“What Is The Best Finish For A Wood Countertop: A Comprehensive Guide

What Is The Best Finish For A Wood Countertop

When it comes to wood countertops, the type of wood and finish you choose can make a huge difference when it comes to the overall look and feel of your space. But, with so many finishes on the market, it can be hard to know what is the best finish for a wood countertop. From traditional oil-based polyurethane to a classic wax offre, each has its own benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we’ll break down the different types of finishes available and discuss the factors to consider when selecting one, the processes of installation, and some helpful maintenance tips. So, read on to learn more about achieving the perfect look and feel in your kitchen or bathroom.

Types of Finishes for Wood Countertops

When it comes to the finishing of your wood countertop, there are a wide variety of options available. From the classic oil-based polyurethane finish to the more modern wax finish, you can find the perfect finish to suit your needs and match your style. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of finishes available and provide you with helpful information on factors to consider when choosing a finish, as well as installation and maintenance tips. Keep reading to learn more!

Oil-Based Polyurethane Finish

Oil-based polyurethane is a popular choice for finishing wood countertops due to its durability and versatility. It is made from urethane, an organic compound commonly used in industrial applications. This finish creates a protective barrier against stains and moisture and gives the surface a glossy shine. The urethane molecules cross-link together and form a chain that increases the strength of the finish, making it highly resistant to wear and tear with limited maintenance.

This finish is easy to apply and comes in a variety of colors and gloss levels, making it a great choice for achieving a customized look. However, because it is an oil-based finish, it takes much longer to cure – up to two weeks – and requires a longer drying time between coats. Another con is that polyurethane is known to yellow over time, so it is not a great choice for lighter colored countertops.

Oil-based polyurethane finishes are highly durable and have good water resistance, making them ideal for areas that experience a lot of moisture and wear. They also come in a variety of sheens and colors so you can achieve a range of beautiful wood countertop finishes. The downside is that they are a bit more time-consuming to apply and that they can yellow over time.

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Water-Based Polyurethane Finish

Water-based polyurethane finishes are an increasingly popular choice for wood countertops. They offer a variety of benefits, including greater durability than other finishes, easy application and a non-toxic application and end product. The finish gives the countertop a glossy, protective coating, while still allowing the natural beauty of the wood to show through.

The biggest benefit of a water-based polyurethane finish is its non-yellowing characteristic. This means that the finish will remain clear and won’t yellow over time as many other finishes do. It also provides excellent moisture resistance, meaning that liquid won’t be able to penetrate and cause damage to the wood.

A water-based polyurethane finish is easier to apply than polyurethane finishes that use an oil base and is faster drying, so there will be less waiting time between coats. In addition, water-based polyurethane is much more durable than other finishes, making it ideal for busy kitchen spaces where wooden surfaces are prone to scratches and stains.

However, there are some downsides associated with water-based polyurethane. It is more expensive, and it tends to be more difficult to fix if there are any scratches, dents, or chips in the surface. It can also be difficult to repair or change the finish in the future, as the finish will wear away when sanded.

In summary, water-based polyurethane is a great choice for a wood countertop finish, especially in a busy kitchen setting. It is durable, non-toxic, and easy to apply. However, it does have its downsides, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.

Shellac Finish

Shellac is an attractive, natural option for finishing a wood countertop. While not as long-lasting as other options and relatively difficult to apply, it can provide a beautiful, natural-looking finish with a slight sheen. Shellac is a mixture of shellac, denatured alcohol, and an oil such as lemon or orange oil, and is often used for staining and protecting surfaces, as it is highly resistant to solvents, stains, and water.

One of the benefits of shellac is that it is easy to touch up and can be applied in thin layers, which makes it perfect for applying to delicate surfaces that may be susceptible to other finishes. Shellac provides a matte finish and is available in a variety of colors, ranging from mahogany to amber. It is also not a permanent finish, so it can be easily removed if desired.

The biggest drawback to using shellac as a finish for countertops is that it is not particularly durable. While its finish can last a few years, it is not as resistant to scratches and wear as other options such as oil-based polyurethane. Shellac can also be difficult to apply properly and requires a good deal of skill and patience to ensure a smooth, even application.

Varnish Finish

Varnish is a great sealant for wood countertops. It’s easy to apply, is relatively durable, and provides a good clear finish. The biggest downside to this finish is that it doesn’t create a very thick layer which makes the wood countertop more susceptible to moisture, heat, and abrasions. As a result, this finish should be treated with caution.

When applying a varnish finish, it’s important to follow the instructions carefully as they vary between brands. Generally, you will apply a light sanding to create a smooth surface before applying the varnish in thin, even layers. After drying, a light sanding can be done between layers to ensure a more even finish. A minimum of three layers should be used with the final layer being a much heavier sanding to really bring out the shine.

Overall, the varnish finish is a popular option for wood countertops. It’s easy to apply and provides an attractive, glossy finish. One potential downside is that it doesn’t create a thick layer so it may be more susceptible to moisture, heat, and abrasions. As with all finishes, following the instructions carefully is important for achieving the best results.

Wax Finish

Wax finish is a popular option for wood countertops, as it provides a thin, hard, sealing protective coating to wood surfaces. It is commonly used on cutting boards, tabletops, and other surfaces that require frequent maintenance. Wax finishes are easily applied by hand or with a cloth, and can give a sleek, polished look to wood. The downside to a wax finish is that it does not last as long as other finishes, and is vulnerable to scratches and water damage.

