Wood finishes help to protect wooden surfaces while also providing a richer, deeper, and more lustrous look. 

But choosing the right wood finish can make or break your woodworking project. 

After all, unlike painting, which hides the wooden surface, finishes aim to enhance and improve on the appearance of the wood. This means that an unsuitable choice of finish could end up darkening the wood more than you’d intended, or be too difficult to apply for your level of skill. 

As such, it’s vital to know what to expect from different types of wood finishes before you make your selection. 

Check out this guide to find out how to choose the best wood finish. 

Different Types of Wood Finishes

From the optimal timber protection and durability of a wood preservative to the glossy finish of shellac, there’s a wide range of different options and benefits when it comes to wood finishes. 

Here’s a full round-up of some of the most common wood finish types:


Made up solvents, oils, and resins, varnishes are usually clear. They give wood a hard, protective finish with UV protection, making them suitable for interiors and exteriors. 

You can use varnish on both bare and stained wood for a durable finish. But, you need to clean the wooden surface well before applying varnish for the best results. 


Shellac is a form of wax finish, but it’s mixed with an alcohol solvent for better consistency. It’s available in a range of colors, dries fast, and provides a hard and glossy finish for wood surfaces. But, this type of wood finish isn’t moisture-resistant, so you can only use it on interior wooden furniture and flooring. 

Polyurethane Finish

This durable type of wood finish is water resistant and comes in a variety of looks and sheens. As such, a polyurethane finish is ideal for kitchen and bathroom cabinets, doors, furniture, and flooring. 

One downside of these types of wood finishings is that they tend to show cracks or turn yellow in sunlight, making them unsuitable for exteriors. 


Oil finishes seep into the wood to give it a rich, translucent appearance. Natural oils in wood dry out over time so oil finishes help to replace these oils and nourish the grain. Oil is easy to apply and helps to cover nicks and scratches in the wood surface. 

Water-Based Finish

Water-based wood finishes provide a clear, clean finish without the odor of oil-based finishes. Although water-based finishes give a natural appearance to wooden surfaces, they are fast-drying. This means you need to be careful to avoid visible brush strokes during application.


Wood dyes are colorants dissolved in solvents like alcohol and mineral spirits, and are available in both water-based and oil-based types. Although they are transparent, dyes can change the color of the wood while preserving the look of the grain. 


Wood stain particles are larger and more opaque than dye particles. As such, you can use stain to either enhance the natural color of the wood surface or to provide a more uniform finish. This does mean that the natural grain of the wood can sometimes become obscured when using wood stain. 

Stains are available in a range of colors and provide a different depth of finish depending on how many coats you use. Stains don’t protect the wood so you would also need to apply a wood finish for better protection. 

Wood Preservative

Wood preservatives prevent insect damage, rot, and weather damage, making them ideal for exterior wooden surfaces. Preservatives are available in a range of colors with either a mat or semi-gloss finish. 


Lacquers are thin and solvent-based finishes that are often sprayed rather than applied with a brush as they dry fast. They penetrate the wood and nourish the grain to bring out the wood’s natural beauty with a glossy finish. 

How to Choose the Best Wood Finish

Now you know the main types of wood finishes, it’s time to consider how different wood finishes are more suitable for different projects and preferences based on these three key factors: 


The durability of a wood finish depends on its resistance to heat, scratches, chemical solvents, and water. 

Wood preservatives are the top choice for exteriors thanks to their extreme durability. For interiors, the most durable hand-applied finish is oil-based polyurethane, while lacquer and varnish are very durable spray-finishes. 

Shellac and other wax finishes are among the least durable as they can be damaged by water exposure and are also easy to scratch. 

Skill Level

The possibility of visible brush strokes with water-based finishes makes them less than ideal for those who lack experience. Likewise, lacquer isn’t the best choice if you don’t have the time, space, and budget to dedicate to mastering the difficult skill of spraying

In contrast, oil finishes are easy to apply, making them a popular choice for woodwork beginners. 

The Look

To achieve a natural finish, woodworkers often use oil or oil-varnish blends. 

But you can also give your wood a natural look with shellac, regular varnish, and lacquer, as long as you stick to a minimum number of coats and use steel wool to rub out the dried film. These three hard finishes also provide the deepest and most lustrous effects. 

The color and penetration of the finish are also important considerations. Many finishes deepen the wood surface color, which is often desirable for added depth and luster. But if you don’t want too much of a deepening effect, choose your finish accordingly.  

Due to the way they penetrate the surface, shellac, solvent-based lacquer, and oil-based varnish all increase surface luster and depth of color the most. In contrast, water-based finishes lie on the surface and make the wood appear lighter. 

Your Guide to Choosing the Perfect Wood Finish

With so many different types of wood finishes to choose from, it can be hard to decide which is the best for your project. 

They all have their advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to consider what your priorities are when it comes to the look and durability you want, while also taking your skill level into account. 

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