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Wood Carving Finishes and Sealants


Whether you're a seasoned pro or a complete novice, nailing that final finish is key to making your work look sharp. But with so many finishes and sealants out there, it can feel like you're lost in a maze of choices. This article explores the different types of wood finishes and sealants for achieving a polished and professional look in your wood carving projects. 

You can also check out this video from our Wood Spirit series to see how carving pro Lucas Kost finishes his wood spirit carvings: 

Lesson 5 - The Finishing Process - How to Carve a Wood Spirit | Beginner Wood Carving Tutorial

 

What Type of Project is this?

The first thing to consider when choosing a finish for your carving is how it will be used. Is it an art piece that will live inside or outside? Is it something that needs to be food-safe, like a spoon or a salad bowl? Keep that in mind, when selecting the finish that’s best for you.

Types of wood finishes

Oil-based finishes

Oil-based finishes are easy to apply and enhance the natural beauty and color of the wood while providing protection against the elements. There are various types of oil-based finishes, including Tung oil, Linseed oil, and Danish oil. 

 

Tung oil is a popular choice because it dries quickly and provides a natural-looking finish and once thoroughly cured, it is food-safe and can be used on carved kitchen utensils. It’s also suitable for both indoor and outdoor carvings.

Pros

  • All Natural, non-toxic and eco-friendly
  • Food safe
  • Doesn’t yellow over time
  • Easy to apply
  • Easy to repair dents and scratches
  • Mildly water resistant

Cons

  • Susceptible to water damage and stains (although more resistant to liquids than linseed oil)
  • Susceptible to scratches (although more durable than linseed oil)
  • Cost is typically higher than linseed oil.
  • Typically requires up to 5 coats to produce a more pleasing satin sheen

 

Linseed oil is another popular choice because it is easy to apply and provides a glossy finish. Raw linseed oil is also food-safe, however, boiled linseed oil is not as it is heated and treated with chemicals that make it toxic for humans. Boiled Linseed oil  is a great protectant for wood both indoors and outdoors

 

Pros

  • Enhances wood appearance
  • Hides dents and scratches
  • Food safe
  • Non-toxic
  • Easy to apply
  • Water-resistant
  • Eco-friendly  
  • Elastic  
  • Can be used as a wood conditioner  

Cons

  • Needs regular maintenance
  • Time-consuming
  • Yellows over time
  • No UV resistance
  • Supports mildew growth
  • Susceptible to water rings

 

Danish oil is a blend of Tung oil and varnish, and it provides a durable finish that is resistant to scratches and stains. Oil-based finishes require multiple coats and can take several days to dry. They also emit strong fumes, so proper ventilation is essential. Danish Oil can be used both indoors and outdoors and is considered food safe if it does not contain any harmful ingredients that could potentially contaminate food. With this in mind,  read your labels to check if it contains processed natural oils and chemicals before purchasing for food purposes

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • Dries faster
  • Non-toxic
  • Food safe
  • Improves sheen
  • Easy to apply
  • Elastic 
  • Can be used as a Primer  
  • Offer scratch resistance
  • Offers chemical resistance

Cons

  • Doesn’t smoothen the wood grain
  • Can occur sudden ignition
  • Can only be used on bare woods
  • Time-consuming
  • Less durable
  • Need regular maintenance

Here are examples of Linseed, Tung, and Danish oil finishes:

Linseed Oil - Linsheen Boiled Linseed Oil



Tung Oil- Minwax Tung Oil Finish

Danish Oil - Watco Danish Oil

Water-based finishes

Water-based finishes are an eco-friendly alternative to oil-based finishes. These finishes are easy to apply, dry quickly, and emit fewer fumes. They also provide excellent protection against water and other elements. There are various types of water-based finishes, including acrylic, polyurethane, and varnish.

 

Acrylic finishes provide a clear finish and are resistant to yellowing. They are also easy to clean and maintain. Acrylic finishes can be food safe if prepared properly but it is better to avoid using acrylic paint on surfaces that will come into touch with food. Acrylic finishes are the best choice for exterior wood surfaces and are therefore suitable for both indoor and outdoor pieces.

Pros

  • Dries quickly 
  • Has no solvent smell
  • Color clarity
  • Cures considerably fast
  • Resists cracking, peeling and  blistering

Cons

  • Can accommodate unremoved dirt

 

 

Polyurethane finishes are durable and provide excellent protection against scratches and stains. They are generally food safe on utensils except when they are subject to sharp edges that undermine their hardened structure like knives which makes them unsuitable for cutting boards. These finishes are suitable for both indoor and outdoor settings.

