Choosing the Perfect Walnut Finish: A Guide to Enhance Your Woodwork Projects

The timeless elegance of walnut, with its rich and luxurious appearance, can completely transform any space. 

However, the journey to fully realizing its beauty goes beyond selecting the wood itself. choosing the right walnut finish is a critical step that significantly impacts its aesthetic appeal, durability, and longevity.

If you’re interested in choosing the best walnut wood finish, you’ve come to the right place! Today, we’ll talk about:

  • Why choosing the right walnut finish is necessary
  • The best oil, water, wax, and shellac finishes for walnut 
  • Application techniques to make the most out of your chosen walnut finish
  • The type of finish and what look it matches the best.

Let’s dive right in!

The Importance of Choosing the Right Finish for Walnut

Right Finish for Walnut

When using walnut for your woodwork, having the right finish allows the wood’s natural beauty to shine through and protects the material so you can enjoy it for longer. 

It also helps enhance the structure’s aesthetic appeal, adding a whole new dimension to how pleasing the walnut looks.

Enhances the Wood’s Natural Beauty

Walnut is an impeccable material that features prominent grain swirling in loops or running along the length of the wood. 

Using the most flattering finish accentuates these details, creating an even more luxurious look.

Provides Protection against Moisture and Wear

The biggest enemy of woodwork is moisture. If left unprotected, even the sturdiest walnut lumber can eventually succumb to the damage that water brings! 

A good, natural finish seals the wood and acts as a barrier keeping moisture out.

Affects the Wood’s Color and Tone

Depending on what you’re making, you can use a wide variety of walnut lumber. Some of these sport a lighter or darker color and can have different tones from one sample to another. 

The finish you choose can complement these colors or turn them dull, which is why it’s important to select the right one for the job.

Impacts the Durability and Longevity of the Wood

How your finish interacts with the wood determines how durable it becomes. 

The best finish (with the proper application) will protect the wood from damage brought on by external forces such as moisture, fungi, and bacteria.

Adds a Smooth and Polished Surface

Although the coarse appearance of any woodwork creates a rustic feel, coating it with a finish completely transforms it into something much more elegant. 

Smooth walnut that features a characteristic luster is a sight you just can’t beat!

Reduces Vulnerability to Scratches and Stains

Aside from its aesthetic use, the right finish also helps the wood resist abrasions and provides incredible protection against scratches that could ruin the quality of the entire woodwork. 

It also guards against stains and prevents them from seeping into the material.

Preserves the Wood’s Integrity over Time

It might be the most visually pleasing woodwork you’ve ever made, but if the finish doesn’t protect it from degradation, it just won’t last!

To protect the wood and keep it in tip-top shape for a long time, make sure to use the right finish.

Helps Maintain the Wood’s Value and Appearance

Woodwork that’s chipped, has scratches, or otherwise has a dull color won’t retain much of its value. 

By using the correct finish, your work will have a better chance of fetching a high price – even when a long time passes between its creation and sale.

Ensures the Wood Can Withstand Environmental Factors

This is particularly important when the woodwork is constantly exposed to outdoor elements such as rain, snow, or the harsh sun. 

Without the right finish, wood can quickly deteriorate and lose its original luster and value.

Influences the Ease of Maintenance and Cleaning

Using the right finish also makes the cleaning and maintenance process much simpler. 

Instead of multi-step cleaning that requires harsh chemicals, you can simply whip out a cotton cloth, dab it with white vinegar and water, and wipe the wood clean!

The Best Finish for Walnut Wood

Luckily, there are a lot of different options you can choose from when it comes to a great walnut finish. 

Depending on your needs and what you want to prioritize, you can choose between oil, water, wax, and shellac finishes. Each has its pros and cons, which we’ll explore in this section!

Oil based Finish

Oil-Based Finishes 

If you’re looking for a fuss-free finish you can use on your walnut without having to think about it too much, oil-based finishes should be your go-to. 

They provide a rich appearance and put the spotlight on the wood’s grain, color, and tone, as well as seeping deeply into the material for protection. 

