Although I've been making furniture professionally for over three years, I still find myself experimenting with finishes. I have a variety of finishes I use, dependent on the application and price point, but the majority of pieces that come out of my shop have some kind of oil finish on them. Of oil finishes there's a straight hard-drying oil finish (which would be like linseed or tung oil), an oil-varnish, which combines something like linseed oil with a varnish and often a solvent, or carrier, like turpentine or mineral spirits. For a couple years, nearly everything I produced was finished with an oil-varnish. What I like about an oil-varnish is that it's extremely durable, yet easy to maintain and update, when done with many coats: up to ten. If you're familiar with St. Leo, the restaurant in Oxford, MS, you'll see what I mean. For two years now these table tops, finished with an oil-varnish, have held up to the abuses of daily use. All they require from time to time is a light coat of finish and a new coat of wax, which can be done by anyone and takes no time at all. Like putting new oil in your truck every 3,000 miles, if you stay on top of it, your truck will last a long time. As a difference, when film finishes go bad (finishes like polyurethane, or spray finishes, which rest on top of the wood, rather than within it), the tables must be removed and altogether refinished by a professional. Because this would require something like a restaurant to shut down for a period of time, I try to push the client in the direction of the oil-varnish, which though slightly more expensive up front, saves money down the line.
While I'll probably always be a big believer in the oil-varnish, recently I've been dabbling with hard-wax oil finishes, such as Osmo Polyx Oil. There are others, such as Pallman's Magic Oil and Rubio Monocoat, which I also intend to give a try, but they are essentially similar. Developed as eco-friendly floor finishes, they are extremely hard wearing, yet more quickly applied than an oil-varnish, because they only require two coats usually, to the 5 or more of the oil-varnish. It's made from a blend of natural oil and waxes, with low VOC's, so it also has the benefit of being food safe, and therefore a good option for countertops. Like an oil-varnish, it is also easily repaired, but does not require the occasional updating (at least according to my reading, as I haven't used the product long enough to really know). It never flakes, and it resembles a low luster hand-rubbed oil finish, which is my favorite. Take a look at the pictures below to see what I mean.
Feel free to follow along as I explore these finishes in more depth, and really put their durability to the test.