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:

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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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81 thoughts on “How To: Make Your Own Wood Finish”

  1. Any problem using this mix on a dining table? Concerns I might have would be-finish not holding if liquid spilled on table, lots of residual odor. Thoughts? Thanks.

      1. Hi Scott, I was wondering if this mix would keep for a while in sealed containers and if so, for how long? Thanks

  2. Good day. Just spent quite some time looking for suggested drying times for this specific mix, thank you for ending my search. Love the satin look so I’m certain this will look great.

    1. I’m so glad this information was helpful for you! That’s why we do what we do. 🙂 -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

  3. Very excited to try this but was curious on using it on finishing landing nets for fishing. Hand rubbiing multiple layers for protection will it held up to the water and weather conditions?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. I am refinishing an old pine corner cabinet. It has BLO as it’s finish. Your mixture, can color be added to tint the wood to match other peices in the room?

  8. 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?

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