DIY - Finishing Techniques

Matt varnish or gloss varnish - safe or risky choice

About matt furniture and shiny we've talked before. I've said which is easier to maintain, which is harder, what are the pros and cons of choosing one or the other. But there is another way of looking at the choice. That of the manufacturer, of the passionate carpenter who works with love and dedication and who wants the wood to retain its beauty and even increase its value after varnishing. So for these wood lovers, which is the best choice, matt varnish or gloss varnish?

First of all it must be said that it is very important what the client wants and it is good to respect this, especially if it comes with a project made by an architect or designer. They have certainly set the furniture in a context and it must be executed in such a way that, in the end, everything is coherent.

wooden furniture
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But there are also situations where the customer lets the manufacturer decide, or where the craftsman is working on something for which he also chooses the finish. The title suggests that there is a safe choice and a risky one. While applying a matt varnish is not too much of a problem, finishing with gloss, especially mirror gloss, is difficult and a few conditions must be met to get a quality result.

Often the gloss of furniture is equated with the existence of the lake. There are people who believe that furniture has not been lacquered when it does not shine. This is not the case. The degree of gloss of a varnish is given by its ability to reflect light and ranges from 0 to 100% and can be measured with a device called a glossmeter. Within this range there are several levels. From 0 to 7 we speak of deep matt (or natural effect), 10-40 is matt, 45-65 semi-matt (or satin as it is sometimes called in production), 70-90 glossy, 90-100 high gloss or mirror gloss.

matt varnish or gloss varnish
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For a furniture manufacturer it is much easier to produce matt furniture. The higher the gloss level, the more difficult it becomes to achieve a beautiful surface, the harder it is to achieve mirror gloss. If glossy surfaces are desired, from 70 upwards, it is not enough for the lacquer to have that degree of gloss. Several conditions must also be met:

  • the working environment must be very clean. Any dust trapped in the film is more visible the glossier the varnish. As it is difficult to maintain a dust-free environment in the absence of pressurised spray booths or capped finishing lines, polishing is needed to remove impurities.
matt varnish or gloss varnish
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  • The gloss varnish must be applied on a very well laid and sanded primer. The film must not look like orange peel, not very thin, no dust or air bubbles included. This is why large-bodied hard primers are used, which can be well sanded to provide the necessary base for the varnish. To give you an idea of what the primer should look like before applying the gloss varnish, I will tell you that gloss determinations are made by applying the varnish to a piece of glass.
  • The varnish should not dry very quickly to give the film time to set and spread as well as possible. If it is not well spread it does not reflect light well and polishing is needed to remove surface imperfections.

To see the difference between a matt and a glossy varnish you can do an experiment. Apply matt varnish and gloss varnish in the same room on 2 different pieces of wood. After drying we will have the feeling that the dust has been attracted by the glossy finish. In fact the dust has deposited the same on both samples, but it is only visible on the gloss varnish.

The glossy finish is also difficult because it highlights any defects. If the woodwork has not been done well, the slightest scratch will be highlighted and magnified.

The gloss of the varnish is also chosen according to what we want to achieve and the resulting furniture must be in accordance with the space where it will be placed. If you want a table top with natural lookthen a deep matt varnish should be chosen and the finish should be as thin as possible (2 thin coats, one of primer and one of varnish) to avoid a noticeable film.

matt varnish or gloss varnish
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Also, if working with rustic or reclaimed wood, everything looks more natural if matt varnishes are applied.

matt varnish or gloss varnish
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When you want to achieve a luxurious piece of furniture, you can choose a glossy lacquer in addition to an elegant design. Gloss has always been associated with luxury, with wealth. After all, gold and precious stones sparkle, don't they? And to keep it simple, you don't necessarily need mirror gloss, you can also use polishes with a gloss level above 70. In addition, gloss varnishes, because of their high transparency (due to the lack of a matting agent), bring out the natural beauty of the wood.

matt varnish or gloss varnish
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The easiest and most "covering" is to use 30-40 gloss varnishes. They are also the best-selling varnishes. I say covering because they will gloss just enough to show that the furniture is lacquered, without the problems of higher gloss varnishes.

matt varnish or gloss varnish
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And from a maintenance point of view, the winner is still matt furniture. Fingerprints are less visible, dust is also less visible, it does not need to be polished, wiping is enough, no fine scratches from dust particles are visible.

When we talk about furniture gloss, it's not about pretty or ugly. We are very different and what is very beautiful for one may be impossible to look at for another. There are fashions and styles that can influence our choices, but in the end it's all about what we like. But for a manufacturer it is important to choose the finish they can make and to tell the customer what they can expect when they choose a particular finish for their furniture.

About the author

Mihaela Radu

Mihaela Radu is a chemical engineer but has a great passion for wood. She has been working in the field for more than 20 years, wood finishing being what defined her during this period. She gained experience working in a research institute, in her own company, as well as in a multinational. She wants to continuously share her experience with those who have the same passion - and more.


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  • Very interesting article. I need a varnish for my interior staircase's fir wood countertops. Initially I was going to opt for a glossy one but reading the article I changed my mind and will opt for a "covering" varnish with a gloss level of 30-40. I don't know what brand of varnish to get and how to measure the gloss level because I don't have a glossmeter. Do I find this gloss level written on the box? Can you recommend a brand?

    • And I have another concern. In this video the primer is applied, left for a while and then 2 coats of varnish are applied over it. Between the application of primer and varnish I don't see any finishing (sanding). Is this correct?

      • On the boxes of DIY products it doesn't exactly say glossy, but it does say glossy or matt. Get the matte one, usually its gloss level is 30-40.
        I don't know which video you are referring to, but normally you should sand the primer after drying. Sanding helps both the adhesion and the nice appearance of the film. Sanding removes raised grain, gas, orange peel, anything that ruins the look of a film. My recommendation is to sand the primer before varnish application.

  • Hello
    I am painting on wooden boards; please advise me which varnish I could use so that applied both on the painted and on the unpainted area of the wooden board I can get a matt varnish that does not distort the painting by light reflections. Unfortunately I don't see any way to attach a picture of a work. The wood plate is partially painted the unpainted area acting as a frame.
    I was thinking of masking the two areas one at a time with paper tape and applying an oil on the wood and a water-based varnish on the paint, but I don't know if problems occur in the contact area. I have tried waxed serac which seems good for both surfaces but affects the colours a bit.
    Thank you.

    • Hello. If the paintings are made with water-based colours, you can use a solvent-based varnish (acrylic, for example) with a low gloss (between 0 and 10) on top. This way you will have no interaction between colours and varnish and no gloss.
      You can also use oil and water-based varnish. Apply the varnish first and after it is completely dry you can apply oil to the protected area. There will be no repulsion in the contact area. If you apply the oil first and then the varnish, or apply them at the same time, then incompatibility problems may occur.
      All the best.

    • Hello!
      It is an alkyd varnish that dries more slowly (min 24 hours) and the smell will persist. For bedding it is better to choose a water-based (water-thinnable) interior varnish. Don't choose universal varnishes, good both indoors and outdoors, like the one mentioned. Outdoor varnishes should be more elastic and for this reason they are not very hard, they scratch easily.
      All the best!


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