Finishes For Furniture

Finishing not only protects the wood but also enhances its natural beauty. A good finish is one that beckons an onlooker to touch it and examine its beauty more closely.

A good finish can not be hurried. It takes careful work and time to produce. When done correctly the end results are very satisfying and enjoyed by all who see it for many years. So take your time and do it right.

The factors involved in selecting the most appropriate finish depends on what the item is and type of wood it is made from, how and where it is to be used, the environment it will be placed in, and how much time and / or money you are willing spend. The information below should narrow the choices for most people. Remember you can call any professional restoration shop in your local area for help or free advice.


This type of finish is a good choice for woods with natural color and relatively tight grain such as Walnut and Cherry or naturally high resin woods like Rosewood and Teak. This finish does not require staining the wood first but can be applied over any wood stain that has properly dried. Keep in mind that all oils will darken wood. If a lot of "elbow grease" is used rubbing between coats and an adequate number of coats are applied the finish will not show water marks or surface scratches and is more heat resistant than lacquers or varnishes.

Advantages Negatives

easy application long application time

no equipment needed darkens wood

easily repaired low wear protection

low cost


A beautiful and durable finish can be obtained with a quality varnish. There are two types of varnish, regular and urethane. Regular varnish has a deep amber color and adds a mellow tint to the final color. Urethanes are clear to light yellow and are more resistant to scratches and ware. A clear, dry day and a dust free room is required to obtain a good finish. Temperature of the room, the varnish and the wood should be between 65F – 75F degrees.

Best results are achieved by spraying, but a skilled person with a good brush can produce a beautiful finish also. Colored varnish, sometimes referred to as stain varnish is not recommended for brushing by amateurs. Spar varnish is an excellent coating for surfaces subjected to moisture or heat.

Care must be taken when shaking or stirring varnish when brushing application of the material is used. Shaking or rappid stirring can creates bubbles which are hard to brush out and may appear as small dents when the varnish has dry. Adding a little thinner and / or letting the varnish "rest" before use after mixing will minimize this problem. Stirring is better than shaking and may be necessary to mix-in flatting agents that have settled on the bottom of the container.

Advantages Negatives

scratch resistant slow drying

little equipment needed optimal condition for application

water resistant / proof skill needed for brush work

some hard to repaired

Urethanes can not be

used over other finishes


Because of shellac's limited durability, it is not recommended for heavily used furniture. This finish is brittle when dry, scars easily and water spots. It is also soluble in alcohol, so it can not be used for dressers where cosmetics containing alcohol are often placed.

Advantages are that it is easy to use, dries quickly with a gloss and can be rubbed to a satin or dull finish. It is often used as a sealer coat over stains, as a filler on fine grained woods or to cover knots before painting.

Advantages Negatives

easy application easy to scratch

no special equipment rub-out to lower sheen

easily repaired low wear protection

medium cost no chemical protection


Lacquer is the most widely used finish on furniture. It makes a very durable finish that resists water and alcohol. It does not darken wood color and its color does not darken with age like many varnishes do. In recent years there has been several advances in lacquer finishes. Pre and post catalyzed lacquers today have superior hardness, with improved scratch and ware resistance. Lacquer is difficult to use with a brush because it dries so quickly. For this reason it is not recommended for use by amateurs. There are brushing lacquers that have retarders added to slower trying time, but the best application by far is spraying.

Advantages Negatives

durable skill required to apply

fast drying costly equipment

easily repaired

chemical resistant

Opaque (paint and enamel)

Opaque paint and enamel finishes are often used on wood with no particular beauty or to cover old finishes in bad shape without stripping.

Be sure the surface is clean, smooth and dry. Paint will not stick to a greasy surface. You do not have to remove the old finish; sanding the surface will make a foundation for the priming coat. If the article to be painted is new, look for any knots. These should be covered with a coat of shellac.

Mix paint and enamel well before using. Pour a small amount into can to use and keep remainer covered.

Advantages Negatives

hides defects slow drying time

little equipment needed covers wood grain

easily repaired poor adhesion over

low cost old finishes

Special Finishes

These types of finish are achieved by various processing techniques and often employ one or more kinds of finishing materials to produce the desired effect.

Pickled finishes are made with white or another color over a natural or lightly stained wood color. The effect is similar to the old blonde finishes of the 40's and 50's, except it is usually done on furniture with lots of crevices for the white to stick into. The result has a more interesting texture with the natural grain of the wood showing through and highlighted with the white.

Antiquing is a blended or shaded finish achieved by applying one or more contrasting colored glazing liquids over a painted base. Traditionally, the glaze is applied over white. Today any color base and glaze combination is acceptable. This type of finishing was very popular in the 60's and 70's.

Photo and fake wood grain finishes are found on low end furniture most often made of flake board construction with plastic fasteners. This type of inexpensive furniture is "disposable" and was not designed to be restored, but rather to be replaced.