Types of Wood Finishes

March 26, 2022

All the different types of wood finishes that woodworkers will use.

You can use oil, dye, polyurethane, varnish, wax, and Shellac, and many other types of wood finishes. However, there are several essential factors you need to consider when selecting a wood finish for your wood project.  

Wood finishing is the final process in the manufacturing of wood furniture. It fashions out the furniture according to your desirable characteristics. It enhances the surface of the wood while increasing the wood’s resistance to moisture and other harsh elements of nature. It also makes the furniture surface easier to clean while sealing the crevices and pores of the wood. Without sealing, these pores may harbor bacteria. Finishing can also enhance the looks of low-value wood types to give them a high-value appearance.

Differentiating Wood Finishes, Wood Stains, and Wood Painting

As someone new to woodworking, you will often hear about wood finishing and wood staining. More often, you may think that these two processes are interchangeable. Yet, they are not. It will therefore help to differentiate between these two to understand the import of wood finishing fully.

The wood finish, of course, is the last coat layer you would apply to cover the stain. It renders a shiny appearance to the wood. It also protects the wood from damage. On the other hand, the wood stain enhances the color of the wood. It mimics the wood color and amplifies it further to bring out the natural patterns and colors of the wood. 

At the onset, you need to distinguish these differences. The wood finish makes the wood surface appear deeper and richer. Wood finishes, of course, are different from painting. When you use paint, you hid the natural appearance of the wood while finishes amplify the wood’s natural appearance.  

2 Major Categories of Wood Finishes

If you search the market for different types of wood finishes, you will discover that there are many types of wood finishes, and as you become more experienced in wood finishing, you will discover that there are two most common wood finish categories. Every single wood finish is either falls in the column of surface finishing or the penetrating finishing.

1) Surface Finishing

When using a surface wood finish, you will notice that it leaves behind a hard film over the wood surface. This film is indicative of the fact that the finishing did not penetrate the wood surface. This hard film or extra layer serves as a buffer between the harsh elements and the actual wood surface. In this way, surface finishes protect the wood. Some examples of surface finishes include Shellac, lacquer, varnish, polyurethane, and wax.  

2) Penetrating Finishing

As you apply the penetrating finishes, you will see that the finishes go down onto the wood and enter the very pores of the wood. Such a finish is usually oil-based, and examples of these penetrating finishes are linseed oil and tung oil. These finishes are also quite easy to apply. They also leave a natural look on the wood’s surface.

Different Types of Wood Finishes

Wood finishes come in a wide variety of options. So, if you are bent on engaging in wood finishing, you might as well learn the different types of wood finishes to figure out what is best for your projects:

1) Dye

If you want a colorant, you can always opt for the dye. The dye is dissolved in certain solvents like water, alcohol, and mineral spirits. The application of the dye is similar to the way you would apply it to clothes and other materials. The dye may be transparent or may bring about alterations in wood color without hiding the grains. 

The molecules of the dye are pretty small, allowing light to pass through easily. It is also straightforward to apply using a spray gun, sponge, or brush. 

The dye can match the present color of the wood, or it can alter its color. The dye can also be oil-based or water-based. Dyes can also protect the inner wooden surfaces.

2) Oil Finishes

You will need to apply oil finishes on the wood because wood also loses its natural oil over time. When you use the natural oil on the wood surface, you replace its natural oil and replenish it with new oil. In this way, you nourish the grain of the wood. Oil finishes, therefore, protect internally and externally wood. 

The linseed oil and tung oil are some of the oil finishes that you will find in the market today. These two, when applied on wood, emphasize or accentuate the grains of the wood. Nevertheless, these two do not provide enough protection. They both render enough glow to the wood, and if you apply them in layers, you improve the durability of the wood. 

These oil finishes are pretty easy to use and dry within twelve hours. You can remove the oil finish by sanding the surface down. 

Using oil finishes, you can provide your wood with a satin finish. They can also cover the nicks and scratches. One downside of the use of oil finishes is its slow drying. It will also help if you protect your eyes when applying wood finishes.

