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Wood Finishings 101 – Paint, Stains & Specialty

Finishes on wood furniture can have a powerful effect on the overall look of the piece and also how it fits into the room. Finishes not only create a cosmetic upgrade, it also helps to protect your furniture from weather, moisture, scratches, or any wear and tear. Your furniture will weather much quicker without a good finish; leaving cracks, swelling, warping or deterioration signs all over your beloved pieces. If you’ve purchased a hand crafted wood piece, then you’re going to want it to last for years to come. No matter your budget, none of us want to spend extra money when it’s not necessary. Protecting your furniture with the right finish will help to maintain the structure of the table. Not to mention, finishes can also give your pieces a whole new look when you’re ready to make a change and don’t want to purchase new furniture. There is no one type of wood and thus there is no one type of finish. How to choose the best finish for your furniture is based on several factors, the most important being the type of wood you’re working with. You should also consider the aesthetic you’re looking for, the durability of the finish, and the uses or functionality of the furniture in question. While there is a plethora of options and choices when it comes to finishes – never fear! We’ve got your comprehensive list of finishes and their uses. You’ll be ready to finish any furniture with confidence in no time!

Tung Oil


This oil originates from Asia and is made from the nuts of the trees. This oil is quite resistant to moisture and dries within the wood to create a stronger defense from the inside out. It comes in two forms, heat-treated or unrefined. Heat-treated tung oil dries a bit faster and keeps the oil from creating a white, matte finish. If your furniture piece will be exposed to moisture on a regular basis, choosing tung oil can save your furniture’s integrity.



Although varnishes are made with many of the same ingredients found in oils, the synthetic resins create a more durable finish. Varnishes are incredibly resistant to heat, moisture, and chemicals. There are several different types of varnishes, each with resin characteristics which allow you to customize your finish to your specific furniture needs. Alkyd varnish is an all purpose finish, great for interior pieces. If you’re looking for the perfect varnish to use on your outdoor furniture, opt for a phenolic varnish. Phenolic is made with tung oil, so the same heat-resistant properties are found in phenolic varnish. Polyurethane, also called urethane varnish, is the strongest when it comes to heat, chemical, and scratch resistance.



Shellac is most commonly assumed to be nothing more than a liquid finish. What many don’t know, is that its actually a secretion from bug cocoons found in Thailand. The secretions are dried out and dissolved in denatured alcohol. Several varieties of shellacs exist, you can purchase it in either premixed or flake form. Be warned: flake shellac contains a wax which reduces the finish’s ability to protects against water. Shellac adds a warm amber color to furniture and creates a protective barrier. However, if you’re trying to finish your kitchen furniture, you may want to consider a different option. Shellac is not resistant to heat or chemicals.



There are many, many varieties of lacquers out there, all of which are regarded as some of the best protectants when it comes to finishes. The durability and versatility of lacquers makes them ideal for wood furnishings. There are so many varieties of lacquers, that you can choose your perfect finish depending on your furniture’s needs. Nitrocellulose lacquer is good for moisture resistant, although it does tend to turn slightly yellow as it ages. If you want to avoid yellowing or an amber hue, then acrylic-modified lacquer is an excellent choice. If you really want a tough finish that can take almost anything, try catalyzed lacquer. You can choose to purchase it premixed or mix it yourself. If you are a beginner at finishes, mixing lacquers yourself can turn out to be quite tricky. Many love using lacquer for its glossy finish.

Water Based Finishes


Many people opt for a water based finish over traditional finishes because the pollutants and flammable elements found in oils, lacquer and shellac have been replaced with water. Resins do not naturally bind with water, therefore they must be chemically combined. While water based finishes are not completely natural, they do contain much fewer environmentally harmful chemicals. Although water based finishes are not as tough when it comes to heat resistance, they are able to withstand scratches and chemical cleaners more efficiently than oil based finishes.

Finishes are vitally important to protect and preserve the lifespan of any wood furnishing. They can take any piece and elevate it to another level with ease. You’ll be amazed at how terrific and renewed your furniture will appear after a simple coat of finishing. In addition to a serious visual upgrade, your furniture will survive weather, daily wear, heat, and chemical solvents. You’ll be able to enjoy your pieces for a lifetime, instead of a few short years. Finishes make all the difference for preserving your favorite decor. The wide variety of choices when it comes to finishes makes it unbelievably easy to choose the perfect finish for your furniture’s needs. Some can help to ensure the prevention of warping due to moisture or sunlight. You can feel confident leaving your furniture outside during any time of the year, because the correct finish will strengthen and seal the wood. In addition, you’ll never again fret over using hot plates or chemical cleaners on your indoor furniture. Finishes are truly so important to reviving and protecting your precious possessions. Now that you understand what types of finishes work best for each scenario, you can customize your wood finish to your exact specifications. Enjoy your favorite furniture without fear!

RESOURCES: DIY NetworkLife HackerFine Wood Working

Mattie Lu made to fit every aspect of your home - from style to size to color to design. At Mattie Lu, our artisan Amish craftsmen make imagination come to life for our customers every day. We are a lifestyle furnishings company owned by a mother and daughter duo. We're ready to help you create the interior furnishings of your dreams.

From the selection of wood to the first cuts to the final touches, every piece from Mattie Lu is lovingly created with your specifications in mind. We know you'll love the end result and will enjoy it for years to come!

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1 Comment

  1. […] been reading our blogs, you’ve determined your design style, you’ve chosen your paint color, and you’re finally ready to purchase your wood furniture to complete your dream home. The […]

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