A veneer is a natural wood applied to another type of wood — usually plywood. So, if you want to protect your veneer from water, wear, sunlight, heat, insects, and dirt, you will need to use a wood finish to give it a barrier.

Here are the best finishes for veneer:

  • Polyurethane
  • Hard-Wax Oil
  • Varnish
  • Lacquer
  • Shellac
  • Oil

So, let’s talk more about the best finishes for veneers and go into the details about when each one is the best choice. I’ll give you all of the pros and cons of each one, and I’ll give you some tips for applying your finish so that you get the most out of your stunning veneer!

1. Polyurethane

Best for:

  • Woods that will take hard wear or be exposed to heat, such as tabletops, countertops, bars, floorboards, and cabinets
  • Veneers already treated with an oil-based stain or finish
  • Wood exposed to lots of water
  • Almost any project

Polyurethane finish is what is always turned to when finishing veneer woods. It is incredibly durable and long-lasting, making it perfect for protecting fragile veneers and surfaces that will get a lot of use.

Polyurethane is a hard resin plastic that cures to make your wood water-resistant, UV-resistant, scratch-proof, and tough as nails.

I prefer oil-based polyurethane because it has an amber-colored patina that brings out the natural luster in most wood veneers. However, water-based polyurethane is still very good at protecting your veneer, and it does not patina, leaving your wood’s natural color to shine through.

Still, polyurethane finishes can yellow when you leave them in the sun for too long, so they are not always the best choice for light-colored woods that belong outdoors, such as oak decking or patio furniture.

Polyurethane is labor-intensive. You will have to apply at least three coats of varnish to get the best seal on your wood, and often, the resin can leave streaky ridges that are hard to hide if you don’t apply it correctly. Still, a good trick to make sure it comes out smooth is using a microfiber paint roller to apply the finish and wet-sanding between coats.

Water-based polyurethane dries faster than oil-based polyurethane, and it also has fewer fumes. However, you will need to wait at least five hours between coats and 24 hours for the final coat to dry on average.

2. Hard-Wax Oil

Best for:

  • Kitchen and tabletop surfaces
  • Hard-wearing woods like bars, floorboards, wall panels, and cabinets
  • Veneers exposed to sunlight

Hardwax oils contain many different oils and waxes that seal and enhance your natural veneer. Their main pro is that they are relatively non-toxic, unlike polyurethane and acrylic finishes. They also leave a smoother, softer, less plastic-feeling surface than polyurethane and varnish.

Most hard-wax oils are just a bit less durable than polyurethane. However, it is straightforward to repair hard-wax oil finish since it doesn’t leave a raised plastic coating over your veneer. If you damage a hard-wax oil finish, you can reapply more without sanding, which is a rare quality in a finish.

Hardwax oil finishes also don’t emit toxic fumes, making it easier for you to use them indoors.

They can take anywhere from four to 24 hours to fully dry, so they are relatively standard when it comes to drying times.

Hard-wax oils add an extra pop to the natural color of your wood, but they don’t add any additional tints or shades unless you purchase one that has a stain or dye added to it. They also don’t discolor over time like many other wood finishes do, leaving your veneer with the same color years after application.

To learn more about hard-wax oils and their benefits, check out this fantastic video:

3. Varnish

Best for:

  • Floorboards, tabletops, paneling, and other objects that require durability
  • Water-exposed areas
  • Sunlight-exposed areas
  • Light-colored woods

Wood varnish usually contains resin, oil, and a thinner. It is very durable, and one application can last for up to 3 years.

Varnishes can have a matte, satin, or glossy film finish. Although they are most often sold in paint cans, they also come in spray bottles that make application easy and seamless.

Varnish doesn’t cover the grain of woods, but it fills in the natural pores of your veneer to add a natural luster to the color and grain pattern.

In addition, since it fills in your wood surface’s tiny pores and crevices, it repels dirt, water, and insects.

Varnish is also usually clear and doesn’t add color to the wood. However, some varnishes may contain stains or dyes, so always ensure that you check your varnish’s label before applying it to ensure that you get the results you want.

Varnish also offers excellent UV protection, so it is often used on outdoor furniture and in deck-building.

Varnish also dries faster than many other wood finishes, although it does have some fumes. So, whenever you apply varnish, you should wear a filtering mask for your protection.

4. Lacquer

Best for:

  • Items that will get hard wear such as bars, drawers, chests, and tabletops
  • Woods that you want to have a high, glossy shine
  • Veneers exposed to water

Varnish is made up of shellac, nitrocellulose, plasticizers, and often pigments. Lacquer combines the lustrous finish of shellac with the durability of polyurethane, making it a fantastic all-around easy product to use on veneer.

Lacquer is slightly more fast-drying than varnish, and it usually only takes half an hour for each coat to dry. Still, it will take up to 24 hours for the lacquer to fully cure,

Lacquer is so fast drying and durable that you won’t have to sand in between coats. It is often one of the most streak-free finishes that leaves a highly smooth surface.

Lacquer is also available in a spray can, which makes finishing your wood extremely simple.

Still, lacquer has an intense toxic smell, so you should always use a respirator when you apply it and leave a window or two open when you use it indoors.

