How to Choose the Right Wood Finish

Choosing the right wood finish for your project can seem overwhelming, with so many options to consider. But with some basic knowledge about types of wood finishes, preparation, application techniques, and maintenance, you can pick out the perfect finish that achieves the look you want while protecting the wood. This guide will walk you through all the factors to weigh when selecting a wood finish for furniture, flooring, cabinets, and other wood projects.

Assess the Wood Type and Current Condition

Before choosing a finish, you need to consider the specific wood you are working with and its current state.

Wood Type Characteristics

The wood species affects the naturally occurring color and grain pattern, as well as the porosity and density of the wood.

  • Porous woods like oak, mahogany, and walnut have open pores that absorb more finish. Severe grain raising can occur if the pores are not properly filled before applying the final finish coats.
  • Non-porous woods like maple and birch have a tighter grain and require less filling prep before finishing. They generally provide an easier surface for finishing smoothly.
  • Oily woods like teak and rosewood have natural oils that can inhibit the curing and drying of certain finishes. Extra prep steps are needed to fully remove the oils before finishing.

Current Condition of the Wood

It’s also important to note the current condition of the wood’s surface before finishing:

  • Freshly milled wood needs to be sanded smooth and have the pores filled properly before finishing.
  • Previously finished wood with worn areas or existing stains/surface markings requires additional prep like sanding, bleaching, or stripping to prepare the surface for a new uniform finish application.
  • Weathered and grey wood may need extra cleaning and brightening before staining to achieve an even color.

Thoroughly examining and preparing your wood before finishing is a critical first step to getting great results. Allow for extra lead time for this upfront work when planning your project timeline.

Decide the Desired Finish Look

Consider what final look you want for your wood project when choosing your finish. Do you want to highlights the natural wood grain? Preserve the natural light color? Deepen the wood tones with rich amber colors? Or add colorful stains for dramatic effects? Your desired aesthetic will guide what type of finish to use.

Clear Finishes

Clear wood finishes are ideal for showing off the natural beauty of wood grains and textures. They come in various sheen levels:

  • Matte – Maintains a flat, non-reflective look. Great for a natural appearance on furniture like dining tables.
  • Satin – Offers subtle sheen for a smooth but not shiny surface. Works well for cabinets and woodwork.
  • Semi-Gloss – Provides medium reflectivity with some clear coating buildup. Often used on doors and trim.
  • Gloss – Highly reflective shine from multiple finish coats. Great for a luxurious vibe but can emphasize surface imperfections.

Test samples of clear finishes in different sheens on your wood to see which gloss level provides your ideal look.

Stained Finishes

Pigmented stains add color to change the appearance of natural wood. Consider different effects you can achieve:

  • Penetrating stains soak into wood pores without leaving extra surface coating for a natural appearance that reveals grain.
  • Toners are semi-transparent and create subtle, uniform color shifts in the wood.
  • Opaque stains sit on the wood surface to completely mask the natural color beneath.

Combining stains and clear finishes allows for limitless custom color finishes – from lightly enhancing wood tones to completely transforming them.

Painted Finishes

For dramatic transformations of wood surfaces, painted finishes can conceal the underlying wood grain and color. Options include:

  • Primers provide maximum color-blocking for very light or dark paint colors.
  • Latex paints offer user-friendly application and clean-up. Durable for high-traffic surfaces.
  • Alkyd/oil paints flow on smoothly with a hard, glossy cured finish. Require solvent for cleaning up.
  • Acrylic paints have improved durability and flexibility compared to old latex formulas. Water clean-up.
  • Enamels provide ultra-durable and reflective painted finish. Require careful surface preparation.

Consider furniture use, expected wear and desired appearance when selecting wood paint.

Whitewashed or Pickled Finishes

For a timeworn, beachy vibe, whitewashing and pickling finishes use stains/paints to lightly mute wood tones and reveal some natural grain texture. This requires careful application of thinned pigments for the desired effect.

Combination Finishes

Don’t be afraid to get creative and combine multiple finishing products like:

  • Staining before adding a clear topcoat for protection and sheen
  • Using paint or enamels on wood accents against clear-coated surfaces
  • Adding black ebonizing stain to highlight wood grain before clear-coating tabletops

Testing on scraps first allows you to perfect the finish combination you envision.

Prepare the Wood Surface

To achieve an enduring, quality wood finish, the prep work before applying any products is crucial. Follow these best practices for prep:

Clean Thoroughly

Remove any dirt, grease, wax or previous finishes from the wood using appropriate cleaners for the wood species. Tack cloths remove final dust or debris that can get trapped under the new finish.

Sand Smooth

Sand the wood progressively with finer grits of sandpaper up to 220 or 320 grit for the smoothest possible surface. Always sand in the direction of the wood grain.

Fill Open Pores

On porous woods, use grain filler to occupy the open pores fully so the finish coats go on smoothly without sagging in the holes. Let fillers fully cure before sanding flush with the surface.

Remove Dust

Wipe sanded surfaces with a tack cloth before finishing to pick up any remaining dust in the pores or crevices which can affect finish adherence.

Proper prep removes contaminants, smooths the texture, and ensures the finish adheres evenly across the wood surface for flawless results. Don’t cut corners here!

