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Putting the finish on furniture is the final payoff for all the hours you’ve spent removing the old finish, making repairs, sanding, staining, and smoothing. Some might consider the finishing step as routine; others might think it’s creative. Either way, it is usually easy to do, if you use the right materials, take your time, and exercise a little patience.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to pick the best finish for your furniture wood. We’ll also review some application techniques, including preparation work and drying tips, so whatever finish you choose should provide a long-lasting look.
Types of Finish
All these finishes are designed to protect the wood and to bring out its natural beauty, and all of them can be assessed in terms of how well they accomplish these objectives.
Consequently, choosing a finish comes down to two essential factors: How do you want the wood to look? How durable do you want the finished surface to be? Of the six basic finishes, all can be beautiful, but when it comes to durability, two types outperform all the others:
varnish and penetrating resin. Varnish, the most durable of all finishes, is available in high-gloss, satin, and flat forms for whatever surface shine you want. Applying varnish can be difficult, but the results are worth the work.
Penetrating resin sinks into the wood to give it a natural look and feel; it is easy to apply and durable. The other furniture finishes do have their advantages. Oil, for instance, produces a very natural finish.
Shellac dries fast and is easy to use. But for most refinishing, varnish or penetrating resin is probably the best choice. Whatever finish you choose, it’s important to know exactly what you’re working with.
Some finishes can be mixed and some cannot. Each finish has its own individual application techniques; each finish requires different tools and materials.
Before you buy and apply a finish, always read the ingredient and application information on the container. And always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations.
The one requirement common to all finishes is a dust-free environment during application. Providing this environment isn’t easy, but it can be done.
Consider using a finish that dries with a matte or flat surface; this type of finish gives you the opportunity to remove dirt and lint with rubbing abrasives.
In most cases, how a piece of furniture stands up to wear is as important as how it looks. Durability is a primary consideration in choosing a finish.
The most durable finishes, varnish and penetrating resin, are thus the two basic finishes for refinishing. Varnish is the more protective of the two because it is a surface coat; damage to the varnish does not always extend to the wood.
Penetrating resin hardens in the wood itself. Although it doesn’t protect the surface from damage as effectively as varnish, it may stand up to heavy use better because it’s easy to reapply and doesn’t chip or craze.
Varnish, one of the toughest of the finishes, is superior to the other traditional finishes. It enhances and gives warmth to the grain of the wood and is resistant to impact, heat, abrasion, water, and alcohol.
It can be used as a topcoat over worn finishes. Varnish provides a clear finish, but it darkens the wood slightly.
It is available in high-gloss, semi gloss or satin, and matte or flat surface finishes. There are many types to choose from, but it’s important to decide on one that will work well with your furniture wood.
Types of Varnish
The best of the synthetic varnishes is the polyurethane type; polyurethanes are clear, non-yellowing, and very tough. Other synthetic varnishes are the phenolics, used for exterior and some marine work, and the alkyds, often used in colored preparations.
Phenolic and alkyd varnishes yellow with age and are not recommended for refinishing. With any type of varnish, look for quick drying to minimize dust problems. Use spray varnish only where brushing is impractical, such as on wicker or rattan. Water-base varnishes offer similar results without the cleanup hassle and toxicity.
Most dry clear to the touch in 15 to 30 minutes. They don’t crack, chip, or bubble, and they are water- and alcohol-resistant. Best of all, these varnishes do not yellow. However, when applied in several coats, the finish might begin to cloud, depending on the wood.
Do not mix brands or types of varnish. Polyurethane varnish is not compatible with all stains and fillers. Before buying, read the labels to make sure you’re using compatible materials. Some polyurethane can be thinned for use as a sealer; some do not require sealers. Some sanding sealers are compatible with polyurethanes.
Water-base varnish can be used over stain and filler, provided you allow the undercoats to fully cure. This process can take up to a month. You can also apply a sealer coat of shellac between the two if you don’t want to wait. Be aware that varnish generally dries very slowly and can be difficult to apply, so it’s important to know how to use this finish.
