How To: Make Your Own Wood Finish

By Scott Sidler September 9, 2012

Mix Wood Finish
Image credit: keeweeboy / 123RF Stock Photo

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. 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. 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. 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, be sure to 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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72 thoughts on “How To: Make Your Own Wood Finish”

  1. Ive been using this loveable little mixture for a few years now. Ive used it on old furniture, a two toned stair and hand rail set, lots of decorative wood art décor that I make at Christmas and birthdays and am about to use it on a slotted folding door I took apart to take a few inches off of, (then boredom and maybe a bit more enthusiasm than I realized I was biting off), and decided to stain all the little slot pieces an American Walnut color while the frame is done in a Golden Pecan, (to match the two tone stairs and hand rail that will be accessible by this door). Don’t have any more varnish and the DEPOT is closed so jumped on the find out what could be used in place of Spar Varnish. Wouldn’t you know it I have a brand new unopened Satin Polyurethane gallon that should make enough of this recipe to get me through the next couple years at least. The article said varnish could be used to replace the urethane so Im looking forward to see how much a difference it is when finished. If anyone is looking for a recipe but having doubts what to try I highly recommend this.

    1. Hello! Thanks so much for reading our content and also commenting. I hope it worked great for you and best of luck with all of your projects! Feel free to subscribe to our blog or YouTube channel for frequent DIY tutorials like this and more. 🙂 //
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  2. I’m excited to use this finish. Thank you!
    Question: how do you walk across the floor within 30 minutes of application to remove extra product without gunking up the floor by walking in it?
    Thanks for your help.

  3. Hi. I want to make water based lacquer of wax emulsion which is glossy shine and instant dry. Plesse guide me about ingredients, their ratios and formulatiin

  4. Scott,
    I would like to use this finish on a table desk that I built from reclaimed wood. As part of the character, I would also like to leave sparse areas of paint on it but most of it will be sanded off. Would this finish work for this type of application or would it cause problems with the remaining underlying painted areas?

  5. Hi Scott! I’d like to use something other than the 0000 steel wool for the sanding. Is there a very find grit sandpaper that I could use instead? I love this wiping varnish – I’m finishing a depression era bedroom set with lots of embellishments and grooves.

  6. Just bought 3/4 in. #2 cypress T&G to do my ceiling. Was planning on doing linseed oil as only finish. Do you think this 1/1/1 blend would last longer. Would love something that didn’t need to be redone in a few years. Or will 3-4 coats of pure linseed oil give me the longevity since it’s ceiling and not getting any ware. My house has very little natural light so no sun damage coming in on wood.

  7. Absolutely amazing and well written article. Just tried this out myself and I’m currently waiting for the first coat to dry. It went on incredibly easy compared to using only polyurethane with a brush… You have my gratitude kind sir. Greetings from Holland

  8. Hi , can I use a plastic container to mix the three parts ??? Then pour in a metal container to use and store ..thanks Allan

  9. Very interesting making this varnish.
    Is there a way to reduce the gloss of the PU? I often have only glossy PU varnish, but need some more matt finish to match older pieces of furniture. Standard matt does not have the needed finished effect.

  10. Can I add a stain (such as Minwax Dark Walnut) to your “3-part” mixture. If not, do you have a recomendation about what I can add to darken the mixture. thanx.

    1. If the stain is white spirit based it would be okay,use less or instead of white spirit.
      In Britain we buy universal tinters,very concentrated so you only need a few drops.
      Or dissolve artist oil colour in some white spirit and add.

    2. I would not put this on an English blog,but American people seem to want to experiment,I am Dutch and can,t resist to try things,I have sandpaper one side is the paper and they are foambacked,I often wondered if I could also use the foamside when paperside was finished with,in a moment of madness wrapped a piece around a piece of wood,dipped it into the wiping varnish and varnished a coffee table,now a brush uses a little too,a cloth perhaps not enough this seems just right,perhaps I am the only one who has hundreds of foam backed bits of sandpaper.

  11. Scott,If you were using this wood outdoors in a highly used area(bag stands at a golf course exposed to full sun and salt water) do you think it would hold up? Is there a longer cure time between the last finish and use?

    1. With regard boiled linseed oil there is a lot to learn from the Allbäck website.
      You learn about blo from the real experts.
      Try it,not all Linseed oil is the same.

    2. Richard, there aren’t a lot of finished that will hold up to full exposure outside for more than a couple years without reapplication. I’d probably look into sikkens stains or other transparent wood stains.

  12. Hi, I’m excited to try this finish. I am refinishing a cabinet and have stained it in dark walnut.can I use this finish on stained wood?
    Thanks in advance,
    Sharon 🙂

      1. Thanks! Jocob says it may not work on oil stained surface. Do you have any experience applying to oil based stain

        1. Just make sure oilstain properly dry so 24 hours,French polishers often seal oilstain with a thin coat of shellac,then proceed with your chosen finish.After shellac just a gentle sandpaper ,220 perhaps.

