The Basics on Finishing

The Basics on Finishing

With assembly done, how do I keep this project looking great for a long time to come?  Here we will cover:

  1. Finish Types
  2. Choosing the Right Finish
  3. Finish Tips and Techniques

Finish Types

When finishing a project, there are four types of wood finishes that are used to enhance the appearance and durability of wood with: Paint, Stain, Oil Finishes and Top Coats.


When it comes to using paint as a finish for wood, there are various options available, each with its own characteristics:

Oil-Based Paint can be durable and provide a smooth, glossy finish but can take longer to dry, has a strong odor, and may yellow over time. It does require mineral spirits for cleanup so extra attention needs to be paid when applying.

Water-Based Paint dries quickly, has low odor, and is easy to clean up with water while it tends to resist yellowing. It may not be as durable as oil-based paint and can be more challenging to achieve a high-gloss finish if that's what you're looking for.

Latex Paint is a type of water-based paint that is flexible, dries quickly, and is easy to clean up. It's commonly used for interior applications but can be less suitable for high-traffic or exterior surfaces.

Enamel Paint is more durable and resistant to stains and scratches while providing a smooth, hard finish.  Enamel paint is available in both oil-based and water-based forms and may require more time for drying and has a stronger odor.  It is the standard paint type for cabinets as it is the best performing paint in high traffic areas.

Milk Paint offers a smooth, matte finish with a slightly distressed look. It's a natural and eco-friendly option but it does require a topcoat for protection, and the application process can be unique compared to traditional paints.


Stain is a popular wood finish that adds color to the wood while allowing its natural grain to show through.

Oil-Based Stains penetrate deep into the wood, enhancing its natural beauty and provides a rich and durable finish. It can take longer to dry, has a strong odor, and may require additional ventilation during application. 

Water-Based Stains dry quickly, have low odor, and are easy to clean up with water. It's a more environmentally friendly option but may not penetrate wood fibers as deeply as oil-based stains, resulting in a lighter color. 

Gel Stains have a thicker consistency, making them easier to control during application. They are ideal for vertical surfaces and intricate woodwork but may not penetrate as deeply as liquid stains, but they can provide a more even color on certain wood types.

Oil Finishes

Oil finishes are a category of wood finishes that penetrate the wood fibers, enhancing its natural beauty while providing protection. These finishes are known for their ability to accentuate the grain and color of the wood.

Tung Oil is derived from the tung tree nut, providing a warm, amber finish. It does require multiple coats, and the drying time can be relatively long.

Linseed Oil is extracted from flax seeds and is available in both raw and boiled forms. Boiled linseed oil dries faster than raw linseed oil. Linseed oil finishes may need regular maintenance, and they can darken over time.

Danish Oil: is a mixture of oil and varnish, providing a durable and fast-drying finish. It is available in various sheens, including satin and gloss and offers a protective layer while maintaining a natural look.

Teak Oil is specifically formulated for hardwoods like teak, providing a protective finish that resists moisture and UV rays. It requires periodic reapplication to maintain its protective qualities.

Walnut Oil is extracted from walnut shells and is a food-safe option. It is suitable for cutting boards and other items that come into contact with food. 

Mineral Oil is often used for cutting boards and wooden utensils, as it is food-safe and provides a neutral finish.  It is not a hardening finish, so it needs frequent reapplication. It is more about conditioning the wood than forming a protective layer.

Hardwax Oil combines natural oils and waxes, providing a durable and water-resistant finish. It is easy to apply and maintain and offers a matte or satin sheen and enhances the wood's natural character, making it a popular choice for floors and other high traffic projects that want a natural wood appearance.

Top Coats

Topcoats in woodworking refer to protective finishes applied over the wood's surface to enhance durability, provide additional protection, and create a desired appearance. These finishes serve to seal and protect the wood from moisture, UV rays, scratches, and general wear.

Varnish is a durable and glossy finish that forms a hard, protective layer on the wood surface.

Polyurethane is a synthetic finish that offers a clear, durable finish. While available in two forms, Water-based polyurethane dries faster and has a lower odor than its oil-based counterpart. Oil-based polyurethane may yellow over time. Water-based polyurethane may not provide as much depth as oil-based, requiring more layers.

Lacquer is a fast-drying finish that forms a hard and glossy coat on the wood. While it dries quickly, providing a smooth and glossy finish, it may not be as durable as some other finishes. 

Shellac is a natural finish derived from the secretion of the lac bug. It provides a warm and amber-toned finish, dries quickly and can be easily repaired. It is less durable than some other finishes and susceptible to damage from alcohol and some household chemicals.

Wax is a natural finish that provides a low-luster appearance. It offers minimal protection compared to other finishes and will need more frequent reapplication.

Choosing the Right Finish

Choosing the right finish for wood depends on various factors, including the type of wood, the intended use of the finished item, and the desired appearance. 

Type of Wood: Different wood species have unique characteristics. Some woods, like oak or mahogany, may benefit from finishes that enhance their natural beauty, while others, like pine, may require specific treatments to avoid blotchiness.

Indoor or Outdoor Use:  Consider whether the finished item will be used indoors or outdoors. Outdoor items need finishes that can withstand exposure to the elements, including UV rays, moisture, and temperature variations.

Durability: Assess the level of durability required for the project. High-traffic areas, such as floors or tabletops, may benefit from more durable finishes.

Desired Appearance: Determine the look you want to achieve. Some finishes, like oil-based finishes, enhance the natural beauty of the wood and provide a warm appearance. Others, like lacquer or polyurethane, can provide a clear, glossy finish.

Ease of Application: Consider your skill level and the ease of application. Some finishes, like wipe-on polyurethane or Danish oil, are user-friendly and suitable for DIY projects, while others may require more expertise.

Odor and Ventilation: Some finishes, especially oil-based ones, can have strong odors. Consider the ventilation available in your workspace and whether low-odor or water-based finishes would be more suitable.

Drying Time: Different finishes have varying drying times. If you need a quick turnaround, water-based finishes generally dry faster than oil-based ones.

Maintenance: Consider the level of maintenance you are willing to undertake. Some finishes may require periodic reapplication or touch-ups to maintain their appearance and protection.

Compatibility with Stain: If you plan to stain the wood, ensure that the chosen finish is compatible with the type of stain you're using. Some finishes may affect the color or appearance of the stain.

Environmental Impact: Consider the environmental impact of the finish. Water-based finishes are generally more environmentally friendly than some solvent-based options.

Testing: Before applying the chosen finish to the entire project, it's advisable to test it on a small, inconspicuous area or a scrap piece of the same wood to ensure compatibility and achieve the desired result.

Finish Techniques

Each type of finish can be applied many different ways, but two things are constant with every finish:

  1. Sand your final project to at least 180 grit if painting, 220 grit if using Stain, Oil Finish or Top Coats.  A paint job will not hide the imperfections of the project, it actually makes them more pronounced with most of the finishes.
  2. Apply two coats of your finish of choice, then sand the entire project with 220 grit to remove the moisture raises caused from the finish.
    1. When wood gets wet, it will raise fibers out of the project as they swell, especially with water-based finishes.
    2. Once light sanding with 220 grit before the final finish is applied will get your project smoother than if you applied 10 layers of finish to your project.
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