What finish to apply to wood

There seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to finishing wood, so we look at the different options for the home DIY enthusiast.



When you're making your own wood furniture you will no doubt want to protect what you make with a finish, but with so many options to choose from, how do you know which is the best finish for your project?

Why is it necessary to finish wood? The main reason you apply any type of finish to wood is to offer protection. Stains and spills can so easily spoil your furniture, and you also want furniture to be easy to keep clean, which means it's going to need to be wiped down or polished. Applying a finish not only provides protection, it also brings out the best in wood projects. When you're dealing wih outdoor furniture, sunlight and weather can quickly fade and dry out wood furniture, and unless you specifically want wood furniture to age naturally, you will want to apply a finish for protection.

We look at different finishing options for wood and the pros and cons of each.


Painting wood

Paint is one of the easiest and most durable finishes to apply to wood, but you aren't going to want to apply this to expensive timbers, unless you are giving an old piece of furniture a modern makeover. Pine is a relatively inexpensive wood to work with for the home DIY enthusiasts, and pine can easily be painted for both indoor and outdoor use. As long as you apply a wood primer before painting, today's paint products - whether acrylic paint, oil based or spray paint - can instantly transform furniture.


In line with current trends, chalk paint is one of the most popular ways to transform dark or dated furniture. Chalk paint is super easy to apply and projects only require a light sanding before painting - no primer required when using chalk paint. One nice thing about using chalk paint is that it doesn't damage the furniture in any way. If you're tired of the look, lightly sand and re-apply another colour. If you want to restore a piece to its original condition, use a stripper to remove the paint. It might be a messy process, but at the end of the day painted furniture can be taken back and restored.


Whatever finish you apply, excluding chalk paint, you need to prepare the surface beforehand. This is done by either hand sanding or sanding with a sander. In most instances you will use a medium-grit sandpaper like 120-grit to remove any rough or uneven edges and then sand with 220-grit for a smooth finish.

Once you've finished sanding it's important to wipe down or clean the surface to remove all traces of dust. If you leave dust behind this will spoil the finish and you could end up having to repeat the finishing process.

GOOD TO KNOW: An easy way of cleaning a sanded project is to use rags and mineral turpentine.


Surface finishes

Surface finishes are generally those that sit on top of the wood, such as varnishes and sealers, as well as paint. Layered finishes offer the best protection for wood projects; polyurethane varnish being the best finish for indoor wood projects, and sealer being the best finish for exterior wood projects.

fine woodworking

- Polyurethane Varnish

One of the most popular finishing options for any type of indoor furniture, polyurethane offers a tough layer for wood furniture. The only downside of using a polyurethane varnish is that it can be time-consuming, but there are now many water-based polyurethane finishes that cut the time spent applying and drying time considerably. You also now have the option to choose between matt, satin or gloss polyurethane finishes.

When making furniture such as tables or desks, you will definitely want to apply a tough polyurethane finishes to these surfaces. Any piece of furniture that has a table surface should be protected from scratches, stains and spills and polyurethane varnish offers maximum protection.

- Sealer

Sealer is very similar in formulation to varnish, with one important difference. Sealer is less viscous (runnier) than varnish, and this allows sealer to be absorbed into the surface of wood furniture - bonding with the surface far more than a varnish would. That's why it is recommended that you use an exterior sealer for all your outdoor furniture and wood projects. 


Absorbent finishes

Absorbent wood finishes are those that are absorbed into the wood like Danish, tung or boiled linseed oil. While an oil finish is preferred for a more natural look, these do not offer a great amount of protection and have to be applied on a regular basis. Oil finishes are one of the easiest and fastest ways to apply a finish to wood projects, and oils bring out the natural beauty of wood, especially decorative pieces like clocks, frames and wall decor.

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I have included a video below from one of my favourite channels that highlights all the items discussed above. Bear in mind that the video discusses some products that are not available locally, but these have been substituted where necessary in the discussion above.