Think about the dining table where your family gathers for meals, the rocking chair where you cradle your newborn, or the bookshelf that holds your cherished memories. Each piece tells a story; your chosen furniture finish is pivotal in that narrative. It’s not just about aesthetics—it’s about durability, safety, and the legacy you’re creating for your home and family.

Understanding Hardwood Furniture Finishes

Finishes are a crucial step in the ever-evolving furniture-making process. They are the final touch that transforms hard work and raw materials into something extraordinary.

Definition and Importance of Finishes in Family Settings

When talking about hardwood furniture finishes, we’re referring to the protective and decorative layers applied to the surface of wooden furniture. These finishes are not just about making your furniture look good—they are essential in preserving and protecting the wood from everyday wear and tear, moisture, and potential damage.

A good finish can make all the difference in a family home, where furniture centers children’s, pets’, and daily activities. It helps maintain the furniture’s beauty and integrity, ensuring that pieces last for generations and can be cherished by future family members.

Each type of wood has its characteristics and charm, and the choice will depend on the intended use of the furniture and the aesthetic preferences of your family.

Types of Specialized Hardwood Finishes


Varnish is a clear, transparent, hard protective coating that forms a durable film over wood surfaces. Unlike wood stains, which add color to the wood, varnish primarily provides protection while enhancing the wood’s natural appearance. Although it typically has a slight yellowish tint due to the manufacturing process and materials used, varnish can also be pigmented to achieve various shades.

Types of Varnish

  • Water-Based: Dries quickly, emits fewer fumes, and is less toxic, making it ideal for indoor use and safer for families.
  • Oil-Based: Provides a richer color and more durable finish but takes longer to dry and emits stronger fumes.

Application Techniques

Apply varnish with a brush or spray in thin, even coats. Allow each layer to dry thoroughly before sanding lightly and applying the next one. Two to three coats are usually sufficient for optimal protection.

Pros and Cons of Varnish

  • Pros: Durable, enhances wood grain, and is water-resistant.
  • Cons: Longer drying time (oil-based) and potential fumes (oil-based). It can also be challenging to apply smoothly.


Lacquer is a modern wood finish commonly used on high-end furniture for its fast-drying, water-resistant properties and ability to stay clear without yellowing. It offers excellent protection against liquids and requires minimal maintenance. Applied by spraying, lacquer forms a protective film on the wood’s surface, similar to varnish and urethane. Its durability and ease of application have made it a preferred choice over shellac since the mid-1900s.

Application Techniques

Lacquer is best applied using a spray gun for an even coat. Multiple thin layers are recommended, with sanding between coats to ensure a smooth, glossy finish.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Lacquer

  • Benefits: Quick drying provides a smooth, high-gloss finish and is highly durable.
  • Drawbacks: It can be prone to chipping, emits strong fumes, and requires good ventilation during application.


Polyurethane is a highly durable varnish that forms a finish impervious to water, solvents, and scratches. Unlike traditional varnishes, the microscopic resin molecules in polyurethane bond tightly, creating a stronger and more resilient surface. Available in both oil-based and water-based forms, polyurethane offers versatility in achieving the desired look and level of protection.

Types of Polyurethane

  • Water-Based: Clearer finish, lower odor, faster drying.
  • Oil-based: It adds a warm amber tone to the wood, which is more durable but has a longer drying time.

Application Techniques

Apply polyurethane with a brush or roller in thin coats, waiting for each polyurethane layer to dry thoroughly before sanding and applying the next. Two to four coats are typically recommended.

Pros and Cons of Polyurethane

  • Pros: Highly durable, water-resistant, enhances wood appearance.
  • Cons: Longer drying time (oil-based), potential for yellowing over time (oil-based), and careful application are required.


Shellac is a premium wood finish that enhances wood grains’ natural beauty and richness. Made from a resin secreted by the female lac bug, shellac is available as dry flakes that must be dissolved in alcohol before application. This time-honored finish has been used for decades and is highly recommended for classic and modern wooden furniture and floors.

Application Process

Shellac is applied in thin layers with a brush or cloth. Each layer dries quickly and can be buffed to a high gloss.

