A Quick Guide to Wood Finishes

Finishing a piece of wood furniture is a fun, and rewarding experience.

As daunting as the process may sound, it’s actually very simple if you know what you’re working with.

If you’ve ever looked at a beautiful piece of wood furniture and thought, “I wish I could do that,” keep reading for a closer look at wood finishes and how to use them.

To Stain or Not to Stain?

Before you put a final protective finish on your furniture, it’s important to consider how you want the wood to look.

If you love the look and feel of natural wood, you can just go ahead and apply your wood finish. This will capture the natural look of the wood and potentially add a nice glossy sheen to it, depending on the finish you choose.

But, if you want to darken the color of the wood, or give it a slightly different color, you’ll want to apply a wood stain before adding a final finish.

Oil-based stains can be found in a number of colors and shades and are typically applied with a lint-free cloth or brush.

Picking the Right Wood Finishes

There are many different ways to finish wood furniture and other items. But, there are really only a few proven, effective methods that are ready to stand up to years of use.

Here are a few the most popular and effective wood finishes.


Polyurethane is a type of wood varnish that coats the surface of the wood, protecting it from moisture and wear. If you really want your piece of furniture to last or withstand heavy use, polyurethane is one of the best finishes you can use. It’s great for high use furniture like kitchen tables.

Tung Oil

Tung oil is another common finish that acts as a penetrant. Tung oil is absorbed into the wood, rather than coating the surface like polyurethane.


Shellac is a natural wood finish made from the resin secreted by the Lac bug. Shellac is not quite as durable as polyurethane but will adhere nicely to a variety of woods.


The choice of furniture manufacturers, lacquer is a tough protective coating ready to stand up to years of use.

Apply Your Finish Like a Pro

Once you’ve applied a stain — or not — and have chosen a finish, it’s time to apply your finish. Properly applying a wood finish is crucial to the long term health of your furniture.

Polyurethane is best applied with a brush. Three to four coats are usually needed, with some light sanding between coats.

Tung oil should be applied with a rag, rubbing it into the surface in several coats.

Shellac and lacquer can both be applied with a brush. Several coats should be applied with these finishes, with sanding done between coats.

Your Turn

Selecting and applying wood finishes doesn’t have to be difficult. If you start with a quality piece of furniture and the right finish, you can easily create a beautiful heirloom-quality piece.

Ready to get started on your next furniture project? Try creating a table and adding your own flavor with a finish of your choice.