How to Finish Wood

You put a lot of effort into building a wood project—now learn how to finish it. Finishing prolongs the life of your project while adding beautiful details.

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Your wood project is finally built. You chose the perfect design, bought the best material and hardware, and put it all together with first-rate joinery. Now it's ready for finishing—or almost ready. Careful preparation is the difference between a ho-hum finish and one that invites compliments. This chapter describes how to prepare your project for finishing, select the right finish for the job, and apply it like a pro. Done with care, these final steps result in a project you'll be proud to show off.

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Why You Should Finish Your Wood Project

Finishes on wood (and wood products) primarily protect it from absorbing or expelling moisture too fast, which can lead to warping, cracking, and loose joints. Finishes also add protection from dirt, oxidation, spills, and stains. You can wipe off dirt and moisture from a finished surface that would otherwise penetrate and permanently stain the wood.

Finishes make wood projects more beautiful, too. Clear finishes allow you to see the wood, making a rich grain sparkle. Stains can change a wood's color and bring out contrast in the grain patterns. Some stains make inexpensive wood look more like an exotic species. Paint can give your projects a colorful gloss or a rich glow. It also conceals plywood edges, fasteners, and puttied-over dings, dents, scratches, and other imperfections.

How to Prepare the Wood

The trick to a stunning finish is to make the wood as smooth as possible. Fill in little gaps or holes, and thoroughly sand the piece, paying close attention to the edges. Our how-to provides all the information you need for properly preparing the wood, from filling nail holes to choosing the right sandpaper. 

Choosing Paints, Stains, and Finishes

The finish you choose for your project depends on the desired look and use of the piece. This guide lays out all of the options, and weighs the pros and cons of each. We'll walk you through paints, clear surface finishes, and penetrating finishes. 

How to Apply Wood Finishes

Applying your chosen finish is simple, but there are a few key tips that will yield better results. For example, always use a brush or cloth to apply stain and spread it in the direction of the wood's grain. We'll walk you through the basics when applying each type of finish. 

Where to Add Your Finishing Touches

Because preparation creates dust and finishing produces odors, wear protective safety equipment and set aside a special place for these tasks. If you have a shop, you can do most of your finish preparation at your workbench, including dust-producing activities such as sanding. But it's a good idea to clean a special area just for finish application and drying, so dust and dirt won't mar your results. Consider designating a room or part of the basement or garage for this step. Stay away from the furnace or water heater, since dust and fumes from the finish can be flammable or explosive. Be sure you have good ventilation and bright lighting. Sometimes, weather permitting, finishing (especially preparation) is done outdoors.

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