The application of a finish instantly brings out the natural color and figure in the wood and also adds a tactile quality to the piece.
Choosing the appropriate finish for a piece will depend largely on personal preference, however, you should also take into account how the finish will be maintained, its suitability for the purpose and its compatibility between coats.
A piece might look really good when you take it off the lathe but this is only the start of its life. Once it has been in a household for a time then some aftercare will be necessary. It might just be a light dusting with a soft cloth, the application of a wax polish, or a wipe with a suitable oil. Whatever it is, it should be as easy as possible and not require the purchase of any special materials. That way there is a good chance it will be lovingly cared for.
Items that come into regular, intimate contact with food – such as rolling pins, breadboards and wooden spoons – don’t really require a finish. There is no risk of contaminating food and washing or immersing in water would probably remove most of the finish anyway. However, if selling a piece through a craft shop, where it is likely to be handled by customers, then a light finish is essential to avoid dirty finger marks. A light, food-safe finish will provide suitable protection. Once in the kitchen, a wash in warm water is all the maintenance they will need, although there would be no harm in applying a little oil occasionally.
At the other end of the scale, for pieces that are purely decorative or artistic, a simple dusting will bring them back to life. Adding anything else could change the nature and color of the surface and detract from the intention of the artist. A hard finish, which totally seals and fills the surface, is probably the easiest to care for. It doesn’t have to be high gloss – the nature of the surface will depend on the product used and the final treatment of the surface.
In between these extremes almost anything goes, even allowing some pieces to build up a patina through handling. You only need to watch an antiques program to see how the experts set store by acquired patina.
For items such as salad or fruit bowls, only use a finish that is described as “food safe” on the tin. The same applies to toys – look for products that are described as “toy safe” and for all products, read the small print on the tins. It is likely that the product will only be food or toy safe after about 30 days, once all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have evaporated.
These days lead and mercury are no longer used in products and there is an argument that all finishes are therefore food and toy safe – once all the VOCs have evaporated. This may well be true, but it is still advisable to only use finishes that are marked as toy or food safe.
There can be compatibility problems when applying different finishes, causing adverse reactions. If you are using a stain first, make sure that the next finish coat is of a different base to avoid reactivating and changing the stain. Make sure the surface is dry before applying another coat of the same finish. Again, reactivation can be a problem and becomes exacerbated by aggressive applications.
Avoid applying a paste wax with wire wool on top of a cellulose finish, as the wire wool will cause excessive mixing and, with the turpentine, may remove all of the cellulose. Oils are best applied to bare wood so that they penetrate and become part of the wood. Waxes can be applied on top of any other finish as well as on bare wood.