A question we’re asked frequently here at Wood Finishes Direct is simply ‘which wood finish is best?’ Like most things involving wood, there’s no simple answer to this but fear not, help is at hand.
Which wood finish is best? A wood oil, varnish, stain, wax or paint?
Wood finishing can be complex. Trees are naturally growing organisms, with their own unique DNA and as with most living things, are sensitive and adaptive to the environmental conditions they grow in. Because of this, even two pieces of wood from the same species of tree from the same woodland or forest could produce different results when treated. It’s a little like two children from the same parents, unless they’re identical twins, chances are that they may be similar but have distinct differences or be as different as chalk and cheese.
So what is the best finish for wood? In a nutshell it depends on a host of factors, the most common being listed below:-
- What type of wood, Softwood or Hardwood?
- Is the wood interior or exterior?
- Has the wood been sanded and how?
- What is the wood being used for i.e. floor, door, picture frame, bookshelf, dog kennel etc
- Is it old or new wood?
- Is it bare or treated wood?
- What sort of finish is required coloured or clear?
- What sheen is required, matt, satin or gloss?
- Easy maintenance or outright durability?
- What is the expectation of durability?
So to help with trying to determine which wood finish is best for you, the wood your working with and the project to hand, let’s explore some of these key questions.
What type of wood? Softwood or Hardwood?
And before anyone answers ‘from a tree’ it’s worth noting that there are a lot of ‘wood’ products that are not strictly from a tree but can still be treated in the same way. As an example, Bamboo is technically a grass and what about all those man-made woods such as MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) and particle board?
It’s not always easy to know if something is softwood or hardwood
Softwood and hardwoods
This is another area that can be confusing as the classification of a softwood or hardwood is determined by how it fruits and its leaves and not just by the weight, density or strength of the wood. There are actually some softwoods that are harder than some hardwoods and some hardwoods that are softer than some softwoods. Confused yet? We’ve written a blog post entitled Confused everything you need to know about wood if you want to know more.
Natural colouration of the timber
Wood has its own natural coloration that isn’t always evident when freshly planed or sanded. As an example, pine, especially old pine can look pale and virtually colourless in its raw state. Put on a clear wood oil or varnish and they will enhance the natural character and colour of the timber, normally a warm golden or orange colour. Although some people like and enjoy the warm colouration that this gives, it’s not to everyone’s taste. The natural colouration of the timber will also have an effect on the final colour if treating the wood with a pigmented or coloured product. Stain a piece of Pine and Beech with the same wood stain and it will produce quite different results. Remember those school days of mixing two colours to make a completely different colour?
The good news is that if you want to keep wood, especially Pine, Oak and other light coloured woods looking natural, without the natural colouration coming through, there are some great hard wax oils from Osmo and Fiddes that do the trick, namely Osmo Polyx Oil Raw 3044 and Fiddes Hard Wax Oil Natural (also known as Oak Lightning).
Is the wood interior or exterior?
Although softwoods and hardwoods can both be used for interior and exterior projects, it’s fair to say that some wood types are better for some projects than others based on practicality, cost and the types of finish required.
Decaying roof exposing inside wood to the outside elements
Exotic hardwoods such as Teak, Iroko, Balau and Ipe are great for decking, garden furniture and other exterior projects due to their dense and oil rich nature. They’re naturally hardy, resistant to weathering, and biological issues such as mould, algae and other types of fungal and insect attack. The flip side is that because of their dense, oily nature, they have to be carefully prepared if coating with a varnish or paint, to ensure good adhesion with the surface of the timber and to prevent the finish from breaking away from the surface of the wood. Specialist opaque products from brands such as Sadolin, Sikkens and Dulux Trade work well and are available in a range of colours.
Very dense hardwoods can also be problematic when it comes to oiling. Many types of decking oil and other exterior wood oils are too thick to penetrate into the dense grain of the timber with specialist, highly refined oils such as Osmo Extra Thin 1101 for interior wood, or high quality Teak Oil for exterior wood being the best option. These products are clear so will not add additional colour to the timber other than giving the wood a darker damp look and drawing out the natural grain and colour of the wood. Even with these oils, the wood may need to be left to weather for a while to open up the wood grain before oiling. It’s highly likely that these types of wood will only absorb one or two very thin coats of oil. Not all clear wood oils contain UV filters meaning that when exposed to direct sunlight and rain, the wood will naturally turn grey / silver over time.
Generally, commonly used timbers such as Pine and Oak are easier to paint, varnish, oil and stain than exotic hardwoods. If protected correctly with a suitable preservative and finished in the correct way, they will perform very well in external environments and could last a life time if maintained correctly. The other benefit of using these woods is that they are cheaper and more suitable for products with UV resistance or the thicker pigmented or coloured oils.
Has the wood been sanded and how?
Proper sanding is key to a good finish, especially so with wooden floors. If you’re looking to oil a piece of wood that has been previously painted or varnished, it’s imperative that all traces of the old surface coating are completely removed. Failing to do this may prevent the oil from penetrating into sections of the timber resulting in an inconsistent finish.
Sanding wood correctly is imperative to get the best results
In most cases, sanding to a 120 or 150 grit is perfect. If wood is sanded too finely it can block the surface pores of the timber making it difficult for wood oils to penetrate. This could result in a tacky or sticky surface or an inconsistent finish / colour if using a pigmented product or stain.
Wooden floors should be sanded a number of times using progressively finer grits of sandpaper. Depending on the condition of the floor, it may require a very course grit to start with then several passes with varying grits until reaching a 120 / 150 grit smoothness. If the sanding hasn’t been done properly, swirls, scratches and other strange patterns and marks may appear when staining with inconsistent colour patches. If this happens the only option is to sand again taking extra care to sand properly.
