Wood finishing for newbies


Help Support UKworkshop.co.uk:

This site may earn a commission from merchant affiliate links, including eBay, Amazon, and others.


Established Member
19 Sep 2011
Reaction score
Nr. Swansea
One of the biggest problems we scrollers face when we have made something is what finish to apply. A finish can make or break an item we have lovingly spent a couple of hours making and it’s true what most people say, always try a finish on an off cut first if your not sure how its going to come out.
I think we have all gone out and bought what we thought would be the ideal finish only to find out later that it was rubbish. If I had all the money back I have miss spent over many years of scrolling on unsuitable finishes I think I could buy a new Hegner. Hopefully the following paragraphs will help you avoid the mistakes I have made.
When thinking about what finish to apply there are a lot of things to consider. Is it going outside or inside, do I want a shiny finish or a matt finish? Is it going to be used by children or maybe it’s going to stand on a mantelpiece for the rest of it’s life. Over the years I have been asked many times about various finishes and how they work. I would point out that what I state here is what works for me, there are literally hundreds of finishes out there and in my life time I will never get to try them all but I am very happy with the finishes I use today and I am just passing on the benefits of my experience to the newer members of the forum. Many of you will be happy with the way you finish an item and the materials you use, we are all different.
Most of you know that I make most of my things from various hardwoods and it never ceases to amaze me when I apply the first stage of a finish how the wood becomes alive with vibrant colours and completely transforms it. The true colour of the wood becomes vibrant; it is so much more appealing to the eye. I get a thrill when I am at a craft fair and the customers stand by my tables and gaze at everything on display and for most they cannot resist the urge to pick something up and feel the wood, to smell the finish and gaze at the beauty of the wood. Then I get asked all sorts of questions. Half the battle is making the most from the wood we have. I look at a plank of wood and I just know what items I will make from it making full use of the grain patterns etc.
For about a year now I have adopted a finish that is quick and easy to achieve for the bulk of the things I make. I love oil for the first stage of the finish and there are many different types out there. If we take just one, say Danish oil there are so many different brands available and they all react differently, some will dry in 20 minutes, others may take 3 days or more and if you apply 4 or 5 coats than it could take 3 weeks before it is ready for use or to sell on and for me this is no good at all.
The oils I like include Teak oil, Liberon finishing oil, Lemon oil and Walnut oil. What one I use depends on what wood it is for and what the item will be used for. For 90 per cent of the things I make I use teak oil. When I first started using teak oil I was a bit disappointed for over a short period of time it would solidify in the container and become useless. I tried so many different brands before I found the one that worked for me. Bear in mind that when I am applying a finish it is just not one item, it can be an many as 40 items I do at a time although usually its around a dozen items. The brand I have been using for quite a while now is Wilkinson’s own label teak oil. I store this in a 4-pint milk container and top it up every few weeks as the level drops from usage. I have one of those large Tupperware type plastic sandwich boxes that I use as a dip tank. When I have a dipping session I first lay out several layers of newspaper out on my finishing table. I also have a load of those cane barbecue skewers I lay down on the newspaper, this keeps the items I am going to dip off the newspaper and allows the air to get underneath. I pour the oil into the sandwich box, usually to a depth of about an inch and a half. I dip each item individually and then hold it for a few seconds to allow the excess to drain off and then place it on the sticks. When I have dipped the last item I place a funnel into the 4 pinter and pour the oil back, you need a bit of kitchen roll here to wipe the box after the last drop has gone in. Everything then goes back on a shelf ready for the next time. A bit of advice here. When you have dipped everything you want to leave the items on the sticks for ten to fifteen minutes and then wipe off any excess oil from the back of each item. If you don’t do this it could leave a mark when fully dry but this depends on what wood you have used, some are more absorbent than others. I allow the oil to dry for 24 hours before I apply a wax polish finish.
Dipping may not be viable to may scrollers if they just make one item every now and again, in this case brushing straight from the tin may be a better option although with brushing it is very time consuming, especially if there are a lot of internal cuts. The other oils I have mentioned can be applied exactly the same way as the Teak oil. I really do love the Liberon finishing oil but for me it is not viable to dip as I would need round about five litres of the stuff and that would cost a small fortune. Its very much thicker than the teak oil but the effect is just the same.
There are as many types of wax polishes available as there are types of oil finishes. Some polishes have to be left for 2 hours or more after applying them to the wood before you can buff them up, other polishes just need a few minutes or more and these are the ones I like to use. I like Bri-wax but I find it difficult to get hold of. It’s not available in any of the shops I visit but you can find it on e-bay. Fiddes supreme wax is good, like the Bri-wax you just leave it for five minutes or so and then it can be buffed up and both provide a nice deep satin finish. About 3 months ago I went shopping for some wax polish. I could not find the ones I normally use but they did have one of the other polishes made by Liberon, it was called Black Bison and when I took the lid off the polish was orange. It was quite a bit more expensive then the other polishes but I thought I would take a chance and so glad I did. When applied it needs round about 15-20 minutes to dry before it can be buffed. It is probably the best polish I have ever used. It really penetrates the wood, even on hard oak and when buffed up it leaves a deep satisfying finish, it’s a little glossier than satin and if you apply a second coat the effect is amazing.
