Wood Finish Preference

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Forum topic by traupmann posted 11-10-2010 06:50 PM 1864 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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124 posts in 3021 days

11-10-2010 06:50 PM

Topic tags/keywords: finishes wood finishes knowledge base

The thinnest part of my knowledge-base is finishes (pun intended). Please take a minute and explain what is your favorite finish and why. I am very curious to the ‘why’ part; is it simple preference, look and feel, or the exotic name on the piece. (For example: why use shellac instead of polyurethane?) The thinnest part of my knowledge-base is finishes.

-- chas -- looking for Serta sponsorship to go Pro...

12 replies so far

View KnickKnack's profile


1094 posts in 3801 days

#1 posted 11-10-2010 08:23 PM

Bear in mind that in the cosmic scheme of things, as the line goes, “I know nothing”.

I prefer simple linseed oil – reasonable price, easy to apply, I’m not a fan of glossiness, it smells nice when you’re using it (possibly some old childhood cricket bat thing), easy to reapply, and I like the sort of “silky” feel it gives.

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

View RalphBarker's profile


80 posts in 3004 days

#2 posted 11-10-2010 09:04 PM

I’m not a finishing expert, either. One thing that I’ve learned over the years, however. is that there is no single answer to the “best finish” question. Different types of finishes should be used for different purposes (i.e. based on the item and what it will be subjected to in use).

Shellac (particularly de-waxed) is magic stuff, though. It can either be a finish, or an intermediate step in finishing, where its “universal” blocker properties are helpful. The experts say it’s best to buy quality flakes from a good supplier, and mix your own as needed. Pre-mixed cans from a store can already be past their prime, resulting in a failure to cure properly.

There are good online sources for info (such as ), and good books available. Taking the time to understand the differences between the available products is worth the effort.

View Wolffarmer's profile


407 posts in 3472 days

#3 posted 11-10-2010 09:18 PM

My favorite, for places it can be used is Tried and True Danish oil. I don’t have a favorite for other places yet and I am just a wood hack anyway so what do I know.


-- That was not wormy wood when I started working on it.

View Wes Giesbrecht's profile

Wes Giesbrecht

155 posts in 3045 days

#4 posted 11-10-2010 09:58 PM

So called Danish oil or Swedish oil or whatever Scandinavian oil, finishes, are actually what could more correctly be called ‘long varnish’. That is, a type of varnish that has a very high oil content.
I’ve used them a lot but usually bump up the solids content by adding 20% polyurethane to make it a little more substantial.
By the way, it’ll say on the can that you need to apply 2 or 3 coats. That’s a way to get you to use up more product. Put it on heavy and leave it sit for 10 minutes. By that time the wood has soaked up all the oil it’s going to. Wipe it down lightly. That is to say, don’t scrub it dry, just give it a wipe to pick up the excess. Next day if you want you can rub it out with super fine steel wool. Depending on the wood species, there may some little globules of oil seeped back up to the surface that need to be dealt with and the steel wool works well for that. (You will have sanded to at least 220 grit before applying the oil.) Watco and Behr are both good brands.
The coloured oil stains work great on certain woods and spell disaster on others. Open grain woods like oak and ash take these oil stains wonderfully. Birch will come out blotchy.
Anyway…. that’s my 2¢ on oil. I’ve used many a gallon.
Personally I’m not fond of polyurethane (varnish) because of it’s slow drying time. The longer a finish takes to dry the more dust it will pick up from the air. However I know woodworkers who use it a lot to produce wonderful tough, glossy finishes, like guitar makers for instance. My understanding is that it takes a lot of coats and a lot of polishing.
I’ve sprayed quite a lot of lacquer over the years. Not so much anymore. Goes on easy, dries quick and smooth, can be re coated almost endlessly since each coat ‘burns’ itself into the previous one but it’s bad environmentally, not very water resistant and you need a respirator.
Not to be overlooked tho are the spray cans of solvent based lacquer that cab give you a very professional looking finish with very little fuss on small items.
I’ve also used quite a lot of waterborne clear finish. It has it’s pros and cons.

I think the best advice I could give is, try them all and keep in mind that other than oil, which is dead simple, very forgivable and for the most part really easy to fix up….
applying a good finish is a skill that takes practice.
Watch a few youtube demos on each one before you try it.

Like Ralph said, there’s no one finish that’s appropriate for all projects.

-- Wes Giesbrecht

View TheDane's profile


5574 posts in 3897 days

#5 posted 11-10-2010 10:56 PM

I like Danish oil (the joke around here is that I’m just looking out for my peeps!), but it isn’t right for every situation. Sometimes I use BLO or tung oil, shellac, sometimes I use water-based stains, and sometimes I use dyes with oil or water-based topcoats like poly. And sometimes, I use lacquer.