However, oil finishes can be rather finicky at times – requiring great care during application. They will also need plenty of time before they completely dry out.

Types of Oil-Based Finishes for Walnut

Tung Oil Finish

Extracted from tung tree seeds, pure tung oil is known as a “drying oil” as it can harden and polymerize when exposed to oxygen. 

Unlike other finishes that can peel or crack over time, tung oil’s penetrating nature means it won’t flake off or peel away that easily. 

Because of its characteristics, tung oil is your best choice if you want a finish that will last. And for that, why not try this universal oil from Waterlox?

Linseed Oil Finish

An excellent choice if you have a vintage piece that might have a few scratches, linseed oil is another traditional oil that has been used for centuries in wood finishing. 

Much like walnut oil, this product protects your wood while also helping it look its best  – all without harming the environment or your health. 

This handy 4.2-oz bottle from the U.S. Art Supply company is a perfect size for most small to medium projects. It can even be added to most oil paints, too!

Danish Oil Finish

Danish oil is another popular wood finishing blend made by mixing tung or boiled linseed oil with solvents (and occasionally, varnish). 

This unique blend serves a dual purpose: not only does it nourish and protect the wood, but it also leaves a sleek, satin finish that varies in color depending on the brand and application. 
As the name suggests, this non-toxic, solvent-free Tried & True Danish Oil has proven to be a hit among users!

Teak Oil Finish

Whether you’re looking to protect indoor or outdoor furniture, teak oil offers a warm, rich, matte finish and exceptional protection against UV rays, humidity, and moisture. 

Not only does this product provide superior coverage, but it also penetrates deeply into the wood, preserving its natural beauty. If rejuvenating an outdoor piece is calling your name, this dual teak oil and cleaner from Starbrite is a perfect choice.

Walnut Oil Finish

Created from walnuts themselves, walnut oil is a durable and equally versatile finish that creates a clear, satin-like finish with exceptional water resistance. It’s also free from solvents, non-toxic, and can help enhance the natural grain in most wood surfaces. 

Chalk Mountain Brushes’s woodwork staple takes the form of a 16-oz container, and it makes for an excellent choice. Not to mention, it’s easy on your pocket too.

Mineral Oil Finish

With its versatility, mineral oil has become a popular choice for finishing wood surfaces. Although it’s derived from petroleum, this oil is both non-toxic and easy to apply and remove. 

The finish is both gentle and effective, leaving your wood with a supple, lustrous texture and soft sheen. 

This kosher-certified option is enriched with Vitamin E and will more than adequately meet your requirements — and not just for wood finishing!

Boiled Linseed Oil Finish

Used for centuries, boiled linseed oil is a classic wood finish that has proven its ability to enhance the beauty and durability of wood surfaces.

Unlike conventional flaxseed oil, this finish is heated to quicken drying time and improve its ability to permeate the wood. 

If you’re after a firm, glossy, and equally durable finish, this pint-sized option is a great addition to your garage. 

Application Techniques for Oil-Based Finishes

When it comes to applying your finish, the application (from brush applications to wipe-on techniques) is an art in itself!

  1. Brush Application

To achieve the best results, apply an oil-based finish with a clean, high-quality brush – making sure to follow the wood grain. 

Once you’ve applied the oil evenly, rub the oil with your hands to help the wood absorb it more efficiently. Make sure to wipe any excess oil afterward!

  1. Cloth Application

Soak a clean cloth (if you have a lint-free cloth, that’s the most ideal option for this method) in the oil-based finish until it is fully saturated. 

As with the brush application method, you’ll then wipe the wood in the direction of the grain and wipe any excess finish with another clean cloth.

  1. Foam Brush Application

If you’d rather use a foam brush, apply oil to the brush evenly. 

Then, using gentle strokes, follow the wood grain while carefully avoiding drips. Add another layer only after the previous ones have mostly dried off.

  1. Spray Application

Oil finishes also work well with spray application — just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for dilution!

Then, spray onto the surface, ensuring even coverage while minimizing any potential overspray.

  1. Wipe-On Application

Wipe-on application follows the same method as a cloth application. 

