Wax vs varnish vs oil to finish old wood

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Active Member
Mar 4, 2012
Golf TDi 170 commuter daily hack.
I'm 90% way through a house renovation and as part of that we have stripped off 80 years of paint from the stairs and bannisters.

We are back to the bare unfinished wood. We want to keep a natural finish, ie not painted, but are unsure as to the pros and cons of waxing, varnishing and oiling.

Our thoughts are;
Oiling will give a slightly glossy sheen which we don't want, and it has to be re oiled periodically which we also don't want. So pretty much ruled that out.

Waxing, I think is to protect a finish? So not ideal straight onto bare wood?? Don't really know a lot about this.

Varnish, will be a satin varnish, quck to apply and will protect the wood and last a long time.

Any thoughts or advice appreciated.
I would wax them. It gives a lovely finish too.
I'd wax it especially the handrail, you'll get a lovely sheen on it after many hands have used it
From a safety point of view, as it's residential, there's a good chance of people walking up and down the stairs in socks, and socks + varnish = broken leg or something.

I'd wax it, wax is fairly grippy, even in socks.
Wax on......wax off.....WELL, somebody had to be the first!

Yes, wax is my choice also, our solid oak banisters had a very high quality varnish applied when first built and after 20 years they really need doing again, and it's going to be a real pain so I have left them another ten years, and they still look like they need re-varnishing. :D

Defo wax.......
To emphasise the grain pattern of the wood, before applying the wax spray the wood with a very weak solution of caustic soda and let it dry. This raises the grain slightly, allowing a greater difference in colour between the 'grainy' and 'smooth' sections.

A level teaspoon of caustic soda granules in a litre of water is all you need, just be careful.

We are leaning towards wax, because, er, that's what she wants... Good to hear some recommendations.
What type of wood is it? Any pics :)

One thing to remember is that any type of finish on the wood will darken it and change the appearance. As a rule of thumb, if you smudge over a tiny section with a wet finger you'll get an idea of what an oil or wax coating will look like.

Proper wax looks good but takes a while to apply. You can get some modern 'brushable wax' type finishes which are easy to apply and give a good durable natural look finish.

Try a few before you commit. It can be disappointing to do a big job like this and not be happy with the finish afterwards! :eek:
TBH I'm not sure on the wood. Maybe pine??? It's 1934 3 bed terrace... (That's kinda like asking a woman what car she drives.. "It's blue"..)*

We've got some wax which will give a natural colour so we're going to try that on some scrap wood to see what it's like. We want to keep it quite light so avoiding stains etc.

Wax is not waterproof and will show stains/spillages but as said above the handrail will develop a very tactile finish.
Avoid varnish.
Consider "hard wax oil"
Wax - but be sparing, and don't do it repeatedly. It should look good for many years. If you do it too often - say every year - it will become very dark, as well as being possibly sticky to the touch. Bees wax is best but quite dear - best bought in 7lb tins minimum.
Just finished renovating a Pine Kitchen Table, sanded down to bare wood and then applied Colron Finishing Oil, brought it up a treat. you need to put at least three coats of oil and clean with white spirit between coats, but does what it says on the Tin.:bannana:

As my retirement hobby is cabinetry, I've made quite a few things in oak, pine and cherry. I invariably use Liberon finishing oil, 2 or 3 coats rubbed down lightly with grade 0000 wire wool between coats.

When we had a solid mahogany dining table (don't know what the original finish was), I would use Liberon black bison wax, again applied with 0000 wire wool. It's a bit of a PITA to apply, lots of elbow grease then wait for it to dry before buffinf, but the finish was lovely.

The Liberon website usually has a load of info about wood finishing.
Chrishazle said:
The Liberon website usually has a load of info about wood finishing.

+1 for Liberon. Great stuff - I use it all the time (antiques dealer). They are also very helpful on the phone.

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