Wood Finishing Techniques

Applying a wood finish is essential to protect the wood’s surface. A good finish will  prevent the surface from drying out, cracking, deteriorating and swelling from moisture. Besides protecting the surface, finishes can also enhance the appearance of the wood. The most common types are lacquer, shellac, polyurethane, varnish and wax. 


Generally applied with a brush. Varnishes are very durable but are slow to dry, making them susceptible to dust and dirt.

Surface Finishes

Although they don’t look as natural as penetrating finishes, surface finishes provide more durable protection. Surface finishes dry on top of the wood creating a protective coating. The most common types of surface finishes are lacquer, shellac, polyurethane, varnish and wax. Lacquer is durable and fast drying, providing a shiny, water-resistant finish. Shellac is a natural quick-drying surface finish that is not used very often because it isn’t resistant to water or alcohol, however, it is nontoxic with no fumes, and is safe for surfaces children and pets will be exposed to.  Varnishes offer much better protection and enhance the natural wood color, however they are slow to dry, making them susceptible to dust and dirt. Polyurethane varnish is oil-based, and is one of the most durable finishes. It offers better abrasion resistance, superior impact resistance and higher load bearing properties. Wood wax protects from moisture and holds the color of the wood. 

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating finishes infiltrate wood’s fibers and harden for a beautiful decorative finish. They provide a low sheen and generally take longer to dry than a surface finish. Penetrating wood finishes are most commonly oil-based and provide a low sheen finish. The most common penetrating finishes are tung oil and linseed oil. These types of wood finishes offer a more natural look and are easy to apply. Penetrat­ing oils are extremely durable and resist both scratching and water damage, because the finish penetrates beneath the surface, sealing and protecting the wood.

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