Your Favorite Finishes and Why

Your Favorite Finishes and Why

Last week, Rob requested your thoughts about the finishes you choose, why you use them and in what circumstances. Many have thoughts on the subject. – Editor

“What I use depends on where my project is being used. I finished up some drawers for the kitchen. My wife and I just left them as is, no finish. If my project is to be used outside, I use paint, several coats of paintsometimes. For fine indoor projects, I prefer Waterlox. It protects the wood while letting the wood’s beauty come through.” – James P. Cottingham

“I use Waterlox but have recently been introduced by one mentor to Yorkshire Grit. I’m thinking it will become my new finish of choice. However, another mentor has me using water-based urethane on light wood (maple) to show the grain pattern better. We shall see.” – Skip Landis

“When I first started serious woodworking nearly 45 years ago, I learned most of my skills from magazines and books. A magazine article would go through pages and numerous photos of construction and joinery and end with a paragraph like, ‘Apply finish of choice and enjoy.’ A friend recommended one finish and I pretty much stuck with that for a few years. Then Bob Flexner’s book came out and it was a revelation to me. Several other finishing books came out, which I devoured, and I found a few vintage books at the local library. A few years later, I got into the refinishing and touch-up business, and my training there also increased my skill set and portfolio. Today, I am not a ‘one-trick pony’ and use a variety of finishes — shellac, lacquer, oil-based varnishes (including phenolic, acrylic and occasionally the ubiquitous polyurethane), water-borne acrylic and sometimes even paint. For coloring, I use dyes, pigmented stains, toners and glazes, water-borne and oil-based, as needed. One customer I had was a turner. He took me out to his wood shop and he had a rack of one brand of wipe-on poly finishes that he used for everything. He said that a recent article called it the best finish. I was thinking, most of what he did was just bowls, and do bowls that sit on a shelf their entire life need the abrasion-resistance of a poly varnish? There seemed to be so many other better choices. Or at least other choices.” – Keith Mealy

“Here in Quito, Ecuador, we are quite limited in the finishes available. Varnishes, lacquers and spray cans with guess-what contents are by far the most used. Shellac is not available, and a lot of the water-based finishes are difficult to find. I import shellac flakes from Amazon and make my own shellac ,which is my normal go-to finish for my lathe-turned items. For larger items like furniture, I normally spray lacquer sealer and lacquer or varnish for the finish coat.” – Claude Sherman

“I do have favorites. I frequently default, or at least start, with shellac. But I’m also fond of gel urethane. For outdoor projects, it’s mostly spar varnish or deck oils. When to use what is frequently decided by the temperature of my shop. I live in Southwest Washington; until today (!) it’s been cold and wet…pretty much since last November. I just finished a cherry pepper grinder. I used Ruby shellac and homemade bees wax and mineral oil for the finish on that one. Just too dang cold for urethane. For cherry, especially indoor furniture, I do like gel urethane. Easy to use, looks great, and is tough enough for everyday use. But even then, I frequently start by sealing with shellac. I decant my own from flakes. For oak, I like oil. Tung or other blends … Watco and Formsby are my general go-tos, but just clean mineral oil generally works well for food-related projects. I rarely use lacquer. I don’t really like spray cans, and cleaning my gun is a hassle. Lastly, and at the bottom of my list, are the water-based finishes. Just too darn clear. Oil-based is warmer. I once refinished my shop bench with water-based urethane. Terrible decision. Now contemplating planing it all off (again) and using a wipe-on urethane. It just stinks up the shop so bad for days, and it takes several days of warmer weather to cure out fully. Your mileage may vary. But that’s what you’ll find in my finishing cabinet!” – Steve Kendall

“The short answer is, it depends. For example, for small bowls, boxes, etc., that I turn my default finish is boiled linseed oil and bees wax. For furniture, I tend to default to tung oil or poly, and lastly for pens and such, I go with boiled linseed oil and super glue.” – John Burbank

“I started out in woodworking with refinishing rather than building. My wife and I had gotten married and had virtually zero furniture and money. We were creative and we used a large cable wire spool for our kitchen table with two smaller spools as chairs. We also went to house sales and auctions seeking furniture. We looked for items with potential because we couldn’t afford the popular items. For example, we still have the large oak ice box that was a real bargain at an auction because it looked quite sad. So, applying some elbow grease we gutted it and stripped the white paint and refinished it. It still has a place in our living room today. The large oak bookcase with glass doors merely required cleaning and touching up. It sits in the room with me as I type this. Over the years, I have used many different finishes except for shellac. All have their place, depending on the piece and its use. I use wipe-on polyurethane and Watco Danish oil. These days, General Finishes water-based gel finishes and stains have become my go-to finish because of ease of use, appearance and durability.” – Sim Galazka

“I’m like you described; finishing is just an unavoidable step at the end of a fun project. Although, depending on the geometry of the project, I often do parts or all of the finishing before final assembly. My go-to finish is pretty simple. Oil-based stain, or not, depending on the wood and the desired look. Then one or two coats of clear, dewaxed shellac. Finally, two or more coats of clear, water-based poly, usually satin. I like the poly because if the finish is damaged or wears over time, all it takes is wiping away any furniture oil or wax, a light sanding and applying more poly.” – Henry Burks< "I use a wipe-on poly for almost all of my projects. It may take a little longer but is easy to control, and I can build up layers to whatever suits the project. It does not run and is not prone to water spots when I use it on furniture." – Loren Estes

“I do not believe in a go-to finish. Every species of wood is different, and that alone determines what the finish will be.” – Glenn Davis

“I had the great good fortune to meet Michael Dresdner back in the mid 1990’s when I was getting going with serious woodworking. I learned a tremendous amount about evaporative and reactive finishes, chemical and dye staining, etc. from Michael.

“As a result, for indoor projects, my go to finish is fresh dewaxed shellac, which I mix myself, with a drop or two of a leveling agent that I got from Jeff Jewitt.

“I have, on rare occasions, used polyurethane for projects where protection and durability is more important than appearance and repairability. I do not like to ‘poly-urinate’ on my projects. I’ve also used a few drying oils too but dewaxed shellac is my strong preference. In addition to furniture, I do some restoration of old bagpipes and use shellac for them too, including Cocus, ebony, and African blackwood.” – John Brock

“I am a fairly newbie woodworker that got started in earnest after retirement five years ago. I am constrained to do all my woodworking and finishing in my garage. I am one of those you mentioned that have a couple of go-to finishes and have not taken the time to explore the full range of options. I’m always open to new suggestions, though. I generally build interior projects. If the project will be exposed to possibilities of splashing water or the like, I use an oil-based wipe-on poly. I have used this on projects that have and have not been stained. I prefer the Minwax brand since it seems to be a little thinner and so has more open time than some others, which is forgiving in our hot Texas climate and for a newbie. I don’t quite follow the directions. I put on two thin to moderate coats allowing each one to dry thoroughly. Then after the second coat, I sand ever so slightly with 400- or 1000-grit just to remove any surface contaminants that may have stuck during drying. I then put on a third thin to moderate coat. I have had fairly good results with that. The other finish I like that I recently discovered is Danish oil finish (Watco brand). The features that I like about it are that it is a single-operation finish, it penetrates rather than remains on the surface and what is important for me is that it is finished by wiping it almost dry. That way there is not any significant problem of possible contaminants drying on the surface.” – Lorin Netsch

“My preference is wax-free shellac to eliminate blotches, followed by stain if needed, followed by wipe-on polyurethane.” – Raymond Juracek

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