How to Tell What Finish is on Wood Furniture

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Do you know how to tell what finish is on wood furniture? If you’re not sure what the difference is between Shellac, Varnish, Polyurethane, and Wax, then read this article! Here’s a quick guide! Hopefully, it will help you make a decision. Listed below are the four most common types of finishes used to finish wood furniture. Once you’ve figured out which one your furniture is, you can use the same test to determine what kind of finish you’re dealing with.


If you’re buying new wood furniture, there’s a good chance it’s finished with a protective top coat. These coats are essential for limiting the ravages of time and use. These types of finishes include lacquer, varnish, shellac, and polyurethane. Luckily, they’re all easy to identify. Here’s how to tell what kind of finish your furniture is if it’s finished with a top coat.

To determine the type of finish a piece of furniture has, first take a close look at the surface. If the finish is shiny, it could be lacquer or shellac. Similarly, if the finish is nearly black, it could be polyurethane. You can test a piece of furniture for a type of finish by scratching it with a fingernail. The first step in determining the type of finish is to remove any wax. A thin layer of solvent can be applied to the wood surface to make the spot visible, but it is important to follow safety precautions when applying the solution.

To determine the type of finish on wood furniture, you can use denatured alcohol. Simply apply the solution with a soft cloth. If the result is a yellow-brown color, you’re likely dealing with a polyurethane finish. If the cloth comes out dry and waxy, it means that the furniture has a polyurethane or wax finish. Fortunately, there are a few simple tests you can perform yourself.

Another way to determine the type of finish on a wood piece is to rub it with mineral oil or acetone. You’ll know whether the wood is oil-based or polyurethane by the way it reacts with the solvent. Using mineral oil on the surface of wood will make a yellow-brown stain on it, while linseed oil will leave a waxy feel.

The varnish should flow smoothly onto the wood surface without drag or excess. If the wood is not evenly coated, you should use a lint picker or turpentine to remove any lint or dust. Another option for determining the type of finish is a penetrating resin finish. This finish will withstand heavy use, such as a tabletop or a bookcase.


A shellac finish on wood furniture is one of the oldest finishes available. This finish is applied in multiple layers to enhance the grain pattern of the wood. The finish dries to a glossy sheen. While shellac doesn’t provide the same level of protection as a varnish or a stain, it does add a touch of class and elegance to any piece of furniture. In addition, shellac is extremely easy to apply and repair.

Unlike acrylic and varnishes, shellac doesn’t require a wax sealer. In fact, waxed shellac will last longer than a shellac finish. However, shellac with a wax coat may cause adhesion issues between polyurethane and a wood finish. Dewaxed shellac has greater clarity and is heat and water resistant. Before purchasing shellac, choose a color you like. Darker colors work best on dark wood, while lighter colors are better for light wood.

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You can apply a coat of shellac to a piece of wood furniture, either by brush or wiping with a rag. After applying a coat of shellac, buff it gently with a 220 grit sandpaper to remove any visible residue. A few coats are necessary to get a good finish. Once you’ve achieved the desired look, the finish can be applied in multiple layers.

After preparing the wood for shellac, apply a first coat of shellac, followed by a second. This should dry for about four hours. A third coat may be applied after the first, and it is best to allow the first coat to cure before applying a fourth. Once the first coat is dry, you can add additional coats. If you’re concerned that a single coat will not be enough, you can use a rag to apply a light layer of shellac.

When applying a shellac finish to wood furniture, you’ll want to choose the color that suits the wood. Shellac comes in white, amber, and brown shades, depending on the type of tree that the wood is made from. White shellac has the most impact on color on dark woods, but if you want a lighter finish, go with orange or red. In addition to the two above finishes, you can also use colored shellac to match existing finishes.


Before applying a polyurethane finish to wood furniture, it’s important to prepare the surface. For example, a wood surface must be clean and smooth. You can do this with a 220 grit sandpaper. For open-grain wood, you may apply a wood grain filler before applying the polyurethane. Afterward, you can vacuum the wood, or use a rag soaked in a mixture of water and mineral spirits.

