The Difference a Film Makes

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Blog entry by thewoodwhisperer posted 11-13-2009 02:30 AM 2619 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Recently, I asked Guild members to help me select a finish for my new wall-hanging tool chest. We had the standard options including water-based poly, shellac, lacquer, oil-based poly, and oil & wax. Although water-based poly won with 27% of the votes, there was a very vocal minority (you know who you are lol) who wanted to see the oil & wax finish. So this resulted in a number of discussions about oil & wax and what kind of value this finish has to a woodworker. Personally, I am not a fan. An oil and wax finish is time-consuming to apply and offers very little in the way of protection. Yes its better than nothing, but just barely.

Now if you read just about any finishing book, you’ll come across one of those handy charts that compares the key properties of different finishes (usually abrasion, heat, and moisture resistance). These charts can be incredibly helpful, but nothing is more eye opening than a simple, practical, home-brewed test! Am I crazy for disliking the oil & wax finish??? To answer that question, I decided to make up a few sample boards and run a little experiment of my own.

I took 4 scrap pieces of baltic birch plywood and finished each one with different materials. My assumption is that if you are considering oil & wax as a finish, you are probably a fan of that “close to the wood” look. So the film finishes were applied very lightly in an effort to keep everything consistent. Here’s how I treated the samples:

BLO (boiled linseed oil) Only – I sanded the board to 320 (for oils, I like to go a little higher than usual to help promote even absorption). I flooded the board with BLO and let it soak in for an hour. I then wiped off the excess with a clean cotton rag and let the board dry in the warm Arizona air for the entire day and overnight. The next day, I repeated the application process. I did this for a total of three applications.

BLO/Wax – I treated this board exactly as above, only after waiting about 4 days after the final oil application, I applied two coats of paste wax and buffed it to a very pleasant sheen.

BLO/Shellac – I gave this board the same BLO treatment, but instead of wax after 4 days, I gave it two coats of Bullseye SealCoat (2lb cut).

Varnish Only – Sanded to 180. This board received three light coats of Arm-R-Seal satin with sanding in between.

When it was all said and done, each board (with the exception of the BLO-only), had a nice, natural-looking satin appearance. The BLO-only board was dull, as one would expect.

dyeSo now for my not-so-scientific test. I wanted to simulate a spill of some kind. In this case, I used a fairly concentrated solution of Transtint Dark Mission Brown in water. I placed a quarter-sized puddle of dye on each board, and let it soak. Let’s pretend this is soda, coffee, wine, or maybe even some delicious hot cocoa (we ARE entering the holiday season you know). After 5 minutes, I wiped away the excess dye and then scrubbed the surface with a damp rag. Here are the results:

bloThe BLO-only sample looks…......well… looks like a bird took a poo on it. The dye seeped into the grain and through capillary action, traveled well beyond the original location of the dye. A stain like this would very difficult to repair. And if the project is made from plywood, you’ll most likely burn through the veneer before you completely clean up that stain.

blo_waxThe BLO/wax board clearly fared better. The wax does a decent job of preventing complete absorption of the dye and the spread was fairly limited when compared to the BLO-only board.

blo_shellacThe BLO/shellac proved to be reasonably protective. A small amount of staining is present but it doesn’t seem like the dye penetrated far enough to travel through the grain. The staining is generally limited to the shellac film, and never really touches the wood. This would be a very easy repair.

varnishAnd finally, we have the varnished board. Boring right? Honestly, there just isn’t anything to look at. The varnish completely blocked the dye from absorbing into the wood fibers.

Really there was nothing surprising here. Film finishes simply protect the wood better than non-film finishes. But deciding what finish to use on your next project depends on a number of factors, and protection from spills is only one of them. So try to pick the finish that suits the project at hand as well as your personal tastes.

What is my take on this? Personally, I am a big fan of the wiping varnish finish. Just take a look at my DVD, wink wink. You can apply just a coat or two to get that close to the wood look and feel, or you can slap on six or seven coats for the ultimate in protection. If you like the deep amber hue that BLO brings to the party, why not start with a single coat of BLO, and finish by top-coating with your favorite varnish? Or maybe compromise and use a Danish Oil or even a home-brewed oil/varnish blend. But when it comes to my projects, the time it takes to produce a BLO finish, coupled with the overall lack of protection, puts it smack dab at the bottom of my preferred finishes list.

