I've recently become aware of the existence of various seals for wood. I'm lead to believe that they are necessary, but I am unclear on the differences between the types of sealers you can find:

  • Varnish
  • Lacquer
  • Shellac
  • Polish
  • feel free to add

Would somebody please summarize the differences between and appropriate applications of each?

  • 1
    you could add urethane, tung oil, linseed oil. spar varnish, water seal, butchers wax, food grade oil, should I stop now? lol. Would have to write a book to cover all the possibilities and differences.. Maybe a better META question. Apr 16, 2011 at 12:01
  • Hmm, is there a reasonable constraint I could put on this question, then? For instance, I'm particularly interested in something for my pine coffee table. Apr 16, 2011 at 12:03
  • be specific in your question -- describe the table, the kind of finish you'd like (dark or light, natural wood or a coating like polyurethane) and the kind of use or abuse (pets jump on the furniture, teenagers that are unable to use coasters, etc.) you expect the table to get.
    – Niall C.
    Apr 16, 2011 at 13:48

1 Answer 1


There are 2 basic categories for wood finishes; those that penetrate, and those that coat. Linseed oil, wax, "hand rubbed polish" finishes are all examples of a penetrating finish. Varnish, lacquer, shellac are examples of coating finishes. There are many different reasons to choose one over the other. Some factors:

  • what type of wood
  • how will the wood be used
  • tools available
  • skill level

In general, penetrating finishes are the easiest to apply, and the most forgiving of mistakes and easiest to repair. But they offer minimal protection against the elements, scratches, etc. Also they don't look best on soft woods, i.e. pine, fir, etc.

The coating finishes are really a progression of technologies. Shellac was the original hard coat finish, but has been replaced for the most part by lacquer and varnish. Lacquer is generally used commercially as it dries fast and can be re-coated in minimal time. Varnish is easier to apply by the average person with a brush. The downside is it takes longer to dry, and therefore more opportunity to catch dust, bugs, etc. Some of the newer water-based "varnishes", however, dry pretty quick.


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