Natural Wood Finishes, Stains and Varnishes

Keep wood surfaces beautiful with healthier stains and varnishes.

| March/April 2006

  • Tried and True’s Danish Oil, made of linseed, gives a satiny sheen to this handcrafted rocker from Vermont Folk Rocker.
    Photo Courtesy Tried and True
  • Auro’s Natural Finishing Oil and European Furniture Wax create a safe coating for this wooden baby crib.
    Photo Courtesy Auro
  • Furniture fashions from Q Collection, like the Helen bedside table
    Photo Courtesy Q Collection
  • These sofa tables are finished with polyurethane-free AFM Safecoat finishes.
    Photo Courtesy Q Collection
  • To protect these bamboo didgeridoos against drying or splitting, instrument maker Jerry Brendle coated their bores and exteriors with Pure Tung Oil from the Real Milk Paint Company.
    Photo Courtesy Jerry Brendle
  • Oak floors gain nontoxic luster from Bona Traffic waterborne hardwood floor finish from BonaKemi.
    Photo Courtesy Bona Traffic
  • Sources: Green Building Products, edited by Alex Wilson and Mark Piepkorn (Building Green, 2005; Green Seal’s “Choose Green” report on wood finishes and stains (

With its natural richness and warmth, wood brings nature’s restorative effects indoors. Unfortunately, most wood stains, varnishes and sealers are far from restorative.

For centuries, finishes were made from natural resins collected from tree sap and insects, mixed with natural oils. Eventually, petroleum derivatives called “distillates” were introduced to thin the finish and increase its durability, and synthetic resins replaced natural ones. Today, most conventional finishes are either solvent- or water-based petroleum products. Some combine natural oils with petroleum distillates; others, such as polyurethane, are entirely synthetic. As a result, many conventional finishes contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—substances linked to poor indoor and outdoor air quality.

A VOC primer

Volatile organic compounds are found in many conventional building products, including carpet, insulation, plywood, paint and adhesives. They’re added to wood finishes to help sustain the product’s liquid form, enhance its performance and durability, and extend its shelf life.

As a finish is applied, it dries in place. During this drying period, the volatile solvents in the finish vaporize to a breathable gas. Finishes emit the most VOCs while drying, making them particularly hazardous for installers, but some continue to outgas for months or even years.

Associated with scores of environmental and health problems, VOCs contribute to air pollution by reacting with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, a major component of smog. Inside, their effect on air quality is even worse; the U.S. EPA has found that indoor air contains two to five times more VOCs than outside air.

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