Buying Guide

Types of Wood Finishes

Penetrating Finishes
A container of Danish oil penetrating finish.

Most of the different wood finishes are either penetrating or surface types. Penetrating finishes infiltrate wood pores and fibers for a beautiful decorative finish. Penetrating finishes provide a low sheen and take longer to dry than surface finishes. Most are oil-based with the most common types being Tung oil and linseed oil. They provide some of the most visually attractive wood finish types.

  • Tung oil comes from the Tung tree and provides a beautiful, natural-looking finish. 
  • Linseed oil is pressed from flax seeds and has been used as a clear finish for hundreds of years. Boiled linseed oil is designed to enable quicker drying times. 
  • Lemon, walnut and soy oils are sometimes used for penetrating finish. 
  • Danish oil is a hybrid of oil and varnish that provides added durability. 
Surface Finishes
A wooden tabletop is coated with surface finish.

Surface finishes leave a hard, protective film over the top of the wood to create a buffer between the wood and anything it contacts. Generally applied with a brush, the most common types of surface finishes are lacquer, shellac, polyurethane and varnish, which can make the best wood sealants.

Types of Finish
Description Feature/Benefits
polyurethanes, shellacs & lacquers Lacquer Dries faster than other finishes; usually sprayed on. Can be easily removed. Ideal for furniture. Works well when multiple layers are applied, but do not use over old paint or varnish. Gives off noxious fumes when applied; can be a fire hazard.
Oil Based - Interior Stain & Waterproofing Oil-Based Dries slowly. Provides a rich, satin finish. Ideal for furniture and low-traffic areas; shows water or alcohol spills. Easy to apply with a brush or cloth.
polyurethanes, shellacs & lacquers Polyurethane Highly durable, water-resistant. Provides a natural appearance; available in satin, semi-gloss and glossy sheens. Ideal for kitchen cabinets, doors, furniture and floors. Not recommended for outdoor use; may yellow or crack when exposed to sunlight unless UV light absorbers are added. Can be difficult to repair if damaged.
polyurethanes, shellacs & lacquers Varnish Very durable. Can be used on bare or stained wood. Ideal for use on doors and marine finishes. Must be applied to a dust-free surface with a clean brush. Use paint thinner for thinning and cleaning.
furniture waxes Wax Offers a glossy sheen. Easy to remove. Not as durable as other finishes. Needs to be frequently reapplied.
Water - Interior Wood Stain & Finishes Water-Based Dries quickly. Can be used on bare, stained or painted wood; does not yellow with age. Ideal for protecting decorative finishes; not as durable as other finishes. Use synthetic brushes to apply, as brush marks may show up on surface.
Shellac Finishes Shellac Provides a hard finish that dries quickly; may break down over time. May be used as a sealer and stain killer on drywall, cured plaster and new wood. Ideal for furniture and floors. Not recommended for wood that will be exposed to moisture. Use denatured alcohol to thin and clean.
Shellac Wood Finish
A person coats a high chair with shellac wood finish.

Shellac wood finish is made from a protective waxy resin secreted by the lac insect. 

  • It is mixed with a solvent, such as alcohol, that makes it easy to apply as it dries quickly, but it may need to be thinned before applying. 
  • It provides a hard finish suitable for floors, antiques and fine furniture. 
  • It is not recommended for wood that will be exposed to moisture or alcohol spills, as it may dissolve or break down over time. 
Lacquer Wood Finish
A container of lacquer wood finish.

Lacquer is a wood finish typically made with a solution of nitrocellulose and solvents to make a glossy or matte coating. 

  • Frequently sprayed on, it leaves a thin coat that dries faster than other finishes. 
  • It can give off strong fumes when applied, so apply in a well-ventilated area and take necessary precautions. 
  • It is ideal for furniture but is not recommended for use over old paint or varnish. 
  • Lacquer is more durable than shellac. It is considered one of the best wood sealants.
Varnish Wood Finish
A container of varnish wood finish.

Varnish wood finishes tend to consist of a resin, a drying oil and a solvent or thinner. 

  • Varnishes are usually clear, highly durable and offer UV protection, making them suitable for doors and marine finishes, whether on bare or stained wood. 
  • They are less expensive than polyurethane and are slow to dry, making them susceptible to dust and dirt. 
  • They are also considered among the best wood sealants.
Polyurethane Wood Finish
A person coats a wooden bookcase with polyurethane wood finish.

Polyurethane wood finishes are synthetic coatings that prove highly durable and water resistant, making them the best clear coat for wood protection. 

  • They provide a natural appearance with a variety of satin, semi-gloss and glossy sheens and are ideal for kitchen cabinets, doors, furniture and floors, but not recommended for outdoor use. 
  • They may yellow or crack in sunlight unless formulated to be UV-resistant.
Water-Based Wood Finish
A container of water-based polyurethane wood finish.

Water-based finish dries quickly and can be used on bare, stained or painted wood. 

  • It provides a clear, natural sheen that does not yellow with age. 
  • Ideal for protecting decorative finishes, it is not as durable as other finishes. 
  • Synthetic brushes are recommended for application. 
Oil-Based Wood Finish
A container of oil-based polyurethane wood finish.

Oil-based finish dries more slowly and has a stronger aroma than water-based finish. 

  • It is ideal for furniture and low-traffic areas but shows water or alcohol spills. 
  • It is easy to apply with a brush or cloth. 
Furniture Wax
A container of wood furniture wax.

Furniture wax is often made of beeswax and leaves a smooth finish. 

  • It offers less protection than some of the other finishes, but can be reapplied as needed to a wooden surface. 
  • It is not suitable for outdoor use. 
  • It can be applied with a cloth or paint brush for a matte finish.
Application Tips for Types of Wood Finishes
A person applies wood finish to a wood surface with a paint brush.

Consider these tips when selecting and applying different wood finishes.

  • When choosing a wood finish, apply a small amount to a piece of wood that matches your flooring or furniture to make sure it has the coating what you want.
  • Stir the finish in the container before application.
  • Apply the finish in thin coats.
  • Use a synthetic or natural bristle brush or an application pad to apply the finish according to manufacturer’s directions. 
  • Allow the first coat to dry completely before applying any additional coats. 
  • Lightly sand between coats to remove drips and bumps, then wipe thoroughly.
  • After the final coat has dried, wipe down the entire surface to remove any remaining particles.

Safety: Wear a respirator mask and work gloves when applying finishes, and always apply stain or finish in well-ventilated areas.

The different types of wood finishes provide varying levels of protection to your wooden furniture and flooring while enhancing the wood’s appearance. If you need to protect the surface, the best clear coat for wood may be polyurethane. 

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