Professionals and Amateurs Together

Go-To Finish


What is your go-to finish and finishing technique? What did you experiment with or decide to do on a whim or impulse that turned out surprisingly well?—Jay Schafer


Jim Forbes replies: My go-to bowl finish for non-utilitarian “art work” turnings is my understanding/interpretation of the Sam Maloof finish. I use an 8 oz. glass jar and mix :

  • 2 oz. Pure Tung Oil (not the same thing as products advertised a “Tung Oil Finish” (some will substitute hemp seed oil—it is clearer)
    2 oz. Pure Boiled Linseed Oil)
    2 oz. high quality oil based varnish (I use Behlen’s Rockhard Table Top Urethane Varnish–Gloss/Brilliant).
    This mix is thinned with about 2 oz. paint thinner or turpentine.

I cut back the gloss with 5x steel wool. Yes 5x is finer than standard 4x and is available on Amazon—Elephant Brand is oil free.

Another finish for small spindle turnings (I use it on birdhouse and angel ornaments) is pure carnauba wax. I sand through the grits to 2000, then rub at high speed the turning with a small 4˝x4˝ soft cloth previously soaked in melted carnauba wax flakes. This makes a quick, one step, high gloss, durable finish that withstands craft fair handling.

Elliot Savitzky replies: The type of finish I use depends on how the piece will be used. The first thing that I do is to plane the surface smooth and then sand to at least 220 or 320 grit (I have been told that the human eye cannot detect scratches past 220 grit but I like to be safe). I then apply a wash coat of shellac to everything I build as this seals the wood and will allow any topcoat to be applied over it.
If the piece will not receive heavy use or be susceptible to moisture (water or alcohol) I will continue with multiple coats of shellac to the point where I may French Polish the piece if it is a flat board such as a table top or drawer front.

If it requires a more durable finish I will use Waterlox, a tung oil varnish, applying at least four coats, sanding with a fine grit in between coats (1000–5000 grit using synthetic sheets designed for this purpose (Scotch Brite, Mirka Mirlon, etc.).

If the piece is going to get a lot of use like a windsor chair, I use Osmo Oil (now available from Woodcraft) which is a durable natural ingredient finish that can stand up to a lot of abuse. It was designed for hardwood floors which tells you something about it.
Regardless of the finish, I always “finish the finish” with oil-free 0000 steel wool and Wool Lube followed by a cream wax and buffing at the end.

I have not tried different finishes “on a whim” as I really don’t want to ruin all the work I’ve done on the piece. Using sample boards makes a lot of sense and will keep you from making that irreversible mistake. I’ve taken the advice of many mentors, teachers and professionals, and rely on two excellent books as a reference— Foolproof Finishing by Teri Masaschi and Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexnor.

Bruce Wedlock replies: Choosing a finish involves many factors— appearance, durability, ease of application and curing time. Shellac dries fast but is not exceptionally durable. Tung oil, boiled linseed oil and waxes are easy to apply and while not durable are easy to repair. Oil-based polyurethanes cure slowly but provide a durable surface.
Finishes like shellac dry by evaporation so are quick. Shellac’s durability is not good as it can be damaged by water or alcohol. But it is excellent on furniture and surfaces that get little wear. Apply with a synthetic brush or pad. Brushes don’t need to be cleaned. Let them dry and soak in denatured alcohol for the next use.

Oil-based varnishes cure by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air and so dry slowly. That’s also why they skin over in the can. Various resins such as urethanes are generally satisfactory for interior wood finishing. Cleanup with paint thinner is a bit messy.

For general woodworking, my go-to finish is General Finishes Enduro-Var, a water-based urethane that brushes smooth and dries in an hour. Apply with a fine, synthetic bristle brush as natural bristles absorb the water and swell up. Just put the brush in water between coats.
The first coat is the sealer and three coats with P220 or P320 light sanding in between yields a nice surface. I use the glossy as it doesn’t require stirring. Simply rub with 0000 steel wool or wet sand the final coat for a satin finish. Unused finish in the can does not skin over or otherwise deteriorate. Brush cleanup is with detergent and warm water.

Water-based varnishes dry crystal clear. If you want the amber shade typical with an oil-based varnish, just add a few drops of TransTint Honey Amber dye to get your desired shade.

Steve Costain replies: For large projects that will be sprayed, I like Campbell Aqualente. For smaller projects I use Watco oil or shellac with a wax top coat.

Tags: Finishing, Furniture, Woodturning