How To: Make Your Own Wood Finish

Wood finish comes in as many varieties as there are species of wood. And they all have their time, place and use. Probably the most useful wood finish In my cabinet is my own homemade wiping varnish. And the good news is you can make your own too! It costs much less than the store bought varieties and you can tweak it to fit your project perfectly.

The Uses

This wood finish is technically a wiping varnish. Sometimes it’s called a oil-varnish blend. There are two big benefits to this type of finish.

  1. It is a “penetrating finish”. That means it soaks deep into the wood and protects and strengthens the wood from the inside out. Most varnish finishes sit on top of the wood and once scratched their protection is gone.
  2. It’s extremely easy to apply. It is a time consuming process to build up the necessary coats, but it is almost idiot proof to apply. No bubbles or brush marks to worry about.

I prefer to use this type of finish on furniture, banisters, and any wood surface that needs to not only look great but feel great. This finish will give your wood a hand-rubbed appearance and very “close to the wood” feel that doesn’t seem like a layer of plastic covering the surface. The finish can be used on floors, but I general don’t recommend it because the time needed to build up enough coats is prohibitive. It does go on in very thin coats and is therefore time consuming to apply the many coats needed. But it is so worth it!

The Recipe

Get out a sealable metal container and mix the following:

This is my standard formula. And you can modify it in many ways. For outdoor uses you can substitute spar varnish for regular polyurethane. I also will often use less and less BLO with each successive coat. The BLO slows down the drying process, but it is the ingredient that gives the finish its penetrating characteristics. The BLO is very important in the first 3 or 4 coats, but after that I typically scale back to only about 10% BLO and 45% of poly and mineral spirits. Experiment and find what works for you.

The Application

The finish is best applied to bare wood that is sanded smooth. Don’t sand any smoother than a 220 grit sandpaper or the finish won’t soak in as well. You can use an old T-shirt or wiping rag to apply the finish once the surface is clean of any dust. Simply dip the rag in the mixture and apply it VERY liberally to the surface. I try to flood the surface especially on the first couple coats. The varnish will soak into the wood fairly quickly depending on the species. And just keep adding more until it stops soaking in.

Once the wood is saturated let it sit about 30 minutes and then come back and wipe off the excess. Let the varnish dry for 8-12 hrs and then come back and repeat the process by adding another coat. Every other coat sand the surface with 0000 steel wool to level out any high spots in the finish and smooth out the surface. If the varnish is gumming up the steel wool instead of coming off as a fine dust then you need to wait longer between sandings.

Continue this process for about 6-8 coats. The wood will absorb less and less of the varnish with each successive coat and the continued steel wool sanding will make the surface as smooth as (insert your favorite smooth object here). Sometimes I’ll finish with a coat of paste wax and other times I’ll leave it as is. Either way you’ll have a beautiful and well protected project that you can enjoy for years.

Here is an example of a night table that I finished with this method:

Got a better mixture? We’d love to hear it! Share it by commenting below.

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.


  1. Nancy Switzler on said:

    Two of us working with steel wool, and five hours later we got most of it off. The challenge was all the corners, crevices, and flaws in the wood. We still had some very shiny spots… And shiny spots have been the biggest challenge. So rather than go another round with the wiping varnish, I sprayed a final satin finish coat on the problem areas. It looks much better but not as good as the rest of the room. You can see some photos on my Facebook page here.

  2. Nancy on said:

    I tried spraying it yesterday and it did work well except that the oil made my scaffold and ladder very slippery when I went back to wipe. I think I’ll go with hand application until I cut down the percentage of BLO. Thanks for the recipe, my wood is liking it!

  3. Nancy on said:

    I used this recipe on my mantle and it was wonderful. I love the feel of it. As the mantel isn’t so big it was also easy to do. Right now I’m working on a huge refinishing project. Crowns, windows, built-ins. I’d like to use this same technique but am wondering if it would work to spray on and wipe off.

    • Nancy, I’m glad it worked well for you! I don’t see any reason why you can’t spray it on. I’ve never tried it but it is such a simple finish that it should work just fine in almost any way that you want apply it. You’ll probably have to do more and thinner coats on vertical surfaces though.

      • Nancy on said:

        Thanks. I’ll try it and let you know how it goes. I probably won’t be ready for a month or two though

        • Nancy Switzler on said:

          Need some advice. I have been using this blend on my wood and it’s worked very well. Spraying didn’t work so well because of the oil. But anyway, today we were doing our (hopefully) last coat and everything was going well until the finish would no longer wipe off without a lot of struggle. It turns out that my assistant who was applying the finish accidentlally refill his can with just the polyurethane. We wiped it off the best we could but it was very sticky. I didn’t figure out what happened until this section was done. Anyway do you have a suggestion for what to do? Let it dry and go over with steel wool? This would likely have been the final coat but. Ow I’m not so sure. I would appreciate any advice.

          • Nancy, I’d try to go over it with steel wool but if that doesn’t get you the desired look then maybe sand it down a bit more aggressively and try to redo the final coat or two.

  4. christ ik on said:

    i need a helper to learn me on how to make wood finish like marching stain,sanding sealer and glossy

  5. christ ik on said:

    just want to learn how to make wood finish such as marching stain,sanding sealer and glossy in a lower form,to make ends meet

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