Which Wood Finish Is Best?

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

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?

softwood-or-hardwood

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.

inside-outside-wood

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

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.

shabby-chic-furniture-finish

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-or-old-wood

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-verses-treated-wood

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.

coloured-pencils-showing-colour

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).

tough-durable-wood-finishes

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. They’re always on hand to give friendly help and advice.

32 Responses to “Which Wood Finish Is Best?”

  1. Avgoustinos Says:

    Hi,

    We have got a new pine floor fitted which will be filled and sanded today. We need a floor finish which is hard wearing, 2 shades darker and satin finish. We are thinking of the Ronseal diamond hard range but would like to have your advice too?

    Thank you in advance

  2. Sam Taylor-Casey Says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for your inquiry it would be fair to say that the Ronseal Diamond Hard Coloured Floor Varnis would be a good option. It is hard wearing and durable for your flooring. I always recommend a test area first to ensure that you like the finish that will be achieved. This is because until you apply the varnish to your wood you will not get a true idea of how the colour will look.

    The Diamond Hard is the only varnish that we do that is translucent, most others are opaque finishes. If you have any further question please do not hesitate to ask.

    Kind regards Sam.

  3. norm brown Says:

    Have made side gate from redwood but trying to achieve low mtce matt finish without staining.
    If I need to effect colour of wood it should be minimal.
    Presume it will age regardless.
    Your advice and guidance would be welcome

    Thanks

  4. Sam Taylor-Casey Says:

    Hello,

    I would recommend the Holzol Decking Oil as a good choice for your project. It would be fair to say that a clear product will allow the wood to silver naturally, however there are UV Filters in this product that help to slow down that process.

    Regular maintenance will help keep the natural colour of the wood. This is a penetrative oil that is great for water repellency. It is available in a sample size to allow you to try it and I would always recommend a test area to be done. And if you ave any further questions please do not hesitate to let me know.

    Kind Regards Sam.

  5. Laurence Says:

    I completely sanded down the upper surface of an oval coffee table manufactured by Ducal because the surface was badly heat damaged. The table is made of pine which has a rich patina to it and I’m concerned that if I treat the top with a clear Matt varnish it will be a completely different (lighter) colour. My question is do I need a matching stain, or should I try and ask Ducal what they used originally?

  6. Sam Says:

    Hello Laurence,

    Wiping a damp cloth over the surface of the bare wood will give you an idea of how much a clear varnish will darken the tone of the wood

    As you have sanded back to the bare wood it is possible that the finish will be a different colour. But you are able to re-stain should you find the water test shows that clear varnish is not dark enough, the Manns Classic Pine Stain is a good option. It is a versatile finish that can be applied in a number of coats to intensify the colour or lighten by adding water.

    You can then apply a Varnish to seal and protect the table. I hope this helps and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to let me know.

    Kind Regards Samantha.

  7. Stephen Says:

    Hi

    I am using iroko slats on my garden fence, what would be best to protect them with, oil or something else. I want to retain the natural colour of the iroko but dont want ot to weather too much

    Thanks

  8. Sam Says:

    Hello Stephen,

    For tropical hardwoods, we tend to recommend the Teak Oil. This is a thinner oil that will absorb more easily into this hard wood. Unfortunately it does not have the UV filters that will slow down the silvering process of the wood. For this the Osmo UV Protection Oil Extra would be ideal if it absorbs readily into the surface of the wood. Both are available in sample sizes to allow you to carry out a test area first.

    I hope that helps and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to let me know.

    All the Best Samantha.

  9. Tara Says:

    What is the best product to use to finish the wood in my front room. New doors coloured with wood dye/stain. And sanded and restrained skirting boards and nest of tables.
    Thanks

  10. Sam Says:

    Hello Tara,

    I will be happy to make some recommendations, can you tell me if these projects are all bare wood ? What you would like the finishes to look like, natural or coloured? Would you prefer varnish or oil ?

    We do have some very helpful videos on our YouTube Channel that may help with product choice. Feel free to email me with more details at wood@finishes.direct.

    All the Best Samantha.

