Modern finishes are crap for a variety of reasons, most importantly they are rigid inflexible films that will de-laminate when the wood moves. They cloud the surface with a petroleum distillate based plastic coating that does nothing to enhance the look nor provide real lasting protection.
I have used modern finishes during those moments when I was required to do so, but when I have a choice, which now is all the time, I choose traditional finishes as I do traditional woodworking and I restore antiques so I have to use traditional finishes. Using modern finishes and glues will greatly reduce the value of antiques and modern finishes and glues only have 50 to 60 years of history, shellac goes way back and hide glue to paleo times.
They have failed to synthesize shellac or hide glue and the modern varnishes, lacquers (not to be confused with real lacquer, Rhus vernicifera) and modern glues are weak attempts to improve upon the past. The problem is there was no need for improvement. The only need was to make those things cheaper, which they did after WWII. With the introduction of poly vinyl chloride, poly urethane and other nasty hydrocarbons, were cheaper to make than going out and collecting shellac or making glue from hides.
Well cheaper is usually never better, and with the increase of a barrel of oil (not linseed, walnut or whale) going up we shall see. And there are dangers in the manufacture of PVC and other complex petrochemicals, to the workers who make it and people who live near these chemical manufactories.
The problem with the plastic film finishes is that they are not flexible and can not move. And of course wood moves, so a finish that does not move with the wood will de-laminate and flake off. They are particularly susceptible to moisture and can trap it underneath the surface and cause mold, fungus and other damage.
The problem with plastic glues is the very same thing they don’t move, but do creep, clog up tools with swarf, interfere with stains and finishes, ruin your clothing, are a pain to clean up, are impossible to re-glue or reverse and are generally nasty.
Now of course I am a traditional woodworker, so traditional finishes and traditional glues are a natural and restoring antiques require the use of proper tools, materials and techniques, so as not to cause any damage, change history or screw things up.
Is anything more shiny than a French Polished surface? I think not. Is there a finer first treatment for wood than linseed oil? Well maybe Walnut Oil. Is there a finer varnish than a good Copal Oil Varnish, nay I say. Although I am courting Turpentine Varnish and hope to make up some Mastic and Burgundy Pitch Varnish in the near future, as soon as I get the Tinsmith to make up a couple of tin varnish cans.
There are hundreds and hundreds of old recipes for traditional furniture finishes, paints, varnishes, stains, dyes, fumes and treatments for wood that should provide a sufficient number of options to keep one busy for years. These old methods need to be preserved instead of ‘replaced’ by cheap crap.
The new finishes are ‘dead’, they have no life, they do nothing to ‘pop’ the grain of the wood, they just lay there in a dull haze (with a slight blue tint) and obscure the true nature of the wood. And of course not being able to move will flake off when the wood moves, because wood moves.
How does this relate to modern woodworking? Well the wood is still the same. It still behaves as it did 100 or 200 or 400 or 800 or 64,000 years ago, it is still wood. And there are finishes that are hundreds and hundreds of years old that are still in good condition. The introduction of modern finishes and glues is recent and that is when all of the trouble started.
We are an arrogant breed, we think that we can do things better, and of course there are things that I am happy have gotten better, water quality and antiseptics at the top of my list. But when it comes to woodworking, it reached its zenith in the mid nineteenth century, continued somewhat through the Industrial Revolution then continued to diminish until the mid 20th century and the introduction of petrochemical alternatives.
I am sorry for beating around the bush on this issue, straddling the fence and vacillating between indecision and not being able to make up my mind or being wishy-washy, I think this is important.