Although polyurethane is not completely dry, it does stay wet on the surface for a short time before it starts to harden. After it dries, the coating enters a “tacky” phase for about an hour. This stage is important because this is when oxygen-induced crosslinking begins to occur. Adding a thinner that dries faster will not speed up the crosslinking process, and adding naphtha probably won’t affect the drying process much.

Applied polyurethane can also cause bubbles. These bubbles will appear in the final finish, but you can remove them by sanding the surface. Moreover, a polyurethane coat can harbor bugs and dust, so it’s essential to keep it in a clean area where there’s plenty of ventilation. Flying insects can destroy a polyurethane finish. Taking the time to properly prepare your furniture for the finish will be worth it in the end.

There are two basic types of polyurethane. Water-based and oil-based. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Water-based polyurethane is less toxic than oil-based polyurethane. Oil-based polyurethane is less durable but takes a little longer to dry. However, it can protect wood better against UV rays. In either case, you should choose a finish that fits your needs.

Water-based polyurethane is the most popular choice because of its low-odor and fast-drying characteristics. It also dries faster than oil-based polyurethane, but may require more coats. Oil-based polyurethane is thicker, has a higher toxicity level, and will create an amber hue. Neither type is particularly porous, and both can give you a great finish.


If you have wood furniture, you may wonder how to tell what finish it is. There are a few simple ways to check whether it is wax, shellac, or polyurethane. The process is easy and does not take long. In fact, it may even save you money on a refinishing project. Below are some tips to help you identify the finish of your wood furniture. Using a scraper, you can remove the finish from a small piece of furniture and see if it rubs off.

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When sanding wood furniture, always remember to sand the surface before applying a new finish. It is important to smooth the surface to ensure a uniform finish. If you’re unsure of the finish of your wood furniture, try a small patch on the surface to test the stain and grit levels before sanding the entire piece. Once you’re satisfied with the surface, use a vacuum cleaner to remove dust and other particles. To clean the surface, use a lint-free cloth or a tack cloth dipped in a solvent.

Oil-based finishes can leave a greasy residue on wood surfaces, so if you’re looking for a natural look, use Danish oil or tung oil. These types of oils can be hard to remove, so you need to follow the instructions. If you don’t want to scrub the surface, you can apply Walrus Oil Furniture Butter, which is a butter-like wax-like finish.

Wax-based finishes are not waterproof or water-resistant, and are often made of carnauba. While they are easy to apply, they don’t provide the necessary protection against scratches, and require frequent reapplication. Wax-based finishes often require a paste wax to be reapplied, and they need to be reapplied frequently. Once the wax is applied, the wood is more resistant to abrasion and damage, but they do not provide the protection needed to protect bare wood from water.

Linseed oil finishes are another option, but they are very expensive and may require several applications. They are easy to apply and relatively eco-friendly, but are not as durable as other finishes. Tung oil is derived from the seed of the tung tree, which grows in South America. It penetrates the wood grain and brings out its natural beauty. Similarly, Danish oil is a mixture of oils, offering good surface protection.

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s written by Itamar Ben-Dor, who has 25 years of experience in renovations, carpentry, locks, creation, landscaping, painting, furniture construction, and furniture renovation, works with concrete, plumbing, door repair, and more.

Itamar Ben-Dor has been in the home improvement business for over 25 years. Itamar Ben-Dor is a jack of all trades. He's worked in the renovation field for years, doing everything from locksmithing to carpentry. He's a small repairs specialist. But his true passion lies in furniture construction and renovation - he loves seeing old pieces come back to life with some new woodwork or a fresh coat of paint.

He has taken courses on many topics in these fields at professional colleges in Israel. Over the years, Itamar has also become quite skilled in gardening, carpentry, and renovations. He's worked on projects of all sizes, from massive renovations to small repairs. No job is too big or too small for him!

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