Wood Finishes 101

Wood is a very complex material, and the products we use to treat wood are even more complex. To the untrained eye some wood finishes look the same, but in actual fact they are completely different products, with different purposes. While one product might bring out the true beauty of your wooden furniture, another could ruin it. It’s all about knowing what a product does, and how best to use them.


Wood varnishes are hardwearing and durable treatments which give the wood a clear plastic coating, protecting the wood from above. Varnishes rarely come in tints, but are available in different sheen levels, such as gloss, matt and satin. If you are looking to add colour, a stain should be used first, and then varnished over. Varnishes are one of the more versatile wood finishes and can be used across a range of interior wood projects. Due to their hardwearing nature, varnishes are the ideal finish for high-traffic areas such as floors and stairs.


Wood oils are one of the most popular wood treatments, and while oils share similar properties to varnishes, they differ in crucial ways. As already mentioned, varnishes protect from above while oils protect from within, and soak into the wood. Wood oils are also available in a range of tints and sheens, to suit almost any need. Oils are great all-round wood treatments, and can be used on anything from garden decking to kitchen worktops. Unlike a varnish, oils can be used on exterior projects, but are not as hardwearing, so shouldn’t be used commercially as they will need reapplication from time to time.

One word of warning, be careful when oiling doors. Many wooden doors are veneers, which mean its layers of wood glued together. As oil soaks through the wood this can penetrate the glue, and potentially dissolve the glue. Always speak to the door manufacturers before using oils on doors, to check which oils ( if any ) are safe for use on your door.


Wood waxes are typically formed of natural waxes; they can help add depth, colour and character to your interior wood. Waxes are a very traditional wood treatment, but should not be used outdoors. However, waxes are not known for their durability, so should not be used on any high-traffic areas, any may need occasional reapplication. Waxes can also be used on top of any other wood product, but other wood products can not be used on top of them.


Like waxes, wood stains are primarily used for aesthetical appeal rather than durability and practicality.  The main purpose of a stain is to add depth of colour and character to the wood, and it’s  often used before a varnish.

As wood is such a complex material, we would always suggest doing full research before using any wood-finishing product, as there are many products with many different purposes. The information above will help you narrow down your search and help you understand the broad categories, helping you in finding the perfect wood finish. If you have any questions regarding a wood treatment, contact either manufacturers or suppliers as they will be able to give you more information.

Lastly you should always do a test area before doing any wood project, wood is a beautiful and complex material, and no two pieces of wood are the same. What might work well on once piece of wood might not on another. By doing a small test area you will ensure that products are compatible with the wood, and would not risk ruining your wood.

Article By: Aedan Kiernan
Aedan Kiernan is a Digital Marketing Executive for Wood Finishes Direct, who are one of the UK’s largest supplies of wood finishes and treatments, including eco paints and other wood products.