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My favorite top-coat finish is spray lacquer. Sure, I’ve used just about every finishing product under the sun, but I keep coming back to spray lacquer because it’s so fast and so difficult to mess up. In the dead of winter when I can’t spray outside, I use a wiping varnish.

As we plan our finishing coverage for 2009, we’d really like your input on a key piece of data: What is your favorite top-coat finish? You might use several different kinds of top-coats in your shop, but which one is your favorite one to use? It can be your favorite because you like the results or because it’s easy to use or because it’s not toxic. A few notes:

– We didn’t cover all the application methods possible for all the finishes. Yes, you can spray varnish, paint and an oil-varnish blend. Simply pick the type of finish that is your favorite: varnish, paint, oil/varnish blend.

– We didn’t list “Tung Oil” because it can be a wiping varnish or an oil/varnish blend. Does your tung oil cure soft on the lid of the finish? It’s an oil/varnish blend. Does your tung oil finish hard? It’s a wiping varnish. 

Take our quick survey below. And then check back to view the results. I know that we’ll all be following this one closely.

– Christopher Schwarz, editor

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Showing 13 comments
  • Alan Garner

    Chris S,
    Does Oil and Urethane (General Finishes Arm-R-Seal) fit any of your categories?

  • Richard T. Flanders

    My finishes depend on what the project is. I use four different finishes on a regular basis:
    1) Shellac seal coat over stains or dyes, then either brush on water base poly or wipe on oil base poly. (wipe on for more comples shapes – brush on water base ploy for simpler, flatter shapes).
    2) Three part oil/poly varnish/thiner brushed or wiped on in several coats and fine sanding between coats.
    3) For warm, natural finshes with no stain or dyes, I would use a wipe on gel poly. This gives it a nice, warm glo just from the minimal color of the poly.
    4) For clear natural finishes, I use a water base poly, brushed on, several coats with fine (800 – 1200 grit) sanding between coats.
    Final rubout with automotive rubbing/polishing compound and then a wax coat.

  • Michael

    I also don’t find my favorite finish listed. I like to use a spray Polyurathane or wipe on Tung Oil.

  • Chris Schwarz


    Danish oil is listed above. Any finish can be wipe-on as long as you thin it. You might be using two kinds of the same products. Danish oil and tung oil can both be oil/varnish blends.


  • Neil Foster

    I’ve used black shoe polish on a mirror frame for color, if not durability. On a maple kitchen table,
    I’ve wet sanded (several coats of) water borne polyurethane and applied automotive wax to that. It’s held up well for 15+ years.
    It’d be interesting to hear about what finishing systems people use. For instance, I used water-base dye, a washcoat of orange shellac, a gel stain, then oil based poly to finish ash to match existing 1920’s oak. This was a result of a lot of unscientific experimentation to get the color I wanted.

  • Martin J Richter

    My preference also includes lacquer and the tung oil/lindseed oil/poly mixture Sam Maloff ues. But for simple do it and be done with it nothing works better than oil based poly. Water based poly adds extra steps, raised grain. Ugh!

  • dale e kivley

    my favorite finish isn’t listed. i prefer wipe on finishes.

    i like a danish oil, followed by either amber shellac or tung oil, depending on the gloss i want. usually i prefer the danish oil, tung oil combination.

  • Tom


    I use M L Campbell Magnalac applied with a gravity feed spray gum or a 2 quart press pot/gun if it’s a big project. It builds fast and rubs out beautifully with wet Abralon pads.

    For stain I spray Transtint, seal with Sealcoat, and then level the color a gelstain.

  • Gordon Camous

    The choice of finish depends apon the use that the piece will get. For example a childs toy chest would get either paint or shellac. Sideboard or coffee table gets urathane, bedroom peices would get laquer.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    You’re using a varnish product. Please vote for varnish. The buffing system is a way of leveling the topcoat.


    Poly is poly whether it’s sprayed or brushed. I should have added "sprayed" to the list.

    Tung oil is not one thing. It can be an oil finish or an oil and varnish blend. It’s more of a marketing term.


  • Walt Schubert


    I want to vote for my favorite finish, but you do not have it listed (or so it seems). I use two coats of a thin, fast dry varnish (sanded to 320 min between coats) and then the Beall Buffing System.


  • Christopher Schwarz


    All the latex paint and milk-based paint products fall under the "paint" category.

    When we say water-base, we mean all the water-base film finishes, such as water-base lacquer or poly.

    Hope this clears it up.


  • Chris F

    When you say "water-base", do you literally mean things based on water (like milk paint) or do you include "water-borne" finishes like poly/laquer/shellac?

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Coat the pointy end of the leg with glue (or put a drop in the hole) then stick the pointy end into the hole.