These are my opinions on interior wood finishes. They are based in part on science, logic, and my own experimentation. They also rely somewhat on the testing and writing of others, although since I am a myth buster and skeptic, I believe very little of the conventional wisdom.
Finishing wood for interior applications serves the functions of (1) protecting the wood (mostly from liquids) and (2) enhancing the appearance of the wood. First, I’d like to dispel some myths.
Myth 1: Urethane and acrylic finishes give a “plastic” look to wood.
The plastic look people are referring to when they assert this claim is the result of high reflectivity or “gloss.” It is just as accurate to say that wood that is finished with a high-gloss surface has a “wet look” or has a “glass look” (indeed, these adjectives are sometimes used to market wood finishes). Surfaces are glossy when they reflect a lot of the light that hits them. Sure, wood can be imparted with a glossy finish with urethane or acrylic coatings. But, oil finishes, lacquers, shellacs, waxes, and other finishes can also be glossy. Furthermore, most finishes are available in low-gloss versions, usually called “satin.” So, the “plastic look” and the type of finish that is used on the wood are really two separate issues. As a technical aside, virtually all wood finishes are polymers (molecules comprised of long chains of carbon and hydrogen molecules), which is a technical term that includes all “plastics.” In fact, wood itself is a polymer (cellulose).