However, unlike a straight cloth finish, a solvent such as mineral spirits or paint thinner is used to dilute the oil-based finish – creating a thinner consistency. 

  1. Build-Up Coats

For a deeper finish, add several thin coats and let each one dry before applying the next. 

Since oil takes some time before drying, note that the entire process can be quite time-consuming.

  1. Sanding between Coats

Once the coats have dried, run your fingers over the surface to check for rough spots before lightly sanding it with a fine-grit sandpaper. 

By smoothing out any bumps or rough spots, you’ll be priming the wood for its next coat and helping it achieve a smoother, more polished finish.

  1. Buffing for Final Finish

Once the final coat dries, use a clean cloth to gently buff the surface to achieve a silky-smooth appearance. 

What this does is enhance the sheen of your finish and rid the surface of any dust or dirt build-up. The result? A better, more luxurious look.

  1. Proper Ventilation During Application

To keep you safe when applying the finish, it’s important to work in a well-ventilated area or use proper respiratory protection. 

You should know that oils are notorious for releasing toxic fumes and other harmful chemicals into the air, so it poses a significant risk to your health!

  1. Follow Manufacturer’s Guidelines

It goes without saying, but you should always read the manufacturer’s guidelines before applying your wood finish! 

Not only will this give you the best possible results, but it will also protect you from any negative effects that might take place if you don’t follow the guidelines to a T.

Water-Based Finishes

Pressed for time? If so, go for a water-based finish to enjoy faster drying action and a much easier application process compared to oil-based ones. 

They’re also virtually odor-free, so won’t stink up your room while still providing some protection to the walnut!

Water-Based Finishes

Advantages of Water-Based Finishes for Walnut

Water-based finishes offer several advantages over other types of finishes. Aside from being easy to apply, durable, and long-lasting, they’re also:

  • Safer for both you and the environment since they have lower VOC emissions
  • Faster-drying than some other traditional finishes (especially oil-based ones)
  • Easier to clean with water, so there’s no hard-to-clean mess lying around afterward
  • Non-toxic and environmentally friendly overall
  • More visually pleasing as they don’t yellow over time like some other finishes
  • Suitable for both indoor and outdoor use 
  • Capable of preserving the natural beauty of walnut wood because they are less prone to color change
  • Useful on various surfaces, including floors and furniture
  • A clear, natural finish without any of the odor
  • Highly durable and protects the wood.

Types of Water-Based Finishes for Walnut

Water-Based Polyurethane Finish

Among water-based finishes, polyurethane reign supreme. 

That’s because it creates a tough, transparent shield over the walnut wood – helping it withstand moisture and resist general wear and tear. 

As for appearance, this finish offers a subtle natural sheen that’s easy to clean. Bonus points: it only emits a little bit of odor!
For an ultra-fast drying finish with superior durability, Minwax’s wipe-on polythene finish is an excellent choice.

Water-Based Acrylic Finish

If you’re looking for a water-based finish that creates a crystal-clear, reflective finish on the wood, acrylic is going to be your best friend. 

The strong protective layer that acrylic provides resists yellowing and offers excellent durability – making it an easy, versatile choice.

If you’re looking for a finish that you can mix with paint and other finishes, this high-gloss finish by Minwax is a great pick! 

Water-Based Varnish Finish

With its ability to showcase the natural appearance of walnut wood while protecting it from external damage, water-based varnishes are an excellent finishing touch that remains subtle.

There are several varnish options online, but General Finishes’s flat finish doesn’t just provide a nice, matte finish that contrasts with the walnut’s beautiful grain — it also mimics a waxy texture you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else!

Tips on Applying Water-Based Finishes to Walnut Wood

When working with a water-based finish, there are certain things you can do to make the process a lot more efficient and so it yields beautiful colors.

Sand Wood Smooth before Applying

Generally, water-based finishes require you to first sand the wood down first before you start the application process. 

Not only does this result in a much more even appearance, but it also helps create a smoother surface — one that’s characteristic of expertly made woodwork.

Stir Finish before Use

Compared to other types of finishes, you often need to stir water-based ones to maximize their effectiveness. 

