Natural Looking Finish?

This week’s question comes from Eric who asks:

“I’ve got a finishing question….I bet you get tired of hearing that! I have your Go-To Finish DVD and it is definitely top-notch…excellent work. I have started using the Arm-R-Seal and I agree that it is a great product. My question stems from the need for protection on wood furniture, especially on the table I am building, but I really prefer the way wood looks raw, right before putting on finish. As I understand, Arm-R-Seal is a pure wiping varnish, so it is technically a clear finish. However, there is no denying that even this clear finish really changes the look of the raw wood (makes it darker like when you wet the wood). Do you have any suggestions as to how I can provide some good protection for the wood without really making it much different than the light, soft look of the raw wood?”

And this was my response:

Hi there Eric. Thanks for the kind words. So we have two issue to discuss here: film thickness and color. Any oil-based product is going to give the wood some kind of an amber color. So if your goal is to keep the wood as natural-looking as possible, you might want to avoid oil-based products. What you want to go for is a finish that is known as “water-white”. This means that when it dries on the surface of the wood, it won’t bring any color to the party. Just about any water-based finish fits into this category. There are also water-white lacquers that work very well. One of my all-time favorite finishes is Sherwin Williams CAB-acrylic lacquer, which imparts little to no color to the wood.

But remember, if you put enough coats on, even a water-white finish can look “unnatural”. So you want to avoid a super thick film. Also, you will most definitely want a finish with flatteners in it, so a satin or matte finish would be appropriate. If it shines, it won’t look natural either. The key for you Eric is to experiment on scrap. There are a lot of variables at play here like the type of finish and the number of coats, so some experimentation is in order. Good luck!

Category: Finishing


  1. Joe R January 26, 2009

    Hi Eric, Marcs suggestions are very good. I would note that once you put any finish on the wood, it will change the color (depending on the finish) to a more or lesser degree (like your “wetting the wood” example). There is, however, the method of sanding and polishing the wood which will still be natural, and then (for protection) do a wax finish. The only problem with this is that the wax is not a very protecting finish at all. It will need regular maintenance. The bottom line is that Marcs idea is probably the best compromise of the least change of color and offers a good protection. Experiment, and do sample tests. Good luck.

  2. I can second Marc’s suggestion for Sherwin’s water white lacquers. I use have used these and I like them.

    Besides building custom wood projects, I have also refinished a few hardwood floors as a remodeling contractor. It is amazing the difference in floor color between a water base and oil base finish. The water base finishes produce really light, bright colors in the wood and oil base finishes produce a darker color with a pronounced amber tone.

    You may be wondering what floor finishes have to do with shop projects. Well, the same principle holds true for finishing shop projects.

    You may want to try a small spray can on your desired wood. Black walnut can look really “cold” with a water base finish and benefits from the amber tone that an oil base imparts. Oak tends to have a more modern look with a water base finish and oil finishes will make it feel a little more classic.

    When I am designing a project, the look of the finish is figured in as equally important as the stain, wood type, or grain pattern.

  3. Tim TAN January 27, 2009

    HI guys :

    This is interesting. Everybody I have talked to face to face has always liked the warm color of oil finishes; some like the amberish tone of tung oil, while others prefer the slightly yellowish tone of linseed oil and varnish.

    If nothing else, some will use blonde shellac to impart a light golden tone to liven things up.

    For me, I absolutely hate staining and believe in letting the wood speak for itself. However, I do love the light golden color that Zinsser shellac sealcoat imparts. For oils, I always use the linseed oil / polyurethane blend for the warm look and natural tone. Tung oil is too orange for my taste.

    This is the first time I am seeing woodworkers liking the color of raw, unfinished natural wood. Perhaps this is what is truly the NATURAL look.

    Well, to each his own, I say.


  4. Loz February 7, 2012

    I too like the raw finish of wood, I have seen for sale in local furniture shop the raw look. They have a flier on how their wood is finished and they don’t finish it with anything, they just sand it smooth, rough and or rustic looking, using recycled timber. They suggest u may like to spray it with a water protectant spray ( jist like one u spray on ur furniture or shoes) but also give u suggestions on how to mop up spills.

  5. bagnato ( August 11, 2012

    We are currently dealing with similar problem with purpleheart. We don’t want to lose any of the brightness of the purple because then it just looks like dark walnut. I undercoated the whole piece in the water base we use, and the base came very dark. The base, however, wasn’t sanded to the extent of the exposed portions. I am putting very very light coats, and not trying not to build up at all. Spraying on water protectant spray sounds like petrochemicals involved. We are attempting to be as green as possible, so no more spraying for us. Brushing on everything again after years of spraying due to my own chemical intolerances.

  6. Theresa April 21, 2013

    Have you used any of the WOCA Denmark products? I am looking for a “natural” and “raw” wood look and they seem to have what looks like the best solution and lowest VOC’s. It’s just that we do not think about finishes the way the Europeans do … Thanks!

  7. Kenny Adkins April 2, 2014

    I made a table and burned “prom?” Into it and made a table from it for my girlfriend but I need a finish that won’t darken the wood like poly-urethane. Help?

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