Your Guide to Choosing the Best Timber Finish

One of the most important discoveries of man is the use of timber for architectural and aesthetic purposes.

Over the years timber has gained wide popularity in architecture and objects and is used in furniture making, construction (such as in houses, timber decking, balconies, and terraces), electric poles, sculptural carvings, and a host of other applications.

As with all materials, timber needs maintenance to stay in good shape and last longer. There are quite a few ways timber can be maintained, but one effective method is with a timber finish.

Timber finishing refers to the process of safeguarding or polishing the surface of a wooden material.  This prevents it from deteriorating and ensures that its beauty is not lost.

There are various types of timber finishing and the suitability of each depends on the use of the material. Therefore, in deciding the most appropriate method of finishing, there are a few pointers you may want to consider.

This article provides information on the types of timber finishes on the market and factors to consider when choosing a timber finish.


Types of Timber Finishes

Timber finishes and coatings can be difficult to remove once applied, which is why it’s a clever idea to take your time before deciding on the right product.

One major factor to consider is whether your material will be used indoors or outdoors. Special considerations are required if the timber will be exposed to outdoor elements, such as a decking, which would need a finish that can withstand the harsh sun and humid weather conditions 

demanded by changing seasons.

On the other hand, interior timber finishes are not exposed to outside elements and are mainly for their aesthetic and visual attributes. In this case, the finish should provide adequate protection for the design elements.

Other factors include visibility of the finish, colour, and texture. The following are some of the types of timber finishes and their characteristics:



Oiling offers good protection from dirt and permeates timber to bring out its natural characteristics and colours.

Timber oil is resistant to water and alcohol and can be used for interior and exterior purposes. It is particularly good for exterior fittings such as timber cladding, due to its ability to prevent damage from moisture. It contains little to zero quantities of pigments which works to preserve the colours. It also provides a natural finish and is easier to fix than many other methods, if necessary.

However, oil is not particularly durable as it needs to be reapplied periodically. First-time application is also quite difficult because coating needs to be done multiple times before full absorption.

The surface of your timber material needs to be thoroughly sanded before oil can be applied. You would also need to clean the surface properly with a piece of cloth.

Some items you will need for oiling include:

·         Timber oil (most common are Danish oil, Tung oil, and traditional linseed)

·         Brush/cheesecloth pad

·         Oil tray

·         Cleaning rag (to clean spills)




Wax is a translucent decorative finish often used for protection of timber and has the added advantage of dual uses: it can be used on its own or over the top of another finish.

It is easy to apply and provides a great aesthetic look. One major attribute of wax is heat-resistance, and it can be combined with oil to give formidable protection, which is especially useful for hot or sunny regions. Wax is ideal for indoor use when used alone.

On the other hand, wax offers short-term protection and needs frequent reapplication to maintain its true finish.

To apply wax, timber surfaces must be properly sanded. Items needed for a wax finish include paste wax (most commonly Beeswaxis used) and a cloth pad.



Varnish is a hard, protective finish that doesn’t cover the grain of the wood surface.

It offers good protection against heat, water, alcohol, etc. and is resistant to impact. Varnish is a highly durable wood finishing option. Varnish is transparent on timber (though not as transparentas lacquer) and can be reversed easily with the use of paint removers. It is suitable for both interiors and exteriors.

Except for the polyurethane type, varnish can become dull and yellow overtime. Also, varnish dries slowly, and this means there is greater potential for dust to settle into the finish.

Application of varnish is similar to dye and requires the use of a brush.



Staining is a finishing method primarily used to enhance the natural colour of the wood.

It soaks into the wood to give a decorative finish. It is used to darken or colourwood and is available in different types such as gloss, matte, etc. It is most suitable for interior use but can be usedexternally when combined with another finish for extra durability.

Negatives: it is not water resistant and requires frequent recoating.

The application should be on clean, bare wood to reflect the truecolour. Apply with a brush for the finest finish. It can be a particularly good choice if you wish to match something to an existing timber piece.



Lacquer is a thin, highly durable finish that provides terrific protection against dirt, water, and many other substances. It dries very fast, meaning a shorter coating time. It is most usually sprayed, which means you will have to hire or buy a spray system. It’s easy to repair when damaged.

Downsides are that it is not very durable compared to other timber finishes. It can also be toxic and does give up flammable fumes, so you need a proper spraying environment - either a spray booth or an open space outside the home.

Timber should be appropriately sanded and cleaned immediately before lacquer application. You will need to apply the lacquer slowly and evenly on the timber surface and more importantly, keep the required distance (of about 18 inches) for best results. Items needed for a lacquer finish include:

·         Lacquer

·         Spray can/gun or spray machine (for wide surfaces)

·         Tack cloth (for cleaning)



Shellac is a resin made from lac bugs and is one of the easiest finishes to apply. Just like lacquer, it dries quickly and can be applied by brushing or spraying. It polishes well and is quite durable. Shellac is also easy to fix when damaged.

Unfortunately, shellac offers no protection from water and alcohol (and other chemicals) as they can blemish the surface. Additionally, it absorbs moisture and is therefore not suitable for outdoor usage.

When exposed to heat, shellac softens, so it’s advisable not to put anything hot on the surface. Due to these drawbacks, it is most suitable for decorative items which are not susceptible to rigorous use.

Shellac has application techniques similar to that of lacquer.



Finishing offers long-lasting beautification and protection for your timber material. While there are numerous types of finishes available, selecting the most suitable option shouldn’t be difficult with the information provided in this guide.

Have questions or want to learn more? Get in touch with Austim today to discuss your timber finishing needs!

Mike Rowney