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What’s a Good Way to Finish a Mahogany Woodworking Project?

In this video, I used 4 of my favorite products for hand-applied finishes, and in this order:

Tung oil varnish, dewaxed shellac, gel polyurethane, and paste wax. 

 

Why This Finish?

I arrived at this set of products because I like how the tung oil varnish gives this wood a beautiful, warm glow – but I figured a table top might benefit from the added toughness of a polyurethane. Here’s how to get the best of both worlds.  

In short, this recipe handles the essentials – 

  1. Brings out the natural beauty in the rusty-red color
  2. Adds some tough protection
  3. It’s easy to do

To understand a little more, let’s walk through each product and why I used it. 

The tung oil varnish brings out the warm, deep reddish brown color, and it’s super simple to apply by wiping it on and off with a shop towel.  Except, I also “wet sanded” the tung oil varnish, which is an optional technique. I like the way the wet sanding action fills the grain with mahogany dust which helps accentuate the nuances in the grain patterns. Notice, too, that this isn’t 100% tung oil. Instead, this is a tung-oil-with-varnish blend, and that simply means it’s easier to work with, dries faster, and contains a bit of varnish that dries hard. 

Dewaxed shellac simply seals the tung oil varnish and ensures compatibility for the gel polyurethane. Admittedly, you might be able to forfeit this step. I used it just to make sure the gel polyurethane would adhere to the project. Why? Because there’s a chance that it may not adhere to the tung oil varnish even after it’s cured. So, to be safe, I sealed it with dewaxed shellac because it’s essentially a universal sealer that’s compatible with virtually all top coat wood finishes. 

Likewise, the gel polyurethane isn’t absolutely necessary, either. But it is a tougher top coat than the tung oil varnish by itself. Likewise, you could skip this and simply apply only the Tung Oil Varnish, perhaps building up 8 to 10 coats or so. That’s perfectly acceptable to do, especially on projects like a decorative box, shelving, a chest of drawers, etc, that don’t need the water and abrasion resistance that polyurethane offers. 

Since this is a table top, I jumped over to gel polyurethane for the final 3 coats. And I picked a gel type because I find it easier to apply than a brush-on type…. and I think more people would benefit from learning about how easy gel polyurethane is to apply. So here we are. 

And finally, I applied a little paste wax after letting the last coat dry for a few days. Why paste wax? Je ne sais quoi. It gives the project a little shine and helps give it a baby-bottom smooth feel. 

 

Watch the video above to follow along with each step of the way, post your questions below. 

 

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***
About Mahogany

We might want to set a couple things straight about this wood. There’s more than one species that gets tagged with the name “mahogany.” To a large degree, when I say mahogany, I’m talking about the stuff known throughout the industry as Genuine Mahogany, which is botanically named Swietenia macrophylla

So why do I care?

Once upon a time, everyone referred to it as “Honduran mahogany” because Honduras was the primary country that produced mahogany lumber. Regretfully, the country over-harvested their supply and the majority of the production shifted to other parts of Central and South America where Swietenia macrophylla trees grew. Which is practically everywhere from Mexico to Bolivia.

So even though the same wood grows in Honduras as what might come from Bolivia, it’s not quite fair to call it “Honduran” if it didn’t really get harvested and exported from Honduras soil. So the industry uses the term genuine. 

Likewise, this differentiates it from African mahogany, which is another wood with a similarly regal appearance and timeless beauty. But it’s plentiful, popular, and quite inexpensive. African mahogany and genuine mahogany, for the most part, look alike. They have some differences that you can feel with your hands, but you’ll need a trained eye to tell the difference just by looking at them side by side. However, Africa is a totally different continent. 

Finding Sustainably Managed Mahogany

In the 1940s, the British more or less saw the writing on the wall for the future of Honduran mahogany as the forests in Honduras depleted. To ensure the future supply of this species of mahogany, they re-planted and set up managed plantations of Swietenia macrophylla trees in (of all places) Fiji. 

Plantation grown genuine mahogany not only relieves the natural forests of the downsides of tree harvesting, but it also is managed to ensure the future supply of the wood while providing economic opportunity for the island locals. 

