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Choosing a finish

wood finishing

by Alan Noel
Professional Wood Finisher


When building a new piece or refinishing an old one, choosing the finish can be a daunting task. There are four types or categories of finishing materials and a variety of ways to apply them. Oil, shellac, lacquer and water based finishes all have their pros and cons depending on the piece you are working with. The function of the piece has to be taken into consideration as well.

Here are some tips to help you along the way.

  1. Oil based finishes are really the best when it comes to water resistance and abrasion. Oils also have the longest drying time and can be purchased in gloss, semi gloss and satin. Oils can be applied with a rag or a brush. Spraying oils can be very tricky. In this case because of the drying time practice makes perfect.
  2. Lacquers are not quite as tough as varnishes but do dry very fast allowing for multiple coats in one day. Lacquers also polish very well and like finger nail polish, each successive coat chemically bonds to the previous coat. Lacquers were designed to be used with spray equipment, however there are brushing lacquers on the market that perform just as well. Lacquers can be purchased in gloss, semi-gloss, and satin.
  3. Shellacs are very similar to lacquers. Shellac is a durable finish, but I would not recommend it for a kitchen table that sees a lot of use. Shellac also dries very fast so multiple coats can be applied in one day. Shellac also chemically bonds with each preceding coats and polishes well. Shellac can be brushed on, sprayed on or applied with a pad. Shellacs can be purchased ready to use in the can or in dry flake form so you can mix your own.
  4. Water based finishes dry fairly quickly depending on conditions. Clear skies and low humidity are key here. Solvent based finishes are flammable, while water based finishes are non-flammable and are safer to use in your home. Water based finishes are also eco friendly and can be purchased in gloss, semi-gloss, satin and dead flat. Clean up is easy with only soap and water.
  5. All finishes that can be found on the shelf at your local supplier are non-toxic when completely dry.



Visiting Atlanta? Attend one of Alan's upcoming highly informative Highland Woodworking wood finishing seminars:

Spray Finishing, November 6, 2010

Antiques Show and Tell, November 13, 2010

French Polish Workshop, November 17, 2010

Finishing the Finish, December 15, 2010

Visit Highland Woodworking's Online
Wood Finishing Supplies Department




Alan can be reached directly via email c/o Alan Noel Furniture Refinishing at anoelfurniturere@bellsouth.net.


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