Woodworkers often try to find the best method for finishing their wood projects. There are several types of wood finish ranging from oil finishes to varnish, and each can give a different look based on its ingredients. While some types of wood finish are easier to apply than others, they often vary in terms of appearance and durability.
What is wood finishing?
Wood finishing is the process of applying a layer of sealant to the surface of the wood to protect and enhance its appearance. It also adds depth and character. Most types of wood finish are oil-based paints or stains.
Paint and stain both contain pigments that give them their visible color. That's where the similarities end though; paint also contains additives like latex or synthetic resins that make the paint more durable. Paint tends to be opaque; whereas wood stains are translucent, meaning you can see some of the wood beneath them. Stains come in a variety of colors on its own, and also two types: oil-based (including dyes) or water-based (water-soluble dyes). The types of stains vary widely - ranging from matte to high-gloss, and also including wood grain filler.
Wood finishes are used for more than just appearances; they can also protect your projects. For example, you could buy a raw piece of Walnut hardwood and apply a coat of sealant to it before staining. This would prevent the stain from soaking into the wood, which could cause warping or other types of damage. It also would prevent the wood fibers from absorbing too much water if the wood is being used for say a cutting board.
Different types of finish for woodworking projects
Oil finish is the most common type of wood finish and involves applying a thin layer of oil to the wood. Sanding between coats is crucial for creating an even look. Once the final coat has been applied, the surface must be completely dried before use to avoid waxy buildup.
Wax finish is dense and creates water protection, adds shine, and enriches color on woodworking projects. This is a great option for giving old furniture and other wood items a second life. A go-to wax finish for woodworkers is Walrus Oil's Furniture Wax, which is made out of Carnauba Wax, Candelilla Wax, Tung Oil, Safflower Oil, Hemp Seed Oil, and Lime Oil, which offers a strong final coat that cures to a matte to satin finish.
Shellac is often used as a first coat on wood because it is very easy to apply. It dries quickly, and the color of the shellac can be chosen based on desired aesthetics. Shellac coats are typically applied one at a time, allowing each layer to dry before adding another.
Water-based finish is available in both opaque and clear types. The types of wood finish available in the opaque version are often applied over some types of stain or color-enhancing products, while clear types can be used on their own.
Varnish is similar to oil finish but contains more ingredients than just oil. It generally takes longer to dry but provides a hard, high-quality finish.
For more on wood finishing, see our Woodworking 101: Wood Finish Types and Techniques Guide.