3) Polyurethane

If you want a synthetic coating to your wood, you can go for the polyurethane wood finishes. These finishes are water-resistant and durable. Thus, they are perfect as a clear coating for wood protection. Polyurethane finish provides a natural look for your wood furniture, and it comes in different satin, glossy, and semi-gloss sheens. You can use them for furniture, doors, kitchen cabinets, and floors. Nevertheless, these finishes are not advisable for outdoor furniture and use. Under the direct effects of UV lights, polyurethane will crack and become yellowish. 

One upside of the use of polyurethane is its durability. Moreover, it is water-resistant. It also comes in different looks and feels, so you got various options. 

You can’t use them for outdoor wood furniture. However, you can formulate it with UV light absorbers to make them resistant to the adverse effects of UV light.

4) Varnish

Another excellent wood finish is the varnish. It consists of solvents, resins, and oil. It comes in a transparent and clear finish and provides better protection from UV rays. Moreover, it is slow to dry. Nevertheless, if you apply it over the dye finish, it can protect the wood. 


  • You got plenty of sheen options when it comes to wood varnish. 
  • It is also very durable. 


  • You need to clean the wood surface thoroughly before you can apply the varnish. 
  • It can also damage any wet surface. 
  • It is also slow drying.

5) Waxes

Another excellent type of finish is the wax finish. It is easy to apply, and it creates a nice sheen on the wood. Yet, it provides only mineral protection to the wood surface, and you need to reapply it more often. It is also easy to remove. 

Waxes come in paste, liquid, and solid stick forms. Various minerals make up the wax. It may also come from different substances like mineral, animal, and vegetable sources. It also comes in different colors. 

When it comes to texture, waxes come in various textures. Some are softer, while others are harder. Waxes also don’t penetrate deep onto the wood. They sit atop the wood surface.

6) Shellac

If you are looking for a natural wax finish, you can check out the Shellac. Shellac comes from the secretion of a bug that inhabits a specific tree. This wax is then collected and combined with an alcohol solvent to provide it with consistency. 

Shellac comes in many colors. You can apply them with ease, and they dry very fast. The result after applying them is a glossy finish. 

Shellac may be considered as a clear finish. Yet, some come with a yellowish tint. When applied onto a substrate, Shellac provides a specific protection against water. It also protects against solvents, saved that of alcohol. It also offers a long-lasting coat that doesn’t necessitate reapplication. The steps in applying Shellac may be a bit tricky, but you can easily remove it with alcohol.

7) Lacquers

If you are looking for a solvent-based finish, you can consider the lacquer. The lacquer is a thin finish (solvent-based). It dries very quickly. It can also penetrate deep onto the wood surface and enhance the grains to let the natural beauty of the wood come out. 

The lacquer cures via a chemical reaction. You can apply it over stains for extra sheen and protection. Many woodworkers use a spray to apply lacquer on the wood surfaces to ensure that it is evenly applied because it dries quickly. You can clean it up using a lacquer thinner.

8) Water-based Finishes

The water-based finish can provide the wood with a clear finish. It also doesn’t carry much odor, and thus, it will not be irritating to your nostrils. It also leaves a thin, consistent filament on the wood, and it dries pretty quickly. 

Moreover, it provides the wood with an enhanced natural look. Water-based finishes are quick-drying and flexible. As such, they adhere quickly to the wood surface. Oil-based, of course, dry slower as compared to water-based finishes.

Water-based finishes also provide the best finish against mildew and molds. Another thing is that it is more environmentally friendly. It is also easy to apply. You only need to use a rag or brush to apply it. 

Refrain from overbrushing the surface when using a brush, for you may leave obvious brush strokes on the surface. It will also be good to note that water-based stains don’t penetrate wood fibers. Hence, you will need to apply more coats to achieve the best finish possible.

9) French Polish

Another finish that you can consider is the French polish which has been in use since the 19th century. This polish is a classic one. It combines alcohol and Shellac. Moreover, you can use a rubbing pad that is imbued with oil to employing the French polish technique. It also provides the best appearance for the wood surface.  

