Wood Finishing Options, Tips and Tricks

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When you’re finished working and you want to finish your woodworking project, with the best finish possible, it can be tough to choose which finish is the best. There are dozens of choices to pick from and they all seem a lot alike. Ask yourself the following questions, brush up on a few suggestions, ask yourself some of the questions below, and you’ll get a finish that’s a perfect match for the project. And don’t worry about talking to yourself. You’re not crazy so long as you don’t answer with your other personalities.

Do I need a Special Sealer or Conditioner?

This DVD can really help you pick-and create the best finish
This DVD can really help you pick-and create the best finish

This is a trick question, a sealer or conditioner is definitely a must when you’re finishing fine woods. Do you need a special sealer? Really, any first coat that you apply to your finish is a sealer. It’s designed to protect the final finish from bleeding, contaminants and helps ensure that the next coats of finish adhere properly to the project. Technically, it’s really just a clear primer.

A good universal sanding sealer that’s 100 percent wax-free like Zinsser SealCoat is all you really need to make certain that when the final finish is in place, wood grain is given depth and a nice, even finish stays in place. It’s recommended only for clear finish applications. The only reason you’ll really need a special sealer is when you’ve got materials that are going to be under heavy attack from oily hands and continual abuse. A kitchen table for instance is going to need a universal sealer/primer because the final finish may peel, flake or crack under duress from constant cleaning and everyday use. If you’re conditioning before stain, we’d suggest you use a conditioner recommended for whatever stain/finish you’re applying. When you want the finish to stick for good, no matter what you throw at it, or to get a more even stain result, use a special sealer or conditioner first.

How Durable Does it Have to Be?

I like to use a 00 steel wool pad to knock down the rough spots on my first coat
I like to use a 00 steel wool pad to knock down the rough spots on my first coat

For simple projects that don’t need a durable finish, like a mirror frame, any finish will do, so long as you like the way it looks. But for more durable applications like a bookshelf that will probably be scuffed and scraped from books, you’ll want a strong finish that will last.

That’s where oil-based finish products come in handy. While they can be a lot harder and less forgiving to work with, oil-based polyurethane finishes have what it takes to last a lifetime. However, these finishes tend to have an amber color when they are dry, so keep in mind they can change the overall look of the project once applied. While water-based polyurethanes can be a little less durable, they do provide a clearer coat that might be more desirable to you.

Other materials like lacquer and varnish also provide a durable coat that protects as well as enhances the look of the project. But be careful when using these materials as they tend to be tougher to work with and might be hard to clean up after when using cheaper brands.

What Do You Want Your Finished Woodwork To Look Like?

This oil-based polyurethane really brings out the grain in this oak

With durability decided, the next question to ask yourself is what the heck do you want the finished finish to look like? Some finishes are clear and don’t look like much of anything at all. Other finishes tend to be amber or milky in color when dry.

To confuse the matter even more, almost all finishes will have a particular sheen.  Some finishing products have a silky satin sheen while others have a bright and shiny high gloss finish. Really, this part of finishing has little to do with the actual project and much to do with the way you want it to look. Pick a sheen based on your preferences and you can’t go wrong.

When working with water-based finishes and going for a satin finish, HomeFixated’s editor favors using gloss on the initial coats followed by a final coat of the desired satin sheen. Satin finish has more solids and by using gloss in the first coats, a more vivid finished result is achieved. Using all Satin coats with water-based product can sometimes result in a milky final finish.

How do you want to Apply It?

To make your finishing decision even harder than it already is, you’ll also need to ask yourself, how hard do you really want to work? Finishing materials like Danish oils simply wipe on then off with a rag and are really easy to work with. Other products like lacquer are often sprayed and require lots of prep work, tools and time to get a quality finish. Serious finishers often use specialized gear like a high-quality (expensive) HVLP sprayer to achieve that perfect finish.

You can even apply some finishes with a rag
You can even apply some finishes with a rag

Then there are secondary considerations that make choosing a finish about as easy as a calculus class without the calculator. What does it cost? Does it stink too much for me? Is it easily repairable? Can I refinish it later on down the road? Why am I still talking to myself and asking so many questions?

When it’s all said and done, the best advice I can give is match your finish to the job at hand. Choose what works best for you, the wood you’re working with and the style you’re going for. Even with all this advice, it can still be really tough to decide on a final finish. The folks at your local Rockler store (a HomeFixated Sponsor) are also happy to share their expertise and finish suggestions with you. Don’t be bashful about getting their input.

You can also take a look at the finish durability/usability chart at the top of this article for some more advice. It’s one of the great useful tidbits you’ll find in the DVD The Way to Woodwork: Step-by-Step to a Perfect Finish from Woodworker’s Journal and Rockler. The chart can help you to get an idea as to what finishes work best for your particular project. If anything, it can help you to decide what finish you need so you’ll stop talking to yourself before someone thinks you’re crazy!

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About Eric

Since Eric built his first skateboard ramp in his parents driveway; he’s breathed, slept and eaten DIY construction. As a second generation master carpenter who runs two Florida-based construction firms, Eric’s had the chance to work on everything from Mcmansions to your local mall to the cat lady’s bathroom. So when it comes to dealing with construction s@#t; he’s the man—literally. There isn’t a tool or construction material that Eric hasn’t used and abused, and if there is; it’s rocking in a dark corner nervously waiting for him to show up for work.

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