Drying and recoating
Also, drying times are not necessarily curing times, and new varnish is easily damaged. Always let the finish dry at least 24 hours or as long as the manufacturer recommends; if possible, let it dry a couple of days or more. Pick off lint and dust only while the surface is wet or sticky; too much interference could damage it.
Many varnishes require two or even three coats for a smooth finish — use your own judgment, and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Between coats of varnish, let the first coat of varnish harden or dry, as recommended by the manufacturer.
Some two-coat varnishes should be applied 10 to 15 hours from the time the first coat was applied, but in general it’s best to wait at least 24 hours — longer, if possible. When the first coat is completely dry, lightly sand the varnished wood in the direction of the grain, using grade 7/0 sandpaper on a padded sanding block.
Abrade the surface evenly, but don’t cut it deeply. Clean away all sanding residue with a tack cloth, and apply the second coat of varnish the same way as you did the first. Repeat this procedure, sanding the varnished wood carefully, if a third coat of varnish is required. Penetrating resin finishes, unlike varnish, are not surface finishes; they soak into the wood to harden the fibers themselves.
Wood treated with penetrating resin has a very natural look and feel, as if it was unfinished, and the grain is strongly highlighted. Penetrating resin is very durable and withstands heavy wear; it is both easy to apply and easy to repair. It dries clear, but it darkens the wood slightly.
It is also available in several stain colors. Because penetrating resin must soak into the wood, it is best used on open-grained woods. Very close-grained woods may not absorb it deeply. On stripped wood, all old filler must be removed. If filler is left in the wood, the finish will not be absorbed.
Penetrating resin is recommended for use on oily hardwoods, such as rosewood and teak, and is especially effective on oak and walnut. It is often preferable to varnish for use on large pieces of furniture and complex carvings. It dries relatively slowly, but because it is not a surface finish, dust is not a problem.
A penetrating resin finish is very hard to remove for future refinishers, so it’s important to choose the right one for the job.
Types of Penetrating Resin
Special Requirements Penetrating resin can be used over any stain except varnish- or vinyl-base types. No filling or sealing is required. Before applying penetrating resin on bleached or stained surfaces, test it on a hidden part of the piece.
Whenever possible, penetrating resin should be applied to horizontal surfaces. If the piece of furniture has removable parts, remove them and finish them horizontally.
Apply penetrating resin with a clean brush or cloth, with No. 0000 steel wool, or pour it directly onto the wood. Work on small areas at a time. On rungs or spindles, apply the resin with a clean cloth one rung at a time. Spread the resin liberally and evenly over the wood.
The appearance of the surface isn’t critical, but the amount of resin used on each surface should be consistent. As you work, watch the wood surface.
Some open-grained woods soak up the finish very quickly, others — especially close-grained hardwoods — absorb it slowly and may not absorb much. Apply resin until the wood stops absorbing it.
Let the resin set for about 30 to 45 minutes. During this time, keep the surface wet, adding more resin to any dry spots that appear. All surfaces should be shiny.
After 30 to 45 minutes, when the wood will not absorb any more resin and the surface is still wet, firmly wipe off the excess finish with clean, absorbent cloths. The surface of the wood should be completely dry, with no wet, shiny spots.
Drying and Recoating
After 24 hours, smooth the wood gently with No. 000 or 0000 steel wool; then clean it thoroughly with a tack cloth. Apply a second coat of penetrating resin, letting it penetrate and wiping off the excess as above.
If necessary on very open-grained woods, apply a third coat of resin; wait 24 hours and smooth the surface with steel wool before application, as above. No wax or other surface coat is needed.
This shellac finishing technique produces a much more durable surface than the standard shellac finish. French-polished surfaces have a very distinctive, velvety sheen, and the grain and color of the wood are emphasized.
It is best used on close-grained woods and fine veneers. Use only water stain or spirit-base non-grain-raising (NGR) stain under French polish; other types may bleed or lift. To apply a French polish finish, mix 2 tablespoons of boiled linseed oil into 1 pint of 1-pound-cut shellac.
