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to give a glossy, satin, or flat finish to your furniture. However, applying varnish can be challenging, but with a little patience and the right tools, it can be done successfully.

There are several types of furniture finishes, including varnish, penetrating resin, shellac, lacquer, wax, and oil. Each of these finishes has its own advantages and disadvantages, but when it comes to durability, varnish and penetrating resin are the best choices. Varnish is the most protective of all finishes, while penetrating resin gives the wood a natural look and feel.

Before choosing a finish for your furniture, consider how you want the wood to look and how durable you want the finished surface to be. Always read the ingredient and application information on the container before buying and applying a finish. Each finish has its own application techniques, tools, and materials, so it’s essential to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations.

A dust-free environment is necessary during the application of any finish. Consider using a finish that dries with a matte or flat surface to remove dirt and lint with rubbing abrasives.

When it comes to durability, varnish and penetrating resin are the primary considerations. Varnish is a surface coat that protects the wood from damage, while penetrating resin hardens in the wood itself. Although varnish is the more protective of the two, penetrating resin can stand up to heavy use better because it’s easy to reapply and doesn’t chip or craze.

If you choose varnish as your finish, read the next section on how to work with this durable, slow-drying finish.

natural-bristle brushes. Varnish is a clear finish that can be used as a topcoat over worn finishes. It comes in different finishes, including high-gloss, semigloss, satin, matte, and flat surfaces. There are different types of varnish to choose from, but it’s important to choose the one that works well with your furniture wood.

Traditional varnish is based on natural resins and oils, and it’s thinned with mineral spirits or turpentine. Spar varnish, on the other hand, is a natural varnish that should never be used for furniture as it’s formulated to stay tacky. Synthetic varnishes are based on synthetic resins and require special thinners. Polyurethane varnish is the best of the synthetic varnishes as it’s clear, non-yellowing, and very tough. Other synthetic varnishes include phenolics and alkyds, which are not recommended for refinishing as they yellow with age. Water-base varnishes offer similar results as traditional varnishes without the cleanup hassle and toxicity.

Natural varnish can be used with any stain or filler, while polyurethane varnish is not compatible with all stains and fillers. Water-base varnish can be used over stain and filler, provided you allow the undercoats to fully cure. Varnish generally dries slowly and can be difficult to apply, so it’s important to know how to use this finish.

To apply varnish, use a new, clean, natural-bristle brush. Bare wood must be properly prepared and sanded, while finished wood must be cleaned and lightly sanded. Apply varnish to horizontal surfaces before working on vertical surfaces. Work on only one surface at a time, and work on large surfaces last.

To apply varnish, use smooth strokes and lay it along the wood grain in strips the same width as the brush. Don’t touch the brush to the rim of the varnish container, instead, shake or tap off the excess inside the container or on a strike can. The varnish should flow evenly onto the wood surface with no resistance. If you see thin or missed spots, add one ounce of thinner to the varnish. For natural varnish, use turpentine or mineral spirits, and for polyurethane varnish, use the manufacturer’s recommended thinner. Gently stir the thinner into the varnish, being careful not to create bubbles.

After applying an even coat of varnish along the grain, apply more varnish in even strokes across the grain to level and even the surface. It’s better to apply a thin coat rather than a thick one to avoid cracking and ensure proper drying time. Remove any dust or lint with a rosin lint picker while working.

To smooth the surface, stroke it lightly along the grain with an almost dry brush after leveling the varnish across the grain. Remove any dust or lint as you work.

Apply Varnish: Tips and Techniques

When applying varnish, it’s important to follow some key tips and techniques to ensure a smooth and even finish. To start, always tip off the wet varnish in the direction of the grain using an almost dry brush. This will help to remove brush marks and even out the surface.

To prevent thick spots, be careful when applying varnish to outside corners. Work from the flat surface toward the corner and lift the brush before it flips down over the edge. For inside corners, work away from the corner and then brush the varnish into the corner, tipping it off, and leaving it alone.

