Finishing: A Complete Guide to Types & Application Methods

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  June 19, 2022
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Surface finishing is a broad range of industrial processes that alter the surface of a manufactured item to achieve a certain property.

Finishing processes may be employed to: improve appearance, adhesion or wettability, solderability, corrosion resistance, tarnish resistance, chemical resistance, wear resistance, hardness, modify electrical conductivity, remove burrs and other surface flaws, and control the surface friction.

In this article, I’ll explain what finishing means, how it’s done, and why it’s so important.

What is surface finishing

Mastering the Art of Wood Finishing: A Guide to Achieving a Perfect Finish

Finishing is the final step in any woodworking project. It involves applying a protective coating to wooden surfaces to improve their appearance and durability. The process of wood finishing typically represents between 5 and 30% of manufacturing costs for furniture production. Here are some things you need to know about the finishing process:

  • Finishing can be easy if you know the right techniques and have the right tools.
  • Different finishes can be applied to achieve different effects, such as toning, staining (here’s how to apply it), or painting.
  • The goal of finishing is to create a repeatable and consistent process that produces a tough and good-looking finish.

Choosing the Right Finish

Choosing the right finish is crucial to achieving a successful result. Here are some tips to help you choose the best finish for your project:

  • Consider the type of wood you are working with. Different woods require different finishes to bring out their natural beauty.
  • Decide on the level of protection you need. Some finishes offer better protection than others.
  • Think about the appearance you want to achieve. Do you want a natural look or a richer, darker finish that hides the original surface?

Applying the Finish

Once you’ve picked the right finish, it’s time to apply it. Here are some tips to help you apply the finish successfully:

  • Sand the wooden surface thoroughly before applying the finish to ensure a smooth and even coat.
  • Apply the finish in thin coats to avoid drips and runs.
  • Use a brush, spray gun, or wipe-on method to apply the finish, depending on the type of finish you are using.
  • Repeat the process until you achieve the desired level of protection and appearance.

Dealing with Common Problems

Even the most experienced woodworker can encounter problems during the finishing process. Here are some common problems and how to deal with them:

  • Dings and scratches: Sand the affected area and apply a fresh coat of finish to make the dings disappear.
  • Oily woods: Use epoxy or a sealer to prevent the oil from bleeding through the finish.
  • Crevices and hard-to-reach areas: Use a brush to apply the finish to these areas, or try a spray gun for a more even coat.
  • Blending different finishes: Use a faux finish or toning to blend different finishes together.
  • Antique finishes: Use a dove-tail brush to create an antique mystique on oak or other exotic woods.
  • Cleaning up: Use a load of cleaning tools to clean up the mess after finishing.

Transforming Wood with a Range of Finishes

There are a wide variety of finishes available for wood, each with its own unique properties and benefits. Here are some of the most commonly used types of finishes:

  • Oil-based finishes: These finishes are highly regarded for their ability to enhance the natural beauty of wood grain. They are easy to apply with a cloth and offer a level of protection against water and other liquids. They are also known for their strong and durable nature.
  • Water-based finishes: These finishes are a great alternative to oil-based finishes for those who want to avoid the strong smell and fumes associated with oil-based products. They are generally considered safer and faster to dry than oil-based finishes.
  • Polishing finishes: This type of finish is used to create a shiny and reflective surface on wood. It involves the use of abrasive materials and can be a fairly complicated technique to master. However, it can produce a fine and rich finish.

Application Methods

The way in which a finish is applied can greatly affect the final result. Here are some of the most common methods of application:

  • Brushing: This is the most traditional method of applying a finish. It involves using a brush to apply the product to the wood surface.
  • Spraying: This method involves using a spray gun to apply the finish. It is generally faster than brushing and can produce a more even finish.
  • Wiping: This method involves applying the finish with a cloth. It is a great way to achieve a more natural look and can be used to create a range of effects.

Multiple Products for Different Needs

Different finishes offer different levels of protection and can be used for different purposes. Here are some of the most commonly used products:

  • Stains and dyes: These products are used to add color to wood and can be used to create a range of effects.
  • Boiled linseed oil: This product is used to protect and enhance the natural beauty of wood. It is a highly regarded product for its ability to penetrate deeply into the wood grain.
  • Varnish: This product is used to provide a strong and durable finish. It is commonly used on furniture and other items that need to withstand extreme conditions.

Combining Techniques for Superior Results

To achieve the best possible results, it is often necessary to combine multiple techniques and products. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Sanding: Sanding the wood surface before applying a finish can help to ensure that the finish adheres properly.
  • Stirring: It is important to stir the finish thoroughly before applying it to ensure that it is completely mixed.
  • Drying: Different finishes require different amounts of time to dry. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and allow the finish to dry for the recommended amount of time.

Stains & Dyes vs Finishes: Which is Better for Your Woodwork?

When it comes to finishing your woodwork, it’s important to understand the primary differences between stains & dyes and finishes. Stains & dyes are designed to change the color of the wood, while finishes are designed to protect the wood from water, dirt, and other elements.

Types of Stains & Dyes

There are a wide variety of stains & dyes available on the market, each with their own unique effects. Some of the most common types include:

  • Water-based stains & dyes: These are easy to clean up and produce a natural-looking finish.
  • Oil-based stains & dyes: These are great for creating a smooth, even finish, but they can take longer to dry.
  • Gel stains: These are thicker and easier to control, making them a great option for beginners.
  • Powdered dyes: These are a great option for achieving a wide variety of colors, but they can be tricky to work with.

Choosing the Best Option for Your Woodwork

When it comes to choosing between stains & dyes and finishes, it ultimately depends on your preferences and the look you’re trying to achieve. Keep in mind the following factors:

  • The type of wood you’re working with: Some woods, like ash, are more porous and may require a different type of finish.
  • The technique you’re using: Some finishes, like lacquer, require a specific technique to achieve the desired result.
  • The level of protection you need: If you’re looking for extra protection, a heavy-duty finish like varnish may be the best option.
  • Safety considerations: Some products contain heavy chemicals and may require proper safety precautions.

The Ultimate Goal: Protecting Your Woodwork

No matter which form of finishing you choose, the ultimate goal is to protect your woodwork from water, dirt, and other elements. Achieving the perfect finish begins with knowing the proper technique and understanding the effects that different products can have on your wood. Keep in mind that thin coats are better than excess, and always be sure to clean up any excess finish to avoid creating a heavy, uneven look. With the right understanding and technique, you can achieve a beautiful finish that will protect your woodwork for years to come.


So, finishing is the last step of woodworking and involves applying a protective coating to the wooden surfaces to improve their appearance and durability. 

It’s important to know the right techniques and tools for the job, and I hope this guide has helped you with that. So, don’t be afraid to try it yourself now!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Tools Doctor, content marketer, and dad. I love trying out new equipment, and together with my team I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with tools & crafting tips.