Which wood finish should I use?

What type of wood finish should I use?

The use of a piece of furniture or ravages of time can be limited by a finish coat or durable top. While the terms stain, polyurethane, varnish, and lacquer are commonly used in referencing a final finish in overall, these products are not similar and are also not recommended to be used interchangeably. 

Now that you have finished your woodwork project, you will need to protect it with a top finish. What do you choose between the different wood finishes? Here is an exclusive look at the difference between stain, varnish, lacquer and polyurethane.

What is Stain?

Wood stain is basically any translucent or transparent agent used in coloring wood. The coloring agent in the stain is usually a dye dissolved in a liquid, unlike paint that contains pigment suspended in a binder. 

The stain color penetrates the fibers of the wood while the paint rests on the wood surface film. Wood stains mimic the color of the wood after being absorbed. This is different from varnish, which is transparent and clear. Coating laying on top of the wood. 

Wood stains come in three forms, including resin, oil, or alkyd. Once the stain has been absorbed into the wood, you can wipe the excess stain. It is after completing the staining process that you need to finish the job by applying a protective coat. 

Some of the best protective coatings include varnish, lacquer, and polyurethane.

What is Varnish?

The name varnish is commonly used to refer to a top coat or finish generally. However, this is, in a real sense, a very specific product. The terminology confusion is aggravated by manufacturers who refer to lacquers, and polyurethanes as varnish for marketing sake. 

As popular as it is, the varnish is a hard, clear solution that forms a protective film around the wood and gives it a glossy finish. The components of varnish include a solvent or a thinner, drying oil and an alkyd resin. It is not a lacquer and is not a polyurethane. 

The varnish is ideal for raw wood and outdoor projects such as rustic homes and exterior trims and doors the fact that varnish has little color makes it viable in application over wood stains to enhance the wood shine.

Varnish is closely related to polyurethane because Poly is a varnish type. However, Poly has less oil and is more rigid and harder than varnish. Varnish is flexible and contains more oil. Chemically, the two products are very distinct. This makes varnish suitable to all types of climatic conditions as its flexibility enables it to expand and contract depending on the subjected temperatures.

As mentioned above, the wood varnish is perfect for use on outdoor furniture and is resistant to heat, UV light, cold, and saltwater. Though a bit durable, the varnish is not as durable as polyurethane. Its ability to give the wood a warm grow makes it sometimes to be used on indoor furniture.

What is Lacquer?

Lacquer has been used for more than seen a thousand years. The first lacquer was found in China during the Neolithic age. Initially, it was obtained from the Chinese lacquer tree. Modern lacquers are manufactured synthetically. 

This product is a solvent based product made by dissolving nitrocellulose, pigments, and plasticizers in a volatile solvent’s mixture. Its name originates from the Portuguese language with ‘lac’ meaning a particular resin form expelled from insects. 

This product also has a shellac solution in alcohol that makes a synthetic coating creating a high gloss surface. This makes it impervious to alcohol and most household liquid that might spill on it.

Lacquer has the fastest drying time for about thirty minutes and is best for crystal clear finish. You can hence get about three to four coats in a single afternoon. It is one of the hardest top finish and is exceptionally durable. 

It is better wearing and stronger than varnish and shellac. It is still debatable on which among lacquer and polyurethane is more durable and harder. Lacquer finish can produce an excellent high gloss finish. 

Lacquer has two classes, those that dry through a chemical reaction and those that dry via solvent evaporation. The lacquer that dries via chemical reaction is known as catalyzed lacquers. They are available at paint specialty store but have a short shelf life.

Lacquer is the best top coats in terms of forgiving mistakes. You can easily sand away a run or patch a furniture area that was not well coated. Applying a new coat redissolves the previous coat, and they blend perfectly together. 

In cases when you want the natural wood beauty to show through, lacquer is the best choice as it is the clearest top coat. However, in some instances, lacquer can get rid of the 3D wood quality that would be achieved by a polyurethane finish.

When it comes to drawbacks, lacquer may discolor over a long period; it contains a high volatile organic compound (VOC), and dust mast cannot shield you from the lacquer vapor.

What is Polyurethane?

Polyurethane was first discovered during the second world war. This product is a set of human-made synthetic organic compounds. As its word suggest, it is a polymer resulting from the reaction of a diol and diisocyanate. 

According to a research study conducted, polyurethane has been proven to be the most durable and hardest among other existing topcoats. For the past years, this has become the favorite topcoat finish for most of the woodworkers worldwide. 

Almost all the topcoat & finish manufacturer has developed a polyurethane product for sale.

Polyurethane can be purchased in all topcoats from gloss to matte. This product can be brushed on, wiped on, or sprayed on. A natural bristle brush is needed to brush on poly to avoid the formation of bubbles that in case a foam brush is used.

Polyurethane exists in two major types. It has a waterborne and oil-based form. The waterborne version is newer in the market and has some benefits. Waterborne polyurethane is created by mixing small polyurethane microscopic particles with water to form a colloidal suspension. 

This waterborne polyurethane dry fast as the polyurethane microscopic particles cures quickly with the quick evaporation of water. It has a quick dry time of approximately two hours. It is easier to clean using soap and water, offers a more transparent finish and a lower VOC.

Oil based polyurethane takes longer to dry approximately about twenty-four hours. This type cures through a chemical reaction and must be sanded between the coats to make a tooth to be grabbed on by the next coat. 

Oil based polyurethane gives the wood a warm glow for the most beautiful furniture’s.

Looking to paint your wood furniture?

If your looking to paint your wood furniture you may find it helpful to check out our article “What is Chalk Paint”  



Many types of finishes are available for use in refinishing your furniture. To know the type of finish that will apply best to your furniture, you need to understand their differences. The information in this article will help you achieve more satisfying results in your woodworking.

Whenever you’re working with any of the above products be sure to read and follow all manufactures safety precautions.