How to Pick the Perfect Finish

posted 11/24/2015 in Kreg Tool Tips: Finishing by Kreg Tool Company

When it comes to deciding what type of finish to apply to a project, choosing the right one can be confusing. Each type of finish has its own specific, and often very different, attributes. So, you’ll need to match your requirements with the right finish. The key is having a good understanding of what each type of finish has to offer.

Start by looking at three basic criteria. First, consider what sort of appearance the finish will produce — specifically, color and sheen. Next, take into account the method and ease of application. Finally, match the protection and durability to the needs of the project. Here’s a brief summary of how commonly available finishes stack up.

How to Pick the Perfect Finish

Pure Oil

Oil/Varnish Blend

If you’re looking for a basic finish that’s simple to apply, wipe on several coats of a pure oil, such as linseed or tung oil. Pure oil has a warm amber color that looks great on many woods. On the downside, a pure oil finish won’t build a protective film, so you get very limited moisture and abrasion resistance and little sheen. Pure oil is best reserved for “light duty” projects that won’t see a lot of wear and tear.

An oil/varnish blend is a mixture of a pure oil, varnish, and mineral spirits. Watco and Minwax are a couple familiar brands. This type of finish is easy to apply and looks similar to pure oil, but the varnish gives the wood slightly better protection. An oil/varnish blend will build to a thin, relatively soft film with a moderate sheen. So, it’s a good choice for projects that will be treated kindly.

A wiping varnish is a varnish that’s been thinned with mineral spirits, so it can be applied easily with a rag. A wiping varnish adds an amber color to the wood and will build a thin film with a noticeable sheen. Wiping varnish offers a moderate level of protection, making it a relatively foolproof choice for many projects.

How to Pick the Perfect Finish


Water-Based Finish

Pre-mixed shellac consists of a natural resin dissolved in alcohol. You can brush or wipe on a coat and it will dry in a matter of minutes. Available in both clear and amber, shellac produces a warm color and builds to a high sheen, but its moisture and scratch resistance fall in the low to middle range. This is why shellac is best suited for projects that won’t see much wear, or as a sealer that can be applied under almost any other finish.

Water-based finish is formulated using many of the same resins contained in other finishes, but with water as the carrier. The big selling point is the absence of odor-producing and potentially harmful solvents. Water-based finish can be sprayed, brushed, or wiped on. A fast drying time is a big plus. One common knock on water-based finish is that the look can be bland. Water-based finish holds up well to use and abuse, making it suitable for just about any type of project.


Lacquer consists of synthetic resins dissolved in powerful solvents. Due to its fast drying time, lacquer is most easily applied with spray equipment (or using aerosol cans). Lacquer is the standard finish on most commercially produced furniture. Lacquers produce a film with just a hint of amber color and a pleasing sheen, and it offers reliable moisture protection and good durability. If you have the means to apply it, lacquer is a great way to finish any project.

How to Pick the Perfect Finish


If durability and all-around protection are at the top of your wish list, varnish should be your choice. Polyurethane varnish now dominates the market. It forms a tough film that resists heat, moisture, and scratches. The light amber color of a polyurethane varnish adds a warm look to the wood. Varnish is most commonly applied with a brush, and dries slowly. A polyurethane varnish is a great choice for a “high-traffic” project such as a kitchen table or coffee table.

How to Pick the Perfect Finish

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