when i went to egypt, i saw they used plain old vegetable oil - that was about ten years ago and my wooden jewellery and boxes still look great! i'm so impressed with it that i rub veg oil on wood to this day.
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I usually stick with oil finishes for carved pieces. As Rick said, prep is the key. I don't do quite as much art carving as I once did, but when I did, I went all the way up to 600 girt paper on many wood objects, using found wood like oak, cherry, walnut, maple, mulberry, peach, pear, etc as raw material for the carved pieces. Once sanded, I oiled and buffed them, then oiled and buffed again...Any rough areas got a bit more sanding with the fine grit paper, then back to oiling and buffing. I always buffed by hand, using old towels and then brushes made for doing shoes once I was done with the clothe buffing. (I did try using a buffing wheel but it was a recipe for failure, at least for me)If you use a powered buffer, be very careful, since they can generate enough heat to burn the wood.
The quality of the finish is governed by the quality of your preparation - A totally smooth surface will give a good finish. ANY blemish WILL show through the top coat.Paint - I use acrylics and finish with an acrylic varnish.For a gloss finish I often use clear nail varnish.
The same way you do with other wood projects: Sand with progressively finer abrasives (each removes the scratches left by the coarser one before it) and/or use a plane or burr scraper to smooth the wood's surface by cutting, then consider a pore filler if it's a large-pored wood and you don't want that to be part of the appearance, then consider whether you want to stain or tone it, then pick an appropriate varnish (shellac, laquer, poly, ...) based on the appearance and working characteristics you want and apply an appropriate number of layers of that, then (if you want a high sheen) you might consider applying a top coat of a suitable wax (though wax is moisture-sensitive and needs some maintaining).