Canadian Woodworking

Finishing a project on December 24?

Blog by Rob Brown
Shellac dries fast so you can apply numerous coats quickly, making it a great option for finishing Christmas presents on December 24. You can mix your own or purchase it pre-mixed.

It’s that time of year again. Last-minute projects are fun, but they’re also stressful, especially when it comes to applying a finish.

Here are a few tips to help you select the best finish for the situation, apply it and help it cure, in hopes of speeding up the process so the finish you apply doesn’t soak through the wrapping paper.

The other 51 weeks of the year

When it’s not the week before Christmas, I choose from a wide variety of finishes, depending on many factors. The level of durability needed, whether the project will come into contact with water, the overall colour I want, the feel of the finished item and the method of application are some of my main factors in selecting a finish.

Diving into the details of each of these factors could make for a short textbook, so I’ll keep this part short and sweet. I regularly apply either oil-based poly, water-based poly, hardwax oil, a wiping oil, an oil-varnish mixture or shellac. Within each of these categories, there are a few different products I use.

Some of these finishes can be applied fairly quickly, so the project can be used quite soon, but others take days to build up enough coats to properly cure on a project.

My Christmas time approach

Generally speaking, if it’s the week before Christmas I stick with a finish I know, as I don’t want any surprises that may come with a finish I’m unfamiliar with. (The devil you know….) There’s still time to use one of my favoured options. But it gets tricky when it’s only a day or two before Christmas.

Most of the projects I’m making for Christmas aren’t huge cabinets, bookcases, tables or chairs. They’re smaller items like picture frames, cutting boards and chop sticks. This makes finishing a lot easier.

I usually (though not always) steer away from an oil-based poly, as applying enough coats takes a fairly long time to dry. If I really do need the ultimate in wear and water protection (which is what oil-based poly provides) I’ll apply slightly thin coats and put the project near a heat source, preferably one with moving air. A hair dryer, held at a medium distance, is a decent approach, though it means you have to spend time holding the hair dryer. Again, this is assuming the project is small. Even three or four minutes of very warm air, and the air movement a hair dryer provides, will speed the curing process quite a bit. Once you get tired of holding the hair dryer, turn it off and let the project sit until it’s dry enough to put on another coat. Typically (non-Christmas time) I let a project coated with oil-based finish dry for 24 hours before applying another coat, but a slightly thin coat, coupled with some time in front of a heat source with moving air, means I can likely apply another coat in a few hours. I wouldn’t build up the piece with five or six coats, as they still won’t dry as quickly as you’d like, but three (maybe four) fairly thin coats of oil-based poly can be applied fairly quickly. The main downside to this approach is the fact that you have to stand around acting like a hairdresser for what seems like an eternity. I often use an aerosol spray can to apply each coat of oil-based finish. This works nicely for intricate items like picture frames, etc.

Even putting a project in front of a heat register in your home, so warm air is regularly blowing on it, will greatly speed the drying process. Just make sure the family pet doesn’t get at it or your kids don’t step on it.

Water-based poly dries a lot faster than oil-based poly, though I generally don’t like it quite as much. It’s likely just a personal preference. You can apply three coats in one day, and that will provide the project with a fully formed film and a decent amount of protection. This is a good choice for pre-Christmas woodworking.

Applying two coats of a hardwax oil finish over a two-day period is fine. I’m guessing the finish will still need some time before it’s used, but as long as you relay that info to the gift recipient, things should turn out nicely.

A wiping oil like tung or Danish oil is a decent choice, but like the other finishes, it has pros and cons. I find two coats only leaves the surface looking starved for finish, so more coats are needed. This takes some time, as these finishes don’t dry quickly. On the upside, you’re not going to build up a film with this type of finish, so you don’t need to worry about ruining the finish with dust or fingerprints once you wipe off any excess and let it dry. I find wiping finishes take a fairly long time to dry, so warn the user it might smell for a few days, and that they should hold off on using the item until the finish has had more time to cure.

An oil-varnish mixture is very similar to the wiping oil approach. I tend to not use either of these finishes in the few days before Christmas, but you certainly could if you liked the look. They take longer to cure than most other finishes. One upside to these two finishes is they’re easy to apply, so you won’t ruin any of your projects.

Shellac is a good option. It dries quickly and can build to a nice sheen. Like any finish, it has its pros and cons, so don’t choose it just because you can build many coats in a few hours. If this project is going to have regular, heavy use in the kitchen, I’d steer away from it. Not because it’s unsafe to use with food, but because it’s not durable when it comes to wear or water.

It's all in the details

With all those thoughts above, there’s still some art left in this science discussion. There are times when you can push the limits of what we think a finish needs to be. Typically, a film finish needs many coats to be built up, but just yesterday I wiped on one thin coat of water-based poly on a picture frame and called it a day. Picture frames, like some other projects, get virtually no wear and never see water, chemicals or alcohol. As long as the surface is smooth it will be easy to dust and clean. Who says every finish needs to be applied as directed on the can? Not me. Think of the intended use of the project and apply a finish that will assist with that use.


If you have to ship a project I’d stay away from oil-based products, as they will off-gas for a lot longer, and because they’re tightly wrapped this may cause problems. If it’s a larger gift that took some time and energy to make, it might be an idea to let the receiver know it might be a few days late. It’s never fun to work hard on something only to ruin it or send it out knowing the finish is its weakest link.

There are pros and cons to everything

Test all of these finishes on a sample panel to avoid being surprised by the colour or look of the finish.

As always, it’s best to choose a finish based on its strengths and weaknesses, and think of what abuse and wear the project you’re finishing will go through in its lifetime. It’s no use making something that won’t stand up to regular use. If you need to (and I’ve done this in the past many times…I’m not proud!), tell the receiver you want it back for another day or so in order to apply one final protective and beautifying coat of finish, as you think it needs just a bit more TLC. I’ve never had someone turn me down.

Having said all this and having made many gifts over the years, I always tell myself next year I’ll start making my Christmas presents earlier. I never do.

One Good Option

Shellac dries fast so you can apply numerous coats quickly, making it a great option for finishing Christmas presents on December 24. You can mix your own or purchase it pre-mixed.
Shellac dries fast so you can apply numerous coats quickly, making it a great option for finishing Christmas presents on December 24. You can mix your own or purchase it pre-mixed.

One Good Option

Shellac dries fast so you can apply numerous coats quickly, making it a great option for finishing Christmas presents on December 24. You can mix your own or purchase it pre-mixed.

Last modified: December 21, 2023

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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