Finishes for Wood: The Good and the Bad | The Stated HomeThe final thing you should consider when shopping for quality wood furniture is the finish. (If you haven’t read our blogs on wood types, veneers, and joinery, start there to get a complete picture about how to identify high quality wood furniture.)

Bad finishes can ruin a piece of furniture (it’s hard to admire the quality of the wood or design when there’s a peeling finish or an unsightly water mark). The good news is that finishing has come a long way and much of today’s furniture is resistant to liquids and scratching. So what is a finish exactly? It’s actually a combination of a stain and clear top coat. Keep reading to find out more about finishes (and check out our selection of gorgeous wood furniture here).

Stain and Paint

This is where wood furniture gets its color. You can find wood furniture in either its natural state, with a stain that alters its color, or with a painted finish. If you’re looking at a piece of furniture that is a really dark wood, it most likely has a stain on it (there is no natural wood color that is as dark as espresso). Lighter pieces are also often stained.

Top Finish

This clear coat is basically battle armor, protecting the wood from water damage and dings. It also helps to protect the wood from environmental conditions like humidity. It used to be that finishes were easily damaged – water rings and scratches were constant worries. But finishes these days are not your grandma’s finishes. Many can hold up to drops of water that are left for days and withstand a good amount of abuse. You should NOT go testing these claims, but it does add to peace of mind if you have the occasional forgotten water glass.

Top Coat Types

If you dive into the world of top finishes, you’ll find out that there are lots and lots of options. (Lots more on that here, in this write-up from Expert Kitchen Designs.) These are the four most common top finishes you’ll see when shopping for furniture:

Conversion Varnish/Post-Catalyzed Lacquer: It’s commonly believed that conversion varnish is the most durable finish you can get. An additive causes the resin molecules to cross-link in a strong bond which means that you can get a stronger finish with a thinner coat of finish.

  • Extremely durable/the most resistant to water, heat and chemicals
  • Not easy to repair
  • More expensive/more difficult to apply

Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer: Made from resin molecules suspended in a solvent. The resin does not cross-link like in catalyzed lacquer.

  • Less durable than conversion varnish, but still can withstand some abuse
  • Tends to yellow
  • Easier to repair than conversion varnish
  • Easier to apply than conversion varnish
  • Requires more coats that may cover up the natural texture of the wood


  • Least durable finish (avoid if possible, especially on heavily used surfaces like tables)
  • Inexpensive and easy to use; commonly found in poorly made furniture
  • May yellow in time


  • Extremely durable
  • Repairable
  • Long drying time makes it less popular to use by furniture manufacturers

It’s All About the VOCs

VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are nasty, cancer-causing chemicals found in many finishes. You know that “new furniture smell?” Chances are it’s these chemicals off-gassing from the finish. You should always try to get furniture that uses low-VOC finishes (don’t worry – all of the furniture at The Stated Home uses low-VOC finishes)

How to Shop for Furniture Finish

It’s difficult to determine the longevity of finish while looking at a new piece of furniture in a showroom. You may get lucky and notice some peeling or bubbling that will cause you to avoid a piece. Other than that, look for these two things:

  • Ensure the finishes are low-VOC
  • Look for conversion varnish or post-catalyzed lacquer top coats

Like what you read? Visit to shop our collection of made-in-America furnishings.

Finishes for Wood: The Good and the Bad | The Stated Home

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