Wood furniture holds a unique place in the home furnishings market. The sheer variety of wood types, the natural aesthetic appeal, the unmatched durability, and the option for customization makes wood a prized material for homeowners. But a key aspect that truly makes wood furniture exquisite is the finishing applied, a process which infuses life into the wood and accentuates its natural beauty. The world of wood finishings is vast and multifaceted, deserving an exploration to help us appreciate the craftsmanship behind our beloved furniture pieces.
What is Wood Finishing?
Wood finishing refers to the process of embellishing or protecting the surface of wooden furniture. It involves the application of a protective or decorative layer, often called the finish, which highlights the wood grain while improving its durability and resistance to moisture and dirt. The finishes used can vary widely in their appearance, protective properties, and the technique of application.
Types of Wood Finishings
There are myriad types of wood finishes available, each with its own benefits, aesthetic qualities, and methods of application.
Oil Finishes: These are the most traditional form of wood finishing. Derived from natural sources like linseed and tung oil, these finishes penetrate deep into the wood, enhancing its natural character and offering an understated, matte look. They are easy to apply and maintain, but may not offer as much protection as some other types of finishes.
Varnishes: Varnishes form a hard, protective surface layer on the wood. They consist of a resin, a drying oil, and a solvent. When applied, the solvent evaporates, leaving a durable finish that is resistant to heat, chemicals, and water.
Lacquer: Lacquer provides a highly glossy, polished finish. It dries quickly, offering excellent clarity and depth to the wood's grain. It is usually sprayed on, requiring specialized equipment. Though not as durable as varnish, lacquer provides a beautiful, luxurious look to the furniture.
Shellac: Derived from a resin secreted by the lac bug, shellac is a traditional and eco-friendly finish. It is available in various shades and gives a warm, rich tone to the wood. It can be easily repaired but is susceptible to water and alcohol damage.
Polyurethane: Polyurethane is a modern synthetic finish known for its durability. Available in water-based and oil-based varieties, it forms a hard, protective layer that can be either glossy or satin. It is resistant to water, heat, and everyday wear and tear, making it a popular choice for heavy-use furniture.
Choosing the Right Wood Finish
The selection of a wood finish depends on several factors: the type of wood, the intended use of the furniture, personal aesthetic preferences, and the desired level of maintenance.
Hardwoods like oak and mahogany look fantastic with a high gloss finish like lacquer, while softwoods like pine can be enhanced with oil or varnish. For high-use furniture like dining tables or kitchen cabinets, a tough, water-resistant finish like polyurethane is usually ideal.
For those who prefer an organic, close-to-the-wood look, oil or shellac could be a perfect choice. However, if low maintenance is a priority, finishes like polyurethane or varnish, which require infrequent touch-ups, would be more suitable.
The Craft of Applying Finishes
The process of applying finishes is an art in itself, often requiring patience, skill, and experience. The wood is first prepared by sanding to create a smooth, clean surface. The finish is then applied in layers, with each layer being allowed to dry before the next is applied. The final stage involves buffing or polishing for that perfect shine, or a final sanding for matte finishes.
In the case of oil finishes, the oil is applied liberally and allowed to penetrate the wood. Excess oil is then wiped off, and the piece is left to dry. This process may be repeated several times to achieve the desired depth and richness.
Varnishes and polyurethanes are typically brushed on, allowing for a thicker, protective finish. Multiple coats are applied with light sanding between the coats to ensure a smooth and even surface.
Shellac is unique in its application. It can be brushed, padded, or sprayed on. When brushed or padded, it’s often applied using a method called 'French Polishing,' which involves applying many thin coats to achieve a high-gloss finish.
Lacquer, typically applied using a sprayer, requires a well-ventilated workspace and protective gear for the applicator due to the strong fumes. The result is a beautifully lustrous and highly reflective surface that brings out the natural beauty of the wood grain.
The Magic behind Wood Finishes
The choice of finish can dramatically alter the appearance of a piece of furniture. It can add depth, enhance the grain, and create a range of effects from rustic matte to high gloss luxury. The right finish not only protects the wood but also allows its inherent beauty to shine through.
At the heart of wood finishing is a respect for the material - a deep understanding of the characteristics of different types of wood and a willingness to work with, rather than against, these natural properties. The right finish enhances the wood, highlighting its strengths and camouflaging any weaknesses.
In conclusion, the world of wood finishings is one of subtlety and richness. A well-chosen and skillfully applied finish can transform a simple wooden piece into a beautiful, long-lasting piece of furniture. It's an art that demands knowledge, skill, patience, and a deep appreciation for the material. And when all these elements come together, the results can be nothing short of magical. The journey from raw lumber to elegant, luxurious furniture is a testament to human craftsmanship and the enduring allure of wood.
As you enjoy your furniture or contemplate your next purchase, consider the process it's been through - the care, expertise, and the fine art of wood finishing that has helped it become a piece worth cherishing.
Wood Finish Trends and Innovations
Wood finishings have been around for centuries, but like every other field, they are subject to changing trends and continual innovation.
Recently, there has been a renewed focus on environmentally friendly finishes. As sustainability becomes a priority, manufacturers are turning to low VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes, natural oil finishes, and water-based polyurethanes. These products minimize harm to the environment and reduce health risks for both the craftspeople applying the finish and the people using the finished furniture.
We're also seeing a return to traditional techniques, including hand-rubbed finishes and French polishing, as consumers appreciate the craftsmanship and unique character these methods offer. These methods, requiring expert skills, add a layer of exclusivity and authenticity to each furniture piece.
In terms of aesthetic trends, the preference for ultra-shiny gloss finishes has given way to a love for more natural-looking finishes. Matte and satin finishes, which offer a subtler sheen and allow the natural beauty of the wood to take center stage, are becoming increasingly popular.
Another interesting trend is the use of colored or tinted finishes. These finishes add a layer of color to the wood while still allowing the grain to show through. This can create some interesting effects and allows for greater customization of furniture.
The arena of wood finishing is a fascinating world, an amalgamation of science and artistry. The right finish can transform raw, unassuming wood into a piece of furniture that is not only functional but also a piece of art. This is the magic of wood finishing, a craft that combines the natural beauty of wood with human creativity and skill.
As we continue to innovate, embracing environmentally friendly practices and new trends, the future of wood finishing looks bright. It is a testament to the timeless appeal of wood furniture, the skill of the craftspeople, and the discerning tastes of consumers. As we look around our homes, let's take a moment to appreciate the journey of our wooden furniture, the craftsmanship it showcases, and the sheer beauty it adds to our living spaces.
To get some design inspirations, you can check out our extensive collection of minimalist mid-century modern furniture at Mim, or get in touch with us.
If you live in the Toronto area, you can also drop by to view our beautifully crafted furniture in person.
By Anh Ly
Designer of Mim Concept