To me, the beauty of driftwood comes from having its surfaced worn away, bleached and sculpted by the elements. Real driftwood would never have an intact shiny finish. I definitely prefer a non-shiny finish in the pieces I create from actual driftwood found along the shore or even furniture pieces I have stripped down, sanded and re-created with a driftwood finish. Nonetheless, there are times when you may want or perhaps need a protective finish like when you have a tabletop that will get lots of use and will be subjected to water marks if not protected.
I’ve contacted many woodworkers and companies that specifically make finishes in an ongoing quest to find a good product that would ultimately protect the finish while not darkening the color.
A lot of people will use polyurethane on their driftwood furniture or even driftwood sculptures. This is one of the worst looks in my opinion. The polyurethane tends to be heavy and makes it look artificial and plastic-like. So what does one do?
I have found that lighter woods such as pine or birch handle some protective coatings better than others. And by better, I mean the color you get once you apply the protective finish does not get as dark as other woods, but still gets darker. I tried a product called High Performance Top Coat by General Finishes in a satin finish and I applied it over the Driftwood Weathered Wood Finish used on a piece of pine, birch and walnut. I was happy with the outcome on the pine as it was only 1-2 shades darker, but the walnut was 10x darker and even the birch became too dark for my liking. So, I would recommend this finish if your driftwood piece is pine.
I also tried another product called Safecoat® AcriGlaze Matte by American Formulating and Manufacturing (AFM), a company dedicated to safe green products. I ordered a sample bottle and tried the product on different sample boards of pine, birch and oak over the Driftwood Weathered Wood Finish. I was very happy with the results considering everything else I have tried produced a very dark finish. With the AcriGlaze Matte, I could see where I had applied the product but it really didn’t darken it by much and left no shine. On some samples, I could not even tell I had applied any finish at all. I am impressed with this product and would recommend it for use on bare driftwood or over a driftwood finish.
Here is a description taken from their PDF:
DESCRIPTION: Safecoat® AcriGlaze is a special mixing medium and finish suitable for use in the display, art and show fields. It is mildew resistant, odorless and dries clear. Ideal for restoring old finishes to their original brilliance, sealing and preserving painted work, faux finishing and as an adhesive for paper mache. Dries clear. Available in gloss and matte sheens. USE ON: Clear finish for masonry, brick, plaster, wood,
paneling, etc., where a soft low luster finish and sealer is desired. May be used both interior or exterior as a reducer for any type of waterbased paint. Excellent medium for artist colors and universal tints.
Another suggestion, although I have not tried this and could find very little info on the internet to make me want to try it, is to dilute authentic hide glue pellets with water – 1 part glue to 10 parts water and apply. Again, I have not tried this but I did buy the glue and I will try it at some point in time.
Another option might be Rust-oleum’s fairly new product, Neverwet which can be used on wood. I did see raw pieces of pine that had been sprayed with the Neverwet. It definitely resisted water but I did notice the “haze” which Rust-oleum states you will get. It might be acceptable on a driftwood piece that already has a bleached out and grayed look – the haze might not be as noticeable. It could be a viable solution to get a protective finish against water marks. You will have to periodically re-apply the Neverwet if you are constantly washing off your table top. The other big consideration is that it may be an unacceptable health risk.
If you still want to finish driftwood so that it is protected and preserved for years to come, and don’t mind the “shiny” look - read on.
Step 1: Smoothing the Surface of the Driftwood
You will need to begin by smoothing the surface of the wood using something like a 220 grit sandpaper to take off any rough spots. Nature will already have done most of the hard work for you, but there are usually a few spots that need a little bit of extra work. If the particular piece of driftwood you are working with has any sharp or broken ends, then these too need to be sanded away, to create a rounded and smooth surface.
Step 2: Pre-Treating the Driftwood
Next, you will need to treat the wood before it can be stained – if indeed you are going to stain the piece. For this you can use a wood conditioner, but do not apply it directly to the wood. Instead, soak a cloth in wood conditioner and then rub it into the surface of the driftwood. Once the wood has been generously coated, leave it to dry for 15 or 20 minutes. Some people are tempted to skip this stage and move straight on to staining their piece. Do not be tempted to do this. Applying a wood conditioner is essential to ensure that, when the stain is added, it will create an even finish.
Step 3: Applying the Stain
Time to apply a stain to your wood. You will want to put on rubber gloves for this step, so that you don’t end up with stained hands and, as with the wood conditioner, put the stain onto a cloth first, and then rub in into the wood. Apply any stain with a circular motion and rub it well into the wood. Once applied, leave the stain to soak in for between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on how deeply stained you want the wood to be.
Once you have the color you are looking for, rub any excess stain off using a dry rag, and set the wood to one side for several hours, until the wood is dry when you touch it and no stain comes off when you run your fingers along the surface.
Step 4: Applying Polyurethane
The final stage is to apply two thin coats of polyurethane to the whole surface of the driftwood piece, allowing 6 to 8 hours for the first coat to become dry before applying the second coat. Keep in mind that applying polyurethane or even beeswax polish will darken your finish considerably. I would test an area first if possible to make sure you like how dark it will become.
Your driftwood will now last for years and provide you with a wonderful and uniquely sculptured ornament to enjoy.