Finishing 101: How To Choose A Finish

February 21, 2018

Have you ever wanted to take your own stab at woodworking? Whether you're a beginner or just want to learn more about woodworking, the overwhelming amount of options could leave you feeling a little lost. Should you go with lacquer or varnish? Shellac or linseed oil? From building a custom piece to refinishing furniture that's been well-loved, finishes bring different benefits and results.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you want your finish to be matte or glossy?
  • Does durability play an important role?
  • How do you plan on applying this product- brushing it on or using spray equipment?
  • Are you a beginner, and is there room for mistakes?
  • Will your finish be applied in an area of heavy traffic?

Finishing 2

The Basics:

When it comes down to curing time and texture, there are really two main types of wood finishes you'll run into:

  1. Evaporative Finish: The solvent within these finishes dissolves as they cure to leave behind a waxy residue. (Includes: shellac, lacquer, and waxes)
  2. Reactive Finish: These finishes go through a chemical reaction as they cure. (Includes: oils and varnishes)

Finishing 1

 Common Types of Wood Finishes:

Shellac:   Shellac can be applied by wiping it on with a brush or rag. Shellac should not be used on areas where heat can be involved- so stay away from using this on coffee tables, unless you trust yourself to remember a coaster!

Lacquer:  Drying fast, lacquer tends to be the basic choice of woodworkers. Also referred to as Nitrocellulose lacquer, these finishes must be applied evenly using spray equipment or aerosol. As the piece begins to age, the lacquer does with it and will show unique cracks that luthiers often demand in their aged string instruments.

Waxes:  These products can be used in conjunction with other finishes, but typically waxes are used to revitalize an already finished surface. Minor blemishes can be filled in quickly just by rubbing the wax into the area.

Oils:  The two most common wood finishing oils are linseed and tung oil. They are ecofriendly options, as they're made from natural elements and truly seep down into the pores of the wood. Tung oil does tend to dry faster than linseed. These finishes are not very durable, but provide a warm, wood coloring.

Varnishes:  If you're looking for durable coatings, look no further than varnishes. These coatings can be applied with a brush, making application rather easy. Varnishes are also buildable, which allows the surface to gain the proper protection from temperature and weather.

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