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As a renewable resource, and one that can be recycled, repurposed and reused, there are few building materials as versatile as wood. The care, protection and maintenance of soft- and hardwood can be confusing, with several options available. This easy reference guide covers the five most common coatings: Wood stains, varnish, sealer, oil and paint. 

Wood Stain 

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Wood stain enhances or predominantly changes the colour of timber. It can provide some degree of protection compared to totally unfinished wood. However, the timber remains porous and therefore a stained surface should receive further protection with either a varnish, lacquer, an oil or a clear water-or oil-based sealer. Using a stain therefore requires a minimum of at least two different product applications. 

Wood Varnish / Lacquer 

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Varnish is a clear transparent hard protective coating or film, made from synthetic alkyd resins, driers and drying oils, and volatile solvents, which are all petro-chemical based. Varnish finishes are generally glossy. Some satin, semi-gloss and flat sheens are also on the market. Like paint, varnish is susceptible to cracking and peeling, which allows water to get trapped.  

Wood Sealers 

Conventional wood sealers are water- or oil-based sealers made from alkyds or urethane alkyds. Water-based urethanes are thinner liquids than oil-based urethanes, however both systems require several coats.  Natural wood sealers are sustainable, petro-chemical free, non-toxic, biodegradable, eco-friendly wood finishes. Made from a refined blend of various types of linseed and other plant oils, which ensure easy application and short drying times. These indoor & outdoor sealers provide better durability than wood oils and are offered in a vast array of colours.  

Wood Oil 

Wood oils penetrate the timber, replacing and replenishing the wood’s natural oils to add some protection. It offers more durability than a wax polish.  Some widely used wood oils are Danish, Walnut, Mineral, Tung oil. The most popular by far is linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil. This has been cultivated commercially for over 20,000 years and is a sustainable raw material.  However, pure oils will not give the protection and drying performance achieved from paints, varnish or wood sealers. 

Wood Paint 

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There are many water-based and oil-based products, i.e., enamel paints. Paint creates a coloured layer on top of the wood surface, delivering an opaque finish. Depending on the product, it may allow the texture of the wood to be visible, but not the wood grain itself. Painted wood is susceptible to cracking and peeling which can allow water and malicious organisms to get into the wood and can cause rotting. 


Wood maintenance  

To get the best look and longevity from wooden structures, regular maintenance is advisable. All coatings, besides wood oil and natural wood sealers, require sanding and/or stripping before re-coating. Top-drying coatings like paint or varnish will initially last longer, however, the maintenance is quite involved.

Oils and natural sealers require maintenance sooner, and more frequently, but with less effort.    


Wood is a durable flooring option knowing which finish to choose can be tricky. We’ve unpacked it for you. 


Thanks and acknowledgement to ProNature for the information in this article.  

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