Finishing Hardwoods: A Comprehensive Guide

By Mego Kimani •  Updated: 05/25/24 •  9 min read

When it comes to finishing hardwoods, some several unique challenges and considerations differentiate them from softwoods. Understanding these differences is crucial for achieving the best results and ensuring the longevity and beauty of the finished piece. Here are the key factors to consider:

1. Grain Structure and Density

Hardwoods, such as oak, maple, cherry, and walnut, typically have a denser and more complex grain structure compared to softwoods. This density affects how finishes penetrate and adhere to the wood surface.

Example: Oak, with its prominent grain and open pores, often requires the use of grain fillers to achieve a smooth finish. In contrast, the tight grain of maple may not need filling but can be prone to blotching when stained​​.

2. Preparation Techniques

Due to their density and grain patterns, hardwoods require more meticulous preparation. Sanding must be thorough to ensure the surface is even and free from scratches that could become more visible after finishing.

Sanding: Begin with coarser grits like 120 and gradually move to finer grits up to 220 or higher, depending on the desired smoothness. Hardwoods like cherry can show scratches more readily, necessitating extra care during the sanding process.

3. Staining and Color Uniformity

Hardwoods can exhibit uneven staining, especially species like cherry and maple. This blotching occurs because different parts of the wood absorb stains at varying rates.

Pre-Stain Conditioners: Applying a pre-stain conditioner or wood sealer can help mitigate blotching. These products partially seal the wood, promoting more even absorption of the stain​​.

4. Types of Finishes

The choice of finish can significantly affect the appearance and durability of hardwoods. The finish should enhance the natural beauty of the wood while providing adequate protection.

Oil Finishes: These penetrate the wood and bring out the rich colors and patterns of the grain. Tung oil and Danish oil are popular choices for hardwoods, offering a natural look and feel​​.

Film Finishes: Varnishes, shellacs, and polyurethanes create a protective layer on the surface. Polyurethane, particularly the oil-based variety, provides excellent durability for hardwood floors and high-traffic furniture. Lacquer is another option that offers a high-gloss finish, suitable for fine furniture​​.

5. Application Techniques

The method of applying finishes can vary depending on the type of finish and the characteristics of the hardwood.

Brushing vs. Spraying: Brushing is effective for most finishes but requires careful technique to avoid brush marks, especially on dense hardwoods. Spraying can provide a more uniform finish and is often used for lacquers and polyurethanes.

Wiping: Wipe-on finishes, such as tung oil or wiping varnishes, are excellent for hardwoods because they reduce the risk of runs and drips and ensure a more even application.

6. Drying and Curing Times

Hardwoods, due to their density, can have longer drying and curing times for finishes. It’s important to allow sufficient time between coats for the finish to properly adhere and harden.

Environmental Factors: Temperature and humidity can affect drying times. Ensuring a controlled environment will help achieve a consistent finish.

7. Maintenance and Repair

Hardwoods, once finished, generally require less maintenance than softwoods due to their durability. However, maintaining the finish through regular cleaning and occasional reapplication of topcoats can extend the life of the finish.

Repairing Finishes: Minor scratches and wear can often be repaired without completely refinishing the piece. For example, an oil finish can be rejuvenated by applying a fresh coat of oil, whereas a polyurethane finish may require light sanding and an additional topcoat.

Special Considerations for Finishing Different Hardwoods

Finishing hardwoods presents unique challenges due to the variety of grain structures, densities, and inherent characteristics of each wood species. Different hardwoods require tailored approaches to achieve the best finish. In this section, we will explore specific techniques and considerations for several popular hardwoods: oak, cherry, maple, walnut, and mahogany.


Oak is a widely used hardwood known for its prominent grain and large pores. It requires careful preparation and finishing to highlight its beauty while ensuring durability.

Preparation: Oak’s open grain structure often necessitates the use of grain fillers to achieve a smooth finish. Begin by sanding with a coarse grit and progress to finer grits, ensuring all surfaces are smooth. Raising the grain with water and then sanding again can help achieve a more even finish​​.

Staining: Oak takes stain well, but it can sometimes appear blotchy. Using a wood conditioner before staining can help achieve a more uniform color. Apply the stain evenly and wipe off the excess promptly to prevent blotching​​​​.

Finishing: Oil finishes, such as tung oil or boiled linseed oil, enhance oak’s natural grain and provide a warm, rich appearance. For more protection, consider using varnish or polyurethane. These finishes build a durable layer on the wood surface, protecting it from wear and tear​​​​.


Cherry wood is prized for its rich, warm tones and smooth texture. It tends to darken over time, which can enhance its natural beauty.

Preparation: Sand cherry wood thoroughly, starting with a medium grit and progressing to very fine grits. Cherry can be prone to blotching when stained, so a sanding sealer or pre-stain conditioner is recommended to minimize this issue​​.

