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2. Buying Products for Finishing the Wood

Joshua Farnsworth applying wood finish to an oak table top in his woodworking workshop

The two primary purposes of applying a wood finish to your wooden furniture are to beautify it and protect it. Wood finishes can be wiped on, brushed on, or sprayed on. Some finishes penetrate the wood, while others ride on the surface.

Below I’ll briefly discuss the different types of wood finishes, and which brands of wood finish are best for different purposes. But remember that not any one type of wood finish is best for all situations. There are always trade-offs. Each finish may work well in certain situations, but not in every situation.

A group of woodworking finishes, including varnishes, lacquer, boiled linseed oil, shellac, walnut oil, tung oil, and furniture wax

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of every single type of wood finish on the market, but just categories of the main wood finish types, with some specific brands that myself or others happen to use. It is meant to be a quick summary to clarify different types of wood finishes for new woodworkers. This also isn’t meant to be a tutorial on wood finishing. There are thousands of wood finish recipes and methods for wood finishing, and many of them combine several of the wood finish products listed below.

If you want an in-depth resource for wood finishing, buy the popular book “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner. Also, go back and read past woodworking magazine articles on different wood finishing techniques and recipes. There are hundreds of them! Now read on below for different categories of wood finishes:

 Oil Finishes

Boiled linseed oil and walnut oil

Oil finishes are one of the oldest types of finishes, and one of the most simple. Oil finishes penetrate the wood to bring moisture and richness. Oil finishes aren’t as protective as other finishes, but have a natural beauty that the other finishes often can’t achieve. Oil finishes are great for pieces of furniture that won’t come into contact with moister, such as a wall cupboard or picture frame. Some common natural finishing oils include linseed oil (which comes from flax seed) and pure tung oil (not to be confused with the varnish sold as a “tung oil finish”), which penetrate the wood surface, and then harden. Walnut oil has also recently been marketed, though it’s a lot more expensive than linseed oil or tung oil. And I don’t know of any research that has been conducted as to whether walnut oil hardens similar to linseed oil or tung oil. And I sometimes use mineral oil on food-safe surfaces, like butcher block countertops or cutting boards.

For many of my furniture projects I apply an oil, like Boiled Linseed Oil to add depth and clarity to the wood grain. I just add the oil, and wipe it off after it has soaked in uniformly. After the oil dries and hardens, I often add a more protective top coat, like those listed below, because these oils won’t build up a film surface.

Boil Linseed Oil (often referred to as simply, “B.L.O.”) is the most affordable and most widely available true oil finish for wood. Raw linseed oil takes too long to dry, so furniture makers often use the boiled version. Boiling linseed oil is not without risk, as it involves heating up raw linseed oil, but you can do a quick internet search to learn how to safely boil it. Or you can buy commercial Boiled Linseed Oil, which manufactures have added metallic dryers to, so that the linseed doesn’t have to be boiled. Not everyone loves the idea of using chemical dryers, but many woodworkers don’t mind.

Another safe option is Walnut Oil. Mahoney’s Finishes sells a nice walnut oil, which I especially use on food-safe items like wooden spoons and cutting boards, which I’d never use commercial Boiled Linseed Oil on. Eating metallic dryers doesn’t appeal to me.

A plastic container of walnut oil

Wax Finishes & Polishes

Collection of woodworking waxes

Wax finishes are just slightly more protective than the pure oil finishes mentioned above, but were historically one of the most often used wood finishes. Today, I usually just use them on top of other finishes as a polish or extra moister barrier, but on their own, waxes can leave a lovely and natural surface on furniture that doesn’t need much protection. And quite often I polish new and antique furniture with wax polish finishes.

Most historical-style furniture waxes are a mixture of some sort of wax (usually beeswax, shellac wax, or carnauba wax), oil (usually linseed oil or walnut oil), and sometimes turpentine. The main differences are ratios of those different ingredients. And if buffed out really well with a soft cotton cloth or polisher, a wax finish can be finished and polished at the same time, and obtain a decent sheen. You can watch my video of Don Williams using his French Polissoir to get a lovely sheen:

In my workshop I have a lot of different wax finishes, which I’ll show below:

My homemade historical beeswax finish

Beeswax, Turpentine, and Boiled Linseed Oil wax furniture polish finish on a walnut board with wiping cloth

I often make my own historical beeswax finish using melted beeswax, boiled linseed oil, and turpentine. As mentioned above, I’ve seen many variations on this finish. If I want more of a penetrating wax finish, I’ll use less wax, which gives me a softer finish (as seen above). If I want more of a hard polish, then I’ll use more beeswax in the recipe. And sometimes I make a food-safe variation of this wax finish to apply to cutting boards, cheeseboards, and wooden spoons. To accomplish this I just replace the boiled linseed oil with mineral oil. You can watch my video on making this finish here:

You can also get the recipe, and read the instructions for making the beeswax polish here.

