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What wood finish is right for you?

From the Resene decorating blog

Wood finishes are a perennial favourite in our homes, and recent interior design trends have seen us all wanting to showcase the natural beauty of that wood.

With a global shift toward simpler lives, lighter footprints and a celebration of nature we are looking for wood finishes that highlight natural colour and texture, while still protecting the timber.

A dining room using dark interior wood stains

Adding a protective clear topcoat to interior stains helps protect the wood as well making the surfaces easier to clean.

Wall stained in Resene Colorwood Touch Wood to show off the natural grain. Floor painted in Resene Creme De La Creme, wooden tabletop in Resene Tobacco Brown with Resene Sour Dough and Resene FX Paint Effects Medium wash, table legs in Resene Tobacco Brown, chairs, large case and round bowl in Resene Bokara Grey and door in Resene Sour Dough. Artwork by Brenda Clews, shelving from French Country Collections, glasses and decanter from H&M home. Project by Melle van Sambeek, image by Bryce Carleton.

Clean your stained outdoor surfaces

Once your outdoor surfaces like decks are stained it’s a good idea to clean them every six to 12 months to keep them looking good.

Walls stained in Resene Waterborne Woodsman Smoky Ash with deck in Resene Woodsman Tiri. The screen and large planter are Resene Ironsand and the table and small pot are Resene Touchstone. Screen from Mitre 10, chairs and lanterns from Jardin, throw from Furtex. Project by Melle Van Sambeek, image by Bryce Carleton.

No piece of wood is the same, and they’re used in so many different ways inside and outside our homes. How do you know when to choose a stain, wash or oil to get the wood finish you want, when should you opt for more coverage from a paint, and should you use a gloss, semi-gloss or matte finish?

Here is a quick guide to working with wood finishes, inside and out, to get you started.


Ashleigh Strange from the Resene ColorShop advice team says there are a few things to consider, including how much maintenance will be required, which can help most decorators narrow down what finishing products to use on their exterior wood surfaces.

For example, stains such as the Resene Woodsman range and Resene Furniture and Decking Oil are not designed to be surface forming, she says. Instead, the stains are fully penetrating, sit within the grain of the timber and erode over time to make for easy application of maintenance coats.

“We regard stains as a maintenance product, requiring an additional coat to be applied once every two summers. They are easier than paint to apply up front, but more maintenance is needed.”

“Paint, on the other hand, is surface forming. It requires a little more work upfront such as a primer, undercoat or sealer before the topcoats, but it needs less ongoing maintenance,” Ashleigh says.

The two other key things to consider on exterior wood surfaces are, of course, how you want it to look and the other factors beyond the paint or stain that can impact how easy or expensive a finish will be.

“For example, if you have a three-storey home that requires a full scaffold to recoat, the level of maintenance required for a stain will have a huge impact on your costs, so paint is probably a better option in this situation.”

When it comes down to deciding between water or oil-based paint solutions, the timber you are painting or staining is a factor to consider.

“Where possible we would offer water-based paint and stain solutions. However, the type of timber can dictate what primers and stains are recommended. For example, the oils and tannins in some timber like kwila require an oil-based primer such as Resene Wood Primer. Water-based topcoats can then be applied over that.

Other timbers that can leach tannins and cause staining are redwood, cedar and beech.

“On the flip side, timbers such as matai and totara require water-based primers such as Resene Quick Dry. Oil-based primers cannot be used for these timbers as they won’t cure.”

Top tip:  If you want to keep your exterior wood looking as bare or natural as possible while still protecting against water, fungi and UV light, try Resene Furniture and Decking Oil. For interior surfaces try a polyurethane, such as water based Resene Aquaclear, or Resene Qristal Clear.

Preparing for a stain or oil

Just as with any surface finish, the final result of your stained or oiled wood finish will depend on getting the preparation work right.

Stains and oils often need less preparation work than paint but it’s still important to ensure they have a good base.

Achieve a soft look with a low sheen paint finish on timber walls

A low sheen paint finish on timber walls gives a beautiful soft look that is sympathetic to less than perfect surfaces best suited to areas that won’t need frequent clearing.

Walls painted in Resene Savour with faux tile floor in Resene Meringue and Resene Black. Console table in Resene Black, small vase in Resene Savour and DIY artwork in Resene Black and Resene Meringue. Cushions from Adairs, coffee table from David Shaw, sofa from Soren Liv. Project by Melle Van Sambeek, image by Bryce Carleton.

