How to choose the best finish for wood furniture. Get the know the pros and cons of all the different types of furniture finishes and how to pick the best one.
There are many options for finishing wood furniture and deciding what types of furniture finish to use can be difficult. There are some useful guidelines to follow though and we have them outlined in this post.
You have found this beautiful but neglected piece of wooden furniture in the thrift store, and ask how to bring that piece back to life with a finish.
You inherited a family heirloom and you want to give it the best protection to make it last, and are looking for the most durable finish for furniture.
You build a piece of furniture from scratch and now you are wondering how to finish the raw wood.
So let’s start discussing the finishing touch!
When Do I Need to Finish Wood Furniture?
If and how you need to finish a piece of furniture depends a great deal upon whether the furniture is painted or not. Unpainted wood furniture almost always needs a finish to make it durable and to bring out the beauty of the wood. A finish is an absolute must for bare wood but even stained wood will improve and last longer with a finish.
The need to apply a finish to painted furniture is dependent on the paint used and the purpose of the furniture.
In this article, we will discuss finishing wood in most detail. We’ll also briefly touch on when to finish painted furniture.
Related Reading: How to Find the Best Pieces of Furniture in the Thrift Store
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How to Choose a Wood Finish for Natural Wood Furniture
Choosing the right kind of wood finish depends on several factors:
- whether the piece is stained, or natural wood
- how you intend to use the piece (mostly decorative or daily use)
- what kind of wood the piece is made out of
- your level of expertise
- the hardship the piece will have to endure
Below, we’ll cover some of the more common finishes and their attributes for sealing indoor wood furniture.
How to Apply Wood Finishes
A couple of important remarks on how to apply a wood finish on furniture.
- Always prepare the wood first by cleaning it thoroughly, sanding the piece lightly, and removing all the dust.
- Wear proper protection like dust masks and gloves.
- Work only in an area with proper ventilation.
- Apply the finish with the wood grain
- Use brushes with soft bristles (a natural bristle brush is best), foam brushes or rags (sometimes rollers can work too)
- Try out your finish on an invisible spot to test the color effect and the sheen
- Wipe off excess and bubbles immediately
- You may have to apply more than one top coat
Types of Furniture Finishes
Wood furniture has a wider range of finishing techniques than painted furniture because painting is a finish in itself. Depending on the type you use the end result will either be a matte finish, a satin sheen, a high gloss, or a very natural-looking finish. Let’s go over the advantages and disadvantages of the most common type of wood finish for unpainted wood.
Lacquer – Lacquer is mostly considered to be the best finish for wood furniture, especially hardwood. It is the fastest-drying option, but it’s also the most challenging to apply and isn’t recommended for amateur refinishers or those still learning the ropes. It’s more durable than shellac, and as a quick solution can be applied like spray paint from a store-bought can, though that can get expensive on bigger projects!
Varnish – Varnish is a good alternative to lacquer. It is a tough guy, and the all-around winner, in our book. Having the most robust and most resilient finish, varnish’s somewhat lengthy application process is certainly worth the effort. While clear, it also warms the tone of the wood and brings out the natural grain. While some varnishes can dry to the touch in 15-30 minutes, they can still take up to a month to fully cure.
Penetrating Resin – A penetrating resin treatment soaks into the wood to harden the natural fibers within. It has a very natural-looking finish, is very durable, and is easy to repair or retouch.
Shellac – Shellac is easy to apply and cures fast, and brings out the natural grain of the wood. However, it’s not very durable, not great in humidity or if it gets wet, and requires regular touchups if it’s frequently used. Shellac has great stain and odor blocking properties though, which is why it is often used as a primer underneath paint. It prevents bleedthrough in mahogany wood, and blocks knots showing in pine wood.
Wax – Wax is easy to apply with just a rag, and leaves a soft- smooth finish. It comes in a variety of colors and can go on top of other finishes, like paint, but other finishes cannot go on top of the wax.
A wax finish is a popular choice for finishing both painted and non-painted furniture. It has many advantages like being easy to apply, cheap, and giving a great-looking finish. Applying wax can be a quick and easy way to change the wood color. It is wise however to consider the disadvantage of wax on wood furniture too. Wax sits on top of the wood and doesn’t permeate, it can easily be scratched or wiped off. It doesn’t give a durable finish. When used on tabletops or chairs wax needs to be reapplied often. Another big disadvantage of wax is that it melts. You can not expose a waxed piece of furniture to any kind of heat or leave it in the sun. The wax finish will simply drip off.
Oil – Oil is another finish that really brings out the natural beauty of the wood. It’s penetrating and durable, though any oil finish must be reapplied and touched up over time and with use. There are different glossiness levels depending on the type of oil, and different oils serve different purposes (for example, food-safe vs. not).
The most common oils for this purpose are tung oil finish, raw linseed oil, and Danish oil
Oil finishes are especially good for old pieces of furniture that have dried out and lost their luster. Another advantage of an oil finish is that some oils also protect wood furniture from pest infestation. For more information about this subject see our article about How to prevent and treat pests in furniture.
Furniture Finishings for Painted Wood
Basically, for painted furniture, our best advice is to always seal it. This is because paint doesn’t really permeate into the wood or bond as well when the paint is applied over an existing finish. Adding a sealer or topcoat to a painted piece of furniture protects both the furniture and paint from stains, scratches, chips, etc.- or “general wear and tear.”
A sealer will dry to a stronger finish than most paints, making the piece more durable and able to withstand more use without showing it. Sealers will also protect the piece of furniture from water damage and those pesky coffee and water glass rings. The sealer will protect the piece of furniture by preventing the paint itself from being affected or damaged.
When it comes to finishing painted furniture there are, naturally, somewhat different sealing suggestions for different situations, though the general advice remains- just seal it!
- Chalk Paint – Always seal it.
- Latex Paint – Pretty much- always seal it, unless it’s purely a decorative piece. But even so, let it fully cure for about 30 days to minimize damage to the still-fresh paint.
- Milk Paint and Fusion Mineral Paint – While advertised as being self-sealing and for the most part, that’s true, it still doesn’t hurt to be thorough, and to apply a sealer on top once the paint has fully cured.
Marianne Songbird is the founder of Songbird, where she hopes to inspire everyone to create a home they love, one DIY project at a time. She shares anything from craft ideas to home decor inspiration and from DIY projects to decorating hacks. Originally from the Netherlands Marianne and her husband Lex are currently renovating a 250-year-old farmhouse in Germany.