Make a palm-size pad of cheesecloth, and wrap it in a clean, lint-free linen or cotton cloth. The pad should just fit in your palm. Dip the pad into the shellac/oil mixture; don’t soak it.
Make sure the surface of the pad is not wrinkled. Apply the shellac/oil mixture to the prepared wood, spreading it evenly along the grain to cover the entire surface; work with a quick padding stroke, blending your strokes carefully.
Then rub the wet surface with the pad, using a firm circular or figure-eight motion over the wood. Continue this circular rubbing 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.
Let the rubbed shellac/oil mixture dry for 24 hours; then apply another coat of shellac/oil as above. Rub the second coat in for 45 minutes, and let it dry for two to three days. Apply a third coat the same way. Let the wood dry for at least a week, but not more than 10 days, after the final coat. Finally, clean the surface, wax the finished wood with a good-quality paste wax, and buff it to a fine sheen.
Lacquer is the fastest-drying of the finishes for wooden furniture. It is more durable than shellac — although it is very thin — and must be applied in many thin coats. It is available in high-gloss, satin, and matte finishes, in clear form and in several clear stain colors.
Dust-free drying is not a problem, but because lacquer dries so fast — sometimes almost instantly — it is very difficult to work with. Brushing lacquers are not recommended for amateur use; spraying lacquers must be applied with a motorized spray gun. Lacquer fumes can be both toxic and explosive.
For these reasons, lacquer is not usually used in amateur refinishing. For small jobs, lacquer can be applied with aerosol spray cans. This is expensive, but it works well. It’s important to know what type of lacquer to use for the job.
Special Requirements Lacquer can be used on most woods, but it cannot be used on mahogany and rosewood; the oils in these woods will bleed through the finish.
Lacquer can be used over lacquer-base, non-grain-raising (NGR), and water stains, and over lacquer-base fillers. It cannot be used over other finishes, or over oil-base stains or many fillers; the solvents in lacquer will dissolve other finishes and incompatible stains and fillers. Thinned lacquer or shellac or a compatible lacquer-base sanding sealer should be used as a sealer under a lacquer finish.
How to Wax and Seal Furniture
These waxes add color to the wood, and are especially helpful if the finish on the wood is blotchy, but they do not stain the wood or restore the finish. Paste wax is easy to apply, and is nonstick and heat-resistant, but it is easily damaged and liable to wear. It must be reapplied periodically.
Paste wax is more commonly used over a sealer stain to color, seal, and finish new or stripped wood. Sealer stain finishes, including commercial systems, are available in several colors.
Sealer stains produce a very even color, with no lap marks or dark spots. They are fairly tough and are very easy to apply. They are not very water-resistant and must often be recoated periodically. But before you begin the project, it’s important to know the type of wood you are working with.
How to Apply Paste Wax
Apply paste wax sparingly with a clean, lint-free cloth pad, rubbing the wax on with a circular motion to form a thin, even coating. Work on a small area at a time. Some manufacturers recommend that the wax be applied with a damp — not wet — pad. If you use water, make sure the surface is dry before you polish it. Let the wax dry completely, as recommended by the manufacturer.
Then wipe the waxed surface firmly with a clean cloth to remove excess wax. When the waxed surface is even, polish it to a shine with a clean cloth. To complete the finish, apply one or two more coats of wax, as above. Polish each coat completely before applying the next coat.
How to Apply a Sealer Stain Finish
Thoroughly mix the sealer stain. Apply the stain evenly along the grain with a clean brush or cloth, and let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes; then wipe off the excess with a clean cloth. Let the wood dry for 24 hours and apply a second coat of stain, as above.
To complete the finish, apply one or two coats of paste wax, as above. Polish each coat thoroughly with a clean cloth.
How to Apply Oil Finish on Furniture
Hand-rubbed oil finishes can be beautiful, but only if they’re properly applied. Danish and Tung oil finishes are far superior to the traditional linseed oil; linseed oil is sticky and hard to apply.
Any oil finish must be reapplied periodically, but Danish and Tung oil require far less reapplication than linseed oil. It’s important to choose the right oil finish for your furniture project.