Wood Veneer Finishes
Like any other type of wood, a veneer needs to be protected from heat, moisture, UV rays, insects and dirt, which means you will have to think about applying a wood finish to give it the protection it needs. The good news is there are lots of different ways you can add a finish to a veneer, which will enhance its aesthetic appeal and extend its lifespan. We’ve narrowed down your options to list the best finishes for wood veneer so you can decide which one is best for you.
Compared to acrylic and polyurethane finishes, hard wax oils are relatively non-toxic and contain a variety of waxes and oils that work to enhance your natural veneer. You’ll also enjoy a smoother finish once a hard wax oil has been applied, so if you are someone that wants to interact with your décor and prefer a softer touch, then this could be the ideal finish.
One of the main benefits of hard wax oil is that repairs are straightforward, as unlike polyurethane and varnish, once applied it doesn’t leave a raised plastic coating. Another layer can be added if the existing one becomes damaged, which can be done without having to sand it down beforehand. The downside is that these types of oils are slightly less durable as the thinner coating means there is not as much protection over the veneer.
Depending on the oil and product, it usually takes around 4-24 hours for a coat to dry and because they do not emit toxic fumes, they are safe to use indoors. Hard wax oils are a preferred choice for anyone who wants a elevate the natural colours of the wood, because unless the product contains a specific dye or stain, the shade and tint of the veneer will remain the same.
Hard wax oils are commonly used on kitchen and tabletop surfaces and are a great option for floorboards, wall panels and cabinets. And if your veneers are likely to have long-term exposure to sunlight, unlike other finishes that may lose their colour over time, use of hard wax oil can help to reduce this from happening.
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Lacquer finishes are usually applied to any wood that you want to show off a glossy shine or that are frequently exposed to water and moisture. Furniture items around the home that feature lacquer finishes include things like tabletops, chests and drawers.
Its composition is made up of shellac and polyurethane, which is a unique combination that enables the finish to offer long-term protection while still producing an eye-catching sheen. It’s also a relatively fast-drying finish compared to varnish, as it takes around 30 minutes for each coat to dry. However, you should probably wait a further 24 hours for the lacquer to fully cure before interacting with the surface.
The fast-drying times reduces the amount of work that needs to be carried out, as you won’t have to sand in-between the application of each coat. Lacquer is relatively streak-free, so once applied and dried out, you will benefit from a very smooth surface. If painting it onto the veneer does not appeal, then you should be able to source a product that allows you to spray it on instead. However, once it is applied, you should always use a respirator as it lets off a very strong toxic smell, and it is also advisable to open a few windows when it is applied indoors.
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Varnish is one of the most popular forms of veneer finish and often lasts for as long as 3 years once it has been applied. It can be used on a variety of different surfaces, including panelling, floorboards, tabletops and other items that are exposed to heavy usage. Varnish also works well on areas that are exposed to water and moisture, as well as spaces that regularly receive sunlight, while working particularly well on light-coloured woods.
One of the reasons for its popularity is that there are a variety of different finishes available, including glossy, matte or satin, making it easy to find the right one to suit your tastes. You can buy a good quality varnish in-store contained within a paint can, although there are also spray varieties that provide good coverage.
The main difference with varnish compared to other finishes is that it fills the natural pores of the veneer, rather than covering the wood grain, which enhances the natural colour. This means the crevices and pores of the wood are filled, keeping away water, insects and any dirt that can start to build up over time. There are some products that contain dyes or stains, so if you are only looking to enhance the natural colour of the wood, be sure to check the product label before you purchase.
If you have garden furniture you want to protect against the elements, then varnish is a good option as it offers strong UV shielding. Similarly, you can apply the finish to any outdoor decking areas you have, which is a good idea before the start of the warm seasons when these spaces tend to be used more often.
When it comes to drying times, varnish is generally faster than other finishes. When applying, be sure to wear a filtering mask to protect your lungs, as it does emit toxic fumes, so awareness of your own health and safety is important.
If your veneers have already been treated with an oil-based finish or stain, of if the wood is likely to be exposed to water or heat or experience a lot of use, then polyurethane is a good finish to choose.
Polyurethane is a long-lasting and durable finish made from a hard resin plastic that is extremely tough once cured. This makes it UV-resistant, water-resistant and scratch proof, which is good news for fragile objects or surfaces that are interacted with on a regular basis.
It is advisable to avoid using polyurethane on light-coloured wood, as if left outdoors in the sunlight for too long the finish can start to turn yellow, which will not be appealing to many. The water-based variant won’t patina and offers good protection, while also elevating the natural colour of the wood.
