Our Favorite Finishes
Selecting a finish can be a daunting task. Here are a few of the more common furniture finishes out there, with information on the benefits and downsides of each.
Polyurethane is perhaps one of the most popular finishes for beginner woodworkers, owing to its excellent durability. While some folks give it a bad rap, complaining of a "plastic" look, this can be ascribed to poor application technique. Try thinning oil-based polyurethane in mineral spirits (50/50) and simply wiping on several thin coats.
Linseed Oil and Tung Oil: Known as the "true oils," linseed oil and tung oil are inexpensive, readily available, and dry hard--turning from a liquid to a solid in a process known as "polymerization." When it comes to linseed oil, be sure to use the "boiled" variety. For tung oil, stick to the "heat treated" or "polymerized" varieties as opposed to unrefined oil. Wipe them on, allow them to penetrate the surface of the wood and wipe off the excess with a rag.
Oil-Varnish Blends: Oil-varnish blends like Watco-brand Danish oil and teak oil are mostly oil with some varnish added. These products combine the easy application of an oil with the protective qualities of varnish. Oil-varnish blends will dry a bit harder than true oils, and the finishes will build up more quickly with fewer applications.
Shellac: Shellac is an alcohol-based finish derived from the natural resin secreted from a bug that feeds on trees. You can buy it it in flake form and mix it yourself using denatured alcohol, but the most common form for hobbyists is the premixed variety (available in both clear and amber varieties). Shellac can be easily applied using conventional or foam brushes and dries very quickly (remember, it's alcohol-based) but be warned: it might not be a good choice for projects like makeup tables. Most perfumes are also alcohol-based and can easily dissolve this finish. Additionaly, dewaxed shellacs are often used as a sanding sealer beneath another finish like polyurethane. This initial coating allows for a super-smooth finish as it fills in the natural pores in the wood before the final finish is applied.
Paste Wax: Most woodworkers don't consider wax an appropriate finish on its own. Rather, it imparts a warm glow when applied over other finishes like shellac or polyurethane. Simply wipe it on with a lint-free cloth or 0000 (ultra fine) steel wool, allow it to dry for a few minutes, and buff it off. Depending on the general color of your piece of furniture, you can choose to apply a clear or brown paste wax.