Lacquer is tough, resilient, easy to apply, relatively inexpensive and therefore by far the most common finish used on new furniture today. Lacquer is usually applied in a series of coats, and is sanded between each one.
It is very popular with furniture manufacturers because it dries very quickly, thereby allowing several coats to be applied in a matter of hours.
Lacquer, especially catalytic lacquer, is very resistant to water, alcohol and staining and requires little maintenance. An occasional waxing with a good quality paste wax will keep it looking great. Otherwise, the surface can simply be wiped down with a damp cloth. Remember to never use nail polish or nail polish remover near lacquer, as the strong solvents will dissolve the finish.
Rarely used now because of its fragility, French polish is a labour intensive finish achieved by applying linseed oil and shellac onto a wooden surface and then rubbing and rubbing and rubbing it in. This finish was often used on finer antiques made of walnut or mahogany.
The French polish will show white water marks if wet. When this finish dries out, it will literally disappear and dissolve into powder. To maintain this finish you must wax regularly or treat with a furniture restorer of wax and oil.
Oil and wax finishes are the easiest and least expensive to apply but are also often the poorest quality. Usually the oil or wax is applied directly to the wood surface where it soaks in and dries.
While some oil finishes such as Tong Oil partially seal the wood, they do not provide a film or barrier to protect the wood the way other finishes do. As the wood dries out, more oil or wax must be applied. Because the wood is not completely sealed, the surface is unprotected and will absorb all the dust and dirt particles that come in contact with it. However if you have a piece with either an oil or wax finish, apply wax when it appears to be dry. Wax can be applied to an oil finish because wax and oil are often used together in the initial finishing process. Wax finishes are also very susceptible to water stains which turn the wax white. To remove water stains, apply more wax with a cloth or very fine steel wool and then buff.
Varnish has been used for over a hundred years and is still the finish of choice for a few do-it-yourself cabinet makers. Varnish is tough and has a nice "feel of patina" to it. However, it is not nearly as popular as the new polyurethane finishes which are even tougher, dry much more quickly, and are now water based rather than mineral spirits based. Varnished furniture should be cleaned with mild soap and water and maintained with paste wax.