I use what is called a drill brush that goes into the drill press for buffing up the polish. You can also buy a hand brush that will do the same job but I feel the drill brush does a better job. If you buy one from a shop they can cost as much as £30 each but I get mine from e-bay for around a fiver each and they do exactly the same job as the shop bought ones. As I write this I am toying with the idea of a buffing machine and adapting a bench grinder for the purpose. Everything I need for the conversion I can get from Axy including the various compounds for the buffing wheels.
With the teak oil finish it does not seal the wood and this is why I like it so much as this allows the polish to penetrate the wood. However, several coats of Danish oil will seal the wood and after several coats will produce a final glossy finish but then again it depends on what brand you use. Johnson’s Danish oil is quite thick and takes a long time to dry. Again, I use Wilkinson’s own brand of Danish oil for items that will be used outside, like bird boxes. It is a lot thinner than the Johnson’s one but dries very quickly and four coats can be applied in a day. As with any finish the first coat can lift the grain so when dry just run you hand over the item and if it is a little rough sand back with very fine abrasive or 0000 wire wool.
Some of you use MDF and invariably use a paint finish. I very rarely use MDF these days as it is so difficult and time consuming to get a half decent finish. You really need to seal MDF with a 50/50 mix of PVA glue and water, especially the edges and you can easily give the edges 3 or 4 coats of sealer and then 2 or 3 coats of acrylic paint and even then the finish might not be acceptable. I see signs in the shops like, love, peace, relax etc made from MDF and the finish is brilliant but then again the signs have probably been made in some Chinese factory where they have professional spray booths.
I like birch plywood for several things I make and some of them have a paint finish. I love the acrylic paints from Hobbies, their own label paints. Applying just one coat gives an acceptable finish but if you leave it for 24 hours and apply a second coat the finish is amazing. The secret to a good professional finish here is leaving it for 24 hours between coats but also having a really good brush. I find a brush with a 50/50 mix of natural fibres and man made fibres works best for me but they are expensive, round about £15 a time but it’s the only way to get a superb finish, especially if your into making toys. What I like about the acrylic paints is that they are excellent for hiding the laminations of ply on the edge of the ply wood, no one will ever know you used plywood unless you tell them. Hobbies do a special varnish called Liquitex that is quite expensive but when dry it’s as hard as steel and is perfect for toys of all descriptions. I use it a lot on tray puzzles and its child safe as well, as is the acrylic paints.
Another finish I like a lot is shellac. I normally use this as a sealer and again it really does bring out the beauty of the wood when applied. Shellac is an excellent sealer, even with just one coat and takes a wax polish very well. I use two brands, one from Liberon and the other from Fiddes, with both they come in a clear plastic container and when left on a shelf there is a separation of the liquid with the bottom half being brown and the top half white so a good shake is needed before applying. Apart from dipping I apply all my finishes using a cloth and the cloth I love best is flannelette sheet. I buy a double sheet and then tear it into strips into a carrier bag and this will last me a long time. If you use a stain on wood before applying a finish then always use a rag to apply it, you get a more uniform colour this way whereas with a brush it can end up blotchy.
With some items I use a spray finish. I apply a spray on sanding sealer first, maybe even 2 or 3 coats depending on what wood it is and what it will be used for. Sand down after the first coat though and this will provide a good key for the other coats. In the main I use the spray paints that the car industry uses. The secret to a really good finish is several very light coats. These are by far a lot better than one thick coat where you will probably get several runs if you are not careful. The beauty of a spray finish is that it dries very quickly so several coats can be applied in a short time. You can use a spray on lacquer over the paint but I prefer the paint on it’s own however you can use the spray on lacquer over the top of the sanding sealer for a very good finish, again, several very light coats will be needed to get the desired finish. In the summer I have a long plank between two trestles and spray in batches.
As I said at the beginning, everything I make I sell at craft fairs so the finish I use has to be quick to apply but also very pleasing to the eye and I feel I have achieved all that as my customers will testify. At every craft fair I always get comments about the finish.
Some time ago I tried an epoxy two part finish but found it messy and time consuming and I was not overly pleased with the end result although this type of finish is widely used in the furniture trade.
I have in no way covered all the types of finishing here; I would need a book for that. If you have a question or want to know about something I have not covered feel free to send me a PM and I will do my best to help you.
Good grief Geoff, you have excelled yourself. Very interesting article and extremely useful and welcome. Thank you very much.
Geoff what a in depth post,which I personally found very interesting to read.I don't know about newbies I found the content helped the oldies like me :roll: THANK YOU

Great article Geoff. I have been using varnish straight from a tin but always wanted something better. Now I know how to do it. Thanks
I've learnt a lot from this Geoff well written and very appreciated by a novice like me. I agree, your articles re the essentials should be stickied for easy reference.

Thanks Chas