Wood finish being applied to Forest 2 Home lumber woodworking project inside a woodshop

Woodworking 101: Wood Finish Types and Techniques

Your project is “done.” Every board has been perfectly planed, the glue is set and dry and each nail and screw are placed perfectly. You stand back from your work and breathe a sigh of admiration and relief, until remembering that your work is not done just yet. In fact, you have yet to start the finishing phase of your project. Now you have to consider what techniques you will be implementing to truly complete this project!


For full cutting board tutorial, click here

Woodworking project phases

Woodworking projects-whether they are large scale custom furniture builds or smaller cutting board creations-can be broken into two phases: building and finishing. The building and making of the project includes the chopping, the planing, the cutting, the gluing, and the nailing to bring wood pieces back together. Finishing is done by applying a protective layer to said projects outer surface. Not only will the protective layer of finish change the appearance of the wood by manipulating and highlighting its color and character, but it will protect the woods surface from dirt, scratches, and moisture.

Types of wood finishes

There are two categories that wood finishes can be broken into:

Penetrating finishes penetrate the fibers of wood and harden. They offer a more natural look to your finished workpiece and can be applied easily using a rag or brush. While they offer a beautiful and natural look and color, penetrating finishes do less to protect the surface of your project from tarnish. Penetrating finishes include oil-based finishes like linseed oil, tung oil and Danish oil.

Surface finishes obtained their name for being applied to the outer surface layer of a workpiece. These finishes create a strong protective layer and have high resistance to wear and tarnish.

What’s the best finish for my project?

Deciding what the right finish is for your workshop project can feel like a daunting task. With so many types of wood finishes on the market and with each craftsman having an opinion on what is best, it is hard to know what is right for you. When determining a wood finish type for your next project, important factors to consider are protection needed, durability of the finish, ease of application and the aesthetics you are seeking. To properly consider your options, here is what you need to know about the different wood finishes on the market:

Penetrating Finishes

  • Linseed Oil: this oil finish offers a matte to shiny appearance and enhances your woods natural color with a warm glow. Linseed oil is easy to apply with a brush or cloth, though its drying time is significantly longer in comparison to other wood finishes. Overtime, linseed oil will darken and alter the color of whatever project it is applied to. A popular Linseed Oil is Odie's Oil.

  • Tung Oil: also known as China wood oil, as it is derived from nuts of tung trees native to China, this all-natural oil adds a beautiful golden color and glossy finish. Tung oil hardens when it is completely dry, though its dry time is incredibly slow. One of the greatest advantages of tung oil is its waterproofing properties and hard layer of protection, while its greatest disadvantage is application time. Minwax offers a popular Tung Oil Finish.

  • Danish Oil: Danish oil will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, as it is a cocktailed combination of tung oil, linseed oil, varnish, mineral spirits and more. It is an ideal oil for beginners to use as it is easy to apply and dries faster than other oils. Thanks to its various components, Danish oil provides a protective barrier, a satiny finish and will not change color with age. This oil protects wood projects from scratches, damages by chemicals and heat, stains and is water resistant. There is a very well rated Danish Oil offered by Watco on Amazon.

Surface Finishes

  • Shellac: this film forming, evaporative finish is a natural finish that can range in color from clear to rich red, though it may darken with age. Both quick drying and easy to apply, shellac makes a great beginner finish for some projects. Shellac can easily be removed by alcohol and while not the most durable of finishes, it is easy to repair.
  • Varnish: a mixture consisting of resin, drying oil and a thinner, these wood finishes are considered as one of the best wood sealants available which is why it is often applied to floors, cabinets, and furniture. Varnish is highly durable and offers UV protection, making it suitable for a variety of indoor and outdoor woodworking projects. While varnish has several benefits, its slow drying time makes it susceptible to dust and dirt before a piece is properly finished.
  • Lacquer: this high gloss finish has high durability and resistance to damage which is why its presence is notable in homes worldwide! A combination of shellac dissolved in alcohol, lacquer dries to a very hard and smooth protective coating. There are various types of lacquer including:
    • Nitrocellulose Lacquer: the most common type of lacquer and commonly used for wood projects. Nitrocellulose lacquer provides a beautiful shine and hard protective coating but can yellow with age and crack with temperature changes.
    • Acrylic Lacquer: with a base of acrylic, this lacquers original intent was for cars and other automotives. It dries rapidly, does not yellow and is an ideal choice for light-colored wood projects.
    • Water-Based Lacquer: durable and scratch resistant, water-based lacquer is regularly used in kitchen refinishing.
    • Metal Lacquer: despite its name suggesting it is used for metal, metal lacquer can be applied to metal, wood, and ceramic, among other things. It has high durability, making it useful for projects that will reside indoor and outdoor.
  • Wax: wood wax, often made from beeswax, is a easy-to-apply natural wood finish. Application and reapplication of wax wood finish is easy with the assistance of a cloth or paint brush. Reapplication may be necessary as wax wood finish offers less protection than other finishes and can buff away. Wood wax can be a great option to apply to cutting boards.
Forest 2 Home lumber Hardwood Basics Box custom cutting board project with Walrus Oil wood wax wood finish
  • Polyurethane: formulated with resin, polyurethane is water resistant and durable. Available in satin, semi-gloss and high gloss, this clear finish enhances the natural appearance of the wood species without altering the color. While it offers a durable coat, polyurethane finishes do not offer UV protection and therefor, should not be used on outdoor projects. When damaged, polyurethane finishes can be hard to repair.
  • Wood Dye: available as powders that can be mixed with water and alcohol, wood dye can provide deep and vibrant color while enhancing the natural appearance of your wood as it penetrates deep into your workpiece. While it provides beautiful color, wood dye can be hard to apply for inexperienced users, leaving uneven color. Wood dye can also fade overtime and does not provide the protective layer that other wood finishes do.
  • Wood Stain: wood stain sits on top of the surface of a workpiece, providing both a durable, protective outer layer and beautiful color. Ideal for both indoor and outdoor furniture, wood stain is easier to apply than wood dye, though its dry time is longer.
  • Water-based finish: easy to use, with a quick dry time and a scuff resistant layer, water-based finishes can be an ideal choice for many projects. While they are an environmentally friendly and non-fire hazardous, they come with disadvantages including raising wood grain, are hard to remove and have sensitivity to low temperatures and humidity.
  • Wood Paint: when you are looking for a pop of color, wood paint is the way to go. Easy application can be done through a brush, roller or spray and wood paints range in satin to high gloss. An advantage of wood paint over other wood finishes is its ability to hide flaws on wood boards. Though wood paint can be a great option for adding color and concealing flaws, it tends to be an incredibly permanent option, with a high level of difficulty to remove. Additionally, painted wood can result in peeling or bubbling that will regularly have to be maintained.

