Picture of Wood Finishing
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.
Hoaxinmi6 years ago
how many coats (of varnish) would you suggest?
3 or 4
JohnnyPgood6 years ago
Yeah I also thought you were supposed to sand with the grain. Typo?
adz556 years ago
Across the grain? I thought you're supposed to go WITH the grain?
dale3h8 years ago
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!
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!
Alexdc8 years ago
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.
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.....
Mr. Rig It7 years ago
Would love to see you add this to my new group.
Hope to see you there.
Home Repair, Refurbishment, and New Projects
Phill8 years ago
How convenient! I've been looking for something like this for ages! What about those Polyurethane things I keep hearing about, though?
Popular Mechanics (author)  Phill8 years ago
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.
Cool! Thanks! =)
WhosWho8 years ago
Thanks! A very helpful overview.
dmacrae8 years ago
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.
theRIAA dmacrae8 years ago