Avoid repeated tipping on spots that tend to hold varnish, such as tiny potholes, as this will leave a bulge. When brushing along rungs, spindles, and other turnings, brush lengthwise. On carved moldings, apply the finish to the carvings first with a fairly dry brush, then finish the flat surfaces with the tip of the brush. Use a very dry brush to level the finish and remove any fat edges, sags, or runs.

Drying times for varnish vary, with natural varnish taking about 24 hours to dry. Water-base varnish and polyurethanes often dry more quickly, but dampness can slow drying. Always let the finish dry at least 24 hours or as long as the manufacturer recommends. Pick off lint and dust only while the surface is wet or sticky to avoid damage.

Many varnishes require two or three coats for a smooth finish. Between coats, let the first coat harden or dry as recommended. Lightly sand the varnished wood in the direction of the grain, using grade 7/0 sandpaper on a padded sanding block, before applying the second coat. Clean away all sanding residue with a tack cloth before applying the second coat. Repeat the process if a third coat is required.

In addition to varnish, a penetrating resin finish is another option that stands up well to heavy use. Check out the next section to learn more about when and how to use this type of finish.

Achieve a Deep-Penetrating Resin Finish

Unlike varnish, penetrating resin finishes are not surface coatings but permeate the wood fibers to strengthen them. When treated with penetrating resin, wood maintains a natural appearance and texture, while the grain is emphasized. This type of finish is highly durable and resistant to wear and tear, and is easy to apply and repair. It dries transparent but slightly darkens the wood, and is available in various stain colors.

Penetrating resin is best suited for open-grained woods as very close-grained ones may not absorb it deeply. If used on stripped wood, all old filler should be removed; otherwise, the finish will not be absorbed. It is most recommended for oily hardwoods like rosewood, teak, oak, and walnut, and is particularly suitable for large furniture pieces and intricate carvings. As it is not a surface finish, dust is not a problem, and it dries slowly.

Two types of resins are used in formulating penetrating resin finishes: phenolic and alkyd. Although there is not much difference in performance between the two, phenolic-base compounds may penetrate the wood more deeply than alkyd types.

No filling or sealing is required when using penetrating resin, and it can be applied over any stain except for varnish- or vinyl-base types. Before applying it on bleached or stained surfaces, it is best to test it on a hidden part of the furniture.

To achieve a high-quality penetrating resin finish, the wood must be properly prepared and sanded. Any rough spots or defects will be accentuated when the resin is applied as it does not coat the surface of the wood. Use a tack cloth to thoroughly clean the furniture before applying the resin. If possible, apply the resin on horizontal surfaces. Work on small areas at a time, and use a clean brush or cloth, No. 0000 steel wool, or pour the resin directly onto the wood. Apply the resin liberally and evenly, and continue until the wood stops absorbing it. Let the resin set for 30 to 45 minutes, and wipe off the excess finish with clean, absorbent cloths. Let the newly applied resin dry for 24 hours, and remove any glossy patches that may appear during the drying period by adding more resin to these areas.

gentle and attractive finish that emphasizes the natural grains of the wood. To soften a dried finish, remove the liquid resin and make sure that the wood is dry. After 24 hours, use No. 000 or 0000 steel wool to gently smooth the wood, and then clean it thoroughly with a tack cloth. Apply a second coat of penetrating resin, allowing it to penetrate and wiping off the excess as before. For very open-grained woods, a third coat of resin may be necessary. Wait 24 hours and smooth the surface with steel wool before applying the third coat. No wax or other surface coat is needed. If you prefer a finish that is easy to apply and dries quickly, read on for information on how to use a shellac finish.

Shellac is the easiest of the classic finishes to apply and produces a very fine, mellow finish that accentuates the natural grain of the wood. It is particularly appealing on walnut, mahogany, and fine veneer woods and is the basis for the traditional French polish finish on very fine furniture. Several thin coats of shellac are applied, and it dries quickly, allowing for recoating after only four hours. Application mistakes are easily corrected, but the downside is that shellac is not very durable and is easily damaged and dissolved by both water and alcohol. White rings can be a problem, and shellac cannot be applied in very humid weather as humidity turns it white. Repairs are simple, but frequent retouching is necessary. Waxing is almost essential to protect the surface as shellac tends to be soft after it dries. It is best used on decorative pieces that will not be subjected to hard wear. The choice of shellac color or type of cut depends on the type of furniture wood.

