You Have to Finish Last

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Finish Last

One of the most difficult parts of woodworking comes after all the cutting, shaping and sanding is done.  Getting a good finish on your project is critical. The main criteria in selecting a product are that the finish provides the right visual / tactile effect and that it protects the wood.

Here are some of the common finishing products with comparative information on their look, feel and protective qualities.

Wax – For centuries craftsmen used beeswax to finish wood.  Wax provides a beautiful, low sheen finish and is easy to maintain since you can just re-coat the surface as needed.  It is best used on pieces that get little handling because it provides little protection against moisture, heat, UV rays or abrasion.


Danish and Teak Oil – Oil is a natural product.  It is easy to apply but you must remove the excess after each coat or it will leave a soft bubbly film.  Oil finishes provide a somewhat resilient, waterproof finish.   They leave the wood grain open for a very warm, low-luster, natural look.


Tung Oil – Comes from the nut of the Tung tree.  It actually dries to a hard, waterproof film and will impart a slightly golden tint to the wood.

Polyurethane – Available in high, medium and low gloss, it provides a hard shell to protect the wood.  Polyurethane is very resistant to moisture penetration and damage by coarse objects, heat or solvents.  The price for that protection is that it fills the grain so you can’t feel the warmth of the wood.  Oil-based polyurethanes impart a golden tint to the wood and are easy to apply, although they dry slowly which may give bugs or dust a chance to become a part of your finish.  Water-based poly finishes are clear, dry more quickly, and have less odor but they are more susceptible to water marks.

Varnish – Varnish is a synthetic product made by cooking oils with a resin.  It cures quickly to a hard film and you can build it up to a thick coating for more protection.  Varnish finishes are usually glossy but are available in satin or semi-gloss sheens.  Varnish is transparent with little or no color.

Shellac – Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in India and Thailand. It dries fast and functions well as a tough primer, sanding sealer, odor-blocker, stain-blocker, and high-gloss finish.



Wiping Varnish – Of all finishes available, none offers as much protection and durability with as little difficulty in application as wiping varnish. You just wipe in on and either wipe off the excess or leave it.  It levels well, protects against moisture penetration, and resists scratches, heat and solvents.

Choosing a finish is critical but can be confusing.  Most woodworkers tend to find a solution that works for them and then stick with it.  Next time, see if one of these other products would be a better finish to your project.

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