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Which clear finish should I use for figured wood?

Q:

I picked up a stunning piece of birch with an exceptional flame pattern grain. How can I finish it to show off the patterns while retaining its light color? I’m worried that boiled linseed oil will darken over time.
—Paul Gonsalves, Ottawa, Ont.

A:

You need to darken the earlywood slightly to show off the grain, Paul, but instead of boiled linseed oil, use a product with soy oil or at least less boiled linseed oil.

To show you the differences, we applied boiled linseed oil to the far left quarter of the test board above. Then, from left to right, we applied Antique Oil (Minwax, minwax.com), which contains boiled linseed oil thinned with varnish, and Varathane Wood Conditioner (Varathane, 800-323-3584; rustoleum.com), made with soy oil. 

For a non-darkening topcoat alone or over oil, choose super-blonde shellac, CAB-acrylic lacquer, or a water-based finish like the one shown above.

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