Shellac is available in two colors: white and orange. White shellac is used for light woods and is thinned with denatured alcohol for use as a sealer. It can be tinted with alcohol-soluble aniline dye and is sometimes available in colors. Orange shellac gives an amber color to the wood and is often desirable on dark woods. It is especially attractive on walnut, mahogany, and teak. Shellac is sold in several cuts or concentrations, with the most common being a 4-pound cut. Shellac usually needs to be thinned or cut with denatured alcohol before application, as directed by the manufacturer. For sealer, thin 1 part of 3- or 4-pound-cut white shellac with 4 parts denatured alcohol. For finish coats, thin 1 part 4-pound shellac with 2 parts alcohol. Special requirements include using thinned shellac for sealer coats, and using denatured alcohol for thinning and alcohol or ammonia for cleanup.

When using shellac, it is important to buy just enough for the job as it has a short shelf life and old shellac does not dry properly. Any leftover shellac should be discarded. Some manufacturers shelf-date shellac. To apply shellac, the wood must be properly prepared, sanded, and sealed. Before applying the shellac, each surface should be cleaned thoroughly with a tack cloth. A new, clean, good-quality brush should be used, and only new shellac, thinned to a 1-pound cut, should be used. Working on one area at a time, the shellac should be flowed liberally onto the surface in long, smooth strokes along the grain of the wood. The surface should be kept really wet with the shellac, and the finish should be applied from dry to wet edges. After coating the surface completely, the shellac should be tipped off along the grain of the wood using an almost dry brush. The entire shellacked surface should be smoothed, working in strips along the grain of the wood.

For a more durable surface, the French polish finish technique can be used. This technique produces a velvety sheen, emphasizing the grain and color of the wood. It is best used on close-grained woods and fine veneers. Only water stain or spirit-base non-grain-raising (NGR) stain should be used under French polish, as other types may bleed or lift. To apply a French polish finish, a mixture of 2 tablespoons of boiled linseed oil and 1 pint of 1-pound-cut shellac should be used. A palm-size pad of cheesecloth should be made and wrapped in a clean, lint-free linen or cotton cloth. The pad should be dipped into the shellac/oil mixture, without soaking it. The surface of the pad should not be wrinkled. The mixture should be applied to the prepared wood, spreading it evenly along the grain to cover the entire surface. A quick padding stroke should be used, blending the strokes carefully. The wet surface should then be rubbed with the pad, using a firm circular or figure-eight motion over the wood. This circular rubbing should be continued for about 45 minutes, using plenty of downward pressure and adding shellac as the mixture is worked into the wood. The surface should be evenly glossy, with no dark spots or stroke marks.

After letting the rubbed shellac/oil mixture dry for 24 hours, another coat of shellac/oil should be applied the same way. The second coat should be rubbed in for 45 minutes and left to dry for two to three days. A third coat should be applied the same way. After the final coat, the wood should be left to dry for at least a week, but not more than 10 days. The surface should be cleaned, and the finished wood should be waxed with a good-quality paste wax and buffed to a fine sheen.

