The Different Types of Wood Finishes and Varnishes for Furniture

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Selecting the perfect wood finish is crucial not just for aesthetics but also for durability. The right wood finish accentuates the wood’s inherent charm, shields it from potential harm, and ensures its longevity. 

In this article, I’ll guide you through the different types of wood finishes, ensuring your project not only looks stunning but also stands the test of time!

Different Types of Finishes for Wood

There are two primary classifications of wood finishes for wood: surface and penetrating finishes.  

Penetrating Finishes

Penetrating wood finishes are transparent wood stains or sealers specifically designed to protect and beautify the natural look of wood.

Cedar Oil

Cedar Oil, also known as cedarwood oil finishes, is an amber-colored essential oil that is obtained from various types of conifers and cypress trees.

Danish Oil

Danish Oil finishes are wood-finishing products that has been around for centuries and is still a popular choice for modern woodworkers and outdoor furniture.

Linseed Oil

Linseed Oil finishes are a natural, multi-functional product with ideal uses. It comes from soaking flaxseed until the boiled linseed oil is released.

linseed oil

Tung Oil

Tung oil is a type of drying oil derived from the seed of the tung tree and has an attractive, honey-colored hue. 

Also Read: Teak, Tung, and Linseed Oil Comparison 

Surface Finishes

A wood surface finish does more than just protect the wood from wear and tear. It can also bring out the natural beauty of the wood grain and highlight its texture.


Wood dyes as a wooden surface finisher are becoming increasingly popular due to their versatility and range of colors available. 

French Polish

French Polish is an oil-based wood finish that is perfect for furniture pieces such as cabinetry, chests, and other high-quality wooden furniture items. 


For applications requiring a sleek, glossy look, lacquer is the ideal choice. Available in colors ranging from bright shades to darker tones.

spray painting chair with purple lacquer paint


Polyurethane is one of the popular types of wood finishes as it offers durable protection and a vibrant aesthetic. You can choose to use water-based or oil-based polyurethane, depending on your project. 


Paint is a standard finish used on wooden surfaces to create an aesthetically pleasing look.


Shellac is an ideal wood furniture finisher as it is highly durable, can easily be applied with a brush or rag, and dries quickly. There’s also a dewaxed shellac, where you can use it to prevent water absorption.


Different wood stains are ideal for different applications and should be carefully chosen based on their intended use: 

stained wooden boards


It is a transparent or semi-transparent protective coating that is applied to wood or other surfaces to enhance their appearance and provide durability. Also, it forms a hard, glossy, and protective layer that helps to protect the surface from damages.

Water-Based Finish

Water-based wood finishes are ideal for increasing longevity and wood finish durability.


Wax is a popular choice for those seeking to finish a wooden surface. Wax finishes provide deep, luscious color tones that promote the natural appearance of different wood types.

Here are the different types of wax you can choose from:

beeswax in a jar and a paint brush

Wood Preserve

Wood preservatives can penetrate deep into the wood and protect against rot, fungus, and termite damage.

Choosing a Wood Finish: A Buying Guide

Color and Look

Color helps create a feeling or atmosphere in a space. A light color may help an area feel more open and bright, while darker colors might create a sense of warmth and coziness. 

Type of Project

Different types of finishes, varnishes, and stains work better for different materials and objectives. 

Humidity and Sunlight Exposure

Certain wood finishes are more susceptible to damage at certain levels of humidity.

wood painted with Minwax Helmsman Indoor-Outdoor Spar Urethane

Your Skill Level + Ease of Application

Consider factors like the coverage area, the type of surface you are covering, environmental conditions, drying times, and the required number of coats. 

Tool Requirements

Decide if you’d like to use a water-based or oil-based finish. Different types of finishing products necessitate the use of proper application tools.

Safety and Sustainability

It is important to look for finishes that use non-toxic ingredients, such as natural oils or waxes.


Oil-based products tend to break down over time, but they can provide longer-lasting protection against mildew and UV rays when applied correctly. 

Drying Time & Process

Many products claim to dry quickly, but this does not necessarily mean that they will be dry within a few hours; some could require days of curing before the full effect is realized. 

drying stain


Finishes can range from relatively inexpensive options like wax and shellac to higher-priced selections such as lacquer, urethane, and varnish

Process Involved in Wood Finishing

There are two steps involved in wood finishing:

Step #1: Get Rid of the Old Finish


This process helps smooth and shape the surface, helping to create a more professional-looking finish. 

Using Chemicals

Blending chemical additives with Danish or Tung oil can yield a notably smoother and more professional finish on wood surfaces.

