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Published: October 2, 2020

The Differences Between Wood Finishes

There are many different kinds of finishes out there. Understanding their characteristics is essential for a professional result. Some are very easy to use, some can only be used with certain application technique. Others can take up to a month or longer to completely cure. This post is oriented around common finishes that I have used, the application process, which brands and types I prefer, and my experiences with them. Please keep in mind that this post is based off of a professional opinion and shouldn’t be considered a substitution for personal research or any recommendations given by the manufacturer. The finishes I want to cover are: Paints, Stains, Tung Oil, Lacquer, and Polyurethane.

Paints

The main type of paint I want to cover is the one that I prefer to use for furniture. This is acrylic paint. This kind of paint is not the one that you probably used in art but is a paint that you find at many paint or hardware stores. It is water soluble, hard when dry, requires little prep, and very user friendly. It can be sprayed or painted. After primed and painted, I will usually add an additional finish like lacquer to give it additional durability as long as a customer is OK with this additional step.

Prepwork

Special preparation and attention to detail is required when performing this step. I want to stress using a couple layers of primer on the furniture before painting with acrylic paint. If you want a super smooth finish then you will need to spray your paint and use this method: Apply the primer then sand the piece with 220 grit sand paper. Continue sanding the furniture until it looks like bare wood with the grain filled with primer. This will remove the grained appearance because paint doesn’t really self-level unless you want to apply a lot more layers than necessary.After you have sanded your first layer of primer, add another layer of primer. Lightly sand the second layer with 220 grit sand paper. Spray three layers of the acrylic paint that you desire with sanding in between each layer and a final

When I first started learning how to paint furniture I made the mistake of forgoing this step and after about 3 layers of primer with unsatisfactory results, I sanded everything down on a huge dresser in order to get the result I should’ve had from the first layer of primer. With the time spent with the unneeded layers of paint and all the extra sanding, this was an 8 hour mistake. sanding of at least 320 grit sandpaper for the final layer.

Stains

A stain is considered a pigment or dye that is suspended in a solvent and applied to wood to change the color of the wood. The subject of stains is a broad subject that can be more of a personal preference than a true estimate of superior vs. inferior quality products. I personally have tried stains from different manufacturers and have noticed very little difference in the characteristic of the different brands. For the most part I use either a stain provided from my supplier or a minwax based stain. If I need a more personal touch, I will order a custom stain made from a paint store such as Sherwin Williams.

There are two basic kinds of stain: oil-based and water-based. One thing I do keep constant is that I prefer a product that has an oil base because it does give more penetration and water water protection. In my opinion, that makes a better quality product than a water based stain. Another reason I use an oil-based stain is because I don’t have to wait for a product to completely dry before using another oil-based finish like polyurethane. My experience is that a higher price of one brand doesn’t mean that the product is superior to the price of a less expensive brand if the manufacturers recommendations are followed.

Prepwork

Stains can be used by itself but I consider this a step before I apply another finish such as polyurethane or lacquer. This is because a stain provides little protection in terms of water and damage resistance. Because of this, it is better to add a little something extra to keep the piece lasting longer.  This product can penetrate the wood more and look darker the longer it covers the wood before excess is wiped off. If I want a darker shade of the stain, I will apply the product with a paint brush and wipe off the excess with a clean rag after it has soaked into the wood for at least a minute. To get a lighter shade of the stain, I will soak part of a rag and wipe the area continuously with enough product to barely cover the wood until there is a uniform color.

If you don’t want to travel to the store, the same stains are available online and here is a quick link to get you to the amazon stain section:
Minwax 70012444 Wood Finish Penetrating Stain, quart, Dark Walnut

Tung Oil

Tung Oil is an secreted from the Tung Tree. It is a great substitution for other natural oils such as: linseed, mineral, soy, walnut, and more. If I’m applying a natural finish to a project, I highly recommend using Tung Oil. It is a water resistant, UV resistant, and mold resistant finish that won’t darken or go rancid. It also dries completely with the ability to add layers quicker than other natural oils.

Prepwork

Application is relatively easy. Get a plastic container that your significant other doesn’t mind missing for a few days. Add a little citric acid or mineral spirits to thin out the oil (you don’t need much, just a little bit to make it easier to apply). When applying the trick is heavier is better. Have a tarp under the piece to catch any excess. Take a rag or brush and soak it in the oil. Spread as much as possible over the area to be finished. I then let the oil sit for a few hours. After about 4-6 hours, wipe off any excess and let the finish dry another 12-24 hours. I do not sand between layers but I just repeat the process 2-4 more times or until I have the desired amount of layers.

