Top Coats for Furniture

I recently had a special request to explain the difference in furniture top coats. I will explain the most popular wood finishes, what they are typically used on, what they look like and why they are used.

First let’s look at different characters of finishes

First is how the finish cures:

 Evaporative-  An evaporative finish has solvents that will evaporative as part of curing. This type of finish will also amalgamate into itself.

Reactive– This type of finish has a chemical reaction to cure. Reactive can also amalgamate into itself but only for a window of time.

Coalescing- Coalescing is both reactive and evaporative. This type can amalgamate as well but it is only for a window of time.

Second is how it goes on the wood

Penetrating finishes– This types of finishes soak into the wood grain dry into the wood.

Surface finishes- Surface finishes do just as it says sit on the surface of wood and dry.

Now lets take a dive into some different types of finishes


I am going to start with a lacquer finish. I am specifically talking about a nitrocellulose lacquer. Majority of manufactured furniture today is finished with lacquer. Lacquer comes in all sheens from flat to gloss. It is very popular with manufactures because of how easy it is to spray and the quick dry time. Lacquer is also the easiest to repair or touch up. Lacquer is evaporative finish, it will amalgamate into itself, which is why it is a good finish for touch-ups. There are many precautions that need to be taken when spraying lacquers which is why it is not popular for DIYing. Lacquers can also yellow over time so to clear coat a painted piece of furniture with a lacquer is not ideal.

 Tara Lou’s Recommendations: My go to brand is Mohawk, Premier and ML Campbell Finishes.

Projects To Use Lacquer: When repairing an existing lacquer finish. If you are refinishing a piece back to the original wood stained look.


Shellac is one of the oldest finishes. It can be worked to different sheens. For example French polish which is a high gloss finish is done with a technique of hand rubbing shellac with a rag soaked in linseed oil. Shellac has a very distinct look and patina to it. Shellac can be sprayed but is very easily brushed on as well. It is also popular on musical instruments. Shellac is also an evaporative finish which will also amalgamate/melt into itself.

Tara Lou’s Recommendations: Shellac can be bought pre-made or in shellac flakes and you can make it yourself.

Projects To Use Shellac: Restoring furniture to original with a shellac finish. Creating a high gloss high build finish.

Water-BaseWaterbase is one of the up and coming popular finishes. It is also the go to finish for Me (when I am not restoring a genuine antique).  It too comes in all sheens from the manufactures, from flat to gloss. Waterbase is enviormently friendly it can be sprayed and brushed on easily. It has a very soft feel and covers nicely when done correctly. One downfall to water base is when scratched or damaged it cannot be easily touched up like lacquer can. However it is a very durable finish.  Waterbase is a coalescing and penetrating type finish.

Tara Lou’s: For DIYing clients I am going to recommend Aqua Coat Aquathane top coat.

Projects To Use Waterbase: This is one of your safest options for a DIY project as the odor is very minimal. Most water bases are non- yellowing so you can put this over your painted pieces for protection and sheen changes.


Waxes can be very popular and can also be added to the top of some top coats to get a desired look or feel. I have waxed furniture after water base finish was applied to get a specific look. Wax sheen is flat to a stain if rubbed repeatedly.   Wax is an evaporative and surface type finish.

Tara Lou’s Recommendation I personally like Johnsons Paste Wax.

Projects To Use Waxes: Wax on high trafficked wood work is not a sufficient top coat. You can read more on my blog “Why I don’t use Wax” You can however add wax over the top of a top coat to achieve that smooth flat appearance. I have waxed mirror frames and small side tables to achieve that desired look.


Oil finishes such as teak, danish, or boiled linseed oil is easily applied with a brush. It soaks in to the wood and helps protect against the elements. Dries depending on the environment, few hours to overnight. Two differences in oils is if they dry on their own over time. You will want an oil that dries over time otherwise the oil could go rancid.

Tara Lou’s Recommendations: These are the oils I have used in the past, teak oil, danish oil, Boiled linseed oil.

Projects for Oils: Anything that is RAW unfinished wood. That you would like the natural wood to shine!

Happy Junking and Upcycling!
Tara Lou
* This blog contains affiliate links. Please read my disclaimer page.


Please be sure to read all product recommendations and warning, examples have a well ventilated area, and dispose of soiled rags! Safety first!!!

Tara Lou

Mama, wife, furniture connoisseur, small business owner, nature-lover, homebody, hunter.

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