Understanding Wood Finishes

December 13, 2023 | 2 min read | By: Parkerville

Wood Finishing

Nothing is more exciting than applying that first coat of finish on your woodworking project and seeing the grain come to life.  For me, it’s one of the most satisfying parts of the work.  However, choosing the right type of finish can be challenging.  Not only are there various types of finishes, but vendors often enhance the baseline finish to make it unique.  Our goal in this article is simply to provide you with helpful resources as you navigate the world of finishes.

In the table below, we have gathered what we feel is a representative list of the most commonly used woodworking finishes.  We have intentionally excluded paint from the list.  The finishes listed are what we consider to be foundational and are vendor-agnostic.  That is finishes that have not yet been subject to change or enhancement by a vendor.  Regardless of the type of finish you select for your project, please keep the following in mind:

  • Be sure to read and follow the instructions that come with the product you have selected.
  • Understand what supplies you’ll need to apply the finish and for later clean-up.
  • Understand that the lighting in your shop will affect how you perceive the finish, especially when coloring.  Lighting that is closest to natural daylight (5000° Kelvin) is considered best.
  • Take the time to practice applying the finish on a sample of wood from your project.  This is especially true if you’re planning to use dyes or other coloring agents.  Taking the time to know your finish can save you heartache later.
  • Be sure to prepare the surface of your wood before the finishing step.  This may include planning, sanding, preparing defects, or other work.  Shortcuts taken here will invariably show up when the finish is applied.  
  • Many finishes contain solvents or other chemicals that can be toxic.  Be sure that you have read the safety data sheet that comes with your product (or that may be online).  Work in a well-ventilated area and always wear PPE (e.g., gloves and a mask).
  • Certain finishes can be flammable.  It’s best to treat any type of finish as flammable, even if it’s not.  Rags or cloth used during the finishing process that contain residue of oil-based paints and stains, paint thinners, varnishes, or polyurethane can spontaneously combust and catch on fire when thrown in the trash.  Take a few minutes to review this Fine Woodworking article for additional safety tips.
  • Finally, if your woodworking project will be used with food or is intended for kids, please be sure you select a finish that is food-safe or kid-friendly, as appropriate.

Table of Finishes

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Do you need help with a woodworking or wood-related project and don’t know where to turn?   We’re here to help.  Whether you’re looking for consultation and advice, want help with design options or you’re simply looking for the right selection of wood for your project, we’re more than happy to assist you.  Need help when it comes to milling or other services?  We can assist you with that as well.

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