Selecting Right Type of Wood Pt 2: Finishes and Stains

Posted  on by Heartwood Carving, Inc.

Selecting Right Type of Wood Pt 2: Finishes and Stains

Recently, we shared a post on how to
select the right type of wood for your project. Whether you will create your own work or commission it from an outside source, it’s useful to familiarize yourself with the different materials you can use. Choosing your wood, however, is only the first step. Once you’ve produced a piece, you need to decide whether to protect or stain your project—perhaps even both.

There’s a common misconception regarding the similarities between finishes and stains, as well as their relationship to each other. Similar to fraternal twins that are frequently compared, these tools deserve to have their separate identities recognized. In this second entry to our three-part series, we take a closer look at the two materials to help you strategize the right components for your wood project.

The primary difference between the two is that finishes are chosen for their protective properties. They shield the wood from outside elements and extend its longevity. Stains, on the other hand, are primarily used to alter the appearance of wood. If you’ve chosen wood for its functional properties, but wish it to look different, you may choose a stain to achieve this. For example, if you’re redesigning a room and want your expensive furniture to match the new look instead of replacing it, you want to select a stain.

These final touches are useful for any project, from tables to decorative custom wood carving. Heartwood Carving sends their work without a finish, so buyers can research the litany of options available to them and apply these coats themselves.


The first thing we’ll look at are a few different options for finishes. According to, “The durability of a finish is measured by its resistance to water, chemicals, solvents (such as those in alkaline cleaners and acidic foods), heat and scratches.” You’ll want to consider all these factors before you select the finish for your project. Feel free to look at our overview of the different options to help choose the right one for you.


Varnish is a non-pigmented protection agency for wood. It coats the wood and fills in any pores, which shields it from outside debris such as dust and other oils. Varnish is waterproof and protects the wood from fading due to UV rays, so it’s considered an ideal option for outdoor projects. Due to its transparency, this finish provides wood with a high shine that allows its original texture to come through.


Lacquer is perhaps the most durable of its counterparts, and its glossy appearance and resistance to yellowing as it ages makes it an attractive option for modern furniture. Another convenient feature is how fast lacquer dries. In the right environment, this process can take as little as 15 minutes. You do want to be careful when you apply lacquer, though, as a humid environment can cause what is called blushing. This appears as a dull white film that lessens the visual effect of the finish.


Polyurethane is perhaps one of the most commonly used finishing options. Its durability makes it ideal for areas that withstand considerable abuse, such as flooring and decks. Polyurethane is either water or oil-based. Oil-based polyurethane stands up better to heat and chemicals, but water-based options dry quicker and retain a clearer appearance. Additionally, it’s the least toxic option. Be sure to allow a bit of time between coats to evaluate how it dries. Too many coats can cause the finish to take on a plastic-like appearance.


Shellac has been around for hundreds of years, with a history that dates back to the 1500s. It’s the most natural of these options, as it’s made in a process that involves drying the secretions of the female Lac beetle. As it’s one of the oldest forms of finishing, it hasn’t been refined in the way more modern finishes have. Shellac can produce a beautifully glossy appearance, but it is more likely to retain damage caused by heat or alcohol.


As stated above, stains do
not provide protection to a piece. They allow you to adjust the color of a project, and a finish can be applied afterwards as a sealant. Stains are often created by mixing the actual color with a solvent, such as water or linseed oil. Stains are generally classified as pigment or dye, and there’s a notable difference between the two.

Pigments can come in a variety of ingredients which range from natural to synthetic. If you’re mindful as you shop, these stains can be the more environmentally friendly option. The pigment stain is applied to the surface of the wood, but it doesn’t penetrate the material. It can be more difficult to achieve an even application with pigment, as it generally dries faster.

Since pigment doesn’t bind to the wood, it usually gives off a richer color. If you want to drastically alter the wood’s appearance, pigments are often a safe bet.

Dye, in comparison, soaks into the wood. This property allows it to give off a slightly more natural appearance. It may not provide as drastic a change, but many people prefer this. The application for dye tends to be more forgiving, as a longer dry time and less opaque appearance gives you more control over your end result.

You can, of course, use regular paint on your wooden projects. Many people use this in DIY projects. While this is possible, you will get a very different result than you would with one of the stains listed above. Paint is more susceptible to chipping and gives a less natural result; however, if you want that look, be sure to apply a primer first. This will help with evenness and longevity.


Whether or not you use stain is completely dependent on the look you want to achieve. If you’ve purchased mahogany and wish to keep the rich wood’s appearance, you may opt to skip the stain. If you’re working with a budget wood that you’d like to take on the
appearanceof mahogany, a stain is an excellent option.

Regardless of the project, a proper finish is highly recommended. High-quality pieces should be treated with the utmost care—to take the time to finish it is a wise precaution to make. If you do this, the aesthetics of your piece may last generations.

We hope that you have a better understanding of the difference between these options and realize the importance of protecting your carved wood. Whatever you choose to do, know that you’re sure to achieve a beautiful piece. We wish you all the luck with your future woodworking endeavors.

Types of Wood

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