Varnishes are finishes that include a mixture of oil, resins, and solvents. The addition of different resins will create different types of varnish. Urethane varnish (called polyurethane) is the most popular type of varnish because of it’s superior protection.
Varnishes offer a better protection and surface sheen to the wood than a standalone oil finish, though they can often give an artificial look to the wood, if you’re not careful. The ratio of oil to other ingredients can change the artificial vs. natural look balance, but also the level of protection. Varnishes are typically brushed on, but thinned-down wiping varnishes have become very popular due to their ease of application. Also, varnishes don’t dry quickly, so when brushed-on or sprayed-on, they are prone to catching dust in a dusty environment, like a woodworking workshop. But by using a wiping varnish, the dust won’t be a problem, because you will be wiping the finish and dust away. Any dust will be easily removed when scuffing between coats.
To build up the finish with a wiping varnish, the finish is simply wiped on, and wiped off after it has soaked in for 10-15 minutes. And usually after 24 hours another coat of wiping varnish is added. This process is repeated until the furnish surface has built up to an acceptable shine and level of protection.
Varnishes are the most popular wood finish for most woodworkers, since they offer the best protection, with the least amount of skill. There are more protective wood finishes, but not that can be easily applied by the average woodworker.
Some varnishes, like Danish Oil, are referred to as an oil-varnish blend because of the high ratio of oil to resins and solvents. These types of varnishes are mostly oil. Oil-varnishes like this offer greater depth, clarity of figure, and ease of application, but aren’t as protective as a varnish like polyurethane, which has more resins. But these oil-varnishes are more protective and do build faster than true oils.
Quite often, when I’m finishing a table top, for example, I mix polyurethane (a urethane varnish) with danish oil (a oil-varnishes blend) to achieve a difference balance of more protection with greater penetrating beauty. At other times I often add boiled linseed oil to a table to add depth, and after it is dried I will add multiple coats of polyurethane for protection from water and heat.
But quite often for furniture pieces that just need a little protection, danish oil right out of the can is one of my go-to wood finishes.
There are several good makers of Danish Oil. Watco brand danish oil is probably the most easy to find locally. It can usually be found in most hardware stores, and online at Amazon (find it here). It comes in different tints, but I just use a clear Danish Oil.
Another popular brand is Tried & True Danish Oil. This danish oil is much more expensive than Watco brand, but the manufacturer uses linseed oil and natural resins to make this a food-safe and environmentally-friendly oil-varnishes blend. I have friends who use this as a finish for their butcher block countertops and cutting boards in their kitchen. It’s also commonly used by wooden spoon carvers and bowl turners who will be using their pieces to eat from. You can buy it here, or at specialty Woodworking stores, like Woodcraft.
Another food safe oil-vanish blend is made by General Finishes, and is called “Wood Bowl Finish” (formerly called “Salad Bowl Finish”). I’ve used this with success on cutting boards, and it offers better protection than food safe waxes that I mentioned in the wax section.
The manufacture says: “Wood Bowl Finish is a durable oil-and-urethane oil-based finish and can be used as a beautiful and safe topcoat on wooden bowls, cups, spoons, decorative wood countertops or other wood surfaces that come into contact with food. For butcher block countertops actively used for chopping and cutting, we recommend Butcher Block Oil.” Because it is also non-toxic, I would assume that General Finishes uses similar natural resins, like Tried & True. You can find General Finishes Wood Bowl Finish here.
Most, if not all of the manufactures of oil-varnish finishes keep their ratio of oil to resin secret, so it’s hard to know exactly how protective (or toxic) a wood finish will be. So trial and error, and word of mouth are the only way to really know how well a varnish works. One oil varnish that I like (and several of my friends who are long time professional furniture makers) is Antique Oil Finish, made by Minwax.
Antique Oil Finish is a wiping varnish, so it is easy to apply, it builds pretty fast with minimal coats, dries fairly fast, and it leaves a lovely satin sheen with little coloration. It’s also pretty affordable. So this makes Antique Oil Finish my go-to finish in many cases. I also really love using it on tool handles, whether new or antique. The downside is that I strangely have a hard time finding it in local hardware stores. But I do most of my shopping online now anyway, so at about $11.50 for a pint (free shipping), it’s a pretty good deal. I buy my Antique Oil Finish online here.
Here are some other popular varnish finishes that you can compare and read reviews for:
*Keep in mind that some woodworkers and scientists consider many of the oil-based varnishes and waxes to be unhealthy to use, due to solvents and other petroleum-based ingredients. If you have health or environmental concerns, then do some research before you use a finishing product. Natural oil finishes or water-based finishes may be the best option for you.