The 5 Most Common Timber Dining Table Finishes

Wood finishes are the coatings you put on wooden furniture to protect it from the environmental elements like moisture and sunlight. Without a wood finish, timber dining chairs and tables may crack, swell and warp out of shape or suffer mould problems and deteriorate. 

Although wood finishes can last a long time and provide protection to your furniture for years, they do wear eventually. If you’ve noticed the finish on your dining table start to crack or peel, it might be time to refinish your table. Refinishing wooden tables can also be beneficial if your table has unattractive scratches or if you don’t like the colour.

Depending on the type of table you have, refinishing it yourself may be possible if you have the time and patience. Below we look at the 5 most common timber dining table finishes and the advantages and limitations of each. Hopefully it will help you feel more confident choosing the ideal finish for your table. 

Penetrating oil finishes

Penetrating oil finishes are oil based products which soak into the wood and protect it from the inside out. This is in direct contrast with surface based finishes which simply sit on the top layer of the table.

Penetrating oil finishes tend to result in a more natural look as they bring out the natural colour and grain of the wood. They are easy to apply with a clean rag and generally only need 1 to 3 coats. 

There are many types of penetrating oil finishes, the most common being:

  • Tung oil – an environmentally friendly oil with a slight golden colour which comes from the seed of the tung tree.
  • Linseed oil – a shiny natural oil which darkens over time. Comes from the seeds of the flax plant.
  • Danish oil – usually a mixture of tung oil or linseed oil and varnish. Easy to apply and can be buffed to achieve a glossy look.
  • Cedar oil – a warm natural oil that can turn silvery when it ages. Naturally resistant to insects, rot and moisture.


Varnish is a type of surface finish which is applied to the surface of the wood. The result is a protective layer between the wood and the atmosphere. Varnishes are usually made from a drying oil, resin and solvent or thinner.

Varnish is often used as an umbrella term for several types of finishes. Along with traditional wood varnish, other types of surface finishes include:

    • Shellac – a natural resin which has a warm blonde to orange colour. Only available in high gloss and will dissolve in alcohol.
  • Lacquer – a hard and durable surface finish which is sprayed onto the surface. Highly moisture resistant.
  • Wax – a dull finish that needs polishing to shine. It’s not as durable as the other options and requires reapplying more frequently.
  • Polyurethane – a clear plastic that is resistant to scratches and abrasions. May have a slight amber tone and usually achieves a mid to high gloss.

Epoxy resin

Epoxy resin is a versatile material that can be used for all sorts of applications, including finishing a dining table! It is a popular choice for wood furniture that needs to be really durable because of all the frequent use it gets. 

Epoxy resin has a shiny, glossy appearance and is highly durable and waterproof. There are many types available, including UV resistant resins which are ideal if your table will receive sunlight throughout the day.

When applying epoxy resin, it should be poured onto the table and then spread with a spatula or squeegee. Air bubbles will need to be removed with a hot air gun or torch. 

If overworked, epoxy resin can result in an inconsistent surface, so it is not the best finish for a beginner DIY project. However, when done by a professional, it is one of the most durable and high quality options.

Water based finishes

Water based finishes have a clear, natural look which enhances the original colours of the wood. Some water based finishes are made with a tint which can help you achieve a different colour if desired.

Water based finishes are faster drying than oil finishes but you will require more coats to achieve the same level of protection. They tend to look less glossy than oil based finishes, although you will find a whole range of matte, satin and gloss water based finishes.

Since water based finishes are fast drying and can’t be cleaned up by water, you will need to take care on the first coat to ensure a clean and consistent result.

Wood stains

If you are not happy with the colour of the wood of your table, you might want to apply a stain. Stains are made up of a pigment, carrier and binder, and can be either oil based or water based. 

Stains should be applied liberally with a cloth or brush. Any excess stain should be wiped off before allowing it to soak into the wood and dry completely. 

You can apply stains in layers if you want to build up the colour – the more stain you apply, the deeper and darker the colour will get. Keep in mind that stains are very tricky to reverse so you should always test it out on an inconspicuous part of your table first.

Stains are not a finish themselves and will require a protective finish afterwards to ensure the wood is protected. 

Which dining table finish is right for your project?

All of the finishes listed above can be used to protect and enhance the appearance of wooden dining tables. However, some might be more appropriate than others depending on the nature of your project and the final result you are looking for.

    • What final look do you want? If you’re hoping for a high gloss finish, varnish or another oil based surface finish might be best for you. If you want more of a matte and natural look, a penetrating oil or a water based finish might help you achieve the look. 
  • What colour do you want? If you are just wanting to bring out the natural colours of the wood, a penetrating oil could be the right choice. If you want to change the colour completely, you might consider applying a stain before the protective finish.
  • Where will the table be placed? Consider the environmental factors that will come into play. For example, will the table be exposed to harsh sunlight or moisture? If you will need strong protection, you might be better off with a UV resistant varnish or moisture resistant polyurethane.

Whether you plan on refinishing your table yourself or getting professional assistance, we hope you will find the right finish and love the results.