Product Selection Guide

Finishes and Varnishes Buying Guide

Finishes and Varnishes
  • Getting Started

  • Finish and varnish are the last steps in the process of the woodwork. Finish is applied in a form of several coats of different products. Finishing is used to protect the wood and provide a high gloss and quality appearance. Choosing a proper type of finish and varnish is a vital part as all of the finish and varnish products have different qualities, and they provide the different level of wood protection. This process takes time and planning ahead. Part of the planning process is also planning the way how to handle the wood before the finish steps. Avoiding scratches, marks, and dust is necessary.

  • What to Consider

  • Is the woodwork meant to be indoor or outdoor?  It is important to know where the woodwork will be kept. If the product is indoors, water resistance is not high on the list of priorities. Usually, most important aspect is the durability and resistance for scratches. If the woodwork is for outdoor usage, a good water resistant finish is mandatory. It will help to prolong the life expectancy and durability. Types of outdoor woodwork which requires a protection might be a wooden deck, outdoor furniture or patios.

    Is the color and the gloss important? Some of the finishes and varnishes can result in clear gloss, and some of them have a slightly orange or amber color. In the case, the goal is to achieve clear gloss, pure varnish should be the best choice. Some of the finishes as shellac can result in different color gloss, from light orange to dark amber. Make a decision is the color important.

    Will the product be in any contact with water? Same as with the placing the product indoor or outdoor, it is important to know is there any chance water could damage it. For the wooden floors, it is known they tend to be washed with some liquid. As long as the finish layer is protective and has a high water resistance level, it is a good finish choice. If the product has a high chance to be in contact with water such as rain and it will be placed outdoors in this case highest water protection needs to be used. The best water resistant finish is Tung oil.

    How big the budget is? The budget can interfere with the choice of the finish. Some of the wood require additional layers and amount of product used will be higher. For the best result, it is crucial to find a product which can secure healthy and affordable finish. Also, if some of the steps are done in the  incorrect way, the product will have to be treated again.

  • Key Features

  • Durability - how long the finish will last. Is it a low time durable product which will have to be applied again in a short time? If the finish layer has a low durability, it will require additional treatment in a short time and it will not pay off.

    Protection - how good the finish is in protecting the wood from scratches and watermarks. Not all of the finishes provide the same protection.

    Appearance - will the product leave great clear glossy appearance or more natural wood look. It is possible to achieve any color but certain products will have a certain color. Oils are used if the desired appearance is natural wood look without high gloss.

    Safety - how safe is to apply the product and is any safety equipment necessary to use when applying the finish. The product should be environmentally friendly and should not contain any unhealthy chemical products.

    Application - application process should be easy and one time only, but it also may require a more than one application and different tools might be required. Brushes, rollers or clothes could be used for applying the finish.

    Reversibility - removing the finish should be easy to do and different types of removers could be used. For example, alcohol or paint remover can also help to remove finish and varnish layer. Some of the finishes are easy to remove even five days after treatment, but for some like oils, it is necessary to use different more mechanical options like sanding or brushing.

    After making the decision where is the product meant to be used and what are the necessary features required, it will be easier to make a decision and choose appropriate finish and varnish.

    In general, finish and varnish products have two main qualities:

        •  How do they dry?
        •  How do they cure?

    It is hard to find a finish which can cure and dry the wood at the same time. One of the reasons is - not all the types of wood will react in the same way.

  • Popular Finish Types

  • Oil is most popular and easiest finish available in stores. Oil is popular as it will provide natural look finish, and it is easy to apply.  Also, oils do not contain any chemicals. Most popular types of oils are Linseed and Tung oil. They can be bought in small easy to use containers. The best way to apply the oil is by using a cloth and leaving the oil for some time to absorb. Remove the excess later. Both of the oils, linseed and tung can be in the form of raw oil or boiled oil.


    Raw oils will take a longer time to dry. For that reason, the most used type of oil is boiledLinseed oil. It is fast drying, easy to apply. Also, boiled linseed oil is the cheapest than other oils available on the market.

    None of the oils can provide high gloss appearance, but they are a great finish to keep the natural look. Durability is poor, however, if it is necessary to reverse the process and remove the oils, it will take a long time and sanding and scraping will have to be done. Oils finishes are used for woods like cherry, oak, and mahogany.

    Oils as finish have the ability to dry and cure without any added chemicals. The downside of the oils is they do not provide good water resistance.

    Oil is a good finish for woodwork like kitchen cabinets or coffee tables.


    Oil Varnish Blends - Same as Linseed and Tung, oil varnish is a great finish and offers the most natural look of the wood. Mostly used for Oak, Walnut, Cherry, and Mahogany protection.  Oil-varnish blends contain penetrating resins, and they help to harden the wood and keep it healthy. In general, Oil Varnish blends are oil finishes fortified with certain chemicals to strengthen the wood. To enrich the oil, chemical like dye or UV inhibitor can be added. Oil varnished blends are a slightly better option for wood protection but still the water resistance is low. It is not meant to be used outdoors.

  • Types of Varnishes

  • Varnishes are clear protective film finish, and it contains drying oils, resin, and solvent. Usually, varnishes have a high gloss finish, and they are highly durable. Nowadays, varnishes are water based and can't be mixed at the same time with oils.  Varnish finish is the best choice if the durability is in the first place and it is used for exterior woodwork (boats, staircases, patios). Cherry wood and white oak are mostly used for exterior furniture, and they can be treated with clear varnish. Multiple coats of varnish can be applied and that way a protective film is created. Except the regular clear varnish available, there are also two other kinds:

        •  Alkyd varnish has more yellow and orange shade, and it is not clear as regular varnish. Provides excellent protection for wood and it is durable. Application is easy.

        •  The second type is polyurethane, also easy to use and highly durable with amber color. Both of the finishes are easy to remove with paint removers. They can be removed more than five days after the treatment.

  • Finish Kinds

  • Shellac is highly durable and resistant finish. Color can vary from blonde to orange. Shellac can be removed easily just with the alcohol. By its content, Shellac is a resin, and it is processed in the shape of small flakes. However, it is not meant for outdoor usage or near the water. Most popular usage of shellac is as the base for French polish. French polish shellac is applied in several coats and polished until the high gloss is achieved.

    Wax is often not considered as high-quality finish as it does not provide long-term protection. High gloss can be achieved after long buffering, but wax will have to be applied again. By its content, wax contains higher alkanes lipids, and they have a melting point above 104 F. It is not stable and water and heat resistant as other products.

    Lacquer is most popular when it comes to furniture finishes amongst the European producers. It is more durable than shellac and provides a high gloss effect. It can be in the form of clear or colored finish. It is highly resistant to water stains and scratches. It is not necessary to repeat the treatment for a long time, and that makes it most favorite furnish to use.

    All of the listed finishes and varnish products have one thing in common - to get the best result a type of the wood and preparation is crucial. If the wood is not healthy and not in good condition and if it contains tiny gaps or marks, the finishing process will take longer. Some of the finishes might take longer time. If the quality of the wood is weak, the curing process will take longer and might not give the best result.

  • Tips for Buying the Right Finish & Varnish

  • Speak with an expert.

    Choose good quality healthy wood and choose an appropriate finish based on durability and water resistance.

    Decide what type of the gloss and color is important, and give it time.

    Time is the crucial part in finish and varnish process, and it can't be rushed.