Select Your Finish Products

With your desired look in mind and wood surfaces prepped, it’s time to select finishing products. Consider these factors:

Oil vs Water-Based

Oil-based finishes (alkyds, polyurethanes, varnish) emit stronger fumes but offer superb protection. Water-based options (acrylics, latex) have lower VOCs but may require more coats. Oils provide smoother surfaces on open-grained woods.


Satin or semi-gloss sheens are good all-purpose options. Higher gloss looks striking but requires meticulous sanding to avoid imperfections being accentuated. Matte finishes minimize glare.


Conversion varnish and polyurethane provide the most durable surface coating for high-use furniture or flooring. Multiple coats are recommended for any finish on high-traffic surfaces.

Ease of Application

Oils tend to brush on more smoothly than water-based finishes. Gel stains and wipe-on polyurethanes are quite user-friendly for beginners. Sprays speeds up application but require safety precautions.

Considering these factors will help narrow down your selection from the overwhelming options on the market. Don’t be afraid to ask knowledgeable hardware store staff for guidance as well.

Apply the Finish Successfully

Careful application technique is key to achieving a beautiful, lasting wood finish. Follow these application tips:

Prepare Supplies Properly

Use high-quality brushes suited for the type of finish you’ve selected and strain finishes to remove solids or impurities than can mar the final surface.

Maintain Proper Conditions

Apply finishes in a dust-free area with adequate airflow at room temperature between 60-80°F. This prevents dust nibs in the curing finish and allows proper drying.

Use Thin Coats

Apply thin, even coats of finishes rather than attempting to achieve full coverage in one thick application. Thick coats can drip, bubble, and cure improperly.

Sand Between Coats

Lightly sand with 320 grit after each finish application to smooth dust nibs or imperfections to prep for the next coat. Be careful not to sand through the finish.

Allow Adequate Curing

Oil-based finishes require longer dry times between coats (up to 24 hours) than water-based options. Fully follow manufacturer directions for recoat times.

Go With the Grain

When wiping stains or using applicators, always go with the direction of the wood grain. Going against the grain drags finish out of the pores unevenly.

Carefully following best practices for applying your chosen finish will help achieve a smooth, even, durable coating with great aesthetics. Take your time and don’t rush the finish application steps.

Perform Proper Finish Maintenance

The final step to preserving your beautiful wood finish for years is proper maintenance and cleaning. Here are some tips:

  • Use coasters, placemats and other protective surfaces under food, drinks and hot items. Liquid and heat damage finishes quickly.
  • Dust frequently with a soft microfiber cloth to prevent buildup of abrasive dirt and grime.
  • Clean using only mild soap and water. Avoid harsh cleaners which can strip or dull finishes.
  • Re-apply protective wax finishes periodically per manufacturer directions to shield from wear and minor scratches.
  • Refrain from polishing finishes excessively. This can burn through softer topcoats and damage the underlying finish.
  • Revive worn, light damage with products like Howard Restore-A-Finish to avoid full refinishing.
  • Know when to use restraint versus restraint. Water rings or minor scratches can often be repaired versus completely refinishing.
  • Be prepared to do full stripping and re-finishing if extensive damage accumulates over time. Plan this major undertaking carefully.

Performing regular light maintenance preserves wood finishes in their optimal condition so you can avoid frequent refinishing and enjoy your beautiful wood surfaces for years.

Frequently Asked Questions About Choosing Wood Finishes

Choosing and applying the right wood finish may seem confusing, but these common questions can help provide clarification:

What’s the difference between stain and polyurethane?

Stain contains pigments to change wood color while polyurethane is a clear coating that protects the wood. Stain can be used under a clear polyurethane finish.

How do I get a smooth finish?

Proper sanding up to 320 grit prepares the surface, while applying thin finish coats and sanding lightly between them builds an even, smooth coating.

How do I get an antique look?

Glazing a stained surface before applying polyurethane creates an aged, timeworn appearance. Or use an antiquing stain designed for an aged look.

What sheen should I use?

Satin/semi-gloss are good all-purpose finishes. Use high-gloss for bold effects or matte for subtle protection. Consider your use and desired look.

How do I fix blotchy stain?

Applying a wood conditioner or pretreatment equalizes absorption before staining to prevent blotchiness on porous woods like pine.

Should I use oil or water-based?

Oil-based provides better moisture protection but requires respirators and mineral spirit cleanup. Water-based are low odor but may require more coats.

Key Takeaways for Choosing Wood Finishes

Picking the ideal wood finish for your next project may seem daunting but following this advice will set you up for success:

  • Prepare surfaces thoroughly by cleaning, sanding, and pore-filling to create the perfect foundation for your finish.
  • Determine the look you want like clear protection of the natural grain or stained/paintedopaque effects.
  • Select quality products suited for your wood type that offer the desired level of protection and sheen.
  • Apply finishes carefully following all manufacturer directions to build up an durable, beautiful coating.
  • Maintain your finish properly through gentle cleaning, polishing, and prompt repair of minor damage to keep wood looking its best.
  • With research and care, you can choose and execute the perfect wood finish to match your vision and keep wood surfaces looking superb for years to come.

Using these tips as your guide, you can confidently tackle choosing and applying the ideal wood finish for your next carpentry project. With a Full understanding of wood finish types, surfaces prep, application techniques, and maintenance, you can achieve professional-looking results and protective wood finishes that will last for years to come.