, or paint, are the other.

Penetrating Wood Finishes

Finishes that soak into the wood tend to give wood projects a more natural look. As the names suggest, these wood finishes go deep into the wood and protect it from drying, cracking, swelling, and rotting.

  1. Tung oil is an eco-friendly way to finish wood. It brings out the wood’s natural look and gives it a warm, golden glow. It is strong and durable, which makes it a good choice for boat decks and floors. The best way to use tung oil is with a cloth or a brush.
  2. Linseed oil is easy to use and can be spread with a brush or a cloth, but it usually takes a long time to fully cure. Use this wood finish for a natural look with a warm, yellow matte tone that gets darker over time.
  3. Danish oil is a very durable finish for wood that is made by mixing boiled linseed or tung oil, varnish, and paint thinner. It is often spread on wooden tools and handles with a cloth or brush to give them a natural matte or glossy finish.
  4. Cedar oil is a popular choice. It smells like wood and is known to help keep insects, swelling, and rot away from woodworking projects. This wood finish looks warm and silvery-grey, which is great for floors and furniture.

Surface Wood Finishes

Penetrating wood finishes are known for getting deep into the wood, while surface wood finishes are put on the wood’s surface to make a tough protective layer. Due to their better physical durability, surface finishes are thought to be a better choice for furniture or objects that get a lot of wear and tear.

  1. Shellac has a nice, smooth finish that is meant to bring out the wood’s natural grain. It looks great on walnut and mahogany in particular. Shellac can be put on with a sprayer or a badger hair brush, and you can choose from colors like blonde and rich orange.
  2. Lacquer is another finish for wood that is made by mixing together a few different finishes, like shellac, urushiol, or nitrocellulose. It works well to protect wooden furniture, cabinets, doors, and shelves, and you can use a sprayer or a natural bristle brush to put it on.
  3. Varnish is made to be used outside because it is very resistant to UV light and water. Most of the time, this wood finish is clear, but some products can have a yellow or orange tint. The best way to put on varnish is with a sprayer or a paint roller.
  4. Wax is an easy-to-use finish for hardwood floors and fine furniture made of wood. Use a cloth, a brush, or a sprayer to put the wax on the wood to protect it from damage and the environment.
  5. For woodworking projects done inside, polyurethane is the most durable choice. It works very well to keep cabinets, doors, furniture, and floors from getting scratched or worn down. Polyurethane is also resistant to water and is meant to make the wood look better by giving it a satin or mid-gloss finish.
  6. People often use stains to protect decks and fences from water and UV light so they don’t crack, dry out, or rot. This type of wood finish brings out the wood’s grain pattern and comes in a wide range of colors.
  7. Like stains, paint comes in many different colors. But paint is meant to fully cover the surface it is applied to, not let the natural look of the wood show through. It can be used to make wood paneling, walls, doors, fences, decks, and furniture, both inside and outside.