Furniture Finishes: Advice, Pros and Cons

Making an informed decision about finishing your furniture is very important because the finish is the only barrier between the raw wood material and the environment around it. There are three considerations when you're finishing your wood: Where your table is located, how you'll use your furniture, and how much protection you'd like. To be clear, by "finish" we don't mean staining or tinting, though we will mention that. We are talking about the topcoat here, which typically is clear and comes in matte, satin, semi-gloss and gloss levels.

Consideration One: Where Your Table Is Located

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Moisture in the air, very dry spaces, sunlight, and temperature and humidity fluctuations can adversely affect your table. Wood is an organic product. It breathes the air, much like a sponge. So once category of consideration when deciding about materials and finishes for your furniture or table is where it will live. Will it be in a temperature controlled air conditioned space? Will it be close to a fireplace or something that dries out the air? Is it in a summer home that is unheated in the off-season? Are you near a lake or the ocean where there is a lot of moisture in the air? Is the table going outdoors? All of these factors are important to know before making a decision on how to finish your table.

Consideration Two: Table Functionality- Dining?

The next round of consideration for your furniture is basically what is the function, and more specifically, is it a dining surface, and who will be dining on it. A lower-use table in a home where there are no young children is going to get a different amount of use than a family with many young kids. A table in a restaurant is going to have heavy traffic and may need to be cleaned with products that contain chemicals. This table below is in a restaurant, so it has a lacquer spray finish.

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Consideration Three: Level of Care

The third level of consideration is how much care and protection you are willing to give your furniture or table on a day to day basis and over time. One level of care is as simple as using place mats and coasters, and if you host a larger function like a party or a Thanksgiving dinner, are you willing to use a table cloth? The next round of care is long-term maintenance. For real wood furniture finishes with natural products we would recommend that every five years or so, if you want to restore the natural brilliance of the wood, you would apply a maintenance oil. Its a natural, food-safe oil, that you wipe on with a rag until the surface of the table is all covered, and then you wipe it off completely. It is a very easy, and quite frankly enjoyable and sweet-smelling task (you don't even need to wear gloves), but some people don't want to have to think about it. Below is a walnut table with an oil finish.

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Don't Forget About Color

Off the bat, it should be said that furniture oils and lacquer sprays and chemical stains and varnishes from a paint store can be tinted to varying degrees. So if you are hoping to achieve a brown, black, grey, or red (mahogany/cherry) tint, this is very possible. We can mix and match tints and show your photographs of samples for you to decide. The tints are not as heavy as stains. They will accent the natural color variations and grain patterns of the wood, without overwhelming them. Lighter woods (like maple and ash) in general will show the tint more than darker woods (like walnut and mahogany). A wood like reclaimed oak already has a wide variety of colors from tan to brown, so the tints will accent those variations and keep them. Essentially, the natural colors will darker accordingly.

Next, we will go through each finish we have available for you at Cannon Hill Woodworking and how it relates to each of these three categories.

1. Furniture Oils

Furniture oils are a common way of finishing wood furniture. One of the best things about them is that they are chemical free and food-safe. The product we use is plant-based. We buff the oil into the table and then several days later, we buff a maintenance oil in on top as well. The oil is a very durable finish. It is a moisture sealer, so it will stand up well to changes in humidity. Because your wood has been properly kiln dried, then a furniture oil will protect furniture in your home from normal fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Wood is always susceptible to movement.

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Reclaimed Oak Dining Table With Oil Finish

Over the course of the year, your table will expand and contract in very minor ways (perhaps you have experienced a door that gets stuck in its casing in the summertime, and then opens freely in the wintertime), but it will not be a noticeable change. That being said, if your furniture is going in a completely unconditioned space (typically a summer home that is unheated in the winter, or a summer home that is not conditioned at all and near the ocean) then you may want to consider a more protective finish, like a lacquer or a polyurethane or a 2k Urethane spray, which will breathe less. 