Never shake a water-based finish to improve the finish’s consistency; again, you only need to stir!

Use Synthetic Brush or Foam

For even application, use a synthetic brush or foam and travel along the wood grain.

This depends on the product, but you should generally avoid back-brushing (especially when working with water-based finishes).

Apply Thin, Even Coats

Unlike other finishes, water-based ones have a thinner consistency and are a lot runnier. 

As such, it’s best to apply thin coats over the surface rather than thick ones as the latter can cause unsightly bubbles to form.

Sand Lightly Between Coats

Similar to using oil-based finishes, it’s a good idea to sand the woodwork after each coating layer has dried off. 

This allows you to achieve a much smoother surface, a more polished appearance, and a better quality overall.

Wax Finishes 

Wax finishes are the best choice if you don’t want to deprive the wood of its natural appearance. 

This type of finish won’t add any unnatural shimmer to the wood, but it does come with the drawback of providing poorer protection and needing more frequent maintenance.

Wax Finishes for walnut

Advantages of Wax Finishes 

Wax finishes can enhance the natural grain of the wood, giving it a richer and more vibrant appearance. 

Not only does it pose minimal harm to the environment, but it also doesn’t require any stripping before application. It also: 

  • Is an eco-friendly option as it’s made from natural sources
  • Brings out the natural beauty of wood by emphasizing its unique grain patterns and colors
  • Can be easily repaired if scratches or minor imperfections occur, making it a low-maintenance option
  • Gives the wood a subtle shine that brings out its natural beauty without being too reflective or appearing artificial
  • Application is a breeze with only basic materials such as a cloth or brush — specialized equipment isn’t necessary
  • Offers a traditional appearance that many have described as “timeless”
  • By layering wax finishes with other finishes, you can achieve a one-of-a-kind finish that adds warmth, dimension, and character.

Types of Wax Finishes

Beeswax Finish 

Coming in first is a product you can find in the hives made by our beloved bees: beeswax. 

It’s one of the most popular choices when it comes to wax finishes for a variety of reasons, such as stain protection and its ability to bring out the natural color of the wood.

If you want to try beeswax, Howard has it stocked in wipe form. Not only can this product be used for that natural walnut finish, but it can also brighten up other dull woodwork around the house!

Carnauba Wax Finish

Beeswax might enjoy its perennial popularity, but there’s a reason why carnauba wax is considered the queen of all waxes! 

Aside from its high melting point, this natural wax is also long-lasting and provides an impressive barrier that protects your woodwork.

If you’re after the characteristic carnauba wax finish, try out this product from Howard. It contains a blend of carnauba wax, beeswax, and mineral oil – making it one of the best options out there for full coverage!

Microcrystalline Wax Finish

Microcrystalline wax is a byproduct of the petroleum refining process, but it’s one of the safest materials to use as a wood finish. 

With its high melting point and impressive track record for preserving all sorts of material, microcrystalline wax is a tough-to-beat contender among wax finishes.

This particular product from Renaissance is advertised as a wax polish, but it can also be used for protecting a range of materials ranging from ivory to walnut woodwork!

Paste Wax Finish

If you want a finishing wax that leaves a lasting shine, smooth coating, and an impressive finish, paste wax is a strong contender. 

It might not be as durable as other finishes, but it does leave a characteristic hand-rubbed texture.
Minwax has a 1 lb, all-natural paste finishing wax that you can apply to a variety of surfaces (including woodwork). It’s very affordable, too!

Disadvantages of Wax Finishes 

While a wax finish is a natural way to bring out the unique beauty and color of your wood piece, it isn’t without its disadvantages: 

  • Wax finishes have a tendency to wear away and require frequent reapplication, particularly in high-traffic areas 
  • While wax finishes offer a beautiful, natural look, they require more frequent maintenance than other finishes such as polyurethane, oils, or varnish
  • The protective layer provided by wax finishes is thin and susceptible to damage from heat; it also doesn’t have much protection against scratches
  • Use of certain wax finishes may lead to an alteration in the color of the wood, causing it to darken over time
  • The process of applying wax finishes requires careful attention to detail during buffing and polishing, which can be more time-intensive than other finishes
  • Unlike polyethylene and oil-based finishes, wax offers limited protection against moisture.

