Best Clear Finish for Wood: Enhancing Wood Grain & Color

Oil and water based finishes do not mimic one another regarding highlighting the figure of the wood. Oil based products will generally achieve more color and definition. However, you can use certain products together to achieve your objective by using oils for color followed by water base finishes for clarity.

  1. When using OIL BASED finishes: The best method for bringing out the natural characteristics of wood grain is to use a penetrating oil like Tung oil, Walnut oil or double boiled Linseed oil. If you use Tung or Walnut oil to highlight the character of the wood you may use shellac as a barrier coat, followed by an application of High Performance Waterbased Topcoat over the top. If you use Linseed Oil you must let the oil dry for 7-10 days before applying any type of water base finish as the final coat. In addition to Tung, Walnut or Linseed oils, General Finishes has several products that would work extremely well. Seal-A-Cell Clear is a penetrating oil that will bring out the natural color. Then follow with several coats of Arm-R-Seal wipe on Urethane.
  2. Another choice is GF's Enduro-Var Waterbased finish which has been very popular among wood workers and furniture makers. Enduro-Var is a self crosslinking polyurethane that looks more like an oil varnish than a water coating. It ambers slightly with durability suitable for residential projects, and is both sprayable and brushable. Enduro-Var adheres well ONLY only over WATER STAINS, DYE STAINS, and RAW WOOD. It is self sealing but does NOT work well with shellac.

As always, the best rule is to make samples to test the product and develop a finish schedule that works for your project.

Note: Do not apply High Performance Topcoat over Boiled Linseed Oil or Raw Tung Oil and do not apply Enduro-Var over shellac.