There just seems to be a mind numbing amount of choices. For the most part, I've refinished hardwood floors and then what other small woodworking projects I've done, I stuck to what I know...polyurethane. I did; however, just put a table top together for my workbench and went with...stain then Danish oil then a couple of coats of wax...it came out wonderful and I understand what you mean by feel of the surface. Only thing is that I went with Danish oil because that seemed to be what kept coming up when googling the subject not because I have any real understanding of why. That's not to say that I didn't / don't understand that a polyurethane surface is not what I want on a workbench. There are just so many other options...boiled linseed oil, tung oil, varnish etc etc and I really have no idea what the difference truly is and why to pick one over another in any given circumstance.
From another relative beginner: I have found it useful to play around with different methods of application. Sometimes I want a smooth finish where you cannot feel the grain but sometimes I want the texture in the finished surfaces. So try applying varnish (or other product) with both a rag and a brush. Try thin coats and heavier coats. Try boiled linseed oil or mix it with varnish. Experiment. One product that easy to use and apply is General Finishes Arm-R Seal. Looks great whether applied by foam brush or wiped on depending on how thick you want the finish. I also like General finishes High performance water base polyurethane.
One great learning tool for multiple step or multiple coat finishes is to make a finish board say 5" x 12". Sand the entire board just like you would for your project. Cover 1" of the board at one end with tape and then apply the first coat or stain or whatever your first step is over the rest of the board. Then cover the next 1" of the board next to the first piece of tape and apply a 2nd coat. Then tape again etc. This will give you a visual record of what each step in the process looks like. Label each step on the back of the board and you have a permanent record for future reference. I am getting in the habit of doing this for any project where I am using a stain, tint or finish method that that I haven't used before so that I can see what it will look like before I work on the actual project.
Made this for my wedding last year. The small stars are pine and the larger dark ones are (if I remember correctly) walnut. Just used fine tip sharpies from Walmart, and when they were all signed, sprayed with a rattle can of poly. The ink went into the wood great with pine. No bleeding around the letters. The spray sealed the ink in so it won't smear. That option worked great in my experience. Hope that helps
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