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • Weather-resistant

 

Cons

  • Long Drying Process
  • Very flammable
  • Toxic when they touch the skin or are breathed in
  • Extremely difficult to repair scratches and chips - repair is not for the amateur

 

Varnish finishes provide a glossy finish and are ideal for outdoor use. They are generally not food safe.

Pros

  • Good protection against UV damage, 
  • Flexible
  • Nice coloring
  • Helps reduce cracking and splitting
  • Naturally resistant to UV rays
  •  If not done correctly, will be prone to peeling, cracking, bubbling, or not even fully drying

Cons

  • Dries slowly, requiring up to 6 hours in good conditions
  • Brushing. Several layers are required.
  • Tends to give wood a tinted color when applied

 

Water-based finishes require multiple coats and can take several days to dry. They also tend to raise the grain of the wood, so sanding between coats may be necessary.

Here are examples of water-based acrylic and polyurethane finishes:

Acrylic - Dulux Professionals Water Based Acrylic Clear Wood Finish 



Polyurethane - Varathane Ultimate Polyurethane Crystal Clear Gloss

 

 

Wax finishes

Wax finishes provide a natural-looking finish and are easy to apply as well. They too provide protection against water and other elements. There are various types of wax finishes, including beeswax, carnauba wax, and paraffin wax. 

 

Beeswax is a popular choice because it is easy to apply and provides a natural-looking finish. It is a food-safe finish and is more suitable for indoor pieces as the wax can melt if left in direct heat.

Pros

  • It's a natural product and does not contain any synthetic chemicals. 
  • It is a non-toxic finish that is safe for humans and animals. 
  • Beeswax is a renewable resource. 
  • water-resistant and protects wood from moisture damage. 
  • durable 
  • eco-friendly 
  • versatile 
  • food-safe and safe for use on cutting boards and other kitchen items. 
  • enhances the look of the wood. 
  • gives the wood a natural look and feel.

Cons

  • does not provide much protection against water damage and other stains. 
  • not very rub or wipe durable and requires periodic maintenance. 
  • provides a relatively low shine. 
  • difficult to apply without using gloves as it tends to stick to your hands.
  • the soft texture of the finish may not be suitable for items subject to lots of wear and tear.




Carnauba wax is a harder wax and provides a more durable finish. Food-grade varieties are food safe. Carnauba wax has high heat resistance, making it better than beeswax and a great choice for indoor and outdoor wooden projects over oil-based finishes. 

Pros

  • Vegan-friendly and 100% natural wax.
  • Fragrant or neutral odor in most cases, unless mixed with other chemicals.
  • Great protection against moisture.
  • High heat resistance.
  • Glossy Finish.

Cons

  • Can be hard to apply.
  • By itself, it is brittle and very difficult to polish once it has dried.

 

Paraffin wax is a softer wax that gives a more natural-looking finish. It is made from petroleum and is regularly used in the process of making preservatives such as jams, making it food safe but not all paraffin waxes are food safe so be sure to read your labels and do your research on the product that you are purchasing. Paraffin is most suitable for indoor pieces as it can be melted at high temperatures.

Pros

  • Great for waterproofing
  • Non-toxic
  • Wax will not impact the favor of any liquids it is in contact with
  • Easy to use

Cons

  • Susceptible heat damage
  • requires periodic maintenance. 


Wax finishes require multiple coats and can take several days to dry. They also require regular reapplication to maintain their appearance.

Here are examples of Beeswax, Carnauba and Paraffin wax finishes


Beeswax - Interstate WoodWorks Beeswax Paste Wood Finish & Polish 

Carnauba wax - Better Shea Butter Carnauba Wax

Paraffin Wax - Bw Blended Waxes Paraffin Wax Pastilles Box 

 

Shellac finishes

Shellac finishes give a glossy final look, provide protection against water and other elements, are easy to apply, and are food safe. Shellac is a natural resin obtained from the lac beetle. Shellac finishes aren’t waterproof. It is water-repellent, (up to a point), which makes them more suitable for indoor pieces. There are different types of shellac finishes available, including dewaxed shellac, blonde shellac, and garnet shellac.

Dewaxed shellac is a popular choice because it gives a clear finish. Blonde shellac provides a light amber finish, Garnet shellac provides a darker amber finish so depending on the tone of the wood you used or the final color that you would like your carving to have, you can choose accordingly.