Now one other thing that I must mention is repairability. Unfortunately, varnishes are not as easy to repair as other finishes. Shellac, lacquer, and BLO can all be sanded down and re-coated with excellent results. But with varnish, sanding too much can result in witness lines if you burn through one layer and expose the one beneath. So if you are repairing a varnished surface, you really have to take it easy. Fortunately, the increased durability of a varnished surface means you are a lot less likely to damage it.

So like many things in woodworking, its a balance and a compromise. But ultimately, its your project and your shop, and you are the boss. So choose whatever finish tickles your fancy. But if you want a truly durable surface, you should definitely give a film finish strong consideration. And of course, clean spills quickly and encourage the use of coasters!!

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

9 comments so far

View Woodwrecker's profile


4148 posts in 3574 days

#1 posted 11-13-2009 03:14 AM

Thanks for the info Marc.
You have always been a great source.

-- Eric, central Florida / Utor praemia operibus duris

View Jim's profile


253 posts in 3643 days

#2 posted 11-13-2009 03:18 AM

Thanks for the info Marc! I have your Finishing DVD and since viewing it I’ve adopted your recommended technique with great success.

-- Jim in Langley BC Canada ---

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 3380 days

#3 posted 11-13-2009 03:50 AM

Ah, science. Thanks, Marc!

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View gbear's profile


512 posts in 4098 days

#4 posted 11-13-2009 05:39 AM

Very simple, very revealing. I like that but then again, I already have the dvd.

-- gbear, Carmichael, CA

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 3873 days

#5 posted 11-13-2009 06:57 AM

Thanks for the apples to apples. But orange-ya gonna talk about how each one felt to the touch?

After all, if all we were making were industrial counter tops we would just finish the wood with a layer of fiberglass. But we are making ART pieces. Which one was the most inviting to touch? How does the light reflect off each finish differently?

By the way, I really like “General Finish’s” oil & varnish (green can) because it is easy to use as a wiping varnish and goes on very thin. This way you can really control the build-up and stop when its just right. Give it that protection and shine but make sure it still looks and feels like WOOD. It also eliminates all the drips and sags.

-- Happy woodworking!

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4182 days

#6 posted 11-13-2009 07:00 AM

They felt…....beeeeutiful! Actually, they were all pretty comparable. But the BLO only felt clammy and a little rough. No surprises there.

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

View CharlesNeil's profile


2399 posts in 3869 days

#7 posted 11-13-2009 05:12 PM

mark you are dead on myfriend, i have arm r seal on some walnut floors i have , and no issues, as well i have it on counter tops in bathrooms….stuff is as tough as it gets, so is waterlox , and about as fool proof a finish as you can get…..great job

View Rogue's profile


260 posts in 3468 days

#8 posted 11-13-2009 07:28 PM

You sorta opened up a can of it here buddy:) I gotta admiror your bravery if anything. Folks get pretty passionate about there finish of choice:)
First if you wanted to simulate soda or coffee you should have used those house hold items. I don’t know the make up of your dye. However those products are enginered to etch in and penitrate. Many have salvents in them that will weeken any finish. I’m with Blake. The question isn’t “if to use a finish” its “what is the right application”. True you wouldn’t use BLO on your new dinning room table where your snot nose kids eat. However that water base stuff would be down right wrong to use on a studio piece or a period repro.
Third, man I’m with you I don’t really like linseed. On the other hand there is alot of good oil finishes out there that are tough as nails if applied well. Your mentor and mine David Marks would agree that there is just no beating a nice toug oil finish. All my customers get that on there furniture projects. Keep up the good work man!!

-- Rogue

View Will Mego's profile

Will Mego

307 posts in 3711 days

#9 posted 11-13-2009 07:34 PM

With cheap wood (I can rarely afford even that, these days) about all I get to use unless I harvest it myself, I’ve gotten some nice results just hitting it with the Arm-r-seal then hand rubbed wax to finish. About a year ago I made a nice huge box (not really a chest, since the lid is unattached) out of cheap construction pine I sanded down and put a cherry gel stain, followed by 4 coats of arm-r-seal, then hand rubbing two coats of wax (in direct sun, hot day, so the wax is melting in your hand, buff like crazy, shines like a diamond) and the end result has every bit of wood grain from the pine popping out and shining.

But hey, each finish has it’s uses, even oil and wax, just depends on what it is, and where’s it’s going. My box isn’t an art piece so much as a place I can store my underwear and t-shirts.

-- "That which has in itself the greatest use, possesses the greatest beauty." -

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