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Selecting a Wood Finish to Give a Piece a "Wow" Factor

Updated on November 12, 2015
This trunk has a coat of penetrating stain followed by three coats of satin polyurethane.
This trunk has a coat of penetrating stain followed by three coats of satin polyurethane.

Creating that extraordinary piece.

Imagine spending countless hours creating something with the toil of your hands. You have put every ounce of care into this project. You have taken a step back several times to critique your own work and made improvements as needed. Finally, you have finished. You have managed to put a piece of yourself into this creation. It is special.

The next step is to put the finish on your wood. There are several options available and it's time to choose one. The project itself will most likely determine the best finish. If you have something that was made out of beautiful wood, you will have an opportunity to show off the grain. If you have something that should look old then you would show that off as well. If it is a piece of furniture it will need to be durable. If it is a child's toy or something that comes into contact with food then the finish must be non-toxic.

If all of these choices seem daunting, they really aren't. You just need to get familiar with some choices that are available and they will be like tools in a toolbox. You simply pick up the tool that will work best in a given situation.

Children's toys require a durable finish.
Children's toys require a durable finish.

Children's toys

In the photo above, I made this child's toolbox out of various scraps of hardwood. It was made to take some rough wear and tear. The pieces of hardwood had some very nice grain so I decided to show it off.

I started with a coat of shellac to seal the wood. I followed with three coats of satin polyurethane. If I hadn't used the shellac, the first coat and maybe the second of polyurethane would have disappeared as it soaked into the wood. It is a time saver. I lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper between coats to give each coat something to grab on to. The coats can be applied with either a paint brush or a spray.

The polyurethane that I used was oil base. You could use water base finishes as well but keep in mind that the water will cause the grain to raise more, You will have to spend a little more time sanding between coats to keep it smooth.

Finishing softwood toys

When finishing something like the biplane above, you will take a little different approach. The plane is made of pine which is less stable than hardwood. What does this mean? It means that you need to definitely seal the wood so that the thinner stock used on the wings doesn't warp.

The finish starts again with shellac. This time the shellac not only keeps additional coats from disappearing, it seals the wood very well. After this, three coats of lacquer were applied. Lacquer can be sprayed instead of brushed, which really worked out well in covering all of the small pieces on the plane.

One note on using lacquer, it will give off fumes as it cures. You will want to use this finish in a well ventilated area away form open flames. The fumes will dissipate as the finish dries. You can usually recoat in about fifteen minutes. You will be able to give a project three coats in a little over an hour.

You will want to avoid spraying lacquer on a very humid day. It will tend to give your finish a white, milky tint. Other than that, in the end it creates a very durable finish.

Finishing cabinets and furniture.

Most cabinet shops that build kitchen cabinets like working with lacquer following a coat of stain. Lacquer is very appealing because it dries very quickly, making it possible to recoat sooner. Lacquer makes a very durable finish that will hold up to every day use of cabinetry.

Furniture can be coated with lacquer as well, but polyurethane works very well also. I prefer polyurethane on furniture because is has less gloss than lacquer.

Varnish stain will give you a very even color.
Varnish stain will give you a very even color.

Using varnish stain for evenness.

The piece above was made to store a friend's pocket watch collection. It was made out of pieces of hardwood and pieces of hardwood faced plywood. The pieces didn't match in color very well. Varnish stain was the finish of choice here.

Varnish stain is exactly that - varnish and stain. This will enable you to make a finish darker with the more coats you apply. To get the effect in the piece above, I applied three coats. With the third coat you could no longer tell that the pieces didn't totally match. The Brazilian Cherry color gave the piece a very luxurious look when done. This was a finish fitting for the antique watches that it now stores.

I used an oil base varnish stain here. Water base varnish stains are also available and claim to be very durable. Once again, if using a water base finish you will need to sand a little more between coats to get everything smooth.

Using Tung oil to bring out natural beauty.

If you have an item that has a very nice grain to it and you want to accentuate the grain and have a complete finish, reach for the Tung oil. I have held a very beautiful piece of wood in my hand and applied some Tung oil to it. After two to three coats of oil, the wood went from beautiful to stunning!

Tung oil can be applied with a brush or a rag. Each coat needs to dry overnight. After the second coat you will start to see the wood grain jump out and a slight sheen begins to appear. Three coats will usually do the trick.

You will need to take care when disposing of the rags used to wipe the oil on. If they are thrown in a trash can they can spontaneously combust. I usually will place mine outside somewhere and then dispose of them the following day after the oil has dried.

The small box below was built out of four types of hardwood. The grain was very nice in the wood and I wanted to make the contrast in the wood types "jump forth." The Tung oil really brought out the grain nicely and gave it a beautiful finish.

This finish is not suitable for children's toys or food safe surfaces but is great for nearly everything else..

Tung oil was used to accentuate the wood on this box.
Tung oil was used to accentuate the wood on this box.

