Furniture Finishes



The Often Overlooked Secret To Furniture’s Lasting Beauty


When selecting furniture, most people first think about style, size, color, and functionality. It’s natural. But as a passionate furniture builder, I can tell you there’s more to finding the perfect piece. When choosing just the right piece for just the right spot, you also need to think about the finish that is applied to the wood.


From a practical sense, the finish protects wood from scratches, dents, and wear. It preserves wood for years to come from water, oxidation, and ultraviolet rays. Aesthetically, the right finish enhances wood’s natural beauty, figure patterns, grain, and depth. It invites engagement, drawing in you – and your guests – to touch it, run your hand over it, feel the grain texture, and assess the levelness. (I can hear the “oohs and aahs” now!)


I consider these questions when selecting a finish for my custom furniture:

  1. Where will this piece go? Inside, outside, humid area, dry, etc.
  2. What is the final use for this piece? Dining table, chair, desk, etc.
  3. Does the client want a glossy or matte look?
  4. How involved is the application process?


There are two basic types of wood finishes: Those that form a film or coating on the wood, and those that penetrate the wood surface.


Film finishes, which cure hard and can be built up in layers, include varnish, shellac, lacquer, water- and latex-based semitransparent stains, and solid-color stains. These finishes are good for end tables, bedroom furniture, bookcases, etc. where some protection is required.


Penetrating finishes are oil-based and don’t cure to a hard film. These include oil finishes, such as tung and linseed oil, and oil-based stains. These finishes are great for items like chairs that don’t get the wear and tear a table might endure.


But, what if you want the qualities of both types of finishes? Not to fear. There are finishes that combine the penetrating beauty of oil and the protective strength of film finish like varnish. One example of this type of finish is Waterlox. It is made mainly from a mix of tung oil, mineral spirits, and varnish (phenolic resin). This clear finish is great for wood floors and dining tables alike because of the strength provided by the phenolic resin.

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Bottom line: It is worth your time to ask about your furniture’s finish. The answer is often unclear with a mass-manufactured piece. However, knowing your furniture’s finish has been thoughtfully selected and applied based on your individual circumstances is yet another benefit of working with a custom furniture maker. It ensure the beauty of your investment will be protected for years to come.