  11. Dave Matthews Says:

    I have a front door at my house in France. It get full HOT sun during the summer and the normal rain showers. It was painted with a satin clear varnish about 7 years ago which is now in need of renovation. I want to retain the natural appearance of the wood and a satin finish. Can you suggest how I approach this job and the varnish/paint/oil that would be best. The door is made of a very heavy light coloured (hardwood?) wood. Thanks

  12. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Good morning Mr Matthews,

    Thank you for your enquiry. Firstly for stripping you could have a look at the Paint Panther Paint and Varnish Remover. This is a gel that makes the varnish bubble up to be scraped off with a Filler Knife. A test area should always be carried out first.

    Once back to bare wood I would recommend a good quality preserver to go with the exterior varnish. Sadolin Quick Drying Wood Preservative and then Sadolin Extra Durable Clearcoat.

    If you have a look at those products and feel free to let me know if you have any further questions.

    Kind Regards Samantha.

  13. Alastair Gemmell Says:

    Hi, I have applied Osmo country colour pebble grey over two Coats of Osmo wr base coat to my log cabin and white to the windows. I would like to treat the insides of the doors and windows with a clear finish and also at a later date coat the insides of the cabin with a clear protective finish. What do you recommend for this.

    I though it better to wait for everything to dry out properly before painting the full inside however and ask what you think would be best for this.
    Regards

  14. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Alastair,

    For an interior finish you could have a look at the Fiddes Hard Wax Oil. It is a durable, natural finish for your interior wood. It will darken the wood slightly to give the ‘wet look’ and it will be suitable for all interior areas including windows, doors, flooring and cladding. I hope that helps and do let me know if you have any further questions.

    All the best Samantha.

  15. kevino Says:

    Is there any reason why decking oil should not be used on ageing garden furniture?

  16. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Kevino,

    If you are treating bare or previously oils garden furniture then it is likely to be fine and a test area will show if there are any problems. For wood that has previously been treated with a varnish or exterior stain, all of this will need to be removed before application of an oil will be accepted. Decking oil can also be good for a number of exterior projects including fencing, steps, sheds, furniture and much more.

    Kind Regards Samantha.

  17. kevino Says:

    Come to think of it, is there any reason that it is unsuitable for use on indoor bedroom wooden plank floors in an old property?

  18. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hi again Kevino,

    I would not recommend it for interior use. That said many customers have used it previously with no issues and if you do choose to then good ventilation during application and drying is a must.

    We do have a vast range of suitable interior oils that would be better suited and I would be happy to make some suggestions should you need any further advice.

    All the Best Samantha.

  19. Polly Says:

    What would be best for the finish on pine clad cathedral ceiling, it has received no treatment as yet. I am looking for satin or matt finish, and probably a clear finush

  20. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Polly,

    As a ceiling, I would not expect the wood to need too much in the way of protection. So you could have a look at applying a Wax. This will nourish and seal the wood to make it easy to clean if needed. As it is unlikely to be exposed to moisture or dirt this should suffice.

    If you do want to consider a more durable finish however, then I can recommend the Fiddes Hard Wax Oil which will soak into the surface of the wood and longer lasing and more durable. Test areas are recommended for both recommendations and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

    Kind regards Samantha.

  21. Deepak Says:

    Hi. I have recently build a wooden cabin of yellow balau wood.
    Can i apply oil first then a coat of clear varnish?
    Also we are in the process of building a deck around the pool
    Of cumaru wood. Can i also apply oil followed by clear varnish?
    Thank you and kind regards.
    Deepak

  22. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Deepak,

    Oils and varnishes are not compatible! Each are protective products in their own right. A varnish is a surface sealer that will last long and give a really good level of protection against moisture ingress. It can be difficult to maintain and repair over time if the varnish breaks down however.

    Oils will soak into the surface of the wood and help to make it moisture repellent and many will have UV filters also, it will not last as long as a varnish, however is far easier to maintain by simply applying a fresh coat of oil when you feel the wood needs it, with out the need to strip back.