Things to Consider When Selecting a Wood Finish

Given the different types of wood finishes, you may end up scratching your head as to which finish to select for your project. However, if you know the following essential factors to consider when choosing a wood finish, you can surely zero in on the best wood finish for your projects:

Wood & Project Type

When selecting a wood project, you need to bear in mind your project type. This implies that you need to bear in mind the intended look you would like to achieve and the wood type. The wood finish, of course, should complement and enhance the wood type you are working on. Knowing the abovementioned different wood finishes, you can easily figure out the best wood finish type for your projects.


Wood finishes render different hues and colors. Shellacs, for example, provide a range of colors from yellowish to yellowish-orange hues, especially if you apply it to mahogany and other dark woods. Moreover, its hues can become darker over time. So, before you choose a finish, know the possibilities of colors that each finish can render the wood. Then, decide based on this knowledge.

Humidity and Sunlight Exposure Level

When choosing a wood finish, you also need to consider the effects of harsh natural elements like sunlight and humidity. Some finishes offer better protection from these harsh elements, while others are less effective in protecting wood from these elements. So, you should know beforehand how a wood finish can counteract the adverse effects of the finish on the wood.


Some woodworkers want to achieve the best natural appearance for their wood after applying wood finish. So, you should know how a particular finish would affect the wood’s natural look before deciding on which finish to select. Oils, lacquers, and varnishes, for example, can provide that natural look. But they are more complicated to apply on the wood.

Drying Time

Wood finishes may dry differently. Some would dry within 24 hours like that of the varnish, while some would require even a week of curing. Lacquer and water-based oils may dry quickly, and if you only have limited application time, you can always go for the lacquer finish.

Your Skill Level

You should also take into consideration your skill level when applying wood finishes. If you are a tyro in wood finishing, you should not go for the complicated and more dangerous wood finishes. Go for one which is within your skill level.

Ease of Application 

After considering your skill level when applying a wood finish, you should also consider the ease of use of your prospective wood finish choice. Is it applied only by wiping it on the surface? Does its application require more elaborate steps? You need to consider these questions when zero in on a particular wood finish.


Another critical factor to consider is the safety level of the use of wood finish. Does it contain any toxic chemicals? Is it safe for the environment? All these things you need to consider when selecting a wood finish. Oil-based finish, for example, is solvent-free, while lacquer contains toxic materials. So, always bear in mind the risks involved when using a particular wood finish type.


You apply wood finish onto your wood furniture because you want to protect the wood and make it look beautiful at the same time. In a way, wood finishes enhance the durability of wood. They also provide the wood with protection from scratches, abrasions, damages, and even UV rays. 

The level of protection offered by wood finishes differs from one another. So, you need to carefully consider the level of protection a wood finish can offer your wood before deciding on which wood finish to choose.


Another essential factor to consider is the sustainability of the finish. If you go for a solvent-based wood finish, for example, you may end up damaging the environment. Similarly, varnishes may exude toxic fumes. On the other hand, oil-based finishes are derived from renewable resources. Hence, they are more sustainable than other options.

Tips When Applying Wood Finishes

After knowing the factors to consider when selecting wood finishes, it will also help if you know the following tips when applying wood finishes:

  1. When testing the effect of a wood finish, you can apply a minimal amount of the wood finish on the wood. Figure out if the color and texture complement the surrounding. If not, look for something else. 
  2. Make sure that you thoroughly mix and stir the finish before applying it. 
  3. Start with thin coats.
  4. It will be good to utilize natural bristle or synthetic bristle brushes. You can also use an application pad depending on the directions provided by the manufacturer. 
  5. Let the first coat dry before you do the second coat. 
  6. You can sand a bit the first coat or do sanding in-between coats. 
  7. Wipe the entire wood surface once the final coat has completely dried. 
  8. Do not forget the safety precautions when applying wood finish. 
  9. Polyurethane may be your best choice if you want a clear coat.


Everything is created twice: first, you create it in your mind, then, you actualize it. Similarly, if you are bent on applying wood finish on your furniture, you need first to imagine the finish you would like to achieve, then actualize that imaginary finish using all that you have learned about wood finishing. 

To achieve what you have imagined, you need to be cognizant and understand the different types of wood finish and figure out the critical factors you need to consider when selecting a wood finish for your project. In this way, you will always make an intelligent choice with regard to the type of wood finish you will use for every project. 

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