The wood finishing section of any home improvement center is chock full of easy to apply combination stains and finishes which go on in just one or two coats. Unfortunately, they often contain ingredients which are quite toxic and not exactly "green," such as polyurethane or Verathane. On a recent episode of "The New Yankee Workshop" (actually a re-run of an older episode), a more traditional finishing method was demonstrated. Although it takes considerably longer and more effort, the components are of much lower toxicity (although appropriate safety precautions should still be taken with them - its not like you should drink shellac or inhale the vapors), and the result is a stunningly beautiful finish. Here are the steps:
1) Sand to 220 grit
2) Apply boiled linseed oil thinned with mineral spirits, using a cotton cloth. Wipe excess and let dry for a couple of days. This will bring out the richness of the wood color and grain.
3) Apply shellac (orange shellac, for example) as a protective topcoat. 10-12 thin coats. Dry time between coats is a couple of hours for thin shellac, overnight for thick.
4) Polish out brush marks and dust with 400 grit and 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper.
5) Polish with 0000 ("four aught") steel wool
6) Apply a thin coat of paste wax (this will temporarily dull the finish), allow it to dry according to the manufacturer's instructions, then buff out with a cotton cloth to restore the gloss. One or two additional coats can be applied if desired.