A Common Misconception

A great finish......for a boat!

A great finish……for a boat!

I am always amazed at how little most woodworkers know about finishing wood and the products used in this process. Hours are spent pouring over magazines, books and videos, learning how to build that ultimate project and how to use the tools needed. But, one very important tool is all too often neglected……..finishing! This lack of knowledge of a very important subject leads to no end of frustration and disappointment.

Occasionally a customer requests a knob and tote set unfinished so he/she can apply their favorite finish. In almost every case their favorite finish is one that affords less protection to their new tool handles than the finish I use. So, you ask, what do I use? Polyurethane! Surprised? I published an article on polyurethane varnish and if you are interested you can read it here. Most people who want to use their own finish use some form of spar varnish. Here is where the misconception lies. They think that because this varnish was made to protect wood in a harsh marine environment that is hard and tough and therefore great for tool handles. Well, think again!

Spar varnish, no matter the maker, is what is called a long oil varnish. This simply means it has more oil, usually linseed oil, than standard varnish. What the additional oil does is to allow the cured finish to more readily expand and contract with the excessive wood movement caused by the harsh environment. This minimizes cracking, checking, and peeling. The additional oil accomplishes this by keeping the finish soft and flexible. This is not the most desirable characteristic in a tool handle finish.

Oil finishes and oil varnish blends do not afford the most protection from oils and grime being ground into them and the wood beneath the finish. The hardest of the easily available finishes is polyurethane varnish. But it looks like plastic you say. It doesn’t have to if used properly. That “plastic” look that most of us detest is caused by too heavy of a build and the high gloss. To avoid that plastic look knock off the high gloss. The only place high gloss looks good is on a French polished table. High gloss French polish looks so good because there is very little build.

Three coats of satin polyurethane varnish thinned approximately 50/50 will give you a great looking finish that will last a long time. And, it is easily renewed by scuffing it with some 0000 steel wool and applying a couple more coats. Try it, you will be surprised.

Oh, and by the way. The resins used in all varnished is usually some type of plastic.

As always, thanks for stopping by and please feel free to leave a comment.


Professional furniture maker and restorer. Dealer and collector of vintage and antique woodworking tools.
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4 Responses to A Common Misconception

  1. The only slight caveat to this is that when you use a tool for long periods of time, any kind of real film finish prevents the wood from absorbing sweat, your skin does, and the result is blisters. Not a problem with my planes much (I love my tailed tools, too), but I know from paddling and rowing and garden tools that raw linseed oil on the handle is the best bet. That said, if one is going to shell out the $$$ for a high-end tool, and isn’t going to use it for heavy grunt work, then it does make sense to keep them looking as nice as possible.

    • I have never gotten a blister from even the heaviest of handplane use. Also, blisters are caused by heavy friction separating the upper layers of skin allowing fluid to fill the space, not by absorption of sweat. Linseed oil on a handle helps because it acts like a lubricant lessening the friction that causes blisters, a little perspiration on a smooth handle can do the same thing. Dirty, grungy looking tools put me off and I don’t like to touch a dirty, grimy handle. To me this shows a lack of respect for ones tools, but that is just my opinion. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Jamie Rice says:

    The link to your previous article requires me to log in. I was wondering what the name of the article was so I could search the blog?
    Thanks Jamie

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