Wood furniture has always been a popular material for home furnishings. Sun exposure can be one of the most damaging elements on wood, causing permanent discoloration. Not only does wood fade, but it can also darken it, depending on the type of wood.

Your furniture requires a sealant to fight against the sun’s UV rays, but not all sealants are equal. The following are a few available options:

- Varnish is made from resins, oil and solvents, and is generally used as a top coat. They come in a variety of finishes, ranging from flat, egg shell, semi-gloss to high-gloss, and offer excellent protection against ultraviolet light, heat, water and everyday wear.

It's fairly easy to apply with a brush and has low toxicity, but does have one of the slower drying times. Typically allow 24 hours for the drying period and a week or more to cure. However, newer water-based varnish is ideal for indoor furniture due to its fast drying time, durability and clear nature.

- Lacquer is a solvent-based product containing nitrocellulose resin, which allows the coat of lacquer to dissolve into its previous coat. This makes lacquer rather forgiving, making it easy to apply, polish and repair any scratches or scuff marks.

Due to its evaporating solvents, it has an extremely fast drying time, creating a hard shell that gives furniture an intense gloss finish and a durable, long-lasting protection. However, it's best to be avoided on coarse grain wood, such as oak, or very soft wood, such as cedar.

- Polyurethane is essentially plastic in liquid form until it hardens. They come in both water- and oil-based options, as well as satin to glossy finishes. Water-based polyurethane goes on clear, is easy to apply and has a low toxicity level, but cost twice as much as oil-based counterparts.

While oil-based polys add a warm amber color to the wood, it’s fairly toxic and takes much longer to dry. Both kinds are long-lasting and extremely durable, offering protection against scratches and abrasions, making them a popular option among DIYers.

However, they can be susceptible to cracking under heat and sudden shock, making them less ideal for intricately curved furniture.

- Shellac is a natural product made from the resin of lac bugs and mixed with an alcohol solvent, creating an extremely fast-drying sealant. It brings out the rich warmth of wood grains, while keeping the surface soft and natural. It's especially attractive on walnut, mahogany and fine veneer woods.

Whilst easy to apply, it isn't as durable nor holds up to heat as well as some of the other sealants, offering only average resistance to scratches and wear. Thus, it is best used on decorative pieces that won’t encounter hard wear.

Shellac is available in liquid, solid and flake form, although the liquid variety would be best suited to homeowners. They also have the shortest shelf life among the sealants.

- Wax and oil finishes are the easiest to apply, requiring only a rag and some elbow grease. They will enhance the wood, leaving it rich and natural. The ease of application leaves little room for mistakes, but the downside is their lack of durability.

They offer little protection against the elements and scratches from everyday wear. They also require more regular upkeep, depending on how often the furniture is used. Most furniture can get by with a new layer every three to five years, while tabletops and chair arms usually require attention every six months to a year. 

Which wood sealer is best?

Sealants not only protect the wood from environmental factors, it can also greatly enhance the beauty of the wood grain. Select the best sealant based on the type of wood you have and how much light it receives on a day-to-day basis. Softwoods, such as pine and cedar, will require more maintenance than hardwoods like oak and teak.

In addition, it’s important to be mindful of how wood is exposed. Specific laminations for window glass can reduce UV light transmission, diminishing the effect of sunlight. Curtains blocking a strong morning or evening sun can act the same way. But also, relocating items can help even out the impact of sunlight.

For instance, keeping a sun-exposed shelf clear of permanent accessories will prevent the wood from fading or darkening where a vase or lamp sat. If you do keep pieces out on such a shelf, moving the pieces around frequently will help evenly distribute the wood’s sun exposure, making it less apparent.

Move rugs around
Similarly, rugs kept in one location on a hardwood floor will show its outlines after months to years. Dealing with this requires moving your furniture to new locations periodically, which may not be easy; however, if your floor plans allow it, then rearrange your furniture every couple months to even out the sunlight’s impact.

Exposing pieces from different angles will lengthen their life and even out their exposure.

Keep fabrics from fading
Fabrics are going to be affected by the sun in different ways, and no fabric is 100-percent safe from damage. Fabrics made of acrylic, polyester and vinyl are going to hold up much better in the sun than those made of linen or silk, which will fade significantly quicker.

Outdoor fabrics are made specifically to stand up to the elements and could be a potential option for your indoor furniture that sits in the sunshine.

Be aware that the color of the fabric will make a difference as well. Lighter fabrics will show less fading and darker fabrics will show more fading. Keep that in mind when selecting a chair or sofa fabric for high-exposure areas in your home, such as a sunroom or screened-in porch.

Leather furniture cracks and fades
Sun and leather do not mix well together. Sun exposure with leather pieces cause significant fading and drying, especially if it sits directly adjacent to a window. Over time, the leather’s natural oil slowly evaporates, causing stiffening and cracking.

The darker the color, the more prone the leather will be to fading. Once leather has faded, the color cannot be restored without redyeing or reupholstering the piece.

Apply a leather conditioner
In addition to limiting direct sunlight exposure — particularly during the warmer months — conditioning the leather as often as twice a year can help prevent drying and cracking. Avoid using cleaning products not specifically designed for leather.

Leather conditioners can be purchased at furniture stores, or even auto part stores. They are of a creamy consistency that is designed to be buffed into the leather. For slightly faded pieces, a color refresh product buffed into the leather can help breath some new life back into it. More serious damage would require it to be reupholstered.