Using Wood Finishes

It is becoming more popular to leave wood in its natural state as opposed to painting it. Furniture looks very attractive when you take the time to finish it properly, allowing the character of the wood to shine through.

You have to consider two factors to help you in your choice of finishes. How durable you want your piece of furniture to be and how good you want it to look. We’re going to take you through the four main options, varnish, was, lacquer and oil.

Good Preparation is Very Important

Regardless of the finish you choose, covering bare wood needs meticulous preparation. You will need to sand down your surface, preferably by hand, with a sanding block, going with the grain of the wood. Brush off or vacuum up any dust and wipe the surface clean with a cloth.

If you are just top-coating finished wood, then you only need to lightly sand and clean your surface. It is easier to treat horizontal surfaces so work on one surface at a time, turning your piece of furniture as you go.

Varnishing Wood

Varnish is the most durable of the finishes, resistant to impact, heat and liquid. It comes in gloss, satin and flat forms. There are traditional varnishes with a base of natural oils and resin thinned with turpentine. Synthetic varnishes are also available, based on synthetic resins or water based varnishes.

Varnish is applied with a clean, natural bristle brush. Dust off your surface just before application then set to work with long, even brush strokes along the grain of the wood. It is better to apply a thin coat and make it as even and level as possible. Remove any dust or lint as you go with a dry brush, not the one you are using to apply the varnish.

Precautions to Take With Varnish

Take care that varnish doesn’t pool in any carved mouldings or built up panels. Remove any excess with your dry brush.

Vanish takes around 24 hours to dry and it is down to your own judgement whether you need to apply more coats. Bear in mind that the thicker the varnish, the darker the finish and the greater the level of protection. Always sand lightly and clean between coats.

Using Wax on Wood

Wax is often used to protect other wood finishes but it can also be used on bare wood that has been sanded smooth. It is easy to apply, but doesn’t wear well and needs to be reapplied periodically to prevent the wood from drying out too much. Wax works best on hard, close-grained woods.

Apply paste wax sparingly onto thoroughly sanded and sealed bare or stained wood. Use a lint free cloth and rub the wax on in a smooth, circular motion, working on a small area at a time. When it is completely dry remove any excess wax with a clean cloth and polish to a shine. Apply more coats if necessary, polishing each time.


Of all the finishes, lacquer is the quickest to dry, but because of this is probably the trickiest to apply. It is durable and must be applied in several thin coats. It is available in forms such as gloss, satin and matte. Lacquer is best used in spray form for small jobs.

You can use lacquer on most woods apart from mahogany and rosewood, whose oils will bleed through your finish. Avoid using it over oil based stains and fillers as the solvents in lacquer can dissolve them.

Hints for Lacquer Application

To apply lacquer, your wood needs to be properly sanded and cleaned and it is advisable to use a lacquer based sealer as a base. Use a spray lacquer and ventilate your work area. Practice on a piece of newspaper then apply slowly and evenly, holding the can about 18 inches from the surface. Work horizontally and overlap your spray patterns.

Wait for your coat to dry as recommended by the manufacturer then sand very lightly and clean with a cloth. Apply several coats repeating the same process in between each one. For a good finish, clean the surface thoroughly then apply a paste wax, buffing when dry to get a glossy finish.

Oil for Wood Protection

Oil is a good protector and brings out the wood’s natural beauty. It is excellent for revitalising furniture.

Traditional linseed oil is quite sticky, difficult to apply and takes a long time to dry. Modern Danish oil and tung oil dry quickly, but need reapplying every so often. Oil is best applied on bare wood, but can be applied over wood stains as long as they are not oil based.

Applying Oil to Wood

Sand and clean your surface. Use a cheesecloth pad and apply your oil in smooth circular motions. Apply it liberally and evenly and work into the wood until it has been absorbed. Keep rubbing, which will help the wood absorb the oil.

Wipe the surface clean to remove any excess oil then leave to dry. The modern oils should only need one more coat, but you may find linseed oil needs a few more.

Whether it’s ease of application, finish or durability that is more important, there is a wood finish that is perfect for you.