When you talk about wood finishes, it can be a sensitive subject. People have VERY strong opinions on which finish is the best. In reality, each project can have its own set of special uses and needs that make a certain finish better or worse for that application. Cutting boards, for example, are best finished with beeswax and mineral oil because of their food-safe qualities, but they would be a terrible finish for a table because they offer little in the way of scratch resistance.
My goal was to try and add some systematic method to test out a few of my favorite finishes, and a couple of very popular finishes on social media, and see which ones hold up and which ones don’t.
I chose to use Zinsser Shellac as my “baseline” finish. It’s been around for centuries, is inexpensive, easily found in big-box hardware stores, and is non-toxic. I use shellac quite a bit on small projects, but have never used it on full-size furniture because I was concerned it wouldn’t provide enough durability, especially against wine and beer spills (alcohol is the solvent used for shellac).
The other finishes from my normal roster were General Finishes Arm-r-Seal and Mohawk Finishes Dura-coat Lacquer. Arm-r-seal is a wipe-on, oil based Urethane that I use extensively, especially for table tops. I have first hand experience with it on my own furniture, and I know it works well. I have begun to use Duracoat more and more these days; it looks great, sprays well, and dries fast. But, I know that acetone is a thinner for it, so I’ve always been curious how it would hold-up against something like nail polish remover.
Two finishes I have very little experience with are Rubio Monocoat and Odie’s Oil. I will openly admit I am VERY skeptical of short-cuts when it comes to finishing; I even put primer under my “paint and primer in one” paints when I do walls. I love the idea of a non-toxic, beautiful finish that is easy to apply, though. So, it was a matter of putting these to the test. Ultimately, if they perform well, I’d have no reason to continue using my other finishes which require more precautions (the lacquer, especially, requires organic vapor masks).
To test everything, I took 5 cut off pieces of cherry from the same board. Each piece was sanded to the manufacturers instructions, and applied that was as well. The Rubio was sanded to 120 grit, but everything else was sanded to 220.
The first, and least important test for this application, was the appearance test. Rubio got a pass on the color portion, because all I had was a white tinted finish; that being said, all reviewers in a blind test thought the sheen of the Rubio was the worst of them. Odie’s oil finished next to last; they claim you can get a better sheen by sanding to much higher grits, though. Arm-r-seal finished just behind the Shellac and Lacquer, which both had great satin sheet, deep color, and very little blotching (which cherry is known for).
The most important part was the durability test. I let the finishes cure for three weeks after application; this is important, as Rubio specifically requires this much time without using the accelerator product, and Odie’s oil has a fairly long cure time as well. The selling point is that, once cured, these “hard oil” finishes are supposed to be very durable; both of these products are routinely sold as flooring finishes.
The idea was to test four, common household liquids against the finishes to see how they would perform. Each piece was separated into a grid, and marked so that the wine, water, ketchup, and nail polish remover could be applied in an isolated area.
The NPR would be applied, left to sit for 30 seconds, then immediately wiped off with a clean paper towel. The idea was to imitate the most common way NPR would be exposed to a table; accidental spill, run to get towels, wipe to clean.
The wine, water, and ketchup were applied with a dropper and left to sit for 12 hours. This was meant to simulate what people with kids already experience daily; messes that often are left without our knowledge for long periods of time. They were then wiped with a damp cloth to remove all surface liquid, and wiped with a dry cloth.
The results were both surprising, and not. Three finishes performed very well against the NPR; Odie’s Oil, Arm-r-seal, and Rubio Pure. Acetone is a fairly strong solvent, so it was great to see these perform so well. Shellac performed acceptably; there was some minor discoloration, but for being such a simple finish, from a chemical standpoint, that was surprisingly good. The Duracoat, as expected, failed. Lots of finish displaced or removed. This was NOT very surprising; acetone is a thinner for lacquer, so I knew this would strip it.
The real test was the overnight test. Here, some real differences appeared. Starting at the top, the Arm-r-seal passed with flying colors. No discoloration from water, ketchup, or wine.
Next up was the Duracoat. No discoloration from the water, wine, or ketchup either. Just the absolute slightest dulling of the sheen where the wine was, but you have to look very, very hard to see it.
Shellac was the real surprise performer here. I was sure the alcohol in the wine would spell disaster for the shellac, since alcohol is used to dissolve it. In fact, there wasn’t any noticeable discoloration or sheen degradation from the wine. The water did, however, leave a noticeable spot.
Odie’s Oil failed in all three cases. A noticeable pink tinge where the wine had been, an noticeable water spot, and a sheen degradation from the ketchup, though it was admittedly slight.
I say this last part with the following disclaimer; the people at Rubio are incredibly friendly, helpful, and their color options are great. However, their finish just critically failed the durability test. As you can see, there is substantial staining from the wine, a noticeable water mark, and a noticeable ketchup mark.
So what is the take-away here? What are my recommendations? Well first, like I said, people have very strong opinions about finishing regimens; if any of these products has worked well for you, and you’re satisfied with it, continue to use it! Odie’s oil is a great option for people who don’t have the ability to spray a finish, or maybe live in an apartment where they can’t be using an oil based, wiping varnish like Arm-r-Seal.
Here’s what I recommend though, based on my personal furniture building experience:
-If there’s any chance your furniture may be exposed to acetone through nail polish remover, go with General Finishes Arm-r-seal. While it didn’t get the highest spot on appearance, it only just barely trailed the lacquer and shellac, and did incredibly well in all four durability tests. The recoat time is a drag; as much as 24 hours between coats. But, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s a great option.
-For furniture that won’t be exposed to NPR or acetone (really anything except coffee tables and end tables), I highly recommend Duracoat. And, honestly, even if it might be exposed to acetone, I still recommend it; you can buy a spray can of their “blush retarder” that almost instantly repairs any acetone damage; lacquer just redissolves into itself. Mohawk also sells a “post catalyzed” version of their lacquer, which is supposed to be solvent resistant, but I have no experience there.
-If you want a non-toxic, inexpensive, easily repaired finish then you need to be looking at shellac. I am going to go ahead and say it’s unsuitable for table tops, based on the water spotting. But for dressers, chairs, book shelves, or any other non-table surfaces, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
-I do not place a recommendation on Odie’s oil for furniture, especially table tops and high-wear surfaces. The single coat is attractive, but it doesn’t mean much if you have to refinish the table frequently. When a piece leaves my shop, I want to know that I won’t be fixing the finish for years to come. I think this is a great option for tool handles, cutting boards, chairs even. But I give it a very solid “do not recommend” for furniture.
-I wouldn’t use Rubio Monocoat under almost any circumstance. The sheen was judged as the worst, and it failed worst of all on durability. They don’t recommend it for cutting boards (I don’t believe). I know other builders who use it for brush handles or tool handles; I think that’s about the only circumstance it could hold up in. But frankly, just use shellac then; it’s a lot less expensive.