Choosing the Right Finish: A Comprehensive Guide to Wood Finishes

A worker’s hand as he polishes a piece of dark stained wood.

Selecting the appropriate finish for your wood project is a pivotal decision that not only enhances the natural beauty of the wood but also safeguards it against wear, moisture, and environmental elements. With a plethora of options available, choosing the right wood finish can be a daunting task. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore different types of wood finishes, their characteristics, and the factors to consider when making the best choice for your project.

Types of Wood Finishes


Varnish is durable and long-lasting, and provides a glossy or satin finish. It offers excellent protection against scratches and moisture. It is ideal for use in furniture, tabletops, and high-traffic surfaces.


Polyurethane is available in oil-based and water-based forms. It is durable and resistant to water, chemicals, and scratches. This finish provides a clear, glossy, or satin finish, perfect for floors, furniture, and woodwork.


Shellac is derived from natural resins. It is fast-drying with a warm amber hue, and offers moderate protection against moisture and scratches. It is commonly used in antique restoration, wooden ornaments, and interior woodwork.


Lacquer is fast-drying and durable, and is available in clear or tinted versions. It provides a high-gloss finish. It is often used on furniture, musical instruments, and decorative pieces.

Oil Finishes

Oil finishes penetrate the wood to enhance its natural appearance. They are available in linseed, tung, or Danish oil, and require periodic reapplication. It’s best when applied to wooden countertops, cutting boards, and interior wood surfaces.


Stain adds color to wood while allowing the grain to show through. It is available in oil-based, water-based, and gel forms. It enhances the appearance of lower-grade woods. It is recommended for furniture, cabinetry, and projects where color customization is desired.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Wood Finish

Type of Wood:

Different wood species absorb finishes differently. Consider the wood’s natural color, grain pattern, and hardness when choosing a finish.

Intended Use:

The purpose of the wood project influences the choice of finish. High-traffic areas may require more durable finishes, while decorative pieces might benefit from a finish that enhances the wood’s aesthetics.

Desired Finish Appearance:

Determine whether you prefer a glossy, satin, or matte finish. Some finishes, like polyurethane, offer various sheen levels, allowing you to customize the appearance to your liking.

Durability and Protection:

Consider the level of protection needed based on the wood’s exposure to wear, moisture, and sunlight. For high-traffic areas or outdoor projects, opt for finishes with enhanced durability.

Ease of Application:

Some finishes are easier to apply than others. Water-based finishes typically have a faster drying time and emit fewer fumes than oil-based counterparts. Consider your skill level and the complexity of the project when choosing a finish.

Maintenance Requirements:

Different finishes have varying maintenance needs. Some require periodic reapplication, while others offer long-lasting protection. Consider the level of maintenance you are willing to commit to over time.

Environmental Impact:

Water-based finishes are generally considered more environmentally friendly due to lower VOC (volatile organic compound) levels. If eco-friendliness is a priority, opt for finishes with minimal environmental impact.

Tips for a Successful Wood Finishing Project

First, ensure the wood surface is clean, dry, and free of contaminants. Sand the wood to a smooth finish before applying the chosen finish.

Test on Scrap Wood

Before applying the finish to your project, test it on a scrap piece of the same wood to ensure compatibility and to see how the finish will affect the color and appearance.

Follow Manufacturer Instructions

Read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the chosen finish. Pay attention to recommended drying times, application techniques, and any safety precautions.

Apply Thin Coats

Rather than applying a thick coat, apply multiple thin coats for better absorption and a more even finish. Sand between coats for a smoother result.

Protect Yourself

Use proper personal protective equipment, such as gloves, a mask, and proper ventilation, especially when working with finishes that emit fumes or have potential health hazards.

Selecting the Perfect Finish

Choosing the right wood finish involves a thoughtful consideration of the type of wood, intended use, desired appearance, and application techniques. Whether you’re aiming for a glossy polyurethane finish on your hardwood floors or a natural oil finish on a handmade piece of furniture, understanding the characteristics and benefits of each type of finish is key to a successful project. 

Visit the VIC HOME IMPROVEMENT LLC blog for more information on how to approach your next wood finishing project!