After applying the first coat of shellac, allow it to dry for four hours before recoating. Ensure that the drying time is sufficient, as shellac can easily pick up debris if not completely dry. Once fully dried, use grade 7/0 open-coat sandpaper on a padded sanding block to lightly sand the surface. Clean the surface with a tack cloth before applying the second coat of shellac. Repeat this process for a third coat and apply additional coats as desired, allowing each coat to dry before applying a new one. Buff the finish with fine steel wool between coats and let the final coat harden for 48 hours. Use grade No. 0000 steel wool to remove the gloss from the finished surface, rubbing carefully along the grain of the wood. Do not rub across the grain. Let the piece of furniture stand for 48 hours before applying a good-quality paste wax to the finished wood. Buff the surface to a shine with a soft cloth or the buffing attachment of an electric drill. Alternatively, consider using lacquer for a faster-drying finish. However, lacquer can be difficult to apply and must be used with caution due to its toxicity and explosiveness. For smaller jobs, aerosol spray cans can be used. Lacquer cannot be used on mahogany and rosewood due to the oils in these woods bleeding through the finish. Use only aerosol spray lacquer and ensure the working area is adequately protected. Spray the lacquer in even strips from side to side, top to bottom, holding the can about 18 inches from the surface.

To make the lacquer film evenly thick, you should overlap the strips slightly. This can be achieved by layering the strips on top of each other.

Before using lacquer, it is important to test the spray can on a piece of newspaper or cardboard to understand the spray pattern. This will give you enough control to apply the lacquer evenly and properly cover the surface you are finishing. Hold the spray can upright about 18 inches away from the surface of the wood and apply the lacquer slowly and evenly. Working too far away can cause the lacquer to dimple, while working too close can cause runs and sags in the finish. Start by spraying the top edge of the surface, then cover the entire surface in horizontal strips, overlapping the spray patterns slightly. Do not try to equalize the film by brushing the lacquer. A thin coat of lacquer should be applied, and this finish must be applied in many thin layers. The lacquer dries in no more than half an hour, but it must cure completely between coats. Let the newly sprayed wood dry for about 48 hours, or as directed by the manufacturer. Lightly smooth the surface with No. 000 steel wool, and clean it thoroughly with a tack cloth before applying a second coat of lacquer. After applying the final coat of lacquer, let the piece of furniture dry for 48 hours, then lightly buff the lacquered surface with No. 0000 steel wool. Clean the surface thoroughly with a tack cloth and apply a good-quality paste wax. Buff the waxed surface to a fine gloss.

If you prefer a finish that is not permanent, paste wax can be used to finish bare wooden furniture. This is most successful on hard, close-grained woods, such as maple, that have been sanded absolutely smooth. Some waxes have color added, for use on dark woods such as walnut. Paste wax is easy to apply and is non-sticky and heat-resistant, but it is easily damaged and liable to wear. It must be reapplied periodically. Sealer stain finishes, including commercial products, can be used to color, seal, and finish new or stripped wood.

and come in different colors. They are very durable and easy to apply, and create a beautiful natural finish on wood. Danish oil is a popular choice for finishing furniture, as it dries quickly and is easy to apply. Linseed oil is an older type of oil finish that is sticky and difficult to apply.

Special Requirements

Before applying an oil finish, it’s important to properly prepare the wood. Sand the wood thoroughly and remove any dust or debris. Apply the oil in a well-ventilated area, and use a clean cloth or brush to evenly distribute the oil along the grain of the wood. Allow the oil to penetrate the wood for 15-20 minutes, then wipe away any excess with a clean cloth. Allow the wood to dry completely before applying a second coat of oil. Repeat this process until the desired level of sheen is achieved.


In conclusion, both sealer stain and oil finishes are popular choices for revitalizing wooden furniture. Sealer stains are easy to apply and produce an even color, but may require periodic recoating and are not very water-resistant. Oil finishes, on the other hand, bring out the natural beauty of the wood and are water and alcohol-resistant, but require proper preparation and periodic reapplication. Properly selecting and applying the right finish for your furniture project will ensure a beautiful and long-lasting result.

The Danish oil is available in several stains, and it generally has a satin finish. On the other hand, a linseed oil finish is rich and glossy, but it requires multiple applications for a good finish. The classic linseed oil finish comprises boiling linseed oil and turpentine in equal parts. However, there are different variations of the linseed oil finish, with Mary Roalman’s finish being one of the best. It includes boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and natural varnish in equal parts. It is advisable to mix the linseed oil finishes several days before use, and a pint of each ingredient is enough for most pieces.

