I stripped and refinished my 1910 Victorian interior woodwork with several coats of Ben Moore oil based sanding sealer.  That is all I used and it looked great!  Now 15 years later the stain in the wood seems to be fading.  I guess I should have applied a coat of varnish to protect it. 

I really want to use an oil based finish but I live in NJ and the only oil based product that is non-poly is Man-O-War Spar varnish. I was all set to use this but now having second thoughts thinking about all the dust that will adhere to the wet varnish. 

I need something that will last and protect the wood from fading more.  There are many products on the market and want something good for my antique wood.  I have always avoided water based polys in the past since they look like plastic.

Someone suggested using shellac, and rubbing it with steel wool to soften the gloss.  Will this last long?  Is this recommended? Am I better off with Man-o-war spar varnish?

I really don’t know what to do since I am not up to date on varnishes and hope for some help.



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I have a very similar house. The floors and woodwork all through the house is American Chestnut, except the parlor- which is birdseye maple. I refiished antiques on and off for over thirty years, and made every mistake possible. I cleaned all of my woodwork with lacquer thinner and 0000 steel wool- then applied a polyurathane varnish. There's a reason for that. I have used many different finishes on furniture, but if something was going to be used a lot- such as a table or floors, I always used poly. Years ago, I refinished  a birdseye maple rocking chair and library table for a lady. She insisted on a poly finish becasue she had grand children. A few years later, her house caught on fire. Everything was water damaged- except the chair and table. She said that they were black with smoke, but she took a pail of soapy water and washed them off. They were undamaged. The library table had a veneer top and would have been destroyed if any water would have been left standing on it for any length of time. She made a special point of letting me know that she had made a good decision when requesting the urathan finish.

I only used water based poly once and didn't care for the look of it. To keep from getting a plastic look with oil based poly, only use clear gloss for a first or second coat. A final coat of semi gloss would be fine. I almost always use a clear gloss. It looks a littly shiny for the first year, but then dulls down. The plastic look comes when more than one coat of semigloss or satan is applied- or is used as a first coat. Spar varnish is something I used a lot, but I can't tell the difference between the look of that and the polyurathane after it is applied. The advantage of poly is that it doesn't darken like the old varnish did- unless that's what you like. It is also very washable. Murphy's Oil Soap is great. Every couple of years I wash it off with a soft rag and paint thinner. This removes dirt, wax, and oil that built up on it. I also do this before I apply a new coat of varnish to any wood. If I didn't do this, the new finish would peel off.

I hope this helps.


It does help - thanks!

One more thing, Ken,

I don't believe my complete message went through. What I suggested was that you check to see if you have fading or it just dried out. Unless wood is in direct sunlight for a long period of time, I doubt that it faded. To check and see what the actual color is, wet a rag with paint thinner and apply it to an inconspicuous place- such as the bottom section of woodwork. When it's wet, you can tell what it would look like if it were varnished. I do this any time I want to check bare wood to see what it would look like varnished, (it might need to be stained) or if I missed any places when I sanded. If the color comes back, you're ready to varnish. Being it's been left alone for such a long time, that's all you will have to do is clean it off with paint thinner and then apply the finish. If it has been waxed, I would suggest lightly sanding it after it's cleaned off.



I know that old (discontinued) product quite well, and used it over the years. It is quite soft, and you can actually rub it out with fine (4/0)  steel wool, and buff it with a woolen cloth, then apply a paste furniture wax.

One of the oddities of it is that over time it does lighten in color, but buff &  wax will bring it back.

Good luck.


Spar varnish is for boats, that are exposed continually to wet conditions. It never completely dries, and will be sticky and attract dirt for a long time.

I prefer orange (or clear, color choice is yours) shellac. It is long lasting - if not abused it can last for decades. It is easily renewable - if it is damaged or wears, apply a new coat, which melts into the existing coat for a seamless finish. It is renewable and non-toxic (wood salad bowls are finished with it). I stripped all of the wood in my 4500 square foot Victorian, and finished it with shellac. It is great for trim. Not the best for furniture, that can get drinks with alcohol on them (alcohol is the shellac solvent) but for trim it is great.

Polyurethane is a "plastic" coating, and is essentially a durable paint without the pigments. Great while it lasts, but when it fails it must be removed like paint (sanding, paint stripper) before it can be refinished. OK for floors, not so for trim IMHO, since it looks "plastic -y".


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