Wood Finishing


Introduction: Wood Finishing

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to give your apartment or home a renewed look is with finishing. Upon the first touch of a rag or brush, furniture comes alive and the true character of any wood grain is emphasized. Finishing also adds protection. It is designed to inhibit the transfer of moisture and to prevent the surface from being contaminated by dirt and stains, adding to the life of your furniture.

To pick a suitable finish, you'll have to shop through a multitude of products with varying characteristics. The most common finishes are shellac, lacquer, varnish and oil. These are all solvent or oil-based products, so make sure to take precautions. Wear protective gloves, goggles and a respirator with organic vapor cartridges when using these materials. Most importantly, make sure your work area is ventilated according to the recommendations printed on the produc's container.

One of the biggest differences among the four traditional finishes is how they function on wood. Shellac, lacquer and varnish are all surface finishes. This means that they do not penetrate, to any great extent, past the surface of the wood. The first coat goes in the farthest, but subsequent coats merely build on the first to form a smooth, usually glossy, surface. Oil, on the other hand, is considered a penetrating finish because it reaches much deeper into the wood and leaves only a microscopic layer of finish on the surface. Subsequent coats continue to penetrate.

All these finishes have their strengths and weaknesses. Shellac, for instance, when properly applied, creates a stunning high-gloss surface, which, over time, takes on a remarkable amber color. It's also very fast-drying, which is a great advantage over some other finishes. Unfortunately, shellac is very prone to water stains.

Lacquer is also quick-drying and is the preferred finish of many professionals. It's usually sprayed on and yields a clear, hard finish that stands up well to practically any abuse. It is, however, very flammable.

Varnishes, both the traditional types and the newer poly-urethane versions, are extremely durable and some impart a warm amber tone, not unlike shellac. Unfortunately, varnish can be difficult to apply and it takes a very long time to dry. Because of this, airborne shop dust becomes a real problem. It settles in the finish before the finish is dry. Then it has to be rubbed out before another coat is applied.

For the beginner, an oil finish is the best choice. It's easy to apply, dries fairly quickly and is not difficult to repair. It also imparts silkiness to the surface and develops a beautiful patina over time.

Step 1: Surface Prep

Proper surface preparation is key to good finishing. This requires a bit of sanding. For the best results, you should work through a sequence of abrasives, starting at 120-grit and moving to 150, then to 180 and 220-grit, finishing up with 320-grit. Ease all the edges on your project with sandpaper and a sanding block. Work across the grain for best results. Always dust off the piece thoroughly before moving to the next grit and ease any sharp edges by hand sanding.

Step 2: Rub With Oil

When you're done sanding the entire piece, brush off all the dust with a tack cloth or a rag that's been slightly dampened with linseed oil. Rub the oil into the wood and let it dry for 1 hour. Then wipe off any excess.

Step 3: Test the Finish

Once youve chosen your coloring method, be sure to test it out on some scrap pieces of stock before turning to your project. Taking the time to get it right is much easier than removing a stain or dye that you dont like. When youre ready to apply your oil finish, begin by rubbing a liberal amount of oil into the surface of the wood using a lint-free rag. Use No. 0000 steel wool to rub the finish between coats. Use a tack cloth to remove all the dust before recoating.

Step 4: Let It Dry and Rub With Steel Wool

Allow the oil to absorb for about an hour, then wipe off the excess. Let the surface dry for 24 hours, and then rub the whole piece with No. 0000 steel wool.

Step 5: Wax It

Once the last oil coat is dry, apply a light coat of paste wax to your project. Be sure to cover all the surfaces.

Step 6: Buff It

Let the wax dry until the surface it takes on a dull appearance. Then buff the entire piece to a high luster with a clean, dry cloth.



    • Woodworking Contest

      Woodworking Contest
    • Casting Contest

      Casting Contest
    • Make it Move Contest

      Make it Move Contest

    We have a be nice policy.
    Please be positive and constructive.




    I clear stained my bare wood dining table with minwax polyurethane water based and it now has an orange tint to it which I do not like. I picked clear because I wanted to keep the bare wood look and now I dont know how to fix this. Do I need to restrip the one coat of clear polyurethane and sand again and then what do I use so it doesnt turn orange and stays looking like the bare wood I had after I had stripped and sanded it the first time?


    how many coats (of varnish) would you suggest?

    1 reply

    Yeah I also thought you were supposed to sand with the grain. Typo?

    Across the grain? I thought you're supposed to go WITH the grain?

    I've noticed that when I sand my plywood, it gets really scratched up. I'm using 320 grit. I'm going with the grain. Do you know how I can prevent this? P.S. Thank you SO much for the write up!

    2 replies

    the main thing you need to do is start out with a coarse grit like 100-150 grit and move up gradually to 200 250 and what not. are you using a sander or sanding it by hand?

    How much have you sanded it? You may be sanding through to the next layer, (whose grain runs perpendicular to the one you are sanding) which may be why it looks so scratched up. To check, look at the end of your board to determine the thickness of the layer. If it is really thin, that is probably your problem there. If it isn't very thin, I don't know what to say. Best of luck!

    Does anyone have experience using Low VOC paints and finishes? A quick search online shows many brands, but I imagine some are much better than others.

    1 reply

    Yep Flecto Varathane diamond coat, it's a water based finish which is nice to apply and clean up after I also find it doesn't color the wood much it's almost clear not golden like a lot of oil finishes, nice if your working with multiple species of woods.... But don't rub the wood down with solvents or oils, use a Tack cloth and DON'T use steel wool, any little bits left on the wood will leave rust stains, use sand paper most auto-body supply shops will have paper up to 1600 + grit, And I find sand paper and hand sanding gives a nicer result anyhow ...... You also have to work quicker with water based products and they don't tend to self level as nice as oil, but with a little practice and a nice brush (( don't be scared to get an expensive brush, Ok for me any thing more then a dollar store brush is an expensive brush, but this stuff is so easy to clean out of a brush with water and soap it'll last forever )) it's easy ........ And if you can get away with a matt or semi gloss finish it's easier still ...... If your doing a gloss finish and it's not perfect, rubbing / polishing it when it's DRY, with a piece of denim, will clean up most defects, it doesn't take long to get a nice polished finish.....

    The techniques shown in this instructable refer to rubbing oil finishes and thin traditional finishes but similar techniques apply to other finishes made to be wiped on a surface, such as polyurethane.

    Thanks! A very helpful overview.

    I'm happy to see an article on finishing. About six months ago I was working on a project and I had a lot of trouble finding an article that wasn't just an argument about which type of finish to use and how to use it.

    1 reply