As stains and oils are fully penetrating, the surface you use them on needs to be bare timber for the best results, Ashleigh says. Any existing coatings like old varnish need to be removed before you stain or oil the surface, by either sanding or using a paint stripper.

On exterior surfaces, as well as making sure the timber is bare, make sure you treat the wood with Resene Moss & Mould Killer, then thoroughly wash the surface with Resene Timber and Deck Wash.

Top tip:  Resene Timber and Deck Wash is great at opening the grain of the timber which helps the stains or oil to penetrate the wood.

Clear finishes

Clear finishes can protect stained interior timber against wear and tear and make them easier to wipe down to keep clean. One thing to note is that it’s not a great idea to just use a clear finish on exterior surfaces as it won’t provide enough UV or weather protection for your timber.

If you’re opting for a clear finish to protect your wood, keep in mind the clear topcoat can alter how the colour appears. For example, a clear gloss urethane such as Resene Aquaclear over Resene Colorwood stain will make the stain colour appear more vibrant than a clear flat urethane such as Resene Aquaclear Natural.

On interior surfaces it’s a good idea to apply a natural-toned stain such as Resene Colorwood Natural as a basecoat underneath your clear finish, even if you want a very natural finished look. This will help protect the wood from damaging UV light.

Top tip:  Waterborne Resene Aquaclear is a non-yellowing formula good for paler timbers such as pine, macrocarpa or oak, as well as MDF or particle board.

Gloss, semi-gloss or matte?

Whether you are finishing your stained wood with a clear topcoat, or painting your timber surfaces it’s a good idea to put some thought into whether you want a high-shine finish or something more matte. Aesthetics and personal taste play a part in the decision but there are functional things to consider as well depending on what area you are painting or staining.

Here’s a more complete look at what each gloss level offers:

Gloss: These paints and clear topcoats have a highly reflective smooth surface and are easier to clean than paints with less surface smoothness. They are ideal for areas exposed to heavy traffic or heavy use, especially where fingerprints, grease or grime are common. Colours tinted into high gloss paints appear cleaner and brighter than colours tinted into flat paints. Due to their highly reflective appearance, gloss paints do tend to highlight surface imperfections. If your surface has dents or other imperfections, it is best to select a product with less sheen.

Semi-gloss: These paints and finishes have a slightly gloss appearance but are not as highly reflective as a gloss finish. These types of finishes offer good stain resistance and are easy to clean. Paints with a semi-gloss appearance are excellent for use on many of the same areas as gloss paints and are ideal for walls and woodwork that is subject to wear, as well as exterior weatherboards.

A bedroom with a lighter wash finish

A lighter wash finish on wood showcases the natural grain for a pared-back, relaxed finish.

The left wall is painted in Resene Half Biscotti, with the right rear wall in Resene Colorwood Becalm. Headboard and stool in Resene Colorwood Bask, floor and two vases in Resene Colorwood Breathe Easy and small bowl and ball in Resene Thorndon Cream. Bedlinen from Foxtrot Home, throw and cushions from Adairs. Project by Vanessa Nouwens, image by Bryce Carleton.

Low sheen: These are a popular choice for interior walls and still offer good cleaning properties, making them useful in areas such as living rooms, hallways, bedrooms and playrooms. Occasionally, these types of paints are used for ceilings; however, their slight sheen will tend to highlight surface imperfections.

Flat/matte: These paints diffuse light, so they tend to conceal surface imperfections better than paints with higher sheen levels making them a good choice for general use on walls and ceilings, especially those that are dented or rough. Colours appear muddied and darker in a flat finish than in a glossier finish. 'Flat' finishes have a micro rough texture that may trap dirt and make cleaning more difficult.

Top tip:  For painted exterior decking, Ashleigh suggests considering slip resistant measures such as adding grit to the paint to help with traction, or trying products like Resene Non-Skid Deck & Path.

Other useful tips for wood finishes:

Resene Breathe Easy

Resene Becalm

Resene Meringue

Resene Creme De La Creme

Resene Bask

Resene Savour

May 22, 2023

For more ideas of how to bring out the best in your interior exterior timber, pick up a free copy of the habitat plus wood stains booklet from your local Resene ColorShop or read online. Or ask a Resene Paint Expert online or book a Resene Colour Consultation.

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