It is largely a matter of what you like and what the best finish is for a particular job.

For my personal tastes, I like Danish oil with about 5 coats of wipe-on poly … but that’s just me.

-- Gerry -- "I don't plan to ever really grow up ... I'm just going to learn how to act in public!"

View nuttree's profile


280 posts in 3558 days

#6 posted 11-11-2010 01:30 AM

As has already been said, it depends pn the piece and the desired effect for me, but my go to is tung oil with 3-4 coats of poly. Make sure to sand and buff the poly between coats. You can get the oil in various shades for greater effect on some woods. My favorite was Mccreary’s tung oil in a red mahogany. That has now been rebranded by Cabot. My friend likes to use various waxes and such, but he far more advanced than I am.

-- I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. -John Muir

View Lochlainn1066's profile


138 posts in 3011 days

#7 posted 11-11-2010 08:58 AM

On the lathe I have used shellac and wax but I’ve been moving back towards wiping varnish, which is what I generally use on non-lathe projects. I’ve used Formby’s semi-gloss and semi-satin and like the color and sheen of both, so I found out how to make my own. I don’t like overly glossy finishes, just a nice satin sheen.

A good book is Bob Flexner’s “Understanding Wood Finishes”. It goes into exhaustive detail about virtually every kind of finish you can use.

-- Nate,

View MisipiBob's profile


11 posts in 3285 days

#8 posted 11-11-2010 04:22 PM

I make walking sticks and my favorite finish is – First coat is Watco Teak Oil applied as directed. Needs to cure 72 hours and then I follow with several coats of wipe on poly. The teak oil gives a glow to the wood that really makes the finish stand out. Try it, you’ll like it.

-- James, Mississippi

View peteg's profile


4435 posts in 3057 days

#9 posted 11-13-2010 06:52 AM

on the lathe I generally use my own mix of sealer (30% to 70% poly thinned with mineral turps) I would apply up to 6 – 10 coates depending on the build up, it dries very quick, cut back each coat with either 0000 steel wool, or, up to 1500 paper. if you need a better finish than the multi sealer finish it is easy to apply a finish of wax, friction polish or whatever On the lathe oils can turn the cross grain areas very dark (soaks into the end grain) if turning a board cut section.
The most important finish of course is the finish before you start coating anything

-- Pete G: If you always do what you always did you'll always get what you always got

View davidroberts's profile


1027 posts in 3720 days

#10 posted 11-13-2010 07:29 AM

The thing about finishing is that you can make a beautifully crafted piece and people will only notice the finish. Good finishing skills take practice, and great skills is a lifetime of learning. Like Locklainn mentioned above, Bob Flexner’s “Understanding Wood Finishes” is the finishing bible. Read it, know it, love it.

Whatever you do practice on scrap first. Buy extra wood, just to practice on. Bottom line is that industry has developed some really easy to use wipe-on finishes that look great and are hard to screw up. The Watco danish oil finish is a great product and comes in several tints. General Finishes is also another good reliable brand. Whatever you use make sure the product is fresh. Look for the expiration date on the can.

I recommend using a sanding sealer first (just thinned varnish) then follow the directions for whatever you use. Try not to mix water and oil based products on the same piece. Also weather – temperature and humidity – will affect the outcome of the finish. Unless you know what you are doing, a good brush job or even spraying for that matter takes skill, and equipment.

My secret recently has been to apply a good quality wax as the final step. For some people it is the only step.

-- Better woodworking through old hand tools.

View traupmann's profile


124 posts in 3021 days

#11 posted 11-13-2010 07:42 AM

I appreciate the time each of you has taken to respond to this. I certainly mean no disrespect to anyone, access to the how’s is available on the can, the internet, and many books. What I cannot find is the why. I have almost exclusively stained a piece, and then put on polyurethane. Usually because of time constraint – I used to have a real job. Now that I can take a couple of weeks to get projects done, instead of an hour a night, I can spend some time learning what I don’t know about finishes. But every thing I read is focused on the technical, not the beauty or purpose of the choice of finish.
What brings out the flame in maple, the burl in mahogany, the grain in redwood? I would have to spend the next couple of years with tons of samples to answer these questions, but you guys and gals are my Knowledge Base. I am not looking for the book stuff, but the ephemeral feel of a finish and why you choose to use it.

-- chas -- looking for Serta sponsorship to go Pro...

View bobasaurus's profile


3546 posts in 3418 days

#12 posted 11-13-2010 08:31 AM

I’m a super novice at finishes too. I’ve been sticking to tung oil and wipe-on poly. I particularly like the latter, as it’s easy to apply and can make a very glossy finish.

-- Allen, Colorado (Instagram @bobasaurus_woodworking)

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