If your furniture piece is a focal point of a dining space, it is worth noting that furniture oils are beautiful finishes. You can't beat the brilliant matte finish. It is not shiny like a satin or glossy finish, but it is rich and magnificent. Furniture oils are stain and moisture resistant, but they are not completely stain proof. Using coaster and place mats is advised. We have tested them, and they stand up to hot and cold beverages, and to spills that are wiped up in a timely manner. Their arch-nemesis is highly acidic foods that aren't wiped up for an extended period of time. Examples of these types of foods are mustard, hot sauce, lime, and red wine/vinegar (so some salad dressings). If you have young children who are very messy, you might want to put a table cloth down when they eat, or when you host large gatherings.

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Furniture oils are great and durable. If you love the idea of having your table finished with a natural product that brings out the most beautiful color, then an oil is for you. Keep in mind that your finish may fade some over time, especially if there is a lot of direct sunlight shining on your table. Think about a baseball glove left out in the sun over time. Leather, like wood, is a natural material that eventually dries up. A nice lather with oil is all you need. The beauty of an oil is you can re-apply as frequently as you want. Because it is food safe, you don't even need to wear gloves. Every three to five years, you simply pour some oil onto the table, rub it in thoroughly, and wipe it off entirely within a few minutes. Wipe-on, wipe-off. This is not even necessary, but it's a way to bring back the beautiful finish that the table had the day Cannon Hill Woodworking delivers it to your door.

Furniture oils are not recommended for commercial spaces, because chemical cleaners can leave streaks, and highly abrasive cleaners can remove the finish.

2. Lacquer Spray

Lacquer is for lack of a better term, a great set-it-and-forget-it option. Lacquer can be super dull or matte, or is can be brought up to a satin or high gloss. It can also be tinted. It's hard to quantify beauty, but for the sake of this comparison, let's say lacquer is 80% as beautiful a finish as oil to the eye, and about 65-85% as natural to the touch. A heavier spray for a commercial space, like a restaurant, will feel smoother to the touch. A lighter spray, for a residential home, will feel almost identical to the oil to the fingertips. Lacquer is also a moisture sealer. It will protect your table under temperature and humidity fluctuations.

The advantage of lacquer is its stain-proofing abilities. We've tested our lacquer table tops with highly acidic foods left for over four hours. They wipe off easily. Lacquer also requires no maintenance over time. Eventually, the wood and finish is susceptible to fading, over decades, but that is if it's in direct sunlight. Refinishing your table is an option, but that isn't something you would even have to consider for decades.

If you are most concerned with staining, and would like to not worry about children or guests spilling on your table, then a lacquer finish is for you. If you are a restaurant, it is highly recommended. Lacquer is not for outdoor use because it's not quite durable enough to protect your table from harsh elements.

3. Oil based Urethanes

This is our middle ground finish. It can be refinished in place, which is a great advantage to oils over sprays. It has a chemical component so it is very stain resistant. It is more satin that the natural matte oils however.

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4. Stains and Polyurethanes

Stains and polyurethane finishes are reserved for furniture that is not meant to be a dining surface, such as library shelving, bookcases, and headboards. Stains can be applied in lighter or heavier coats, so if a certain color is a priority of yours, then a stain will achieve that more than an oil. Think of polyurethane finishes as "lacquer light". It is a chemical finish that protects your furniture from the elements, but is less expensive. It is also not as stain resistant as lacquer. The bookcase below was stained and polyurethaned.

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4. Outdoor Finishes

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We use one main types of finish for furniture that is meant for outdoor use, Polarion-X. Think of the 2K spray as lacquer for outdoors. The material is as stain resistant as lacquer. In addition, it has a more flexible quality to it, which means it will not crack the way lacquer would if left outdoors through a New England winter and summer.

All of our finishes are priced differently. Please contact for pricing. As always, we are here to help answer any question and guide you through the process. Feel free to reach out! Either fill out the contact form on the website, email info@cannonhillwood.com, or call 857-576-2089. We look forward to working with you on your next custom furniture project!