Application Techniques and Tips

To make sure your wax finish looks its absolute best, here are some techniques and tips you can follow:

Sand the Wood Smooth before Applying

Like other finishes, sanding the wood down helps even its texture and allows the wax to stick to the surface much more effectively. 

Aside from that, a smooth finish also creates a more luxurious appearance that the wax complements perfectly!

Apply the Finish in a Well-Ventilated Area

When applying wax finishes, it’s important to do so in a well-ventilated area as this will make it easier for the wax to dry up.

Use a High-Quality Brush or Applicator

Generally, you’ll use a gentle brush (or even just a lint-free cloth) to apply the wax onto a surface. Then, it needs to be buffed by hand – so it can be quite a laborious process.

Apply Thin and Even Coats

Applying even coats is especially important for wax finishes to avoid creating patches where there are thicker layers of wax. 

When it comes to wax, a little goes a long way – so make sure to apply thinner layers first instead of piling everything from the get-go!

Practice on a Small Test Piece First

With wax, it’s a great idea to apply on smaller areas at a time. This isn’t the same as oil- or water-based finishes that ask you to glide the brush over the entire surface. 

As such, it might be worth it to practice on a small test patch first before proceeding with the actual woodwork, just so you can get the hang of it!

Shellac Finish

Lastly, a shellac finish is ideal for those who want to highlight walnut’s natural color.  That’s because shellac creates a rich brown layer atop the wood that’s visually satisfying while also drying quickly! 

However, shellac also proves to be less durable than the other finishes on this list, so you may need to reapply it a lot more often.

Shellac Finish

How to Apply Shellac Finish on Walnut Wood 

Depending on your preference, you can select a shade of shellac that ranges from clear to amber to achieve the level of color enhancement and depth you want. 

It’s an excellent choice for custom finishes since it’s also compatible with most other finishes, so go ahead and experiment with different mixtures!

However, applying shellac does require careful planning to achieve the best possible results:

  1. Prepare the Surface. Start by sanding the walnut wood surface until it’s free of any roughness or bumps. 

By doing so, you can make sure that there is no dust, debris, or previous finish present on the wood surface – allowing for a clean and easy application.

  1. Application Method. Apply the finish in the direction of the wood grain using either a clean, lint-free cloth or brush for optimal results.
  1. Apply Thin Coats. For best results, apply the product using thin coats. It’s also recommended that you avoid overlapping; it’s best to wait until each coat is fully dry before applying the next.
  1. Sand Between Coats. Once the applied coats have dried up, use a very fine grit sandpaper to lightly sand the surface. Then, using a clean cloth, gently remove any dust and debris before applying your next layer.
  1. Build Up Coats. Keep applying a coat of shellac one after another until you’re satisfied with the level of sheen and protection.
  1. Final Coat and Buffing. For the final coat, apply shellac evenly and allow it to dry. Afterward, use a soft cloth to buff the surface lightly as this will eliminate dust and add to the shine of the finish.
  1. Maintenance. To maintain the shellac finish, regularly dust the surface and avoid exposing it to excessive moisture or heat.
  1. Follow Manufacturer’s Instructions. Always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for mixing, application, and drying times specific to the shellac product you’re using.

Choosing the Right Finish for Your Project

Now that you have four finish options at your disposal, it’s time to figure out which one is the best for your intended use! 

Each one has its own pros and cons which can make the decision a lot harder, but here are certain factors that might just help you break the four-way tie!

Durability Matters

What is it you’re working with? 

Whether it’s a well-loved family dining table or a decorative shelf, every piece of furniture calls for a different finish. 

Protection from wear, moisture, and environmental factors can vary depending on the finish used. 

For furniture that will be heavily used or exposed to the elements, select finishes that are exceptionally durable and resistant to wear and tear (such as oil-based varieties). 

Indoor pieces might not need the same level of protection – and in fact, they may just benefit more from a finish that brings out their natural beauty. Maybe a wax finish might be best here?

