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Comparison of Finish Products

Finishes such as varnishes, shellacs, oil- and water-based products, vary on measures related to durability and working qualities. Each finish type has advantages and disadvantages. Here is a comparison chart of common finish products to help you choose the best finishes for your projects.

Working Quality Wax Shellac Nitro cellulose
lacquer
Most waterbased
finishes
Ease of application Excellent Good Fair Good
Repairability Excellent Excellent Excellent Poor
Water resistance Poor Fair Good Good
Chemical resistance Fair Poor Good Good
Scratch resistance Poor Fair Fair Good

Reactive finishes undergo a chemical change as they cure, making them not only more difficult to repair but also more durable (except for linseed and tung oil) than most evaporative finishes.

Working Quality Linseed oil Tung oil Oil-based varnish
(alkyd resins)
Oil-based
polyurethane
Catalyzed
lacquer
(& conversion
varnish)
Ease of application Excellent Excellent Good Good Poor
Repairability Excellent Excellent Poor Poor Poor
Water resistance Poor Fair Excellent Excellent Excellent
Chemical resistance Fair Fair Good Excellent Excellent
Scratch resistance Poor Poor Good Excellent Excellent

Differences Between Oil- and Water-Based Urethane Finishes
NOFMA: (now the National Wood Flooring Association) indicates that both oil- and water-based urethanes provide durable, long-lasting finishes. They offer the following descriptions for comparison purposes:

Water-based urethanes have four major formulations that determine the primary element in the finish: (1) Acrylic; (2) Acrylic Urethane; (3) Urethane Acrylic; (4) Urethane. Generally, the more urethane a water-based finish has, the more durable and harder the finish is (in contrast to water-based finishes with high acrylic levels).

However, water-based finishes with higher urethane levels typically require more finishing expertise. In terms of visual effect, a water-based urethane finish generally yields a clear finish that enhances or brightens the natural variations of hardwood and is normally applied thinner than oil-based materials.

Oil-based urethanes typically yield hard finishes and have slower drying times than water-based urethane finishes. They tend to give hardwood a "softer" appearance and lessen the contrast of hardwood's natural variations. They are normally applied thicker than water-based materials.

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