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Wood Finish vs Wood Stain

Wood Finish vs Wood Stain

Does the title of this post confuse you? If so, you’re not alone. Many people don’t know there’s a difference between the two so they tend to use them interchangeably. When you purchase or shop for a piece of wood furniture, most of us are looking at pieces that are already finished. Very few of us shop at unfinished furniture stores and go on to finish the wood ourselves. But you should still know the difference between a wood finish and a wood stain. Let’s dig deeper, shall we?

What Does it Mean to Finish Wood?

While wood in its natural state is certainly beautiful, it can be a little lackluster. Almost everyone prefers some sort of stain or finish on their furniture. Wood finishing is the process of cleaning, sanding, and adding color to wooden furniture, cabinets, or floors and then adding a clear finish for added protection. Both exterior and interior wood requires some sort of finishing. Because there is a multitude of products used in wood finishing, it’s almost considered an art. By combining different stains and wood finishes, you can create an infinite number of looks on any wooden surface.

The Difference Between Wood Finish and Wood Stain

The difference between stain and finish is actually quite simple. Wood stains add color to natural wood, while finishes seal the wood and protect it from moisture. You know when you are shopping for furniture, and you see a table with a finish that’s so pristine it still looks wet? That wood has been stained a particular color and then coated with some sort of polyurethane or lacquer to create that still-wet look. So, where did all the confusion come from? Some of it points back to one of the leading wood stains available on the consumer market. Without naming names, this popular consumer brand labels its stain as a finish. See the confusion?

What are the Benefits of Natural Wood Stain?

applying wood stain with brushThe biggest reason people stain wood is aesthetics. One of the characteristics that make wood so beautiful is the grain. Different types of wood have different grain patterns that are unique to that species. Natural wood stains are made of pigment, a binding agent, and thinner. The pigment penetrates the grain, adding contrast and definition to help the grain really stand out. Wood stains also protect the wood from weakening. Stain penetrates the first few layers of wood, keeping moisture from getting in there and leading to rot. Some might think that paint would do that job better, but paint only sits on the surface. Stain actually sinks into the wood, giving it much more protection.

We offer a number of different stains for made-to-order solid wood furniture. You can view them all here categorized by wood type or request samples sent to your home. 

Types of Wood Stains

You can find stains that are either water-based and solvent-based, or oil-based.

Water-Based and Solvent-Based Wood Stains

These are most popular because they are quick and easy to use and clean up. You can find this type of stain in hundreds of colors to suit any decor in your home. You apply these stains with a natural bristle brush or a cloth, and they dry very quickly, usually within fifteen to thirty minutes. It usually requires multiple coats to get the look you want. The catch is that the grain of the wood soaks up moisture. After you apply the first coat of stain, it will raise the wood’s grain, causing it to feel rough to the touch. This requires one to lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper after application to maintain a smooth feel before finishing. Using this popular stain will require some sort of finishing coat once the wood is dry.

Oil-based Wood Stains

Using an oil-based stain creates a more traditional look when finishing furniture. It does not require a top coat, because the stain alone creates a much deeper color and definition to the wood grain. It also takes much longer for oil stain to dry. Oil-based stains may need more than 72 hours, depending on your environment. They also allow for a more natural feel once finishing is complete. One good reason to use this type of stain is that you can easily re-coat the wood every six months to refresh the wood finish. You can also soften the look of an oil stain by adding a layer of wax to the top.

Gel Wood Stains

Another item to add to the products above is gel stain. Gel stain is thick, almost the consistency of pudding. It’s different from traditional stains because it actually sits on top of the wood. You apply it with a rag or a foam brush, and it’s great for novices because it requires several coats. By the time you get to the final coat, the surface will look nice and smooth.

After Stain Comes the Wood Finish

Staining wood surfaces offers some protection, but adding one of the following clear finishes as a top coat seals the deal. Wood finishes keep moisture out of the wood and keep it from swelling and cracking. While there are many products available, wood finish comes in two different types – penetrating finishes and surface finishes.

Penetrating Finishes 

A penetrating finish dries inside the wood and gives it a more natural look and feel. Linseed oil was once the standard wood finishing product but has fallen out of favor due to its tendency to become tacky in humid weather. One of the most popular penetrating finishes is danish oil. It’s made from a mixture of tung oil and varnish and is incredibly easy to use. After using a tack cloth to remove any debris from the wood surface, danish oil is applied with a rag and rubbed into the wood. Wet sanding the wood with fine-grit sandpaper before the second coat results in a super smooth finish that is highly desirable. Many woodworkers use this type of wood finishing product in their woodworking projects because of its ease of use.

Surface Finishes

man applying wood finishJust as the name implies, surface finishes dry on the wood’s surface, giving it maximum protection. There are four types of products that are used in wood finishing: varnish, polyurethane, lacquer, and shellac. Varnish is often used as a general term for any type of wood finish, but it’s actually its own product. It’s excellent for use outdoors because it’s very strong and provides great UV protection. Polyurethane comes in both oil and water formulations and is essentially plastic in liquid form. It’s available in satin, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes making it a good option for any woodworking project.

Water-based polyurethane is easy to work with, but the oil version is more durable. Lacquer is famous for its super high-gloss look and is one of the smoothest clear finishes available. Wood finishing with lacquer requires a high-volume sprayer as it cannot be applied with a brush without leaving noticeable brush marks. Shellac is actually a natural product made from secretions from the female lac bug. It’s not a perfectly clear coat but gives the wood a warm amber color when applied. All of these wood finishing products will give the wood an important final barrier from the elements.

The Choice is Yours

You should now have a better understanding of how stain and finish are used when finishing wood. The next time you shop for wooden furniture, make sure to ask questions about how the piece was finished. It will tell you a lot about how the piece was made, its durability, and how well you can expect the finish to hold up. One of the great things about the Amish Outlet Store is that all of our furniture is available in a variety of different stains and finishes. For example, check out our Arlington Coffee Table. Because everything is built to order by hand, you have your choice of seven different types of wood, and each wood has at least 20 stain colors to choose from. We have stains that work perfectly with oak, cherry, maple, and more. Any type of stain or finish you can think of, we do our best to help you create the perfect piece of furniture for any room in your home.

Browse our selection of solid wood furniture and custom order your perfect furniture piece in the wood and stain of your choosing.

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