Natural Wood Finishes: Which One is Right for You?

So you’ve built something with wood, and you’d absolutely love to finish it with a natural wood finish. Luckily, you’ve got a couple options!

Shellac is the best natural wood finish when a hard, durable coating is needed to protect the wood. 100% oils, on the other hand, are perfect for cutting boards and other projects that benefit from a finish that soaks into the wood.

There’s more to it than that, though, so lets dive in!

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In my opinion, shellac is the best natural wood finish for one main reason: it’s the most protective natural finish on the market.

Unlike other options, shellac forms a barrier on top of the wood, stopping water, dirt, and other things (*cough*crayon*cough) from reaching the pores of the wood.

In comparison, waxes and oils soak into the wood. While they help the wood repel water, they don’t actually prevent it or anything else from reaching the wood pores. Over time, this leads to more wear and tear on the wood.

Shellac Downsides

Shellac does have two main downsides, but I think both of these are easily overlooked considering the additional protection shellac provides.

First off, shellac doesn’t hold up to alcohol. If you’re planning to use shellac on a wine goblet, maybe don’t. But for a general project, this usually isn’t an issue.

Secondly, traditional shellac has a short shelf life – less than three months. Oils and other wood finishes usually last much longer in the can.

This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that traditional shellac is mixed right before using (see next section about this,) so theoretically you don’t have unmixed shellac sitting around waiting to go bad.

It’s also really easy to tell if your shellac is bad. Simply test some on a piece a scrap wood. Check back in a hour. Is it dry? No weird splotches? Then you’re good to go!

What to Buy

Shellac is traditionally sold in flakes, which you then mix with denatured alcohol before applying. This is a giant pain, and the success of your project is completely dependent on mixing the shellac correctly.

Good news, though! Zinsser has come out with a line of premixed shellac where you don’t have to do this. Yay!

Zinsser's Shellac Sealcoat

I usually go with Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, which you can see in-action on this awesome cedar chest makeover. It’s wax-free, which means it sticks to pretty much anything, and you don’t have to worry about something going wrong and the finish not adhering.

The other nice thing about Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat is that it’s readily available – Zinsser’s premixed shellac is often the only shellac sold in big box home improvement stores. To get the more-traditional flakes, you have to head over to the woodworking specialty stores.

Zinsser does have two other premixed shellac products (which contain wax and I therefore don’t recommend,) so be careful when you’re buying!

It’s also worth noting that while Sealcoat still has a somewhat short shelf life, it’s longer than traditional shellac. You can expect your Shellac Sealcoat to last around 3 years after opening.

100% Oils

So first off, there’s a reason I keep saying “100%” oils. The “Tung Oil Finish” and “Walnut Oil Finish” that you often see in home improvement stores isn’t actually oil.

Those “oil finishes” are actually thinned varnishes (polyurethane) that contain a little bit of oil in addition to many other things. They’re fine, but they’re not natural and they’re not 100% oil.

Instead, if you’re looking for a natural wood finish, you’re looking for 100% oils. If you’re walking around Home Depot, you probably will be able to find 100% boiled linseed oil. Anything else, and you’ll need to head over to a woodworking store.

The Scoop About Oils

So here’s the thing about oils: they’re very pretty. They deepen wood, and give it a beautiful sheen.

But they’re not anywhere near as protective as shellac.

Oils work by soaking into the wood pores and hardening them a bit so that they repel water and other liquids. They do not form a protective barrier on top of the wood.

So all the gunk that gets on your piece still reaches the wood pores. The oil hopefully helps the wood pores repel the dirt, but it doesn’t form a barrier between the wood and the rest of the world.

And at the end of the day, a physical barrier is going to be more protective.

When to Use Oils

That’s not to say you should never use oil. There are a few times when I wood choose oil over shellac.

Firstly, cutting boards. You don’t want a barrier with cutting boards, because it would constantly be cut up with your knives. Then all the little pieces of finish would get in your food, and that’s not great.

So 100% oils are perfect for cutting boards!

I’d also feel good about using 100% oil on an art project that’s going to to sit on a shelf and rarely be handled. If you’re not touching the piece regularly, chances are, oil is going to be protective enough to keep the wood safe.

Plus, oil is very pretty. I love how it looks! It’s just not super practical for items that are going to see daily use.

What Oil to Use

Your main 100% oil finishes are linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil.

Linseed oil is easily found at big box stores, but it’s the least protective of the three, so I usually skip it.

At that point, you’re choosing between Tung Oil and Walnut Oil.

Personally, I’ve found it’s not much of a choice. I use what I can easily find – for me, that’s Tung Oil. Rockler sells it at a decent price, and there’s one of those a mile from my house.

Because of that, I have to admit that I’ve never actually tried Walnut Oil. If you give it a shot, let me know how you feel about it!


This will be fast.

Waxes don’t do squat on bare wood. Zilch. Nothing.

Maybe, maybe waxes help deflect something that hits the wood, so it causes less of a dent.

But other than that? Forget it.

Waxes are worth applying on top of paint, which is already protecting the wood a decent amount. They’re also useful on top of another finish to add a pretty sheen.

But on their own, waxes are pretty much worthless.

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