To apply oil finishes directly on prepared bare or stained wood, only water or non-grain-raising stains should be used. Oil-based stains interfere with oil penetration. For a smooth surface, wood to be finished with oil must be sanded thoroughly to even out the open pores. No sealing is necessary before applying the finish. However, very open-grained woods should be filled before applying oil finishes. Any paste filler is compatible, and no sealing is required.

To apply oil finishes, use a clean cheesecloth pad and work it into the wood using a circular or figure-eight motion. Apply oil evenly and liberally until the wood stops absorbing it. Work on one surface at a time. Rub the oil firmly into the wood with the heels of your hands, working along the grain. Rub for about 15 minutes to allow the warmth to help oil penetrate into the wood. However, Danish oil and tung oil may not require extensive rubbing. Follow the manufacturer’s specific instructions. Finally, wipe the piece of furniture clean with a clean cloth to remove all excess oil. No oil should be on the surface of the wood, or if linseed finish is used, only a thin film of oil should be present.

Drying and Recoating

If you are using Danish oil or tung oil, they have a faster drying time compared to linseed oil. These oils can be recoated after 12 to 24 hours but always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Linseed oil usually needs a week to dry, especially in humid weather. Do not apply another coat if the finish is still sticky to the touch.

Apply additional coats of oil once the first coat is completely dry. You may only need to apply one more coat of Danish oil or tung-oil sealer, while linseed-oil finishes require 10 to 20 additional coats. Rub each coat of oil thoroughly into the wood and wipe off any excess oil. Allow each coat to dry completely before applying the next coat, with at least a week between the first several coats and longer between later coats. If the oil is not completely dry between coats, the finished surface will be sticky.

Choosing the right furniture finish can be difficult as there are plenty of options to choose from such as varnish, penetrating resin, shellac, lacquer, paste wax, and oil. However, the guidelines in this article will help you choose the best finish for your specific type of wood and desired furniture look.


1. What are the different types of furniture finishes?

There are several types of furniture finishes, including paint, stain, varnish, lacquer, and wax. Paint is a thick, opaque finish that is applied in layers and can be either glossy or matte. Stain is a translucent finish that allows the natural wood grain to show through. Varnish is a clear, hard finish that is applied in multiple coats and provides excellent durability. Lacquer is a quick-drying, highly durable finish that is often used on high-end furniture. Wax is a natural finish that provides a soft, matte sheen and is often used on antique furniture.

2. How do I choose the right finish for my furniture?

The right finish for your furniture depends on several factors, including the type of wood, the intended use of the furniture, and your personal preferences. If you want a bright, bold color, paint may be the best option. If you want to enhance the natural beauty of the wood grain, stain may be the way to go. Varnish and lacquer are both excellent options for high-use furniture pieces, as they provide superior durability and protection. Wax is a great choice for antique furniture, as it adds a soft, natural sheen without altering the original finish.

3. How do I apply a furniture finish?

The process for applying a furniture finish will depend on the type of finish you choose. Paint and stain can both be applied with a brush, roller, or sprayer, and should be allowed to dry completely between coats. Varnish and lacquer should be applied in thin, even coats with a brush or sprayer, and should also be allowed to dry completely between coats. Wax can be applied with a soft cloth or brush, and should be buffed to a shine once it has dried.

4. How do I maintain my furniture finish?

To maintain your furniture finish, it is important to keep it clean and free from dust and dirt. Use a soft, damp cloth to wipe down your furniture regularly, and avoid using harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners that can damage the finish. If your furniture has a wax finish, you may need to reapply wax periodically to keep it looking its best. For varnish and lacquer finishes, you may need to touch up any scratches or dings with a fresh coat of finish.

5. Can I change the finish on my furniture?

Yes, it is possible to change the finish on your furniture. You can strip off the existing finish using a chemical stripper or sandpaper, and then apply a new finish of your choice. However, this process can be time-consuming and messy, and may require some skill and experience to achieve a professional-looking result. If you are unsure about how to refinish your furniture, it may be best to consult a professional.

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