A quick guide to furniture finishes

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.

Lacquer

  • 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.

Polyurethane

  • 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.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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