You will have to work a little hard to apply polyurethane to your veneer, as it usually requires at least 3 coats to seal the wood. If you use a microfibre paint roller and wet sand between coats you should avoid seeing any of the streaky ridges that can appear if the finish is not applied correctly.
When it comes to drying, water-based polyurethane is more efficient than oil-based polyurethane, while also emitting fewer toxic fumes. Drying times are about 5 hours for each coat, before waiting 24 hours for the final coat to fully dry out.
There are a few different types of oil finishes you can apply to your veneer, with each one helping to bring out the natural elements of the wood once dried. It’s a finish that is ideal for small items or veneers that do not receive much wear and tear, while also working well with objects that have oil-based stains or that have already received treatment.
Boiled linseed oil and tung oil are two of the most popular types of oil used for veneer wood, although if you are installing them into the kitchen, mineral oil is probably the best option as it more food safe. Generally, oil finishes do not offer the same level of protection against water and moisture as some of the alternatives we’ve mentioned in the list, so you may want to avoid using them in bathrooms or near sinks in the kitchen if you want to fully protect the veneer.
Another thing to be aware of with oil finishes is that you will have to regularly reapply a new coat at least once a month, as it does wear away quite quickly. On the plus side, an oil finish doesn’t take long to dry, meaning you only need to wait 1-2 hours in-between applying each coat.
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Shellac comes from a slightly more unusual source compared to the other finishes mentioned here. It is derived from the resinous excretions of the female lac bug, a scale insect that lives as a parasite on plants (banyan trees in particular). To turn shellac into a finish, it is mixed with denatured alcohol which then dissolves the excretions. When this is applied to the wood, the alcohol dissolves, so what you see is a natural resin that looks smooth and shiny.
It's a beautiful finish that is also non-toxic in nature, so you don’t have to worry about inhaling harmful fumes or wearing any sort of prospective equipment. The natural beauty of veneer really comes to life with this type of coating, while the wood also benefits from the faint warm tint that is added to the surface.
Some of the downsides to be aware of with an oil finish include its lower durability compared to polyurethane and lacquer, while it also does not respond well to water or heat exposure. Bear this in mind when you are choosing which veneer to add this to, as it is not the right finish for objects that are used frequently or that come into regular contact with the weather.
How do you finish a wood veneer?
Below we detail four simple steps for you to follow when applying a finish to your veneer.
Preparation is key to ensuring a good finish for your veneer that will last. Most veneers now tend to come pre-sanded by the manufacturer, but if this is not the case for your product, or if you see any defects on the wood, you will need to sand it down yourself.
The goal is to make sure that the veneer is smooth so it can easily accept the finish coat. Be careful not to sand too aggressively as veneers can easily be damaged if you apply too much pressure. Medium and fine grit sandpapers are the best types to go for and be sure to take your time to carefully sand down the wood without rushing through the job.
Once this is done, the veneer needs to be cleaned. This involves removing any dirt, dust or loose wood particles that are sitting on the surface. If not cleaned sufficiently, the dirt or particles can become trapped under the coating and clearly show through once it has dried, making it nigh on impossible to remove.
If the finish you want to apply does not contain a stain, but you want to add more colour to the veneer panel, this is where it needs to be added. For unfinished wood, it is advisable to use a pigment or light dye that is water-based. Once this is done and fully dried, you can then move onto the application of the finish to seal the wood.
Reapplying to veneers with an existing finish
If you are simply reapplying a finish to the wood and it has previously been treated with a stain or finish, you should first check that the two are compatible.
This means matching the base of the two products, i.e., if you previously used a water-based finish, make sure you apply a water-based finish this time round, with the same rule applying to oil-based finishes. Mixing different types of finishes reduces its efficiency and it will not bond with the wood.
Sand down each layer
Use a small amount of water to lightly wet the veneer and wet sand using 300-400 grit sandpaper, as this will help produce a more even finish for varnish, polyurethane, lacquer and shellac finish products, which can be a little streaky upon application.
This should be done for each layer before the next one is applied, making sure to clean away any dirt or grime from the surface. Three coats are usually the right amount for most objects, although oil finishes can sometimes make do with two layers.
Wait for the finish to dry
It can be tempting to cut short the drying time, but it pays to have patience and to wait the full period recommended on the product label. Rushing in can ruin the finish you’ve worked hard to produce, forcing you to start all over again. Most waiting times are at least a few hours between coats, and then around 24-36 hours after the final coat to allow the finish to fully cure – although always check the product instructions to be sure.