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F.A.Q and Wood Finishing Advice

With over 30 years experience in the wood finishing trade we've got a wealth of information to help you choose the right finish. If you are unsure on which wood finish to choose, please read through these FAQ's. If you don't see the answer to your question please contact us (please let us know the relevant website page if applicable). If it is a popular question we can include an answer in this section.

Wax, Oil or Varnish?

Staining and Colouring Wood

Preparation, Cleaning and Maintenance

General Wood Finishing Questions

What is the difference between wax polish, oil and varnish?

  • Waxes: A wax looks really good but it is not very durable. It is ideally suited to furniture, such as wardrobes or wooden areas such as skirting boards and bannisters, that do no require as much protection. Some customers do use wax on floors but do bear in mind that it needs more maintenance.
  • Oils: Offering more durability than a wax polish, Oils are easy to work with, very easy to repair (sand down scratches then reapply) but they do have slower drying times.
  • Varnishes: Forming a seal on the surface of the wood varnishes are the strongest of all wood finishes. There are two categories of varnish available, solvent-based (lacquers) and water-based. Water-based varnishes are more commonly used and are every bit as good as solvent-based varnishes these days. A 2 pack varnish is the strongest form of varnish and is ideal for high traffic areas where durability is of the utmost importance such as bar tops (the more coats the better). For most projects, such as a shop floor, our extra tough clear varnish is more than adequate and we consistently receive excellent feedback for this product.

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How can we tell if the wood has been waxed, oiled or varnished?
If a wooden surface looks like it already has been finished with a product it is always a good idea to find out what that finish is as it may affect which product you should apply to the wood. For example, you could not really apply an oil over a varnished floor, but an existing floor that has been oiled can be re-coated with an oil (once it has been cleaned of course!). Here's a few pointers to find out what your wood has been finished with:

  • Waxed surfaces If it has wax on it you can scrape it lightly with your finger nail (once it has been cleaned). You may get a little wax under your nail. Also you can try buffing it with a cloth. Most surfaces will become shinier once buffed, but a waxed surface will substantially increase in shine.
  • Oiled surfaces Generally speaking oiled surfaces are not that glossy. If you stand something on the surface of an oiled surface it will not have much of a reflection. Instead you are likely to see a fuzzy image reflected. You can also try putting a little white spirit on a small unnoticeable area and if it dissolves the surface coating then it is likely to be an oil, please note however that this may leave a white spot. White spirit will also dissolve most wax polishes so check the above advice (waxed surfaces) before trying this.
  • Varnished Surfaces A varnished surface will be hard to the touch (it will make a clicking sound when you knock your nails on it) and will have a reflective surface. Even a matt varnish will reflect the light more than an oiled surface. If something is stood on the surface (with a window in view behind it) then the reflection is clearly visible. A satin or gloss varnish will have a very clear reflection of anything that is held up to the surface.

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What is the advantage of an oil?
The main advantage of oil is that they are the easiest of all wood finishes to repair. A patch repair, for example, where a drink's stain has occurred can easily be removed by simply sanding just the affected area and applying more oil.

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What is the advantage of a wax?
A wax looks really nice, with more of a sheen than a gloss. It can be re-waxed as many times as you like and buffed until the required sheen level is obtained or indeed not buffed if a low sheen is preferred.

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What is the advantage of a varnish?
It is hard wearing and easily wiped down with damp cloths.

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Is there a difference between a lacquer and a varnish?
No, the trade tend to refer to them as "lacquers" and the public tend to refer to them as "varnishes".

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Why do you have both a lacquer and varnishes section on your site?
The public often feel they don't need a lacquer and sometimes the trade feel they don't need a varnish so this way we cater for both markets. In our lacquers section we have mainly included solvent based lacquers which are mainly used by the trade and in our varnishes section we have water based products which are recommended for use in the home.

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What type of wood stain do I need?
How do you choose the right wood stains for the job? It's something we're asked all the time. Thankfully there are some awesome products specially designed to cater for different wood types, finishes and situations. How do you choose? To give you a helping hand, our product pages make it nice and clear which products are suitable for what type of wood and project. We've also written a useful blog post about choosing the right kind of wood stain.

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What is the best way to match different coloured woods?
By using a product from the same range on each type of wood, that needs to be matched, you can obtain a closer colour match. Where possible, it is best to use a clear coating on the darkest wood and a coloured coating on the lightest wood. Oil is a good option because it penetrates well into the wood, colouring it and protecting it at the same time. With an oil, you can also apply a second coloured coat if the match is not close enough after the first attempt. Hard wax oil is a superior oil that is also available in colours. For example, to match new pine to old pine use 1 part whiskey hard wax oil to 1 part clear hard wax oil on the new wood and just clear on the old wood.