Shellac finishes require multiple coats and can take several days to dry. They also require regular reapplication to maintain their appearance.

Pros

  • enhances the natural grain of the wood 
  • versatile and 
  • easy to use. 
  • adds smoothness to the surface of the wood, 
  • acts as a sealer and moisture barrier

Cons

  • Not waterproof
  • Not weatherproof
  • It is not durable
  • Not heat-resistant

 

Here’s an example of a Dewaxed Shellac finish:

 

Dewaxed Shellac  - Zinsser Bulls Eye Shellac

Blonde and Garnet Shellac flakes can be purchased and dissolved in ethanol (pure denatured alcohol) for use.

Lacquer finishes

Lacquer finishes give a high-gloss and protective finish that is easy to apply. They come in various types, including nitrocellulose, acrylic, and catalyzed lacquer. Nitrocellulose is a fast-drying and durable option, while acrylic lacquer is water-based with a clear finish. Catalyzed lacquer is a two-part finish that provides a long-lasting and durable finish. 

Lacquer finishes can be both toxic and non-toxic, depending on what it is made of, but most are food safe if it is applied properly (forms a hard shell) and is fully cured.  Read your labels properly and do your research on the type you choose. It is suitable for both indoor and outdoor pieces, with more coats recommended to withstand weather conditions. Lacquer finishes require multiple coats and can take several days to dry.  They also emit strong fumes, so proper ventilation will be necessary.

Pros

  •  Lacquer is easy to apply and dries quickly
  • Can be recoated without causing any other problems
  • attractive shine

Cons

  • A thin layer does not resist chemicals like water, salt or other everyday chemicals.
  • The lacquer is also not waterproof.
  • a thin layer of lacquer is not heat resistant
  • lack of durability
  • Floors coated with lacquer scratch easily.

Here are  examples of Lacquer finishes:

Sherwood CAB Acrylic Lacquer

 

Mohawk DuraCoat Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer

Polyurethane finishes

Polyurethane finishes are durable and long-lasting. They also provide excellent protection against scratches and stains. There are various types of polyurethane finishes, including oil-based and water-based. Oil-based polyurethane produces a warm and natural-looking finish, while water-based polyurethane finishes are clear and natural-looking.

Polyurethane finishes are considered to be food safe when dried and cured, although water-based polyurethane is generally considered to be the safer of the two. Oil-based polyurethane can leach chemicals into food, and is therefore not recommended for use in food-related applications.

Polyurethane finishes also require multiple coats and can take several days to dry. They too emit strong fumes, so they will also need proper ventilation. These finishes are suitable for both indoor and outdoor settings.

Pros

  • Waterproof
  • Weather-resistant

 

Cons

  • Long Drying Process
  • Very flammable
  • Toxic when they touch the skin or are breathed in
  • Extremely difficult to repair scratches and chips - repair is not for the amateur

 

Here’s an example of an Oil Based Polyutherane finish:

 

Varathane Ultimate Polyutherane Oil Based Clear Gloss

Sealants

Sealants are used to protect the wood from moisture and other elements. They are applied before the finish to ensure that the wood is properly sealed. There are various types of sealants, including sanding sealers, spit coat sealers, and dewaxed shellac.

Sanding sealers are used to fill in the pores of the wood, providing a smooth surface for the finish. Spit coat sealers are used to seal the wood before applying the finish. Dewaxed shellac is also used as a sealer because it provides excellent adhesion for the finish. For food-grade items, we recommend using Dewaxed Shellac as it is the safest option. 

 

Here’s an example of a Sanding Sealer:

Varathane Sanding Sealer



Choosing the right finish for your wood carving project is essential to achieving a polished and professional look. When selecting a finish, consider the type of wood, the intended use of the finished product, and personal preference.

Prior to applying the finish,  seal the wood to ensure that it is protected from moisture and other elements. You can find sanding, spit coat, and dewaxed shellac sealers in many different brands that you can choose from.  To apply your preferred sealant and finish, you'll need some brushes of different sizes to get into the grooves and corners of your piece. For this, you can use the Pro-Grade Home Wall/Trim House Paint Brush Set which has 5 different sizes to choose from for a great price. 

By choosing the right finish and sealant for your piece, you can enhance the natural beauty of the wood and preserve it for years to come. 


2 comments


  • David Miller

    This is a great article


  • Graham Gibbons

    Thank you for there information. detailed and informative


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