Benefits and Drawbacks

  • Benefits: Quick drying, easy to apply, beautiful finish.
  • Drawbacks: Less durable than modern finishes, susceptible to water and alcohol damage.

Oil Finish

Oil finishes penetrate the wood, enhancing its natural beauty and grain. Compared to film-forming finishes, they provide a more natural look and feel.

  • Linseed Oil: Easy to apply, provides a rich finish, but takes longer to dry.
  • Tung Oil: More durable and water-resistant, preferred for its natural, matte finish.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Oil Finish

  • Benefits: It enhances natural beauty, is easy to apply, and has non-toxic options.
  • Drawbacks: It requires frequent reapplication and is less protective than film finishes.


Wax finishes provide a soft, low-sheen luster and feel natural to the touch. They are often used as a top coat over other finishes for added protection.

Types of Waxes Used

  • Beeswax: Natural, provides a warm glow, easy to apply.
  • Carnauba Wax: Harder and more durable, often used with beeswax for a tougher finish.

Application Process

Applied with a cloth, wax is rubbed into the wood in circular motions. Buffing with a clean cloth enhances the sheen.

Pros and Cons of Wax

  • Pros: Easy to apply and repair, provides a natural look and feel.
  • Cons: Less protective, requires frequent reapplication, not suitable for high-moisture areas.


Stains add color to the wood while having its natural grain shine. They can enhance the wood’s appearance and highlight its natural beauty.

Types of Stains

  • Water-Based: Dries quickly, is easier to clean up, and is available in various colors.
  • Oil-Based: Penetrates deeper, provides richer colors, and longer drying time.

Application Techniques

Applied with a brush or cloth, stains are wiped off after a short period to control the depth of color. Multiple coats can be used to achieve the desired effect.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Stains

  • Benefits: Enhances wood grain and has customizable color options.
  • Drawbacks: It requires a protective top coat but can be challenging to apply evenly.

French Polish

French polish is a polishing technique that uses shellac to create a high-gloss, smooth finish. It is renowned for its depth and beauty, especially on fine furniture. Originating in the 18th century, French polish has been used on high-end furniture and musical instruments for its exquisite finish.

Application Process

Apply the finish in many thin layers using a pad soaked in shellac. Polish each layer for best results.

Benefits and Drawbacks of French Polish

  • Benefits: Exceptional depth and gloss enhance the wood’s natural beauty.
  • Drawbacks: Time-consuming, less durable than modern finishes, requires skill to apply.

Water-Based Finish

Water-based finishes are transparent, quick-drying, and low in odor. They are known for their eco-friendly properties and ease of use.

Benefits and Drawbacks in Water-Based Finish

  • Benefits: Low VOCs, quick drying, non-yellowing.
  • Drawbacks: It can raise the wood grain and may require more coats for durability.

Application Techniques

For a smooth finish, water-based finishes must be applied with a brush or spray in thin, even coats, with light sanding between coats.


Dyes penetrate the wood deeply, providing vibrant, transparent colors that enhance the natural grain without obscuring it.

Types of Dyes

  • Alcohol-Based Dye: Dries quickly, intense colors.
  • Water-Based Dye: Easier to apply, longer working time.

Application Techniques

Dyes can be applied using a brush, sponge, or spray. They require careful blending to avoid streaks and can be sealed with a top coat for protection.

Pros and Cons of Dyes

  • Pros: Bright and clear colors enhance wood grain.
  • Cons: It can be tricky to apply evenly and may require a top coat for protection.


Paint provides an opaque finish that can completely change the look of the wood. It comes in a matte to glossy finish.

Types of Paint Finishes

  • Matte: Soft, non-reflective finish that hides imperfections.
  • Glossy: Shiny, durable finish, highlights details.

Application Techniques

Paint with a brush or roller may require a primer for best adhesion. Multiple coats may be needed to achieve full coverage.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Paints

  • Benefits: Versatile, available in a wide range of colors, highly protective.
  • Drawbacks: Can obscure wood grain and may chip or peel over time.

Epoxy Resin

Epoxy resin creates a thick, glossy, and highly durable finish. It is often used for tabletops and bar tops for its impressive protection and visual appeal.

