Since I know nothing about wood finishes, I asked my trusted advisors Sharon Q and Garry V what I should do that would be most of all, easy and safe for rustic like me. First, get and read the book Understanding Wood Finishes by Bob Flexner, Fox Chapel Publishing 2010. I can’t believe I’ve spent my life until now in the dark about the differences between varnish, shellac, and lacquer. Then, understand the pore structure of the type of wood you’re using. Finally, consider again what is within your abilities and experience. Remember also that this is a sculpture, not a piece of furniture.
All that realized, I decided to use Arm-R-Seal Wipe-On Oil Varnish, available at Woodcraft. Garry said he’s had good results with it, and it was easy to control by wiping on, or off, with cloths. I set about carving up a test piece which would have samples of the different grain faces which are to be found in the sculpture.
I tested sanding both before and after he initial coat went on, and also tried up to two and three coats un-sanded, to see the effect. Ultimately I preferred a hard sculpted finish that retains the un-sanded sharp edges of the chisel marks, but not yet shiny or glossy.
The best outcome is probably to use a very heavy first coat, as much as will soak in, followed by two very thinly wiped-on coats. The color is nice. So much warmer than the raw wood. Not dry-looking.