I've done an etching on Birch veneer plywood for a piece of wall art and am trying to figure out the best way to finish it. It's a 24" x 24" Aztec Calendar design with a lot of intricacies.

The guy who helped me with the etching had recommended either a danish oil or a polyurethane. I've been told Polyurethane is the best option if I don't want to change the wood at all, but I was leaning toward Danish oil since it would bring out the wood grain more.

I'd honestly like everything to be darker, but I'm not sure whether using Danish oil would also make the etched parts darker. My goal is to increase the contrast between the etched/non-etched parts, not reduce it.

If anyone has experience in finishing a heavily etched design, please let me know what would achieve the best result.

enter image description here

  • I removed the dead image link -- I suspect that site is not happy hosting images to SO. You can add images to questions via en edit.
    – user5572
    Oct 1, 2018 at 15:37
  • @jdv - the link worked perfectly well for me yesterday, and I could also see the image in the edit history today. Sometimes links are temporarily broken... It would have been nice of you to have left the URL as a link, at least. Maybe OP will reinsert it.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 3, 2018 at 14:59
  • 1
    Well, it's in the history of changes. External links are not great for SO anyway, so you are encouraged to use built-in image functionality. That external link will almost certainly be dead in an internet moment, and it was already not working because of a 401. Most sites will not like you using them as an image server.
    – user5572
    Oct 3, 2018 at 15:17
  • @FreeMan I added the image back in using the image functionality, hopefully that works better!
    – Benjamin
    Oct 4, 2018 at 15:27
  • @jdv - I was unable to find the link in the edit history or I'd have put it back in myself.
    – FreeMan
    Oct 4, 2018 at 15:33

3 Answers 3


Why not make some smaller test pieces on some scrap pieces of the birch veneer plywood. Etch small but similar patterns. Then finish these test pieces to see which type of finish you like better and best achieves your objectives.

Some part of asking for finishing advice is going to get you opinions based on other folks preferences. It is highly likely that your preferences may be very different!

  • Thanks Michael. Unfortunately I had this etched by a third party and don't have scrap wood to test on that has etching on it. My main concern is whether the etched parts will also darken from the danish oil or not, or if it will darken the non-etched parts more and then decrease my overall contrast.
    – Benjamin
    Sep 30, 2018 at 2:32
  • @Benjamin - Well the suggestion still stands. Maybe you will have to get the third party to make up the samples for you. It is hard to predict how oils and finishes will interact with the wood surfaces that have been blasted away by the laser. And I am sure as sunshine (or else you wouldn't even be asking this question) that you do not want to experiment with your final piece. Sep 30, 2018 at 2:50
  • ok, thanks! i'll see what i can test it on
    – Benjamin
    Sep 30, 2018 at 3:09

I've been told Polyurethane is the best option if I don't want to change the wood at all

That's not right, because "polyurethane" is a catch-all phrase for all clear finishes that include some polyurethane1 and only one type does little to change the wood's colour.

When someone just says "poly" they might mean one of at least three very distinct products that are really nothing alike (and unless the context makes it clear they should be more specific which one they're referring to). The poly that will alter the wood minimally is specifically waterbased polyurethane, but oil-based polyurethane is as common if not more so and like all oil-based varnishes it will noticeably deepen the tone of wood, as well as imparting some yellowish/amber colouring.

There is a third type of polyurethane, a two-part product mixed prior to application, but that's not a consumer-level finish and generally only a pro will be talking about that (and only to other pros).

I'd honestly like everything to be darker

All oil-based finishes will darken the wood to some degree. Although the inherent colour2 of the finish itself is a factor it's mainly down to the wood itself and how it absorbs the finish.

but I'm not sure whether using Danish oil would also make the etched parts darker.

I strongly suspect it will, but the right way to find out is to take an offcut or test piece and apply the finish(es) you have and see what you get.

I would steer you towards using oil-based polyurethane for this for a couple of reasons. Cards on the table, one reason is I'm against commercial "Danish oil" products as I've touched on in a few previous Answers3, but there's also a good practical reason to prefer varnish here.

Because "Danish oil" is a penetrating finish it's intended that all the excess is wiped away from the surface, which is going to be a real problem with something like this with all those nooks and crannies. Excess that isn't removed will not dry hard (ever) and will remain permanently gummy.

Varnish on the other hand is intended to be left on the surface and it dries hard, so you don't have to be nearly as careful about removing all the excess.

Edit: one detail I forgot to add is it would be good to dilute the oil-based poly, which turns it into what's usually now called wiping varnish. Thinning helps in multiple ways, it makes oil-based varnish easier to apply, helps avoid application marks and generally in achieving a smooth finish, and also aids in getting consistent drying.

Read more about wiping varnish in this previous Answer. Do note specifically that you don't need to wipe on or wipe off wiping varnish despite its name — in your case I think using a roller both for application of for removal of excess would work best. I would specifically avoid using rags or foam brushes because of the potential for them to snag on the raised edges of the plywood which could pull off splinters of veneer.

1 In most consumer-level finishes the polyurethane is only an additive, to improve scratch resistance, the finish isn't actually based on poly as the name seems to suggests. In actual fact oil-based polyurethane is mostly alkyd varnish (the more complete name for these varnishes is uralkyd) and with waterbased polys the finish is mostly a dispersion finish, e.g. acrylic.

2 This is assuming uncoloured finish. There are coloured versions of both available, but assuming you're using the 'clear' version there is still a wide variation in colour. Generally "Danish oil" will be much darker because of the high oil content, while varnishes are generally pale (some very pale) because of the lower oil content and higher resin content.

3 An equivalent can be made easily at home, starting with two products that are useful to have separately as well as mixed (BLO and gloss poly). You can tailor your own version to your own preferences and changing conditions (thinner or thicker, more or less varnish). Last but not least, the commercial stuff is overpriced for what it is (more than half of what's in the can is solvent!) and homemade versions should be significantly cheaper.

  • Just to be clear, by "varnish" in the last section of your answer (below "Recommendation") you mean oil-based polyurethane, as opposed to danish oil?
    – Seub
    Sep 30, 2018 at 13:21
  • Wow, thanks for such an in depth response Graphus, this is incredibly helpful and I will take all of this under account. @graphus
    – Benjamin
    Sep 30, 2018 at 20:24
  • @Benjamin, you're welcome. I've added a bit to my Answer re. application, I can't believe I forgot to mention thinning the varnish as an aid to achieving a good finish.
    – Graphus
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:15

Wow, danish oil and polyurethane are two opposite ends of the spectrum! You can't apply a finish like danish oil (tung oil, etc.) to something like this. It will never dry. Poly will probably end up being a big thick mess because it will pool into all your etching and make it look like a cheezy 70's decopauge. The right answer for this is lacquer. This is a thin finish that dries fast and is intended to be built up to the desired thickness without sanding in between coats (each successive layer slightly dissolves the one under it). i make lots of projects like this and use spray on lacquer. The stuff in the spray cans from Mohawk is ideal for this if you're not making a lot of plaques (otherwise you can buy an HVLP sprayer). If you want it darker, use a product called "toner." First, carefully sand the top by hand using a large flat block with a finer grit sandpaper (320, 400 is about right). Blow all the dust off using an air compressor. Then use the spray toner to achieve the desired darkness. It's cool to be creative and, say, apply more to the outside to make it darker than the middle. After this cures, spray coats of clear lacquer to the desired thickness. All this can be done in a day.

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