Reference Chart - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Wood Finishing

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Reference Chart




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Varnish - A staple finish; dependable, long-lasting, and durable. Alkyd varnish is the most common; Urethane varnish (polyurethane) is a harder finish than alkyd without the amber tinge.
TypeReactive film finish (dries by chemical reaction with oxygen)
AppearanceAmber tinge that darkens with age; polyurethane not as clear as alkyd varnish
SheenFlat to gloss; harder to rub to an even sheen than shellac or lacquer
DurabilityExcellent wear/water/water vapour/heat/chemical resistance
ApplicationModerately easy to apply by brush; very easy to apply by rag, as a "wiping varnish".
Thinned 25 - 50% wih mineral spirits; challenging to spray; thin and clean up with mineral spirits
RepairabilityDifficult to repair and time-consuming to strip; use a stripper like "Circa 1850 Furniture Stripper" followed by light sanding and then wash the wood with mineral spirits
Dry Time24 hours (longer in cooler or damper environments); susceptible to dust nibs when drying, moderately easy to sand between coats; minimum 1 month to cure
Editor's PickVarathane Diamond Wood Finish (varathane.com), Circa 1850 Polyurethane (circa1850.com)
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Shellac - A classic finish that develops a beautiful patina over time; use de-waxed shellac. It is a superior sealer coat for other finises and seals in contaminants such as silicone, wax, dirt, and oil. 
TypeEvaporative film finish (finish dries as the solvent - alcohol evaporates)
AppearanceClear (super blonde shellac) to rich darker reddish brown (garnet shellac)
SheenFlat to high gloss; very easy to rub to a high sheen
DurabilityFair wear resistance; excellent moisture resistance; poor water/chemical resistance
ApplicationEasy to apply by brush, rag, or tampon (for French polishing) thin and clean up with mineral spirits; mix from dried flakes or purchase pre-mixed
RepairabilityVery easy (new layer dissolves into existing layer)
Dry Time2-3 hours; easy to sand between coats' cures within 1 week
Editor's PickWood Essence Premium Dry Shellac Flakes
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Oil/Varnish - Better protection than oils with little film build-up; "Danish Oil" or "Antique Finish Oil" products are typically oil and varnish blends.
TypeReactive film finish (finish dries by chemical reaction to oxygen)
AppearanceAmber tinge that darkens with age (linseed oil/varnish mixtures darken the most)
SheenFlat to satin; can be buffed to increase shine
DurabilityLow to moderate wear/water/water vapour/heat/chemical resistance; multiple coats increase resistance
ApplicationEasy to apply by rag or brush; wipe off excess; thin and clean up with mineral spirits
RepairabilityRe-sand before applying a new layer
Dry Time6-8 hours; cures harder than oil finishes (depending on the blend of oil and varnish)
Editor's PickCirca 1850 Antique Danish Oil
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Lacquer - The ultimate spray finish; lacquers are the most toxic of finishes to apply; use an approved respirator
TypeEvaporative film finish (finish dries as the solvent - lacquer thinner - evaporates
AppearanceColourless; very clear finish
SheenFla to high gloss; one of the easiest finishes to rub to a high sheen
DurabilityGood wear. water/water vapour/heat and chemical resistance
ApplicationEasy to spray; not as easy to brush as varnish; thin and clean up with lacquer thinner
RepairabilityEasy to repair and strip (new layer dissolves into existing layer)
Dry TimeRecoat within 30 minutes; cures within 4-5 days
Editor's PickTarget Coatings Oxford Ultima Spray Lacquer (woodessence.com
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Oils (linseed, tung, walnut) - Easy to apply with little or no film build-up; use boiled linseed oil, not raw linseed oil, and polymerized tung oil
TypeReactive penetrating finish (finish dries by chemical reaction with oxygen)
AppearanceAmber tinge that darkens with age (tung oil much less so)
SheenSatin (can be buffed to increase shine)
DurabilityPoor wear/water/water vapour resistance; moderate heat/chemical resistance (multiple coats increase resistance)
ApplicationEasy to apply by rag; wipe off excess; clean up with mineral spirits, thinning not required
RepairabilityWipe on another coat
Dry TimeOvernight; penetrating finishes do not cure as do film finishes, they remain somewhat soft
Editor's PickLee Valley Walnut Oil, Lee Valley Tung Oil (leevalley.com)
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Water-based - Non-yellowing finish with good durability; appears white in the can, dries colourless, levels as it cures
TypeCoalescing film finish (finish dries first as the solvent - water - evaporates, then by chemical reaction with oxygen)
AppearanceColourless (no "yellowing" over time); not as clear as varnish, lacquer or shellac
SheenFlat to gloss; harder to rub to an even sheen than varnish; use a synthetic abrasive, not steel wool, to rub the finish
DurabilityVery good wear resistance; good water/water vapour resistance, poor heat/ chemical resistance
ApplicationMore difficult to brush than varnish; challenging to spray; thin/ clean up with water
RepairabilityDifficut to repair; not as difficult to strip as varnish
Dry Time4-5 hours (temperature sensitive); minimum 1 week to cure
Editor's PickCirca 1850 Aqua Varnish; Varathan Diamond Water-Based Polyurethane
*Correction: Jeff Richardson of Wood Essence Finishes (woodessence.com) points out that Target Coatings Ultima Spray Lacquer is not a toxic finish to apply. Target USL is a waterbourne lacquer, not a nitro-cellulose lacquer; it’s not non-flammable, featuring very low volatile organic compounds and zero hazardous air pollutants.