A quick guide to furniture finishes

August 31, 2015

Lacquer, polyurethane and varnish are all readily available in satin, semi-gloss and gloss – but as furniture finishes, they have different benefits and disadvantages that you should consider. Here is a quick guide to the characteristics of different furniture finishes, as well as some advice on how to apply them.

A quick guide to furniture finishes

Acrylic varnish

  • Acrylic varnish is a water soluble varnish.
  • This kind of varnish usually leaves a genuinely clear, thin, hard film with no amber tones.
  • It offers moderate resistance to wear and spills.
  • Acrylic varnish is usually sold in a spray can.
  • To apply this varnish, spray or, if necessary, brush on two or three thin coats.

Oil-based varnish

  • Oil-based varnishes need to be removed with mineral spirits.
  • This varnish leaves a hard film with a warm, amber tone.
  • It offers moderate to good resistance to wear and spills.
  • Brush on two to three coats for regular applications, sanding between coats.
  • Recoating with oil-based varnishes is easy but spot-repairs can be quite problematic.


  • You'll need lacquer thinner to remove this kind of finish.
  • Lacquer finishes leave a thin, hard film.
  • These finishes offer very good resistance to spills and wear.
  • This is the kind of finish you'll often see on commercial furniture.
  • Usually you'll need professional equipment to spray on two or three coats of a lacquer finish.
  • However, if you're using a slow-drying product, you can apply it with a brush.
  • But, don't use a lacquer finish over top other finishes.

Penetrating oil

  • You can remove Penetrating oil with Mineral spirits.
  • These kinds of finish soak into wood fibres for a natural-looking finish.
  • To apply this type of finish, you wipe or brush it on, then let stand for 30 minutes before rubbing it vigorously.
  • Three coats are usually required.
  • Be sure to wet-sand the surface before applying the third coat.


  • You'll need to use turpentine or mineral spirits to remove polyurethane finishes.
  • These finishes leave a very hard film with a warm, amber tone.
  • Because this finish is so hard it offers excellent resistance to wear and spills.
  • Brush on two coats to apply a polyurethane finish.
  • But be sure to recoat within the specified time to maintain the look of your furniture.
  • Spot-repairs of a polyurethane finish are tricky because it's such a hard finish.
  • Make sure you don't use this kind of finish over top of a shellac.

Shellac (white or orange)

  • You'll need denatured alcohol, or ethanol to remove a white or orange shellac.
  • A thin, lustrous film, that's either clear (white shellac) or amber-toned (orange shellac) is characteristic of this finish.
  • Shellacs wear well but spills will usually leave a mark.
  • Thankfully, though, spot-repairs are easily done.
  • You can apply shellac with a brush in two or three thin coats.

Refer to this quick guide when you're choosing between furniture finishes and you'll be better able to choose the best for you.

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