One of the worst things that can happen to a carver is to spend hours on a carving, only to ruin it when applying a finish. There are many methods of finishing a carving that work well, but eventually you may want to experiment to find what works best for you. Always try techniques on a scrap piece of wood, preferably a piece that's the same wood as your carving.
Once the acrylic or oil paint on your carving is dry, spray the entire carving with at least three light coats of lacquer, such as a semigloss or satin clear wood finish. Make sure to spray the top of your carving as well as under protruding parts such as brims of hats. Once dry after the final coat, use a crumpled piece of a paper bag to go over the carving to remove any rough areas left by the lacquer.
You can leave the carving as is, or for an antiqued look and to soften the look of acrylic paint, apply coloured wax over the lacquer. Be sure to have full coverage of lacquer on the carving, or it will end up too dark. Mix 50 per cent natural and 50 per cent dark wax in a container. Brush on the wax, making sure to cover all areas of the carving, except for the rough, outer part of cottonwood bark. Wipe the wax off using a soft cloth; use a brush to pull it out of areas that look too dark or where the wax has pooled. Leave the wax in areas you want highlighted, such as hair or creases in clothing. Let it dry for at least two hours and buff it to a soft sheen with a shoe brush.
Danish oil is a durable, good looking finish that is easy to apply. It can make basswood take on a golden colour, however. Apply the oil with a soft bristled brush and let it sit for 15 minutes. Use a soft cloth to wipe off the excess oil. Repeat the process the next day.
Shoe creme works as an effective finish for wood and cottonwood bark carvings. It's not known however, how long this type of preservative will last. In his book "Carving Tree Bark", author Rick Jensen states he knows of a carving finished with shoe creme that is 25 years old and still looks fine. Apply clear shoe creme to your carving to allow the wood grain to show through, or use coloured creme instead of paint. Work the creme into all parts of the carving with a bristle brush. Once dry, buff the carving with a horsehair shoe or rotary brush, apply a second coat and buff it again for a final finish.
Wax, or even floor wax, can be applied alone to a carving when you want the colour of the wood to show through. Brush it on, working it into crevices, and then use a horsehair brush to buff it once it's dry. It may take several coats to achieve a nice sheen.