Mahoney’s Finishes Oil Wax Finish

Mahoney's Finishes oil wax finish

Mahoney’s Finishes has a nice wax finish on the market, called “Oil wax finish”. It is a natural blend of Beeswax, Carnauba Wax, and Walnut Oil. It can be used in a very similar manner to my home made beeswax finish (above), and is food safe (similar to my food safe variation, but with walnut oil instead of mineral oil). It is quite a soft liquid wax finish, which means less wax, and more oil. This means less protection and less sheen, but it will be better at penetrating wooden spoons, cutting boards, wooden bowls, wooden countertops, etc. It is a popular wax with bowl turners who aren’t necessarily looking for a hard sheen. I found the best price here.

Mylands Traditional Wax Polish

Mylands wax polish with a tiger maple knife

Another wax polish that I like is Mylands Traditional Wax Polish, which is has been manufactured in London for over a century. It is a hard-drying furniture wax that is particularly popular with woodturners. This wax includes a combination of Beeswax, Carnauba wax, shellac wax, some sort of solvent, and some other proprietary ingredients. I apply this wax with steel wool, and then buff it out with an old piece of a clean T-shirt. This wax gives excellent hard coating and sheen when buffed out, and improves in luster with additional coats.

Unless you’re experienced with polishing, this hard polish should only be left on furniture surfaces for just a few minutes, and then buffed well. Use just a small amount, and work on just one or two areas at a time. If you apply the wax to a whole piece of furniture, and then wait too long to buff the wax off other parts, the wax will harden and will be too difficult to buff out. Then, I suppose you would have to heat the furniture with a blow dryer, which could lead to problems. Mylands wax polish is also popular with woodturners.

Mylands wax polish with a tiger maple knife

I use the clear wax polish, though Mylands does come in tinted colors. You can purchase Mylands wax polish here or at your local woodworking store.

Liberon Wax Polish

Liberon wax polish black bison walnut can for woodworking

Liberon also makes a fine wax polish, and I use their tinted Walnut polish, for adding a darker tone to woods. You can also buy it in other tones, and in a clear color. It’s not as hard of a wax as Mylands, which may not offer as much protection as a hard wax like Mylands, but it is easier to buff and does offer a longer time between application with steel wool and buffing (about 20 minutes). This wax polish is very popular with antique furniture owners as well as furniture makers. I found the best price for Liberon Wax Polish Black Bison here.

 Shellac

Shellac flakes in a pottery jar

Shellac is a historical wax finish derived from secretions of the Laccifer Lacca insect, native to Southeast Asia and India. The finish comes in flake form, and when dissolved with denatured alcohol becomes a liquid finish that provides a lovely natural finish. It can be applied by brush or by cloth pad. When applied by pad, combined with special polishing techniques and oil, a high-gloss finish can be achieved, which is known as the French Polishing technique.

Shellac from a can has been liquefied with alcohol, but is still too thick for use as a finish, so woodworkers “cut”, or thin down the liquid shellac with more alcohol. Properly thinned-down shellac dries very quickly, which can greatly reduce the time it takes to finish a piece of furniture.

Two cans of Zinsser Bulls eye shellac traditional and seal coat

Shellac has excellent repairability. By adding more thinned shellac to a damaged surface, the alcohol in the shellac helps to dissolve the previous coat slightly, allowing the new coats to blend in (hopefully seamlessly). Shellac is fairly safe to work with, although denatured alcohol, the common solvent, is believed to cause some health problems. If you have health concerns, you can use isopropanol, which is totally safe. Shellac offers fair protection to your furniture, though not nearly as protective as a polyurethane varnish. If you want the luster of shellac, but want more protection, a top coat can be applied over the shellac (oil-based or water-based), as long as you use dewaxed shellac, and not normal shellac. A protective top coat won’t stick to normal waxy shellac very well. Dewaxed shellac also works great as a washcoat, to prevent top coat finishes from unevenly penetrating blotch-prone wood, like cherry. The downside of dewaxed shellac is that it has less moisture protection than normal shellac. But if I’m worried about moisture damage, I just use a clear top coat over the shellac.