What is the wood being used for?
If you’re working on a picture frame, there’s no need to use a bullet proof varnish that is more suitable for a dance floor or sports hall. Easy maintenance wood oils may be better in high moisture environments where a varnish may start to crack and peel. For a classic Shabby Chic look, some products are better at giving that ‘worn over time’ look than others. This is why we have wood finishing project pages on our site which list which products are best for which projects.
Different wood finishes work better on different projects.
Is it old or new wood?
Old wood can react differently to new wood. If the wood has been recycled and was previously treated, this could also have an impact on the type of product to use and the finish it will give. For example, old wood that was previously oiled or treated with a wood preservative that contained wax could repel water based paints and varnishes.
New wood can be treated with almost anything, old wood may need thorough sanding.
Is it bare or treated wood?
This is similar to the point above. If its new bare wood then it can be treated, stained or coated with a huge variety of products. If it is or has been previously treated, it could limit the type of product that can be used. As an example, you can’t oil a floor that has a varnish finish.
Bare wood is ready for treating, pre-finished wood may need sanding.
What sort of finish is required coloured or clear?
There are a vast range of products that give a variety of different finishes from the slightly tinted to the totally opaque, soft colour tones to vibrant primary colours and everything in between. We always take it upon ourselves to try and understand the type of finish that the customer wants and make recommendations based on the information provided.
Wood can be kept bare or coloured with a wide variety of semi translucent or opaque colours.
When we are asked what product is best to achieve a Medium Oak or a Victorian Pine colour, our first response is ‘define what colour Medium Oak or Victorian Pine is? A good way to demonstrate this it to go to Google Image Search and type in ‘medium Oak wood’. Google will present thousands of images of wood and furniture and it soon becomes very apparent that everyone’s interpretation of medium oak is different. This also applies to high street brands. Buy a tin of dark oak wood stain from one manufacturer and the same from another and they could be anything from slightly different to not having any similarity at all. When it comes to colour, the best approach is to ignore the product colour name and decide visually on what colour best meets your preference and the needs of the project.
Another reason why colour is always tricky is because everyone’s computer monitor is calibrated differently in terms of brightness, colour and contrast. A product colour on one monitor may look different on another and different again on another. Then there’s the issue of the type, age, condition and natural characteristics of the wood, the same product on one piece may look different on another. This is why we always stipulate that a test area must be done and allowed to fully dry before starting any project to test colour suitability.
Which sheen level, matt, satin or gloss?
The sheen level of a product can change the whole appearance and feel of an object or room. while a shiny floor screams elegance and class a matt finish gives a more natural, cosy feel. In terms of exterior finishes, most wood oils leave a soft satin finish when first applied. For a lasting exterior satin or gloss finish, opaque wood coatings and paints are the answer.
Interior finishes tend to come with more sheen options from dead matt through to super gloss. in some cases, a satin variation can be mixed with a matt or gloss to achieve a sheen level that is something in between what the manufacturer supplies.
Easy maintenance or outright durability?
In a nut shell wood finishes tend to fall into just a few categories, waxes and oils (products that penetrate into the surface of the wood), varnishes and paints including pigmented opaques (Products that form a skin or seal on the surface of the wood).
Varnishes and paints can be longer lasting. Wood oils are easier to maintain
Generally speaking, If the wood has been prepared correctly and the product has been applied correctly, surface coatings such as paints and varnishes tend to have a longer service life than waxes and oils, potentially lasting many years before requiring attention. The thing to consider is that when these types of wood finishes reach the end of their useful life, usually when they start to show signs of wear, peeling, flaking or cracking, its often a case of stripping the old coating back to bare wood by sanding or using a suitable paint and varnish remover, before re-coating or painting.
Wood waxes are used for interior surfaces, usually furniture (see Wood Furniture Wax) and other low contact surfaces such as picture frames and wood panelling. Wax will never crack and peel and is very easy to maintain. Although stand alone waxes can be used on flooring, they’re not very durable and are prone to wear and staining from liquid spillages, far from ideal in kitchens and bathrooms. The only wax products we recommend for wooden floors are hard wax oils.
Wood oils are very popular and it’s not difficult to see why. There are a wide range of interior and exterior wood oils that are all formulated to provide a specific look and function. Interior wood oils for floors and kitchen worktops are highly durable, potentially lasting years but unlike a varnish, there is never a need to sand them off when they start to look tired and worn. It’s simply a case of cleaning the surface or perhaps giving a very light sanding before applying a fresh coat of oil over the top of the old. As good as new.
Exterior wood oils move with the wood so will not crack and split. They allow the wood to breath and many, not all, offer some degree of UV protection to protect the natural colour of the timber for longer. If colour is desired there are a range of semi translucent tints and opaque coloured oils that can provide a ‘paint like’ appearance. These are great for protecting and colouring exterior wooden surfaces without the risks of cracking, peeling or flaking.
How long will a wood finish last
This is the classic ‘How long is a piece of string?’ question. As with anything, how long something lasts comes down to the amount of wear and tear it’s subjected to. An oiled floor in a restaurant will require more regular maintenance than one in a domestic property, An exterior coating on a beach side property will likely require more maintenance than that of a sheltered town house. This is why manufacturers rarely give a stipulated life expectancy of a product. This said however it doesn’t mean that a job will have to be redone every year or two. If a wooden surface has been properly prepared and a product has been applied to the manufacturers guidelines, then most wood finishes will provide years of protection to the timber and pleasure to the property owner.
Wood Finishing Help
We hope that the above article and video helps to explain some of the finer points about wood finishing but If you have any questions about which wood finish is best for your project, just give our team of resident experts a call or drop us an email.