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A Guide to Furniture Wood Finishes: Achieving the Perfect Look

Tips & Guides
04 July 2023 min read

A Guide to Furniture Wood Finishes: Achieving the Perfect Look

The art of woodworking isn’t just about crafting beautiful furniture pieces; it's also about enhancing the natural beauty of the wood itself. 

Interestingly, applying the right finish is one of the most crucial steps in this process. A well-chosen finish protects the wood and accentuates its charm, giving your furniture that perfect look. 

This comprehensive guide will walk you through the various types of furniture wood finishes, their benefits, and how to apply them effectively.


Understanding Wood Finishes

Wood finishes are substances applied to the surface of wooden furniture to protect it from damage and enhance its aesthetic appeal. They come in various forms, each with unique properties and effects on the wood. Moreover, the choice of finish can significantly impact the final appearance of your furniture, making it essential to understand the options available.


Oil Finishes

Oil finishes, such as linseed and tung oil, penetrate deep into the wood, enhancing its natural grain and providing a warm, rich glow. Further, they offer a low sheen and are easy to apply, making them a popular choice for many woodworkers. However, it’s important to note that they provide less protection against scratches and spills than other finishes.



Varnishes are a mixture of oil and resin, creating a high-gloss finish that offers durability to the surface it's applied. They provide excellent protection against heat, water, and chemicals, making them ideal for surfaces with heavy use, such as dining tables and kitchen cabinets. However, they can be challenging to apply evenly and require a longer drying time.



Lacquers are quick-drying finishes that provide a hard, durable surface with a high gloss. They are easy to apply and can be sprayed on, making them a favourite for commercial manufacturers. However, they require good ventilation during application due to their strong fumes.


Shellac is a natural finish derived from the secretions of the lac bug. It provides a warm, amber glow and is easy to apply and repair. However, it’s less durable than varnishes and lacquers and can be damaged by heat and alcohol.



Wax is a soft finish with a low sheen and a smooth, silky feel. It’s easy to apply and repair but offers minimal protection against water and wear.


Choosing the Right Finish

The choice of finish depends on several factors, including the type of wood, the intended use of the furniture, and your personal aesthetic preferences. 

For example, an oil finish can enhance the wood's natural grain if you're working with beautiful hardwood like oak or walnut. On the other hand, a durable finish like varnish or lacquer would be more appropriate for a piece of furniture that will see heavy use.


Applying Wood Finishes

Applying a wood finish is a meticulous process that requires patience and precision. Here are some general steps to guide you:

1. Preparation: Start by sanding the wood to a smooth finish. This will help the finish adhere better and result in a smoother final appearance.

2. Application: Apply the finish evenly using a brush, cloth, or sprayer, depending on the type of finish. Also, always remember to follow the grain of the wood.

3. Drying: Allow the finish to dry completely before applying additional coats. The drying time will depend on the type of finish and the environmental conditions.

4. Sanding Between Coats: For a smoother finish, lightly sand the surface between coats using fine-grit sandpaper.

5. Final Coat: Apply the final coat and let it dry. Some finishes may require buffing or polishing for a high-gloss finish.


Unveiling Lesser-Known Wood Finishes

So, we've delved into oil finishes, varnishes, lacquers, shellac, and waxes. Each holds its charm and can significantly enhance the beauty of your wooden masterpiece. But what if you fancy stepping outside the well-trodden path? Let's look at some of the more unusual wood finishes you could consider.


French Polish

A traditional method still held in high esteem, French polishing utilises shellac and alcohol to produce a highly glossy, deep finish. The process may be labour-intensive but worth it for its mirror-like finish, especially on fine antique reproduction furniture.


Soap Finish

Yes, soap! A soap finish is popular in Scandinavian design, known for delivering a light, natural look while leaving the wood's texture palpably smooth. While it won't protect against spills or stains and other finishes, it's a breeze to apply and maintain.


Wood Dye

Wood dye isn't a finish per se, but it's worth considering if you want to alter the wood's colour before applying a finish. Dyes penetrate deep into the wood and can range from subtle to bold, allowing you to achieve a custom look.


Understanding Durability and Maintenance

While the visual impact of a finish is crucial, don't overlook the practical considerations of durability and maintenance. Heavier use pieces—think dining tables, chairs, kitchen cabinets—typically demand a durable finish like varnish or lacquer. Yet, even the most resilient finish will wear over time. 

Ultimately, knowing how to maintain and, when necessary, repair your chosen finish will keep your furniture looking its best. Some finishes, like wax or oil, are easy to touch up in minutes. Others, like varnish, might require more elbow grease but offer longer intervals between touch-ups.


Finishing Techniques: Adding Character

Beyond the finish itself, techniques applied during the finishing process can create various effects. Distressing techniques like sanding, scraping, or dinging can give new wood an aged look. Furthermore, using ammonia to darken woods like oak, fuming can lend an intriguing, time-worn appearance.


Playing with Colour

Who says wood finishes need to be clear? Adding pigment to your finish—a touch of white to create a 'limed' effect or a bold colour to make a statement—is another way to customise your furniture. Consider how the wood's natural colour and grain could interact with the pigmented finish, and definitely do a test patch first.


Health and Safety: Ventilation and VOCs

Last, but not least, remember to consider health and safety. Some finishes contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be harmful in high concentrations. So, ensure your workspace is well-ventilated, and consider low-VOC alternatives where available.


Embrace the Journey of Finishing

Picking and applying a finish correctly isn't just a task to check off in furniture-making. It's an opportunity to enhance the wood's beauty, protect your creation, and infuse your piece with character. 

So, whether you opt for a traditional varnish or experiment with a soap finish, remember that the journey of finishing is as rewarding as the result.


Woodshop Direct: #1 Professional Wood Supplier

Choosing and applying the right wood finish is an art in itself. Astoundingly, finish can transform a simple piece of furniture into a stunning masterpiece that looks beautiful and stands the test of time.

At Woodshop Direct, we offer a wide range of high-quality wood finishes to suit all your woodworking needs. What’s more, our team of experts is always on hand to provide advice and guidance, helping you achieve that perfect look for your furniture. So why wait? Reach out to us today, and let us help you bring out the best in your wood.