Wood Finishes Put to the Test: Which is Best?

Wood Finishes Put to the Test: Which is Best?

The Great Wood Finish Showdown

As a woodworker, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with wood finishes. On one hand, they’re essential for protecting our carefully crafted projects and bringing out the natural beauty of the wood. But on the other, the sheer number of options out there can be overwhelming. And let’s be honest – people have some pretty strong opinions when it comes to their favorite finishes.

That’s why I decided to put a handful of popular wood finishes to the test. My goal was to apply a systematic, scientific approach to evaluating their performance, appearance, and ease of use. After all, the “best” finish ultimately comes down to your specific needs and preferences.

I started with a few go-to finishes from my own workshop – General Finishes Arm-R-Seal, Mohawk Finishes Dura-Coat Lacquer, and the old standby, Zinsser Shellac. Then I threw in a couple wildcards – Rubio Monocoat and Odies Oil – that I was curious to test out.

Putting the Finishes to the Test

To make sure I was evaluating each finish fairly, I started with five identical pieces of cherry wood, sanded to the appropriate grits. Then I applied each finish according to the manufacturer’s instructions and let them cure for three weeks.

The first test was all about appearance. I wanted to see how the finishes stacked up in terms of color, sheen, and overall aesthetics. In a blind test, the reviewers ranked the Rubio Monocoat as having the worst sheen, but I have to give them credit – the white-tinted finish I used did a nice job of accentuating the natural wood grain.

Odies Oil finished a close second-to-last in the appearance department. The folks at Odies claim you can achieve a better sheen by sanding to higher grits, but for my purposes, it just didn’t have the same depth and richness as the other finishes.

At the top of the pack were the Arm-R-Seal, Shellac, and Lacquer, all of which delivered a beautiful satin sheen and brought out the cherry’s natural color beautifully with minimal blotchiness.

Durability: The True Test

But of course, appearance is only half the battle. The real litmus test was how these finishes would hold up against some common household hazards. I wanted to see how they fared against water, wine, ketchup, and the dreaded nail polish remover.

For the first round, I applied each substance to the test pieces and let them sit for 30 seconds before wiping clean. This was meant to simulate a quick accidental spill. The Odies Oil, Arm-R-Seal, and Rubio Monocoat all passed this test with flying colors, showing no signs of damage. The Shellac had some minor discoloration, while the Lacquer predictably failed – acetone is the thinner for lacquer, after all.

But the real test was what happened when I let those liquids sit for a full 12 hours before wiping them away. This was meant to mimic the kind of everyday messes that often get overlooked for far too long.

Once again, the Arm-R-Seal came out on top, showing zero discoloration or sheen degradation from any of the liquids. The Dura-Coat Lacquer also performed admirably, with just the slightest dulling of the sheen where the wine had been.

Shellac surprised me by holding up remarkably well to the wine – I was sure the alcohol would spell disaster. But it did fall short against the water, leaving a noticeable spot.

Odies Oil failed the long-term test across the board, with a pink tinge from the wine, a water mark, and some sheen degradation from the ketchup.

And then there was the Rubio Monocoat. As much as I wanted to love this supposedly durable “hard oil” finish, it just couldn’t stand up to the abuse. There was substantial staining from the wine, a noticeable water mark, and a clear ketchup mark.

The Verdict: My Recommendations

So, what’s the takeaway here? Well, as I mentioned before, people have some pretty strong opinions when it comes to wood finishes. And the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each finish has its own unique strengths and weaknesses that may make it better or worse for a particular project.

That said, here are my personal recommendations based on the test results:

For Furniture Exposed to Acetone: If there’s any chance your piece might come into contact with nail polish remover or other acetone-based products, go with the General Finishes Arm-R-Seal. It may not have been the top performer in the appearance category, but it aced the durability tests.

For General Furniture Use: For most furniture that won’t be exposed to harsh chemicals, I highly recommend the Mohawk Finishes Dura-Coat Lacquer. It delivered excellent results, and you can even buy a special “blush retarder” spray to instantly repair any acetone damage.

For Non-Table Surfaces: If you’re looking for a non-toxic, easy-to-apply finish, the old standby Zinsser Shellac is a great option. I wouldn’t recommend it for tabletops due to the water spotting, but it’s perfect for dressers, bookcases, and other surfaces that won’t see a ton of abuse.

For Odies Oil: I’ve reevaluated my initial impression of Odies Oil. While I still don’t recommend it for horizontal surfaces like tabletops, I think it can be a great choice for vertical applications like tool handles, boxes, and even the interior of drawers. Just be aware that it may require more frequent refinishing compared to some of the other options.

And as for the Rubio Monocoat? I’m afraid I can’t in good conscience recommend that for any furniture application. The appearance was lackluster, and it failed miserably in the durability tests. There are simply better options out there.

At the end of the day, the “best” wood finish is the one that meets your specific needs and preferences. But I hope this in-depth comparison has helped shed some light on the pros and cons of a few popular choices. Happy finishing!


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