Linseed oil for an old traditional look.

Many antique pieces will have linseed oil as a finish. When some of these great pieces were made, they were made for their practicality and not so much for grain appearance. Linseed oil is a very simple finish. You simply wipe or brush it on, let it soak in for about ten minutes, and then wipe the excess off. After allowing to dry over night you can apply a coat of paste wax for added luster.

Many old wooden tools were cared for by applying a fresh coat of linseed oil every year or so. Like Tung oil, the rags will need to be disposed of carefully.

The spoon below was finished with linseed oil. The wood didn't have much grain character so instead of accentuating the grain, the linseed oil accentuated the carving definition instead. A finish coat of paste wax gave the wood a slight finish sheen.

Linseed oil finish on this carved spoon.
Linseed oil finish on this carved spoon.

Food safe finish.

If you happen to be working with something such as a salad bowl that is wooden or a cutting board, you need to be concerned about toxicity. For many years people used a vegetable oil to treat surfaces to make them food safe. This isn't the best choice because the vegetable oil will get rancid.

It is best to buy a salad bowl finish from a supplier. This finish is food safe and will stay food safe. The appearance of this oil on wood will look much like linseed oil. It will darken the wood and not particularly accentuate the grain.

Going for the aged look.

If you make something with new wood and want to make it look very weathered and old, I have a neat trick for you. There are products on the market that you can purchase that will give wood a very old patina. You could use this method or you could use items that you probably already have in your home.

If you brew some strong coffee, instead of drinking it apply some on a piece of wood with a paint brush. You will see the wood turn only slightly darker. Allow the wood to dry for several hours. At the same time you brew your coffee, take a glass jar and put a piece of steel wool inside, (not an SOS pad or anything with soap in it.) Pour in some white distilled vinegar over the steel wool pad. Put in enough vinegar to cover the steel wool. Allow the mixture to sit over night.

The following day, you will see that the steel wool is nearly dissolved in the jar. Dip your paint brush in this solution and paint it over the area where you applied the coffee the day before. Cover the wood thoroughly. At first you wont see much difference but as the mixture sits there and gradually reacts with the tannic acid in the coffee, you will start to see the wood growing old before your eyes. You will see a difference after about thirty minutes and an even bigger one in about two hours. This will make the wood look very old.

You can keep the look as is. I have also rubbed some paste wax on it to help protect the wood. It also gives the wood some depth. Attempt this on a scrap piece of wood first to test out the results. I think you will be amazed.

Using the "aged wood" process.
Using the "aged wood" process.

Penetrating stain with polyurethane.

Probably the most common finishing technique is using a penetrating stain followed by coats of polyurethane. In the photo below, I built this round top trunk out of oak flooring boards. I selected boards that have a pronounced grain. After sanding everything smooth, I put on a coat of penetrating stain. This was allowed to sit on the wood surface for about five minutes and then wiped off. The grain of the wood nearly jumped right out of the boards!

After the stain dried over night, I put on three coats of semi-gloss polyurethane. I was very pleased with the results. I might add that the level of shine can work for you or against you here. I like to let the wood show itself off and if you use too glossy of a finish, it begins to distract from the beauty of the wood.

Polyurethane provides a great protective coating that will be resistant to water. If you are finishing something that will be outside in the weather you would use a spar urethane or spar varnish. Spar finishes don't break down with the UV rays from the sun.

Finding a good finish for musical instruments.

If you are dealing with a musical instrument, you will enter into an additional dimension. You are not only trying to achieve a finish that looks very nice, you have to select something that won't alter the tone of the instrument.

Lacquer seems to be a popular choice for many stringed instruments. The important thing here is knowing when to stop applying coats. Once you achieve a uniform luster, you should probably not go any further. Truthfully, most instruments sound their best before they are finished. The finish will tend to mute the tone. However, they need something to protect the wood.

Several years ago I built a violin from raw materials. It was the most challenging thing that I have done to date. I decided to follow the path of the old luthiers and make my own alcohol based stain and followed by four coats of shellac. Shellac will seal the wood as mentioned before. Additional coats will build up slightly and then any additional coats will simply dissolve into previous coats. In other words, it won't build up a heavy coat. This allows the instrument to have a better "voice."


A violin with alcohol based stain and shellac for the finish coat.
A violin with alcohol based stain and shellac for the finish coat.

Wrapping things up.

I have mentioned several different options for finishing various projects. This is not a complete list but is the most common ways to finish items. If you select the finish that best compliments your wood piece, then your piece is no longer "just another item." It is a work of art!

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    • MHiggins profile image
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      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thank you Chitrangada! I always value your feedback. Thanks for stopping by and reading my hub.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      All these are beautiful and classic pieces! Finishing is very important in wood work. The choice of the oil or paint or color to be used and also the neatness with which it is to be finished should be given a forethought.

      As always a very fine, creative hub. Voted up as beautiful!