Anything in past human history would qualify as long as it can still be used today for finishing wood. For clarity, I am interested in creating replicas of objects such as ancient tools or common-use objects such as a cup or bowl. I would like to keep things as authentic as possible by using "ancient" finishes on the wood.

The most common type of "ancient" wood finishes that I could find were things such as tar or wax for use in making boats.

  • Shellac and wax are both pretty ancient. "Hand finish" (just letting the wood soak up sweat/oils from the user's hands) presumably goes back as far as wooden tools do.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 19:01
  • It would be helpful if you were to share some of your own research in the matter or add some motivation for why you are asking.
    – Ast Pace
    Commented Jul 18, 2016 at 23:24
  • @AstPace just curious, how would knowing the motivation for the question help? This question doesn't require any personal background history to answer effectively. Either way, I added the reason for the question.
    – Programmer
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 12:43
  • It looks like lanolin has been used historically, though completely unambiguous evidence seems hard to find.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 16:22

1 Answer 1


Well this is easy: no finish.

Go back far enough and there's no doubt wood would have been left unfinished and the no-finish option is still widely used today, sometimes by necessity1 and sometimes by choice2.

This may or may not answer the question depending on what you're looking for. If you do need something that was actually applied to wood then oils or greases would surely have been first3.

While waxes and resins exist in nature and can occasionally be harvested in pure or nearly pure form they aren't in an easy-to-apply form, but oils are needless to say. And I think that oils might have been more obvious to early people as a way to treat wood anyway — the "hand finish" mentioned in a Comment above by keshlam could easily have provided the inspiration for deliberately oiling wood, rather than have it happen accidentally/incidentally with handling.

[1] There's nothing suitable to hand.
[2] Wood finish would interfere with function or would serve no useful purpose, e.g. on a wooden bearing. And occasionally it will be felt the wood doesn't need a finish to look good, e.g. when using a dense tropical hardwood which can be shined up without anything applied to the surface.
[3] Initially, and possibly for a very long time indeed (millennia), these wouldn't be of vegetable origin, but animal origin.

  • Rubbing beeswax on something isn't exactly rocket science, assuming you already eat honey occasionally.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:47
  • I would think that some of these things would be "work finished". Good example would be wooden handled tools used to hunt/harvest animal goods. Animal fat would be the obvious first step in my mind. Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 18:12
  • @keshlam, agreed. I think that by the time of early civilisations (like Babylon) that wax would likely have been used in some way for wood, but I was referring to much earlier than that —like 50-100,000 years earlier— pre-civilisation and in fact pre-agriculture.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 7:08
  • 1
    @BrownRedHawk, yes "work finish" or "hand finish" was undoubtedly the first 'finish' for wood.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 7:10
  • 2
    Pre-agriculture does not necessarily mean not having wax or oil; modern hunter/gatherer cultures could be pretty sophisticated about using the available resources. But OK, if you want to look for earliest, can fire-hardening of wooden spear points be considered a finish? ... Sounds like you really want an archaeology/anthropology discussion rather than Woodworking.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 11:28

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