Using Solvents

Utilizing solvents can be an efficient way to achieve smooth, high-gloss wood finishes without leaving brush marks or streaks.


Step #2: Apply the New Wood Finish

Prepare the Surface by Sanding

Sanding smooths out any bumps or unevenness in the surface, resulting in a more even coat of finish. 

Apply the Stain

When applying the stain, make sure you use the right brush or cloth. Spread it evenly across the surface for a flawless finish.

Apply the New Finish

Apply a sealer coat to protect the wood from any discoloration that could result from applying the final finish. 

Wood Stain vs Wood Finish

Wood stain is designed to color natural grain and textures in the wood, adding depth and character. Meanwhile, a wood finish is a protective layer that coats the surface of the wood.

Both are applied either with a brush or rag, but the wood finish takes longer to dry due to its thicker texture.

What is a Wood Stain?

stained Mahogany boards

Wood stain is a transparent, colored liquid that penetrates the grain of the wood. 

 ConsistencyDrying TimePurposeApplication Time Results
Wood StainLiquid24-72 hrs.Seals wood pores4-6 hrsRich color
Wood FinishThin8-24 hrs.Prevents cracking12hrs +Natural appearance

How to Distinguish the Type of Finish

Finishes are designed with specific characteristics in mind. Take a look at the table below:

Testing Method UsedType of FinishReaction/s
AcetoneShellacThe swab becomes tacky
PolyurethaneThe swab becomes beady
LacquerFinish dissolves
Denatured AlcoholVarnishFinish dissolves slowly
ShellacFinish dissolves quickly
Lacquer ThinnerLacquer, Shellac, and water-based finishesFinish dissolves
Urethane, Alkyd, or Phenolic varnishNo pronounced effect 
OilShellac, Lacquer, Varnish, or PolyurethaneOil beads on the surface
XyleneWater-based finishRemoves the coating
Oil-based finishDoesn’t remove the coating
Paint Thinner/ Naphtha / TurpentineWaxFinish dissolves
Mineral oilWaxWaxy yellowish-brown stain 
Simple scratch testWaxScratch marks

Tips When Applying Wood Finish

Make sure to take the necessary precautions before embarking on your project for the most durable finish:

staining wood with sponge brush

1. Get All the Supplies Ready

You don’t want to sacrifice safety. Gather some key supplies for the best possible outcome.

Thick & Thin Stripper

They offer a one-two punch for tackling old finishes. These two tools can help get your project looking brand new again!

Sandpaper/Power Sander

Equip yourself with sandpapers of various grits ranging from 80 to 220. If you’re looking for speed, consider investing in a power sander for a durable wood finish.

Spraying Equipment

For a more professional finish, consider investing in spray equipment.


Not only will it help remove extra stains and finish, but it will also clean the surface of any debris from sanding. 

absorbent cloth for cleaning

Fine Steel Wool

For a stunning silken finish, apply fine steel wool and paste wax – the perfect combination!


Brushes spread more product faster while avoiding any frustrating bristles.

Stir Sticks

Stir sticks can be used to blend finishes and stains with thinners or solvents.

Safety Glasses

Some finishes and stains contain solvents that can fill the atmosphere with harmful fumes. Make sure to don safety glasses to avoid accidental splashes. 

Safety Mask

Masks can provide a shield from hazardous air, just like glasses protect you from the sun’s rays.

protective gears

Drop Cloths/Newspapers

Always lay down drop cloths and newspapers in your workspace. It’s a simple step that goes a long way in preventing unwanted messes and ensuring a clean working area.

Rubber Gloves

Protect your skin – avoid contact with stains and varnishes.

2. Utilize the Right Brush for the Project

Achieve a professional wood furniture finish with the perfect brush. 

3. Safety First

When taking on any DIY project, safety should always come first: 

man wearing painting protective gear

4. Apply Useful Tips

Want perfect finishes? Follow these tips! 

sealing wood after staining


Which wood finish is best?

The best wood finish is the pre-catalyzed lacquer for hardwood floors and furniture.

What are high-end finishes?

High-end finishes include oil-based finishes, varnish, water-based coatings, paint, shellac, and lacquer.

Which is better, varnish or polyurethane?

Polyurethane is better if you’re looking to protect your indoor wooden surfaces. It dries quickly and requires fewer coats than varnish.

Can you apply polyurethane over stain?

Polyurethane can be applied over oil-based stains but not water-based stains. However, you can use polyurethane over gel stains with no problem.


With the knowledge of all the different types of wood finishes, you can give your wooden furniture the finish it deserves, and watch it stand the test of time!

I hope that this guide has shed light on your options, empowering you to craft pieces that not only look stunning but also last for generations!

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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