5. Shellac

Best for:

  • Decorative furniture and paneling
  • Small items

Shellac is made from the sticky, resinous excretions of the female lac bug. These excretions are mixed with denatured alcohol, which dissolves them. Then, when you apply it to your veneer, the alcohol dissolves, leaving behind a layer of shiny, soft, smooth, natural resin.

The main benefit of using shellac is that it is stunning. It brings a glowing luster to your veneer, enhancing the natural beauty of any color wood. It also has a subtle warm tint that brings a faint yellowish glow to your veneer.

Shellac is much less durable than lacquer and polyurethane. It does not react well with water or heat, so you should only use it on furniture and other veneers that won’t be exposed to weather or frequent wear.

Still, shellac is simple to apply, and it dries quickly, making it easy to use. It is also non-toxic, so it doesn’t create harmful fumes as it dries.

6. Oil

Best for:

  • Small items
  • Veneers that won’t get much wear
  • Things that have already been treated with oil-based stains or finishes
  • Oily woods with a natural glow

Oil shows off the natural beauty of the wood, although it isn’t very durable or protective. It is perfect for smaller items or furniture that does not get much use or exposure to heat.

Some of the most popular oils for veneer are tung oil and boiled linseed oil. However, in kitchens, mineral oil is the most popular since it is the most food-safe.

Tung oil is more water-resistant than linseed oil, but still, oils are not nearly as durable or water-resistant as the other finishes on this list.

The biggest downside to using oil is that it will need to be reapplied almost monthly for best results. Still, dry times are short, and you only have to wait an hour or two before applying coats of oil to your veneer.

Tips for Applying Your Wood Finish

When you apply your wood finish, you will need to be careful to use the best methods. Otherwise, you might have to sand off your finish and start all over again.

For the best results, use these tips to apply your veneer’s finish:

  • Pre-treat your veneer before finishing.
  • Use the right finish for your stain, dye, or old finish.
  • Sand between layers.
  • Always wait the total drying time before applying another layer.

If you follow these steps, you will be sure to have a finished product you can be proud of! Let’s go into the details now so that you can be sure that your veneer will look better than ever when you’re finished with it.

Pre-Treat Your Veneer for Finishing

Before you finish your wood veneer, it is crucial to prepare it if you want the finish to look good and last.

The first step to pre-treating your veneer is ensuring that it is smooth and sanded without any chips or scratches. Most unfinished veneers come pre-sanded, but sand them out until the wood is soft and splinter-free if you see any defects. Doing so will ensure that the finish goes on evenly and stays on for years to come. 

Still, it is crucial to note that most veneer is fragile, and if you sand it too aggressively, you might sand all the way through the wood. So, it would be best if you never used a power sander on the veneer. Instead, opt for medium and fine grit sandpapers and use your hands to sand the surface gently.

Next, clean your veneer. If there is any dust, dirt, mold, or loose wood particles on your veneer surface, they will get trapped in the finish, sealing them on your veneer for all eternity. In addition, the larger particles of dirt and dust will wear off over time, taking your finish with it and leaving bald, unfinished patches on your veneer.

Before you apply your finish, you may also want to consider using a stain if you wish to add more color to your veneer. Generally, when using a stain on unfinished wood, it is better to go with a light dye or pigment that is water-based.

Once your veneer is clean, smooth, and the right color, you can start to apply your finish!

Use the Right Finish for Your Stain or Old Finish

If you have already treated your veneer with a stain, dye, or finish, make sure your new finish is compatible with the old one.

So, if your stain was water-based, use a water-based finish. If your stain or pretreatment was oil-based, use an oil-based finish. If you mix too many types, they won’t stick, and your new finish will just slide off of the wood.

Sand Between Layers

If you use lacquer, shellac, polyurethane, or varnish, you might notice streaks, bumps, or dust every time you apply a new coat.

To avoid streaks, use 300- 400 grit sandpaper and a bit of water to lightly wet sand between each coat of finish for an even, streak-free layer. Sand each layer lightly right before you apply your next coat, and ensure that you clean off all of the dust and water before going back in with your finish.

As a general rule of thumb, you should apply three coats of your finish for the best results. The only case where that isn’t true is with oil finishes, which usually only need two coats.

Always Wait the Full Drying Time Between Layers

It can be hard to have patience when you know you are in the finishing stage of your project, but if you are too hasty, you could ruin your whole finishing job and have to start over from scratch.

With many finishing products, you will have to wait hours between coats. If you try to apply another coat, you may create bumps or tears in the first coat, forcing you to sand your veneer and try again.

It is crucial not to mess up too much with veneer since the wood is already thin as it is. That’s because too much sanding could rip or crack the veneer permanently. So, when in doubt, always follow the instructions on your finishing product’s label, and don’t try to improvise.

You may also like: How to Fix a Veneer That Is Lifting.

Final Thoughts

The best finish for your veneer will depend on what you want it to look like and where it will go. As a general rule of thumb, polyurethane, varnish, and lacquer are the most durable, while other products like hard-wax oil, shellac, and oil create a soft, smooth sheen with less protection from water, sunlight, and heat.

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