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Oil-Based or Water-Based:  Choosing the Right Wood Finish

Oil-Based or Water-Based: Choosing the Right Wood Finish

Choosing the right wood finish for your projects can be confusing.  With both water-based and oil-based finishes available, how do you know which one to choose?  Read on for some tips…

Oil-based wood finishes (varnish) and water-based wood finishes may seem the same, but there are significant differences between them. Depending upon the look you prefer, one will likely be a better choice for your project than the other.

In the past, oil-based finishes were more durable than their water-based counterparts.  However, in recent years, water-based finishes have been engineered to offer the same durability as oil-based versions.  The main differences between the two today are their look and the clean-up method when your project is complete.

wood floor with oil-based finish

All oil-based wood finishes will give a piece of wood a slightly golden hue when applied either on unfinished wood or stained wood.  So, it will change the color your finished piece slightly.  In addition, oil-based finishes also “amber” over time, turning them an even deeper shade of gold.  This quality can be desirable; in fact, some folks choose an oil-based varnish precisely because they love the rich, golden tone on their furniture, trim or flooring.  Also, oil-based finishes tend to enhance the look of the wood grain, bringing it out and making it more pronounced.

However, if you prefer the wood to stay closer to it’s original color (whether stained or unfinished), you would probably prefer a water-based finish.  Water-based varnish does not amber over time, and keeps the color of your wood truer than an oil-based finish would.  However, it also “flattens out” the wood grain, and unlike oil-based finishes, does not enhance the grain.  Instead, just like the color of the wood, the grain tends to look more as it does in its natural, unfinished state.

Clean-up can also be an issue when choosing a wood finish.  Oil-based finishes require oil-based products to clean your brushes.  Mineral spirits or turpentine must be used; soap and water will be ineffective.  This is a smelly process with dangerous chemicals, prompting some do-it-yourselfers to prefer water-based finishes.  With water-based varnish, brushes can be cleaned safely and easily with regular soap and water.

If you created a custom-painted furniture piece, and you want to protect its surface, consider using a water-based polyurethane instead of an oil-based finish.  This will ensure that the paint remains the color you originally chose, instead of yellowing over time to a distressed, ambered look.

The type of wood finish you use for your projects depends on the look you want and the clean-up method you prefer.  I have used both types of finishes with much success!

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