    As you are applying to Balau, which is a tropical hardwood with a naturally high oil content when new, you may need to allow it to weather for a few weeks. If you wish to apply a varnish you will need to wipe down with Methylated Spirit to de-grease and avoid adhesion issues.

    And if you wish to apply oil then the Teak Oil is more suited as it is a thinner oil for hardwoods. Test area will need to be carried out which ever you choose to go with.

    I hope that helps and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

    All the Best Samantha.

  23. Ian Says:

    Hi

    I’ve recently bought 11 x oak veneer doors from Travis Perkins. The doors are quite light in colour and I am keen to keep it that way when treated, what would you recommend? I am aware that while the manufacturer says not to use oil on them but that in reality it should not really be a problem, so if this is the best option I will do that, I’m just keen to keep the oak finish quite light in colour after the treatment.

    Thanks

    Ian

  24. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Ian,

    For an oil that will leave the wood looking as natural and unchanged as possible you could have a look at the Fiddes Hard Wax Oil Natural. This contains a minute amount of White Pigment in it to counteract the darkening effect of a clear oil.

    It is the best product to leave the wood looking as unchanged as possible. I must state however that if you move forward with an oil it can invalidate any guarantee that you have with the doors. As always I recommend test area first to ensure that you like the finish to be achieved.

    If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

    Kind regards Samantha.

  25. willie hunter Says:

    What type of sealer do I apply to a finished distressed window frame

  26. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Willie,

    I would need to know a little more about the project. What the current finish is ? What type of wood you are applying to ? Is it interior or exterior ? Some pictures may help also and so if you are able to email me at wood@finishes.direct with the information and photos and I may be able to offer some advice for your project.

    Kind regards Samantha.

  27. Gerry Says:

    Hi;
    Am looking for advice on what oil to use on a fence I am about to build. The timber is untreated redwood pine. Looking for a clear oil to preserve it please.

  28. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Good Morning Gerry,

    Thank you for getting in touch with your enquiry. You could have a look at a preservative first, a good choice is the Barrettine Premier Universal this will help to prevent mould, mildew and rot.

    It is a clear finish and you can follow it up with a top coat product such as Barrettine Decking Oil this will help to slow down the natural silvering process and offer moisture repellency to the wood. Always try a test area first.

    If you have a look at these product and do feel free to get back to me if you have any further questions.

    All the best Samantha.

  29. Ros Lewis Says:

    Is it ok to Osmo Door oil on oak veneered doors eve though manufacturers instructions say finish with varnish lacquer or stain.

  30. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Good Morning Ros,

    Thank you for getting in touch, this is a question we are asked regularly as so many manufacturers recommend against using oils on veneers. In the past when veneers became very very thin the oils could penetrate through to the adhesive layer and react with the glue causing the veneer to peel away. There have been many changes to manufacturing and adhesive since and so it is far less of a problem, however many companies like to cover themselves as a ‘just in case’

    I have work with wood finishes for over 4 years now and have never had a customer call in to say their veneer has peeled as a result of any product that they have applied. It is in fact unlikely that any oil will penetrate through the veneer to impact on the glue. That said using a product against the manufacturers advice is very likely to invalidate any guarantee that you have with the doors.

    So in my opinion you will be able to use the Osmo Door Oil for your project, however it will be at your own risk.

    As an alternative we often recommend the Manns Extra Tough Interior Varnish which comes in a range of sheen levels and in sample sizes to allow you to carry out test areas first.

    I hope that helps and if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get back in touch.

    All the Best Samantha.

  31. Alison Says:

    Good morning
    I’ve recently moved to a house which is completely featheredged horizontal wise with pine 120mm wide
    It quality of the fitting has been given the highest attention and is about 3 years old.
    Being a softwood I would think it would need some sort of protection .
    It does get a bettering from the west but still looks virtually newish. I failed to ask the previous owner if he treated yearly or not and what with if he did.
    What would you suggest please

  32. Samantha Taylor Says:

    Hello Alison,

    Thank you for your enquiry. Are you able to send me some photograph of the featheredge boards and this may help me with how to advice you for your project moving forward. wood@finishes.direct

    Kind regards Samantha.

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