Choosing a finish
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
Here are some tips to help you along the way.
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.
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.
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
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.
All finishes that can be found on the shelf at your local supplier are non-toxic when
Visiting Atlanta? Attend one of Alan's upcoming highly informative Highland Woodworking wood
, November 6, 2010
Visit Highland Woodworking's Online
Antiques Show and Tell
, November 13, 2010
French Polish Workshop
, November 17, 2010
Finishing the Finish
, December 15, 2010
Wood Finishing Supplies Department
Alan can be reached directly via email c/o Alan Noel Furniture Refinishing at