Important considerations when choosing a wood finish

Is your woodworking project going to be indoors or outdoors? Do you want to feature the natural color of your workpiece and keep it that way permanently or do you want to alter its appearance? Will your project be in use or stored regularly? Do you prefer a glossy or matte finish? How important is a non-toxic coating? Who will be using the finished product?

Despite the first thought of choosing a wood finish being picking a color and sealing your wood, all these considerations are important to factor in when you are choosing a finish for your woodworking project. By choosing the right finish, you will enhance your wood and guarantee it will endure for generations to come.

Wood finishing techniques

When you have finally decided on which finish you will be applying to your woodworking project, be sure your project is completely prepared for finish. Prepare your project through:


To achieve a silky smooth finish on top of your workpiece, be sure its sanded down perfectly. Properly sanded project will optimize wood finish application.

How to sand corners

Corners and curves can be one of the more difficult areas to sand as an electric sander can’t always do the best job. Try hand sanding corners and curves with the same progression of sandpaper grit that you are using on your electric sander for the rest of your workpiece. As you progress through different grits, deeper scratches and finer scratches will be removed and a smooth finish will be guaranteed.

Sand with the grain

A top woodworking 101 tip is to always sand with the grain, whether hand sanding or using an electric belt sander. Sanding against the grain will leave scratches that defeat the purpose of sanding.

Testing your wood finish

Grab a piece of scrap wood and test your wood finish properly. Apply the finish after sanding your scrap in the same way you did your workpiece and wait the appropriate dry time. This will ensure satisfaction with the product that can’t be guaranteed by the samples on display in the stores, as finish applies and appears differently on each wood species.

Use the right tool

Depending on which wood finish you decide on, there is a right tool for the job. Whether that is a rag, large pad, brush, or spray, it is important to follow the directions to get the best possible application. Once you are done with your brushes, be sure to clean them immediately so they can be used for future wood finish application.

Avoid dust in your wood finish

Before applying finish, be sure you are reducing the amount of dust in your woodshop as much as possible. This can be done by vacuuming, wiping down surfaces and using an air cleaner the day before you plan to apply finish. Avoid anything that will blow air around, like a fan. By taking the appropriate precautions, you mitigate the chance of dust particles being embedded in your wood finish as it dries. 


Oil wood finish being applied to Forest 2 Home premium hardwood cutting board made with Hard Maple wood, Walnut wood and Cherry wood

(cutting board created by @succulents_and_sawdust on Instagram)

Now that you know the how to’s of finishing your woodworking projects, what finish will you be using? Let us know by emailing marketing@forest2home.com or leaving a comment down below! Be sure to share your finished Forest 2 Home projects with us by using hashtag #BuiltWithF2H wherever you share photos on social media any by tagging us with @shopf2h on Instagram. Happy Woodworking!



  • Ken Hjulstrom

    I purchased ash 1×2 wood slats to restore an old cast iron park bench. The wood I received was very high quality and the finished product will look great. I finished it with stain/sealer. This will be a wonderful addition to my yard.

  • Robert Keniston

    For polyurethane, sand lightly between coats with 320 or 400 grit sandpaper. Use crumpled brown paper to clear dust motes from final coat.

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