When applying a wax finish it is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, as waxes differ from one another. A wax finish will often require multiple application coefficients and periodic “touch-ups” to keep it looking new. Many wax finishes are also vulnerable to heat, so countertops or other surfaces should be protected from direct heat when possible. It is also important to understand that wax finishes provide minimal moisture protection and most waxes cannot be used below a certain temperature.

Wax finishes are a great way to add a glossy, polished look to your wood countertops without sacrificing too much in terms of longevity. When applied correctly, wax can last 2-3 years and gives additional protection against heat and light. To get the most out of your wax finish, it is best to choose the right wax for your type of wood, carefully follow directions for application and maintenance, and take extra precautions to protect your countertop from heat sources.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Finish

When it comes to choosing a finish for a wood countertop, there are a number of factors to consider. The most important factors are durability, appearance and cost.

Durability depends on the sealer or coating that is used to protect the countertop. Oil-based polyurethane is one of the more popular sealers, as it provides a hard, protective covering against damage from heat, moisture and other harsh elements. However, it is more expensive than other options, such as shellac or varnish.

Appearance is a subjective matter. Some may prefer a glossier finish for a more modern look, while others may prefer a more subtle matte finish. Additionally, different wood finishes can bring out the natural grain patterns of the wood for a more traditional look. Consider a variety of finishes to determine which works best with the overall look and feel of the space.

Cost can also play a role in choosing the finish for a wood countertop. The type of finish chosen and the amount of labor involved can significantly affect the final price. Oil-based polyurethane is typically more expensive than other options, but it may be worth it if the extra cost is justified by a longer lasting finish.

Installation Techniques

When it comes to installation techniques for wood countertops, there are a few methods that you can use. The most popular is gluing the wood pieces together and then countertop fasteners to secure it in place.

This method is relatively simple and cost-effective as it will not require any professional help. Start by applying a non-waterproof glue to the edges of each wood section and line them together. Allow the glue to dry before beginning to attach the fasteners. Pre-drill the holes using a drill bit to match the size of the fastener and then secure them into place with a screwdriver or drill. Once all of the fasteners are in place, the countertop will be secure.

Another method you can use is a full spread adhesive. This is more complicated than the fastener technique and will take some practice. Start by applying a thin layer of adhesive on the entire surface of the countertop before laying it into place. Make sure the adhesive is evenly spread and then fill and polish any cracks to complete this method. This method will take some time, but the end result will be stronger and more secure compared to the fastener method.

If you choose to install your wood countertop yourself, make sure to use all of the necessary safety gear and tools. Also, always follow the instructions on whatever finish you are using to ensure the best results.

Maintenance Tips

Maintaining your wood countertop finish requires some effort and cleaning techniques that may be different than those used for other surfaces. The type of finish on your countertop will determine the best way to protect the finish. It is important to regularly clean the countertop and protect the surface from spills and water damage.

For finishes such as oil-based polyurethane, it is important to be aware of the frequent need for re-oiling as the finish may dry out over time. It is recommended to oil the surface at least once per year to preserve the finish’s beauty. Applying a thin layer of mineral oil is an effective way to protect the surface.

Water-based polyurethane finishes require regular cleaning to protect them from deterioration. It is important to clean the counter with a sponge or soft cloth and mild soap to prevent buildup. In addition, you should also avoid leaving any standing water on the countertop and always wipe it off with a dry cloth after any spills.

Signs of wear and tear often appear sooner with shellac finishes than with other finishes. Though much less durable than oil-based polyurethane, it is still necessary to regularly dust and clean the countertop to protect the finish. Wiping the countertop with a dry cloth will help prevent water damage and scratches.

Varnish finishes are long-lasting, but they require maintenance every few years. It is important to clean the countertop with a soft cloth or sponge and mild soap. In addition, apply a coat of varnish once every three to five years in order to refresh the finish.

Wax finishes are not as durable as oil-based polyurethane and typically only last up to one year before needing to be reapplied. Wax requires frequent cleaning with a soft cloth and mild soap in order to maintain luster. After cleaning, reapply a thin coat of wax to keep the finish looking its best.


The choice of finish for a wood countertop depends largely on personal preference and the needs of the specific surface. Ultimately, the best finish for a wood countertop will depend on its use, the look desired, and the budget. Oil-based polyurethane is ideal if a glossy, long-lasting finish is desired. Water-based polyurethane is quick drying, easy to apply, and provides a smooth finish. For unique coloring, shellac is a great choice. Varnish provides layers of protection and a classic wood look. Finally, wax is a traditional finish that brings out the beautiful finish and provides protection. All finishes require proper installation, including preparing the wood and sanding between coats, and regular maintenance to keep it looking its best. With proper care and the right finish, your wood countertop can look beautiful for years to come.


Devin B

Hi everyone! My name is Devin and I'm the author of this website about tips for woodturning and wood finishing. I'm an avid woodworker and have been doing it for over a decade. I'm constantly learning new techniques and experimenting with new materials and finishes.

I started my journey in woodworking when I was a teenager, making furniture for my bedroom and small projects for my family. As I got older, my interest in woodturning and wood finishing grew. I took classes on the subject and read books on the topic.

I'm passionate about woodturning and wood finishing because it allows me to express my creativity in a tangible way. I love the satisfaction of seeing a piece of wood that I have transformed from a block of raw material into a beautiful finished product.

I hope you find the tips and advice on this website helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'm always happy to help out and share my experiences. Thanks for visiting my website!