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Which product offers the clearest finish?
If you are looking for a clear finish and do not need extra durability we can recommend 3 types of Wax polish depending on the project you are working on: Supreme Wax Polish, Fiddes Beeswax Polish or Briwax

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What if a wax isn't durable enough and I want a clear finish?
Extra tough clear varnish or hard wax oil offer a clear alternative to the wax products. The difference is that they will slightly darken the colour of the wood, applying a little water to the wood will give you an indication of the final finish. We have had samples of varnishes that claim to keep the wood "Looking exactly as it is before applying the varnish" but they don't actually work. If you know of a product that does keep the wood looking the same but protected then we would love to hear from you. N.B. There is a product called Bona Naturale that is as clear as you can get but it is well over £100 for a 5L tub which will cover about 3 coats on an area that is 15 square metres. We can obtain this product if it interests you. Roughly speaking it will make your wood look somewhere between how it is before anything has been applied to it and how it looks once it has been wetted with water.

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What is the difference between a dye and a stain?
Essentially there is no difference between a stain and a dye, they are both coloured liquids that don't offer a sheen or protection, they simply colour the wood. Our dyes are very concentrated and are available in the primary colours. Sometimes a product may have the word stain in its' title even though it is a protective coating also. However we believe that a stain should simply stain the wood and not do anything else because a better result will be achieved if clear coats are applied on top of a stain.

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Why do you not have a tinted varnish in your range?
Many of the large DIY stores sell a varnish and stain combined because it cuts out the process of staining the wood separately. We are very negative about these types of finishes because the colour tends to be suspended in the varnish on the surface of the wood, rather than being in the grain of the wood. This means that the grain becomes obscured and the beauty of the wood is taken away. A better look, with greater grain enhancement is achieved if a stain is applied firstly with clear coats of varnish on top.

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What is the benefit of a water-based stain?
They are well priced and very easy to apply. They have very little smell and a large range of colours are available.

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What is the benefit of a solvent-based stain?
They are quick drying (about 5 minutes) and the grain of the wood is not raised.

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Is grain raising (with water based products) something to be concerned about?
In short - no, but it is a question of personal taste. The grain doesn't feel rough to the touch, it's more of a textured feel. In other words the pattern of the wood can be felt through the wood finish. Some customers really like to be able to feel the wood. If several coats of varnish are being applied then grain raising is not really an issue because the varnish tends to seal over the grain that has been raised, thus creating a smooth surface.

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What is the best way to clean and maintain my floor?
A concentrated cleaner can be mixed with water then applied by slightly dampening a cloth or mop. It is important to let the cleaner and not the water do the work. Using too much water on a varnish, wax or oil will take a little of your finish off each time it is used which in turn means your floor will have a shorter life. Visit our wood cleaners page to see our range of easy to use products.

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What should I use to clean decking?
The appearance of wood decking can quickly change due to the ravages of our British winters and sun damage. There is also a good chance that you will see signs of fungus growing on the surface, which will tend to blacken the wood. But there are some great products which have been specifically developed to maintain your decking all year round, and we stock only the best. Please refer to our blog post on how to clean decking for a full breakdown of products to keep your garden deck looking fantastic.

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How do I prepare my garden decking for a new wood finish?
It depends on the type of wood and the finish you want to achieve. Have a look at the first in our series of three blog posts (Garden Decking Stain Treatments - Part #1) about garden decking treatments, how to prepare the wood beforehand and make a great job of it.

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What is the best way to strip paint from wood?
We are often asked questions about the best way to strip paint and varnish from wood. Luckily there are some great products available today that make it a breeze. Basically, there are 3 approaches that you might take. Sanding, a hot air gun or some form of stripper. But there are things that you need to know in order to make the right choice. For example, a hot air gun is not good for removing varnish as it will simply melt the varnish and make it gooey.

We've put together a very comprehensive blog post which provides all the information you need to make the right paint stripping choice for your project.

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How do I choose the best wood finishing product for my project?
There are some fantastic products around, each designed to handle specific wood finishing jobs under specified circumstances. Making the right choice means your wood will look beautiful for longer, and have exactly the right kind of protection for its location and function. Take a look at our blog post: Types of Wood Finishes - Making Your Wood Beautiful - covering some of the most popular types of wood finishes, those our customers ask about most often.

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How would you describe a satin sheen?
Another way to describe satin is eggshell. In other words the sheen level is about the same as the surface of an egg when 1 coat has been applied. 2 coats will be a bit shinier.

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How would you describe a matt sheen?
No shine or very little shine. However 3 coats of a matt varnish will produce a sheen that is almost the equivalent of a satin.

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How would you describe a gloss sheen?
Very shiny, if you hold an object against a piece of wood that has had 2-3 coats of a gloss varnish applied there will be a clear reflection of that product in the wood.

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What is the best way to apply finishes to a floor?
We've got a great range of floor applicators that will save on time, money and back ache!.

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Is PVA glue safe on skin?
Polyvinyl acetate adhesive (PVA glue) is a remarkably versatile, water based glue that dries quickly at room temperature with good air circulation. It is non-toxic, doesn't emit harmful fumes and doesn't cause skin irritation. But it should not be ingested. Read more about the versatility of PVA adhesive and its remarkable and varied uses in our blog.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every attempt has been made to give information that is as accurate as possible, it is not fair to say that any advice can apply to every wood finishing situation. All woods have a different make up and influence top coats in their own way. For example a species of wood that is new will colour differently to the same species that has been cut for 2 years and one that has been cut for 2 years will colour differently to one that has been cut for 10 years so wood finishing advice is always a guideline only.