Should you apply finish to shop projects? (Sure, but it doesn’t really matter.)
I’ve actually gotten myself into a couple of friendly discussions on this question over the years, and I’ve come to the definitive conclusion that you can either apply a finish to shop cabinets and fixtures—or not.
I thought it would be fun to take an informal poll about finishing shop projects. Just click the little “i” in the top right corner of the video screen to indicate your preference for finishing. Or maybe just finishing sometimes. Or maybe you have no horse in this race.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of finishing.
Mostly, it comes down to appearance. Any woodworking project looks great with a coat of finish, including rough-and-tumble shop projects that only you might ever see.
And there’s a lot to be said for that. A shop should reflect your tastes and be a place of solitude that you enjoy stepping into. It’s a place where you are the decision-maker who doesn’t have to be concerned about anyone else’s aesthetic opinion. You probably won’t have Thanksgiving dinner at your workbench. But . . . actually . . . how awesome would that be?
I’ve painted a lot of my shop furniture. And if you really want to protect a wood surface, paint is probably your best choice. For me, bright colors can go a long way toward brightening up my mood. Plus, it’s a great way to use up some of that leftover interior or exterior house paint you’ve probably accumulated over the years. Chances are, you can paint your shop projects without having to spend any extra money.
But a lot of you probably really enjoy the warm, natural look of wood in your shop. Clear wood finishes will give your shop a more classic atmosphere that we tend to think of when we imagine a traditional woodshop.
You can apply any type of finish you like: lacquer, polyurethane, shellac, tung oil, linseed oil . . . whatever. Again, it’s another opportunity to use up some cans of finish before they reach their “best-by” dates.
A finish will mostly help keep your cabinets and furniture cleaner. Especially the area around drawer pulls and knobs, which will eventually accumulate grime. A protective finish will allow you to clean the surfaces. Dirt ground into bare wood is almost impossible to remove. Sawdust is also a bit easier to remove from finished surfaces.
Another thing to consider is that your shop can be a testing ground. Shop projects offer a great opportunity to test out a new finish or technique you’ve been wanting to try. If it doesn’t work out, no biggie.
One place you might want to avoid applying a finish is a workbench surface. A film finish such as polyurethane or lacquer can scratch and flake off. Paint would be worse. This might transfer to your project. Some people apply an oil finish to their workbench surface. That’s probably a better choice, but linseed oil offers basically no protection. I wouldn’t use Danish oil since it’s a blend of polyurethane and oil.
But honestly, protection of the wood isn’t a super compelling reason to finish shop projects. Shop projects are usually built mostly for their functionality and don’t need need the same level of protection from humidity, sunlight, scratches, or spills as a coffee table does. The wood in shop projects will age gracefully and accumulate the inevitable battle scars that no wood finish will protect. And actually that’s kind of a cool look.
I can really only think of two reasons against finishing shop projects. Time and money. It will take you extra time to apply a finish . . . but then again, why take up woodworking as a hobby if you’re in a hurry? The money argument is a weak one too. As I mentioned before, you probably already have finishes in your shop that you can use up. Plus, you just spent money on lumber and hardware to build the project; a can of wood finish won’t extract that much more from your wallet.
In my opinion there is no compelling practical reason to finish shop projects, and there is no compelling reason against applying finish. It comes down to appearance. If you love the warm glow of finished wood in your shop, then apply a finish. If you want a bright, cheerful, nontraditional shop, paint your shop furniture. And if you like If you like the natural look of unfinished lumber, then just let your cabinets go commando.
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Thanks for watching!
Let me know whether or not you apply a finish to your shop projects! Looking for a meaningful, productive hobby? You can get started this weekend for less than $1000. ► https://theweekendwoodworker.com/