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5 Go-To Finishes Every Woodworker Should Have On Hand

Applying a finish to your well-crafted project is extraordinarily satisfying. Everyone has their favorite finishes, and I’m no exception. Here are the five always in supply in my shop.

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I keep a quart each of de-waxed shellac, clear shellac and amber shellac on hand at all times. I use de-waxed shellac as a sealer/base coat. I use clear or amber depending on the tone I’m looking for. The biggest drawbacks of shellac are that it doesn’t repel water and it’s not as durable as polyurethane, so I don’t use it on items that get hard use.

Check out one of the many uses for dewaxed shellac: How to Stain Wood Evenly Without Getting Blotches and Dark Spots.

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Water-Based Polyurethane

It took me a while to warm up to water-based poly because it doesn’t give the same warmth of tone as oil-based finishes. To combat this, I apply de-waxed shellac for the first coat, which adds some warmth. In the plus column, there’s almost no odor and it dries faster than oil, meaning I can build up a finish faster.

Learn some important tips for using water based varnish here.

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Tung Oil

All rub-on oils penetrate the wood as opposed to sitting on top of the wood, like polyurethane. Rub-on oils don’t provide as much protection as polyurethane, but they’re simple to apply and completely eliminate brush marks and drips. They also virtually eliminate annoying dust nibs in your finish.

Here’s a starter video on working with rub-on oil finishes: Achieve a Flawless Wood Finish With Rub-on Oil.

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Paste Wax

Paste wax is my go-to final step for finishing. Over any top coat, apply paste wax with 0000 steel wool. Wipe off immediately for a satin finish or let it dry first for a glossy finish. I even use paste wax by itself when I don’t need surface protection and want a low-sheen, natural look.

Check out this article on Wood Finishing Tips: How to Renew a Finish.

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Spar Varnish

If you’re putting a top coat on outdoor furniture, you want spar varnish. It’s been used on wooden boats for generations. Spar varnish stays slightly soft and flexible after it cures. This allows it to move with wood that lives out in the elements, expanding and contracting with changes in humidity.

Here’s a perfect spar varnish project: How to Build a Cedar Potting Bench.

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Brad Holden
Brad Holden, an associate editor at The Family Handyman, has been building cabinets and furniture for 30 years. In that time, he has absorbed so many slivers and ingested so much sawdust that he's practically made of wood.