Real Milk Paint has a good Tung Oil for a decent price. Here is a link that you can click on to buy some along with some mineral spirits and citric acid:
Real Milk Paint Pure Tung Oil – 32 oz
SUNNYSIDE CORPORATION 80332 1-Quart Mineral Spirits
100% PURE D-Limonene Citrus Orange Oil Extract BEST Natural Solvent Extracted From Orange Peels (Citrus Cleaner Degreaser & Deodorizer) (22.5 oz)

Lacquer

Lacquer is probably the most commonly used finish in the professional woodworking world. This is because it dries quickly and the issue of peeling layers that can sometimes occur with polyurethane is eliminated because every new layer of lacquer is bonded to the previous layers. It also provided a protective coat that is very durable. Because if its ease of use, cabinet makers can finish an entire set of kitchen cabinets in less than a day. The only real drawback is that it is best applied through the spraying technique. This means that an investment in a large compressor and spraying equipment is needed to apply a professional looking lacquer finish. In the shop, I use pre-catalyzed lacquers unless a different kind of lacquer is requested by the client.

I use a process called the Duck Hunting Technique when applying this finish. Start with the spray gun away from the piece to be lacquered and move the gun towards the piece. I then start spraying a little ahead of the piece and hold down the trigger until after I have completely passed over the area.

Prepwork

Here is the basic rundown when applying lacquer. Note: When applying this finish, please follow all manufacturers tips and guidelines. Quickly go over the area with a tack cloth. When spraying lacquer, pass over the area in one long, slow step. The trick is to apply a thick enough layer that doesn’t run and doesn’t go over any other areas that have just been applied. Do not try to cover any areas that were missed by backtracking as this is likely to just cause more issues. When dry, lightly scuff sand the area with 220 grit or higher sandpaper to remove and smooth out areas where any dust or particles may have gotten trapped. Repeat this process and apply 1 or 2 more layers. I have used Watco brand lacquers in the past with great success.

Polyurethane

A polymer that cures into a hard “plastic” coating. I have put the word plastic in quotations because the finished result is a chemical reaction forming a plastic but not like plastics that we find in toys. Consider this where a significant amount of wear and use is expected.

Preparation and finishing is very important. Use a tack cloth before and after applying each layer of finish. Wait patiently for the finish to dry before sanding and putting on a new layer of polyurethane. Sand between layers with 220 or 320 grit sandpaper. Apply two layers of polyurethane along the sides of a piece of furniture or areas that aren’t used very much. Use three layers on areas such as the top of the piece that will see a lot of use. Do not sand the last layer unless using a wet sanding method.

This is one of the most widely available finishes with many different varieties and brands to choose from. Some different varieties include wipe-able, sprays, and brush-able.  There are also water-based, oil-modified, and oil-based polyurethanes. 

Wipe-on:

Applies a thin layer of finish to the area. Usually, this takes twice as many layers as a spray-on or a brush-on polyurethane. I take a lint-free rag and apply a thin layer over the wood. I recommend using a 320 grit or higher sandpaper and very lightly scuffing between layers to prevent wearing off all the finish and into the stain or wood. Click on this link for a redirect to a wipe-on polyurethane that we use:
Minwax 40910000 Wipe-On Poly Finish Clear, pint, Satin

Spray-on: 

Can be used best for touch-ups and small areas or where a lot of polyurethane isn’t needed. I take the can and spray the finish over the area. Can be applied thicker with as many layers as a brushed polyurethane but it is usually better to treat it more like a wipe-on poly in terms of the number of layers and finishing techniques. You can try this spray-on polyurethane:
Minwax 33055000 Fast-Drying Polyurethane Aerosol, 11.5 ounce, Semi-Gloss

Brush-on:

This is the type of poly that I use mostly in my shop. It creates a smooth finish when using a very fine bristled brush. Take the brush and with one stroke, try to apply an even layer across the surface of the wood. There will be a line where the fresh polyurethane and the bare wood are exposed and that is where you will apply another layer of polyurethane. Repeat this process until all of the area is covered. Once dry, sand and repeat the process.  Click on this link for a re-direct to a polyurethane we use in the shop:
Minwax 63010444 Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Finish, quart, Satin

Oil-based Polyurethane: 

Many use oil-based polyurethane because it is cheaper and is a little more “old-school”. It has a long drying time, up to 24 hours, depending on the environment. The durability is higher than that of water-based polyurethane. It is best used over flooring and heavily used furniture like tables. I enjoy using oil-based polyurethane because of the amber tone over the wood it creates when used. This usually plays well with darker stains and woods.

Polycrylic/Water-Based Polyurethane:

In my experience, this is a more user-friendly finish because instead of oil-based. This water-based polyurethane has a quicker drying time, about 2 to 4 hours, and tends to give a smoother finish.  This finish doesn’t give off an amber look which works a lot better with lighter stains and woods. This type of finish isn’t as durable as an oil-based polyurethane. Because of this, I wouldn’t use it on floors or heavy work surfaces.

Oil-modified Polyurethane:

This polyurethane is designed to have the best qualities of both the oil-based and water-based polyurethane. It is has the durable, amber looking characteristics of the oil-based polyurethane with the drying time of a water-based polyurethane. Unless an oil-based poly is requested, I rely more on oil-modified and polycrylic  finishes to get the job done. 

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