    1. Hi this mixture is oil based it could possibly be not so good over an oil based stain,water based stain or alcohol based stain are fine .Just try a little area first,that is always sensible.For most of my working life I have used French polish,which is great stuff,but I must say these wiping varnish mixtures are easy to use,and look really nice.Good luck Jacob

  13. I live in uk and french polisher by trade but needed something stronger but still nice looking for tables in bars and restaurants,also fairly quick drying,not much time when doing these jobs,early morning or through the night,After much experimenting,mixing 3 parts of epifanes satin varnish which is alkyd resin with 1 part of Tonkinois ,2 parts of white spirit and did not expect much of a result but you know what i think it is pretty good,either like a wiping varnish or thinly brushed on.
    Please try it ,i am a bit suprised,dries quickly,looks very nice,have waxed after wards with allback linseed oil wax.Also did coffee table ,not much time ,2 thin coats of french polish,2 coats of the varnish mixture,looked great.Is it strong? I will report back. Jacob

      1. Hi Scott I think I have replied ,can,t see reply so just to make sure.Tonkinois is a spar varnish,sold in US by solvent free paint.Jacob

  14. I live in Tucson, AZ and have some African Mohagany window frames that get extreme sun exposure. Your method sounds like the perfect solution.
    I have had comments that the linseed oil will cause wood to darken. Can you comment on this please?

  15. hello sir,,i am planning to make a varnish out of natural pigment coming from plant extract, can i ask what will be the best materials /formula to make more vibrant and lasting..i am planning to apply it on bamboocrafts.. thnks a lot in advance..

  16. Trying to match bamboo caning. I got four chairs done with new and two that didn’t need repaired.The bamboo doesn’t take stain well. The color is Early American/Cherry. Do you think I could mix the stain with some poly after I get the right color match.

    1. I’d try using dyes to get the color. Bamboo doesn’t take stain at all really. You could use a Polyshades finish to get the color, but they are difficult to get uniform color.

  17. Hi Scott,
    B.I.R.C. (Biointregal research center) in Berkley CA – puts out a little booklet concerning wood destroying organisms, tests & treatments. Least Toxic Pest Management.They have a homemade WP:
    I changed the formula a bit and have used it on exterior & interior wood.
    See their puplication for their formula – I used 1 oz or so of melted parifin, whipped (with paint stirer in drill) into 1.5 cups of turpentine. Then I add 1.5 to 2 cups of BLO & continued to whip. The turpentine acts as a carrier for the wax to go deep into the wood fibers. They used this in tests on exterior wood – soaking the end grain and when possible the entire piece of wood and found that even if the paint failed the wood lasted 20 years without termite, rot or fungus. Yes! you can paint it (they say) & I have done this treatment on wood windows …. let it dry 2 weeks and then (primed with oil base 2x & painted 2x). So far so good after a few months. For the interior of the windows I added stain and rubbed off excess with lots of elbow grease. Sometimes I did 2 applications. I wasn’t going for perfect… my goal was protection of the wood. Windows are much happier now! PS…. I heated the parafin until it just started to release a little vapor, and used in warm weather. Also was very careful using a hotplate with flamable substances. If anyone does this they should be warned to be very careful. It will ignite if it gets too hot. Never leave it unattended!!!! I think BIRC says to heat on a double boiler.

  18. I’ve used a 1:1:1 mixture of boiled linseed oil, turpentine and polyurethane for several projects-kitchen cabinets, floors and furniture. While I was in France one shop recommended adding a drying agent to the mix: Japan Drier it’s called here.

    Do you have any experience using this additive?

    1. Blake that amount by of poly is fine if you are on the end of multinational or coats since the wood will likely be pretty saturated with the finish already. It will act more like a wipe-on polyurethane finish as a final coat which is something I do a lot.

  19. Scott when I get to the final coat do I still let it set 30 minutes an wipe off or leave as it is I did make a new mix I put one once of oil an seven ounces of turpentine an polyurethane

  20. I just put my fourth coat on this little table I made about 15 years ago out of yellow pine an cedar an WOW !!! I didn’t want to wipe it off lol what would happen if I don’t back off on the linseed oil an keep using the same mixture I’m using clear gloss polyurthane

  21. I just opened my bottle of Mineral Spirits and it is a white color, is this OK to mix in with the BLO and Poly, or do I need to get a can of clear mineral spirits?

    1. Gina, I’ve used the white spirits for cleaning brushes but never for mixing with BLO. I would stick with the clear stuff. I’m not sure what they make the synthetic out of.

  22. Thanks so much for this, I’m going to try it. One question: are you mixing in water-based, or oil-based polyurethane for your recipe?

  23. I am refinishing a friend’s dining room table. It’s red mahogany veneer. I stripped it and left it unstained. Applied 3 coats of your satin poly/MS/BLO mixture (1:1:1 ratio). 4th coat is your 45%:45%:10% mixture. Wood is still dull. Do I just keep adding layers of finish till I get the sheen I want? Or do I remix the formula using a high-gloss poly?And, when using the 45/45/10 formula, do I still wipe off excess? I’m worried because I’ve read the BLO will never truly dry and can’t be sealed in with pure poly final coat.

    1. Lew. try polishing more with the steel wool or even just rags between coats. And yes you can add a high gloss poly to the mix to get a glossier finish. Veneers also tend to be thirstier wood then solid mahogany so it may require more coats to build up a finish.

      1. Wow, Scott! Thanks so much for the quick response. My friend is anxious to get her table and I thought it would take several days for a response. I can’t thank you enough for responding so quickly! So, to make sure I understand:
        1) With enough coats of the 45/45/10 mixture I will eventually get a nice satiny (or if I use semi-gloss, glossy) finish
        2) I should wipe away excess with each coat after 30 minutes of letting the finish set in
        3) Polish between each coat after 8-12 hrs of drying time

        Thanks again for your advice!

  24. Do you have a recommendation for interior wood window finish for the sash? Our local arts center built in 1920 has very large 9 over 9 double-hung windows that need reglazing, and the finish is very dry–can scratch it off with a fingernail.

  25. 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. //

  26. 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!

  27. 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.

    1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

    1. Would be happy to help with Christ Ik request,not sure I understand what he is after.Could he rephrase it perhaps?

  28. 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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