Application Techniques

Mixed and poured over the surface, epoxy resin self-levels to create a smooth, hard finish. It can be tinted with colors or left clear.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Epoxy Resin

  • Benefits: It is highly durable, waterproof, and resistant to scratches and heat.
  • Drawbacks: Requires careful mixing and application, can be expensive, and has the potential for bubbles if not applied correctly.

Choosing the Right Finish for Your Family’s Hardwood Furniture

Selecting the right finish for your hardwood furniture can feel like navigating a maze, but it’s crucial for ensuring both beauty and durability, especially in a family home. Here are the key factors and finishes comparisons to help you make an informed choice.

Factors to Consider

First, consider the type of wood. Different hardwoods react uniquely to finishes. Oak’s prominent grain can be beautifully highlighted with a stain, while maple’s smooth surface pairs well with a clear varnish or lacquer.

Next, consider the furniture’s usage. A dining table that endures daily meals and spills needs a durable, protective finish like polyurethane or varnish. In contrast, a decorative bookshelf might only require a light wax or oil finish.

The aesthetic you’re aiming for also plays a significant role. An oil or shellac finish enhances the wood’s natural beauty and grain. Lacquer or epoxy resin might be your best bet for a high-gloss, modern look.

Durability and Ease of Application

Polyurethane offers exceptional durability and protection, ideal for high-traffic areas like kitchen counters and dining tables. Lacquer is also highly durable but can chip if subjected to heavy use.

Oil finishes penetrate deeply but require more frequent reapplication, while the wax is less durable and best suited for low-traffic decorative pieces.

The ease of application varies, too. Water-based polyurethane is easy to apply, dries quickly, and has minimal odor. Oil-based polyurethane requires more time and ventilation but provides a richer finish.

Wax is simple to apply and touch up, perfect for DIY projects, while epoxy resin requires careful mixing and application, which is best for experienced users.


Polyurethane and lacquer are low-maintenance, requiring only regular dusting and occasional cleaning. Oil finishes need periodic reapplication to maintain their protection, and wax requires regular buffing and reapplication to keep luster.

Environmental Impact and Child Safety

Water-based finishes generally have lower VOC emissions, making them a safer indoor-use choice. Oil-based finishes can emit more pungent fumes and require proper ventilation during application, while natural oils and waxes are eco-friendly options, ideal for environmentally conscious households.

Water-based polyurethane and lacquer are safer due to lower VOC levels, making them suitable for children’s furniture. Natural oils and waxes, like beeswax or linseed oil, are non-toxic for nurseries and toys.

Epoxy resin, though highly durable, should be used cautiously; newer formulations with lower VOCs are becoming available, but proper ventilation should be ensured during application.

Recommendations for Specific Types of Family Furniture

Polyurethane (mainly water-based for safety) is a good choice for dining tables. It protects against spills and scratches and maintains its beauty despite heavy use. Chairs can also benefit from lacquer, which offers a durable, glossy finish that withstands daily wear.

Consider an oil finish for a more rustic look. Cabinets look beautiful with varnish or shellac, which enhance the wood’s natural beauty while providing sufficient protection.

Bookshelves and decorative pieces can be finished with wax or oil, adding a warm, natural look with easy maintenance. These finishes are perfect for pieces that don’t endure heavy use.

Bed frames benefit from a finish that balances durability and aesthetics, such as water-based polyurethane, which has low VOCs and robust protection, or an oil finish, like the beautifully crafted Amish bed frames by Amish Furniture Factory.

For outdoor furniture, epoxy resin provides excellent weather resistance, ensuring your furniture withstands the elements.

Creating a Lasting Legacy with Hardwood Finishes

Choosing the right finish for your family’s hardwood furniture is more than a practical decision—it’s about crafting pieces that tell your family’s story and stand the test of time. By considering the type of wood, usage, desired look, and environmental impact, you can make informed choices that ensure both beauty and durability.

Each finish has its advantages and drawbacks, from the robust protection of polyurethane to the natural charm of oil finishes, allowing you to find the perfect match for every piece in your home.