What Are Your Favorite Finishes?

Whether we like the process of finishing or not, no woodworking project is really complete without slathering on some protective finish. Years ago, I was a “poly” only kinda guy. Back in the 1980s, oil-based polyurethane is pretty what seemed to fill the hardware store shelf under the “Wood Finishes” sign. So, that’s what I used. It smelled bad and dried slowly, but once the finish finally hardened up, it was fairly tough. And I could count on its consistency and characteristics every time.

I’m glad to say that my finishing palate has expanded some since then. While oil-based poly is certainly durable—and sometimes it’s the flat-out best choice—now I choose my finishes based on other sorts of criteria, too. If it’s winter and the shop windows are closed up, I use water-based poly to keep the odor down. For figured woods, I start with linseed oil, then follow that with shellac. Lacquer is handy when I have very little time to get my finishing done; it dries almost instantly. Sometimes I like to keep the surface smooth and velvety: a few coats of wipe-on varnish or thinned shellac topped off with wax and a good buffing do the trick. Friction finishes are a hoot to apply to a new turning. It’s fun to bear down and burnish them into the surface with the piece spinning on the lathe. Nothing dries faster than that, and you get a lustrous shine that just about glows.

I’m even playing around with different applicators these days. Foam rollers, panty hose stuffed with cotton pads, rags folded up in a binder clip… Tending to use fewer brushes to cut down on the cleaning hassle and just tossing my applicator when the finish cures hard. The simpler, the better.

What about you? What’s your favorite finish? Do you go with a particular type because it’s dependable, easy or shows off the wood in some special way? Care to share a brand or a special recipe that works well for you? Maybe you’ve got a tip or two to share about your favorite topcoat that someone else would find useful.

I hope you’ll leave a comment here and bring us all into the loop.

Catch you in the shop,

Chris Marshall, Field Editor

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  • My favorite is hand rubbed oil finish “Tried and True” but its very time consuming. I was introduced to this method from my Jedi master Mark Koons, http://www.MarKKoons.com. I will use this method if I am making something that does not get much surface abuse. For things like coffee tables I use linseed oil or tung oil to bring out the beauty of the wood and have been really happy using General brand oil poly applied with a cloth. It seems to dry very fast, at least here in Wyoming which is a very dry climate. I make sure I apply three very light coats that gives me an almost sprayed look result. I am still learning about different approaches from my friend Mark. He also was friends with James Krenov and I am trying to stay true to the approach of working close to the wood which I feel is a great path to the meaning of our craft.

  • Darryl Mayer

    I used to use lacquer now I’ve switched to conversion varnish. It doesn’t smell as bad and dries faster and I can use fewer coats for a durable finish

  • Randy Goodhew

    My favorite finish reflects my methods of work. I like the intimacy of working close to the wood. I seek to accentuate the natural qualities of the wood that I am working. For me, materials selection is the bigger part of creating. Therefore, I most often use a hand-rubbed oil and varnish blend, then rub and rub and rub some more. Like a thoroughbred race horse after a gallant run (I’m from Kentucky), my wood gets a meaningful massage as a well deserved finish.

  • Call me old fashioned but I still like to used water based poly for my projects.

  • Dick Hanna

    I am just finishing a Murphy Bed which I have made with oak veneered plywood and solid oak. I used a pre-stain and stain followed by what I have come to like very much – a wipe-on poly (clear satin). I don’t have problems getting an ultra smooth surface and on a number of projects I have varied from 2 to 7 coats. I used to use a brushed poly but one sometimes has runs, sags, bubbles, brush hairs, etc to deal with and this has disappeared with the wipe-on.. I also like that one can put another coat on after 2-3 hours. I usually do the next coat after 2 hours which means I can sometimes get 4 coats in a day before I give up.

  • Will Merryman

    I have started using poly whey from Vermont Natural coatings. Current job for chemical sensitive client requires products of this nature. Harder than petro poly, each coat dries in 2 hrs. Powders on sanding no loading of paper and can be buffed out if higher blemish free gloss is desired. I liked it so much I used their floor finish in a room in my house. The stuff is rock hard. Made in Vermont from waste product of cheese making.Check it out.

  • My turnings get Myland’s sanding sealer and then their friction finish. All my flat work I reach for Waterlox Original. It never fails me, adds warmth to the project and rubs out beautifully.

  • cindersfella

    I use Nitrocellulose Based Spray Finishes And Sanding Sealer because it dries Quick ( 10 Min Re coat time) and I have controlled finish
    I Get From A high gloss to a flat and the finish is perfect. I have tried two pack finishes and they take forever to dry and it is less controllable,

  • DKO

    I have been using a product call Bristol Finish. It’s a marine grade wood coating and they have a 2 part urathane that looks just like varnish.