Brel's Blog

Understanding Your Options for Your Home’s Interior Wood Finishing

July 5th, 2016
Wood Finishing

Photo Courtesy of Nina Hale via Flickr – License

Home owners who are interested in applying a finish to their home’s interior wood surfaces are met with a plethora of options, and they are frequently left feeling overwhelmed and confused. To a professional painter or handyman, this comes as no surprise. Knowledge of how to properly treat wood is often misguided. The word “stain”, especially, is used in everyday speech as a broad term to describe the process of treating wood, but this isn’t necessarily related to wood staining. To truly understand what your options are when finishing wood in your home, it’s best to seek the advice of someone who works with them on a regular basis. Here’s an overview of the most common types of residential wood finishes and what you need to know about each.

What is Staining?

Contrary to popular belief, staining wood does not provide much protection from the elements. Stain actually only colors wood, although it can be combined with varnishes, oils, and lacquers if your surface requires additional protection. For our indoor uses, it’s easily the most versatile way to add character to your wooden surfaces.

Stain works in one of two ways. The first is accomplished by mixing pigments with a binder, commonly oil or water. The pigments lodge themselves into the wood’s pores, grain, and any depressions or crevices. Because of this, pigment-based stain is a great way to highlight wood with character. Any abnormalities can be made into unique character traits, setting your home apart from the rest.

The second type of stain is dye-based. Dye-based stain works by penetrating wood on the molecular level, seeping color into its very fibers. Unlike pigment-based stain, dyes need to be combined with a solvent, rather than a binder. The two most commonly used solvents are water and alcohol, although oil is sometimes used, as well. A water base is the preferred method, as its slow drying time allows for maximum penetration, bringing out deep colors in the wood. Water-soluble dyes are also the most lightfast, meaning they aren’t prone to discoloration from light exposure. However, water does have its drawbacks. Namely, it raises the grain of the wood. This is where alcohol and oil gain their traction as solvents, as neither of these raise the wood’s grain.


Opposite of stain, varnish does protect your wood from the elements. Of the commonly used film finishes, it’s the most durable. It is resistant to heat, water, solvents, water vapor, and acids. Because of this durability, we recommend its use for wood that is likely to experience frequent trauma, such as bathroom cabinets or hardwood flooring.

The substance is made by curing oils, often linseed, tung, soybean, or safflower, with resin. The result is a liquid that, when exposed to oxygen, will dry into a very strong film. Today, alkyd-resin varnish and polyurethane varnish are the leading types. They combine low cost with durability, and in polyurethane’s case, an extreme scratch resistance.

For an indoor varnish, we recommend a low oil content. This gives the film a harder, more brittle quality, which better protects the decorative wood elements that are commonly found in homes.


This finish has similar characteristics to varnish, but lacks the extreme durability. Its most popular application is finishing wooden furniture. It’s the superior choice for this purpose when compared to other finishes, such as lacquer or varnish, for a variety of reasons. Shellac forms an excellent barrier against water vapor, grease stains, and even crayons. Its wax-like properties make it useful as a touchup material for repairing dents and scratches, and its ability to bond well to other finishes compounds this effect.

It’s available in two varieties, orange or bleached, each with their own uses. Orange shellac is used to darken the color of wood, while still allowing its natural color to seep through. The bleached variety dries clear, providing no changes in color. Because shellac is made with a solution of denatured alcohol, alcohol-soluble dyes can be added to give the substance the color of your choosing.

Choosing the proper finish for your home’s wooden interior can be difficult, but our team of professionals is here to help. We take pride in offering sound advice to our customers, but also believe they should understand why we make the recommendations that we do. If you are interested in having work done on your home’s interior and have any questions about other types of wood finishes, feel free to contact us.

What our customers are saying:

  • “We have worked with Brel on several occasions and have been impressed with the product each time. His quotes are reasonable and comprehensive – all supplies and paint color switches were included, which we learned is not always the case. We relied on Brel for advice and consultation on color schemes and were very happy with the results! His team is courteous, professional and timely. We look forward to engaging his team for future projects.”Shannon Bernard