Staining: Cherry absorbs stains unevenly, leading to blotchy results. Using a gel stain can help control the application and achieve a more consistent color. Alternatively, natural or clear finishes are often preferred to let cherry’s natural beauty shine through without additional coloring​​.

Finishing: Cherry looks stunning with a clear finish that enhances its natural color and grain. Oil finishes are popular for cherry, as they deepen the wood’s color over time. Shellac or lacquer can also be used for a more traditional look, providing a high-gloss finish that highlights the wood’s smooth texture​​.


Maple is a dense hardwood with a fine, even grain. It is often used for furniture, cabinetry, and flooring due to its durability and attractive appearance.

Preparation: Sand maple wood carefully to avoid scratches, which can be more visible on its smooth surface. Use progressively finer grits, finishing with at least a 220-grit sandpaper​​​​.

Staining: Maple is notoriously difficult to stain due to its density and tight grain. It often absorbs stain unevenly, leading to blotching. Using a wood conditioner or pre-stain sealer can help mitigate this issue. Gel stains are also effective for achieving a more uniform color​​.

Finishing: Clear finishes are generally preferred for maple to showcase its natural beauty. Water-based polyurethane is an excellent choice, as it provides durability without adding a yellow tint. For a more traditional look, consider using shellac or lacquer​​​​.


Walnut is a luxurious hardwood known for its rich, dark color and attractive grain patterns. It is frequently used for high-end furniture and decorative pieces.

Preparation: Sand walnut thoroughly, starting with a medium grit and progressing to finer grits. Walnut’s dark color can make scratches more noticeable, so take care to sand evenly and remove all sanding marks​​.

Staining: Walnut typically does not require staining due to its naturally beautiful color. If a darker shade is desired, use a stain that complements walnut’s rich tones. Applying a sealer before staining can help achieve a more uniform color​​.

Finishing: Oil finishes like tung oil or Danish oil are excellent for walnut, enhancing its natural beauty and providing a rich, deep finish. Varnish or polyurethane can be used for additional protection, especially on surfaces that will see heavy use​​​​.


Mahogany is a premium hardwood known for its reddish-brown color and fine, straight grain. It is used in high-quality furniture and cabinetry.

Preparation: Sand mahogany with progressively finer grits, ensuring a smooth surface. Grain filling is often necessary to achieve a flawless finish, as mahogany has an open grain structure​​.

Staining: Mahogany accepts stains well, but its natural color is often preferred. If staining, choose a color that enhances its natural tones. Apply a wood conditioner to ensure even absorption and prevent blotching​​​​.

Finishing: Clear finishes, such as lacquer or shellac, are popular for mahogany, highlighting its rich color and fine grain. For a more durable finish, consider using varnish or polyurethane. These finishes protect the wood while preserving its natural beauty​​.

Safety Considerations

Working with wood finishes involves potential hazards, including toxic fumes and flammability. It is crucial to work in a well-ventilated area and use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks, and eye protection. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s safety instructions on the product label.

Example: Turpentine, commonly used as a solvent, can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems if proper precautions are not taken【10†source】.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Even with careful preparation and application, issues can arise during the finishing process. Common problems include blotching, runs, dust contamination, and uneven sheen.


Blotching occurs when the wood absorbs the finish unevenly. This can be minimized by using a pre-stain conditioner, particularly on softwoods and certain hardwoods like cherry and pine.

Runs and Sags

Runs and sags can happen if too much finish is applied at once. To prevent this, apply thin coats and allow adequate drying time between layers. If runs occur, they can be sanded out once the finish is dry.

Dust Contamination

Dust can settle on the wet finish, causing imperfections. Ensure the working environment is as dust-free as possible, and use tack cloths to remove any dust from the surface before applying the finish.

Uneven Sheen

Uneven sheen can result from inconsistent application or insufficient mixing of the finish. Stir the finish thoroughly before and during application to maintain uniformity.


Finishing hardwoods requires a thorough understanding of their unique properties and challenges. By carefully preparing the wood, choosing the appropriate finish, and applying it correctly, woodworkers can enhance the natural beauty and durability of hardwood pieces. Attention to detail in each step of the finishing process ensures a professional and long-lasting result. Safety should always be a priority, ensuring that the workspace is well-ventilated and appropriate protective measures are taken.


Mego Kimani

Hi there, my name is Mego Kimani, and I am the owner of Woodmeter, a website dedicated to wood finishing. At Woodmeter, we offer a comprehensive resource for woodworkers and DIY enthusiasts, providing information on everything from achieving the perfect finish to product recommendations and technique guides. Our goal is to empower our community with the knowledge they need to create beautiful, long-lasting finishes on their projects, no matter their skill level or experience.