Sheen Level: Glossy or Matte?

To gloss or not to gloss — now that’s a question that comes down to your personal preference and the style you’re going for! 

With a glossy finish, your wood’s color becomes deeper and the grain achieves a more refined appearance. However, some people might not like the way that the furniture shines (as it makes it look more artificial). 

If you fall under the second category, matte finishes might suit your taste more. This is because they’ll still highlight the wood’s natural beauty and unique grain without reflecting light (as well as providing an interesting texture).

Ease of Application: How Much Time Can You Spare? 

A finish’s ease of application is often overlooked, but it’s also one of the most decisive factors between different types of finishes.

If you’re short on time, choosing a finish with a more straightforward application process (think water-based finishes) might be better. You’ll still achieve gorgeous woodwork without too much of a hassle.

On the other hand, if you do have the luxury of time, you may find it more rewarding by taking the long road and using finishes that require multiple coats. 

Though this will involve extended drying times, the upside is that they’ll provide you with a more durable and professional result!

And for those seeking a faster solution, wipe-on or spray-on finishes are a great choice due to their speedy application and reduced drying times.

Matching the Finish to the Intended Use or Style: Conclusion

Matching the Finish to the Intended Use

Choosing the right finish for your woodworking project is not just about protecting it, but also making sure it fits your style and the purpose of the piece. 

After all, the finish you choose isn’t just for safeguarding the wood, but also for making it stand out to an observer’s eye!

Modern Look: Water-Based Finishes

If you’re looking for a modern and polished look, water-based finishes are an excellent option. 

These finishes highlight the natural texture, wood grain, and color of walnut without adding any overpowering shine.

Classic Look: Oil-Based Finishes 

The use of oil-based finishes on walnut wood is a way to add depth and character to your furniture, creating a rich and luxurious feel. 

By highlighting the wood’s unique grains, these finishes provide an elegant and classic aesthetic – making them the perfect choice for preserving family treasures or restoring vintage pieces.

Rustic/Farmhouse Look: Wax Finishes 

Wax finishes give walnut wood a charming, rustic feel – perfect for farmhouse styles. 

These finishes give the wood a weathered and aged look, highlighting its texture and accentuating natural imperfections.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Color is Walnut Finish?

Walnut finishes involve some of the most versatile color ranges out there.

Depending on the type of finish and the natural color of the walnut wood, the finish you’re using can range from warm golden brown to deep chocolate brown!

Is Walnut Finish Dark?

Yes, most types of walnut finishes are darker to accentuate the natural color of the wood (which typically has a darker appearance compared to other woods). 

However, that’s not to say that all walnut finishes are dark; some, including beeswax, are actually bright.

What Is the Favorite Finish for Walnut?

The favorite finish for walnut depends wholly on personal preferences! 

Some people opt for subtle finishes that enhance the wood’s natural characteristics and beauty, while others love going for bold varieties that give walnut wood a more unique appearance.

Which Is Darker: Rosewood or Walnut?

While both kinds of wood are renowned for their deep, rich colors, walnut is typically regarded as having a darker shade than rosewood. 

You’ll also typically see rosewood showing somewhat reddish or golden tones compared to walnut’s more yellowy or chocolate-like colors.

Is Walnut Darker than Brown?

Yes, walnut is typically darker in color than what is considered a standard medium or light brown! 

However, walnut can take on shades of yellow which can make it almost similar in hue to the standard brown. If you’re looking for a particular shade, you might need to look around a bit.

What Colors Go Best with Walnut?

Because walnut is an earthy, dark brown color, it pairs beautifully with paler, neutral tones (such as peach), earth tones (olive green, deep red-brown), or jewel tones (think of emeralds and sapphires). 

If you want contrast, walnut’s cool color is excellent with warmer shades such as red, orange, and yellow.

What Is the Undertone of Walnut?

Walnut wood’s color versatility has a lot to do with its unique undertone; walnut contains a combination of both warm and cool shades of brown, and often can have hints of red or purple undertones too!

For this reason, it’s a solid option regardless of the color palette you currently have.

Photo of author

Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.