Guide to Wood Finishes

I recently had a special request to explain the difference in top coats. I will explain the most popular wood finishes, what they are typically used on, what they look like and why they are used.

First lets look at different characters of finishes.

First is how the finish cures:

 Evaporative-  An evaporative finish has solvents that will evaporative as part of curing. This type of finish will also amalgamate into itself.

Reactive– This type of finish has a chemical reaction to cure. Reactive can also amalgamate into itself but only for a window of time.

Coalescing- Coalescing is both reactive and evaporative. This type can amalgamate as well but it is only for a window of time.

Second is how it goes on the wood

Penetrating finishes– This types of finishes soak into the wood grain dry into the wood.

Surface finishes- Surface finishes do just as it says sit on the surface of wood and dry.

Now lets take a dive into the different types of finishes

I am going to start with the most popular. Majority of manufactured furniture today is finished with lacquer. Lacquer comes in all sheens from flat to gloss. It is very popular with manufactures because of how easy it is to spray and the quick dry time. Lacquer is also the easiest to repair or touch up. Lacquer is evaporative finish, it will amalgamate into itself, which is why it is a good finish for touch-ups. There are many precautions that need to be taken when spraying lacquers which is why it is not popular for DIYing. UG UG Recommendations: My go to brand is Mohawk.
Shellac is one of the oldest finishes. It can be worked to different sheens. For example French polish which is a high gloss finish is done with a technique of hand rubbing shellac with a rag soaked in linseed oil. Shellac has a very distinct look and patina to it. Shellac can be sprayed but is very easily brushed on as well. It is also popular on musical instruments. Shellac is also an evaporative finish which will also amalgamate/melt into itself.
UG Recommendations: Shellac can be bought pre-made or in shellac flakes and you can make it yourself.
Both shellac and lacquer are surface and evaporative finishes.
Waterbase is one of the up and coming popular finishes. It is also the go to finish for the UpCycle Girls (when we are not restoring a genuine antique).  It too comes in all sheens from the manufactures, from flat to gloss. Waterbase is enviormently friendly it can be sprayed and brushed on easily. It has a very soft feel and covers nicely when done correctly. One downfall to water base is when scratched or damaged it cannot be easily touched up like lacquer can. However it is a very durable finish.  Waterbase is a coalescing and penetrating type finish.
UG Recommendations: For DIYing clients I am going to recommend High Performance it can be sprayed on but it is every easily brushed on as well.
Waxes can be very popular and can also be added to the top of some top coats to get a desired look or feel. I have waxed furniture after water base finish was applied to get a specific look. Wax sheen is flat to a stain if rubbed repeatedly.   Wax is an evaporative and surface type finish.
UG Recommendations:   I personally like Johnsons Paste Wax.
Oil finishes such as teak oil is applied to such things like teak wood patio furniture. It is easily applied with a brush. It soaks in to the wood and helps protect against the elements.
UG Recommendations: For exterior projects or teak wood projects I use this.
Now that you know all about finishes you will know just what to use on your next project. The UpCycle Girls are always here to help if you have any questions.
Happy Junking and Upcycling!
Tara and Becca
* This blog contains affiliate links. Affiliate link purchases do not effect your shopping experience or price. However they will kick back small amounts back to me for sharing this information on my blog. We only recommend products that we believe in and use ourselves. 


  1. […] We find that most refinishers are simply choosing (or told) to just wax right over the top of a chalk paint to get a smooth, but still very low sheen finish.  While we do not believe in waxing over an unfinished surface as wax is not a durable finish, we understand the draw for that type of look (we admit, it’s so pretty!). Most pieces we have seen ended up feeling like fine-grit sandpaper after using this method, and did not result in the smooth appearance we believe was aimed for. While this could be due to improper prep-work or inefficient dry time/conditions, it may also be the direct contact of an unfinished high-filler product with a soft finish. To avoid this and also add durability, we suggest applying a barrier coat of a waterborne finish over the chalk paint, and then use your wax over the top to get the look you want. If you want to learn more about types of finishes and clear coats for your projects head over to our blog post Guide to Wood Finishes. […]

  2. […] When using this product, keep in mind it takes a while for the glaze to dry, and then even longer to get it sanded just right. When you reach your desired level of antiquing, blow it off with compressed air and the project will be ready for finishing. We finished in a pre-cat water-base finish too three coats :). To learn more about finishes and top coats go here. […]

  3. […] With most “all in one” products the top coat is part of the recipe, along with the primer and paint. However since all of the products are mixed together, each layer isn’t allowed to cure separately.  The formulas for primer, paint, and top coat are specifically developed for a purpose, and if they aren’t allowed to cure on their own, they may not be reaching their full potential.  Keep this in mind when considering the future use and traffic of your project.  The primer prevents previous finishes and wood tannins from being pulled through the new paint; The top coats protect against various wear and tear, airborne elements, and sometimes UV rays.  Finish will also protect the wood underneath from getting dry and brittle.  Check out our previous post to learn more about Top Coats. […]

  4. […] To enhance the depth with the use of color we settled on a combination of both golden oak and early American General Finishes water-based stains, in addition to an amber shellac. Shellac is one of Tara’s favorite finishes. It brings a sense of age and a certain luster to a piece. If you want to learn more about different types of finishes go here. […]

  5. […] even if you’re spraying as this will even out any off-spray. (Learn more about top coats here)  Aiming to achieve a finish as smooth as possible is just as important to the feel of the end […]

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