Finishing Wood Carvings 101: A Comprehensive Guide

By Kevin Kessinger •  Updated: 09/21/23 • 

Wood carvings can be finished using various methods. Finishing a wood carving will depend on the wood, how you want to decorate the carving, and the usage of the wood carving. For wood carvings, you can use a range of finishes from oils, wax, paints, sealers, and other protective film finishes.

In this article, we’ll go through why you need to consider finishing your carved wood, the best ways to finish it, and other factors to consider before finishing a wood carving.

Why Finish a Wood Carving?

There are different purposes for finishing a wood carving. First, a wood carving is finished to enhance its beauty. This is especially true for wildlife wood carvings, such as ducks, painted and finished to look as realistic as possible.

Finishing a wood carving also helps protect it from different elements, such as harsh UV rays, changes in humidity, and much more. This is especially true for outdoor wood carvings that face a lot of elements and might break down or degrade if left unfinished.

Apart from enhancing the appearance and protecting them, wood carvings can also be finished to stabilize the wood and other reasons, depending on the carver. If you’re looking to finish your wood carving, no matter the reason, below are different ways you can go about it.

Best Ways of Finishing Wood Carvings

1. Using Wax to Finish

Beeswax is the main type of wax used for finishing wood and wood carvings. It is easy to apply and does not change the color of the wood carving. The beeswax finish is great for protecting wood carvings from abrasive damage and other elements. However, the beeswax finish is not very protective against high moisture, heat, and acids.

Although a beeswax finish is not very protective, it is food safe and does not include any chemicals that might affect your health. Therefore, you can use beeswax on spoons, chopping boards, and other wood-carved utensils to offer some level of protection.

Wax and Wood Burning To Finish A Wood Carving

Wax and Wood Burning To Finish These Wood Carvings

To apply beeswax to your wood carving, all you need is a soft cloth or rag. Take a scoop of your chosen brand of beeswax or make some yourself and rub it with the cloth onto the wood carving. Make sure to remove the excess as you’re applying the beeswax finish.

Once you’ve fully applied to the wax, wait for the solvent to evaporate and remove the excess. After that, proceed to apply a second coat or polish the wood carving to a sheen of your choice.

2. Apply an Oil Finish

There are a number of oil finishes you can use on your wood carvings. They include linseed oil, tung oil, walnut oil, Danish oil, and mineral oil. The application of oils is similar, but they all offer varying degrees of protection against different elements.

In its raw form, linseed oil is a very popular wood finish for finishing wood projects and carvings. It has been around for ages, and it’s a very easy finish to apply. When applying linseed oil, use a brush and let the carving soak the oil before wiping off the excess. Boiled linseed oil is also a popular option that dries much faster. You can use it as a wood carving finish or to seal a wood carving before painting.

Before Applying Boiled Linseed Oil to A Wood Carving

Before Applying Boiled Linseed Oil to A Wood Carving

Tung oil is one of the best oil finishes because its more durable, water-resistant, food safe, and dries to a clear finish that does not change much with time. Once you apply tung oil and wipe off the excess will take about 10 to 30 days to start and completely cure.

Walnut oil is another popular wood finish for carved wood, bowls, and other wooden utensils. In its natural form, walnut oil is non-drying, but it changes to a drying oil through heat treatment. Heat treatment also removes proteins responsible for allergies in walnut oil, making it safe for anyone with nut allergies.

Carved River Otter Finished With Tung Oil

Carved River Otter Finished With Tung Oil

Danish oil is a combination of different oils and solvents, which makes it fast drying and penetrative. It also comes in different colors, so you can use them to customize your wood carving appearance. It is also fast drying, and because of the varnish content in Danish oil, it is more protective compared to other oil finishes.

Mineral oil is a clear and odorless petroleum-based product that is popular for finishing cutting boards, spoons, wood kitchen utensils, bowls, and other wood products. Like raw walnut oil, mineral oil is non-drying and keeps your wood carvings slightly moist.

3. Using a Wood Sealer

A wood sealer is a good finish for wood carvings placed outdoors to protect the carving from outdoor elements, such as rain, temperature changes, high humidity, etc. A sealer penetrates and forms a protective film over your wood carving. For better results, apply two or three coats of wood sealer.

Use a matte sheen wood sealer to show the details of the wood carving. A higher sheen will reflect light, thus obscuring the wood carving and also enhancing the flaws of the wood carving.

> Recommended Reading: How to Seal a Wood Carving

4. Acrylic Paint

For woodcarver’s looking to add color and bring their carvings to life, acrylic paints are a popular option. Acrylic paints dry faster, and they are waterproof when fully cured. This means acrylic paints can also be used on outdoor wood to protect it from harsh UV rays, temperature changes, rain, and other elements.

Before painting your carving, it needs to be smooth, clean, and sealed. To smoothen a carving, sand it with a #220 grit sandpaper or higher. For sanding intricate details and designs, use wood rifflers or needle files. Check out our article on how to sand intricate wood carvings for more information on how to go about that.

Great Owl Carved From an Old Landscaping Post and Painted with Acrylic

Great Owl Carved From an Old Landscaping Post and Painted with Acrylic

Once you’ve sanded your wood carving, wipe it clean using a tack cloth and apply a sealer. A sealer seals the wood and helps the paint go on more smoothly. You can use an oil, like linseed oil, to seal the wood first, then apply your choice of acrylic colors.

When painting using acrylic paint, there is no wrong or right. As long as you’re prepared by cleaning and applying a sealer, the choice of colors is your personal preference. Acrylic paints can be thinned with water, which makes them even easier and more friendly. I recommend using round brushes because they are also better for areas with a lot of detail.

5. Watercolor Paint

Apart from acrylic paint, you can use watercolor paint to add color to your wood carvings. Unlike acrylic paint, which hides the grain and texture of wood, watercolor paints get absorbed by the wood and do not form a film or coat. However, apart from decorating wood carvings, watercolor paint will not add any protection to the wood.

Watercolor paints usually come in tubes or cakes of paint. We recommend using tubes because they are much thicker, making them less likely to drip. Because watercolor paints don’t form a coat or film on your wood carvings, there’s no need for priming or sealing the surface of the wood before using them.

Painted Santa Face with Watercolors

Painted Santa Face with Watercolors

Once you clean or dust your wood carving, mix your watercolor paints and apply them to the wood carving using a brush. Watercolor paint is a pigment and can be rubbed off when dry. Once you apply it, finish the wood carving with a clear coat to seal and offer protection against different elements.

You can use polycrylic, a water-based polyurethane, for a clear wood sealer. It has a milky color in the can but dries to a clear finish. Compared to oil-based polyurethane, it does not change color over time, is lower in VOCs, and is still a durable finish option.

6. Varnish and Spar Varnish

For the ultimate protection of your wood carvings, whether indoors or outdoors, varnish and spar varnish are your best finish option for your wood carvings.

Varnish is great for indoor wood carvings, and spar varnish works great for outdoor wood carvings. Spar varnish is varnish with more oil added. This gives it more flexibility against temperature changes and durability against other elements, such as harsh UV light from the sun.

Once applied to your wood carvings, spar varnish will take around 24 hours to completely dry, while spar varnish can take up to 48 hours. Apply two or more coats of either finish for the best protection and durability, especially for outdoor wood carvings.

Kevin Kessinger

Kev is the founder of Pro Wood Carving and has been carving spoons, small pieces, and whittling since his teenage years. He has continued to level up his wood carving skills and wanted to share his journey and knowledge with other wood carvers. He launched Pro Wood Carving in 2021 to make wood carving more approachable for everyone looking to improve their skills.