So when buying canned shellac I usually just buy Zinsser Bulls Eye Seal Coat (pictured above, right) rather the normal Zinsser Bulls eye Shellac (pictured above, left). The Seal Coat version is dewaxed, meaning the wax has been removed. I have a hard time finding the Seal Coat version at local stores, so I always just buy it online. You can buy the SealCoat shellac here. Then I thin it down with denatured alcohol (watch the video below for instructions).

Shellac flakes in a pottery jar

Unless you’re going to use shellac on a large piece of furniture, a quart of SealCoat may be more than you can use before the finish expires (about 6 months after opening). So purchasing a small weight of dewaxed shellac flakes may be the better option for you, since shellac flakes will last longer than mixed shellac (1-3 years vs. 6 months), and you can mix up very small amounts (a little goes a long way). How can you tell if shellac is still good? Easy: put a small amount of shellac on some glass, and if it hasn’t dried after an hour, then it’s bad.

Unlike pre-mixed shellac (which only comes in clear and orange) Shellac flakes come in different colors, depending on the color of the original shellac secretion, including super blonde (the most clear), blond, orange, and garnet. Different shades of shellac flake can help warm up, or tone your furniture slightly, like warming up bland kiln-dried walnut. This link will lead you to a large variety of dewaxed shellac flakes that you can buy, and you can also see the variety of shellac colors. Start off with a smaller, less expensive bag of shellac flakes (4 oz. to 8 oz.) so you can see how much you would use on a small project.

This is a fantastic Fine Woodworking Magazine video, where Mike Pekovich teaches how to thin and apply shellac, especially shellac flakes. And his method doesn’t involve any calculations:

 Varnishes

A row of woodworking varnish cans lined up including waterlox, danish oil, tung oil, teak oil, and wipe-on polyurethane

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.

Joshua Farnsworth applying wood finish to an oak table apron with wood figure in his woodworking workshop

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.

Cans of Watco Danish Oil wood finish sitting on a shelf in a woodworking store

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.

Gallon cans of Tried & True Danish Oil wood finish sitting on a shelf in a woodworking store

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.

Quart cans of General Finishes oil based wood bowl finish sitting on a shelf in a woodworking store

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.

Joshua Farnsworth applying antique oil finish to an antique wooden hand saw handle

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.

empty cans of wood finish including waterlox, minwax antique oil finish and watco danish oil

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.

 Water-based Finishes

Quart and pint cans of General Finishes High Performance Water Based wood finish stacked on a woodworking store shelf

Water-based wood finishes are a recent innovation, in an attempt to create a safer finish, where water replaces some of the more dangerous or environmentally unfriendly chemicals in traditional varnish. Because of the lack of oil, the water-based finishes give an absolute clear finish, which may be desirable on a furniture piece where an amber hue is not wanted, like on maple.

So it sounds like the perfect finish, right? Well, not exactly. Remember, every wood finish has its pros and cons. Although a water-based urethane is a strong surface, it isn’t as strong or as resistant to heat or solvent damage, as oil varnishes are. I’ve heard from a woodworker who applied a water-based finish to his furniture, and after the finish had cured, the lotion on his wife’s hand damaged the surface, and it couldn’t be repaired. Water-based finishes don’t repair well, and usually have to be completely stripped. They also don’t adhere very well to certain surfaces, like oil-based stains or certain paints.

So water-based finishes are more of a special-use wood finish for me. I like to use them only when I want to achieve a total neutral, clear finish. For example, if I want a maple table top to stay white, and not turn amber/yellow, I would use a water-based wood finish. I use General Finishes “High Performance Water-based Topcoat” finish, which you can buy here for about $22.50 per pint (shipping included). Sometimes WoodCraft has a sale on this popular finish.

Paint brush applying general finishes water based high performance satin wood finish on figured maple

General Finishes has made water-based finishes their specialty, so they have become the most popular manufacture of water-based wood finishes for woodworkers, so that’s what I use.

If you’re set on using water-based finishes for safety or environmental reasons, but you still want the slightly amber historical hue that oil varnishes give, then you’re in luck. You can either lay down a washcoat of amber dewaxed shellac beforehand, or you can use a water-based urethane like “Enduro-Var” by General Finishes.

Gallon can of General finishes water based urethane enduro-var semi-gloss finish sitting on a shelf in a woodworking store

If you are looking for a very flat water-based topcoat, then General Finishes sells their “Flat out Flat Water Based Topcoat“, which you can buy here for about $35 per quart (shipping included).