 

 

 

Vice President of Operations – Woodworkers Source
We’re a family-owned lumber & woodworking supply retailer with 3 delightful stores in Arizona, and 35 friendly employees.
Mark oversees the company and creates tutorials on wood finishing and woodworking tips for hardwood lumber.


Discussion, Questions & Answers


  • Jen

    Hi Mark!
    Can I lightly sand down a veneer’s top layer (topcoat/polyurethane) & then stain the veneer a different color, using a water based stain or watered down chalk paint (for a stained look)?

    • Yes, but it’s a lot easier to use a chemical stripper to remove the existing finish than it is to sand it off.

  • Chris Gersman

    Hi Mark, thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge! How would you attack a room of African Mahogany veneered 1/4″ plywood? I’ve cut 4×8 sheets into 2’x2′ panels to cover old paneling from the 60s. Just not sure how the veneer will react/absorb a multitude of applications. I’ll also be using 1/2″x3″ Mahogany to separate the panels. I imagine these will also react differently considering they’re not a thin veneer. Thanks for any help Mark. Staining it Red Chestnut (MinWax).

    Chris Gersman https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7f9a088f5a72ad51b3bc94c78976584785d69ac938f4028d761408bfc173ebaa.jpg

    • Man, that’s going to look awesome!

      Did you save any of the plywood fall offs? You need to make a test sample with the stain and what ever topcoat you’re going to use. Test on the plywood and the solid stock, see how they look.

      If they don’t come close to matching satisfactorily, there are a few ways to attack the problem, but I’d probably suggest a *gel* stain instead as a simple, reasonable alternative. Gel stains are really good at leaving a uniform coat of color.

      The issue with veneer vs solid when it comes to staining and finishing actually has more to do with the fact that the plywood or veneer can very well be a different species of mahogany. Not so much that veneer is thinner. So, if they come out taking the color a bit differently (or severely differently), try a gel stain in the same color tone you want.

      If you still get awkward color difference between the plywood and solid, the best thing to do is dye, seal, glaze, and topcoat — that’s probably the ultimate way to achieve a uniform color when you’re working by hand. But for this project, a whole room . . . . that would be a big project. I’d assume that’s more than you want to tackle (but I don’t know!) A good gel stain would most likely produce a perfectly fine color without a bunch of steps.

      That circles me back to my first bit of advice, make a test sample and judge from that. If it sucks, let me know, then we’ll work through some alternatives.

  • WoodworkerD

    I love this finish. Looks beautiful. Think I’m going to try it on some Walnut.

    My question is this: I know the dewaxed shellac is somewhat optional intermediary, but could I use SealACell instead? Would it function similarly? And then apply the gel on top?

    I only ask because I have it and it’s easy. Or would I be better off just skipping the shellac?

    • Fair question. It’s a toss up. I would be inclined to skip it rather than replace it.

  • Hill Paige

    Hi Mark — this is AWESOME and so helpful! I’m getting ready to finish — for the first time ever — a simple mahogany table and chairs. For the table top and chair tops, I’m hoping for the slickest, glossiest finish that shows the most contrast and special features of the wood — and is kid/spill friendly. Would you recommend I follow your process, as in the video, but use dark/blk grain filler in lieu of the paste wax? Is it applied the same way/at the same time (e.g. a few days after the 3rd coat of gel polyurethane)?

    Also, would this sort of finish be pretty waterproof and resistant to stains (esp water ring stains)? If not, any tips?

    Finally, what product (pad?) do you use for the hand scuffing in your video? THANKS IN ADVANCE!!!!

    • You’re too kind, thanks. As for the grain filler, no, you wouldn’t use it instead of the wax. They play two different roles, so grain filler doesn’t replace the use for a final buff with wax. But filling the grain with a dark or black color will definitely look awesome on mahogany. Depending on the kind of filler, you would either apply it right to the bare wood then move on to the finishing, or you would grain fill after one coat of sealer.

      The gel polyurethane topcoat will work great to protect that table top from the (impressively) destructive forces of children. Except a 4-year-old’s ballpoint pen drawings right on the wood finish – a story for another time, though. But yes, it’s very resistant to water rings etc. A coat of wax on top adds a “wear layer” to the finish, meaning even though wax isn’t super tough, it’s like the first line of defense and you can re-apply a coating when the table starts to look a little worn.

      The pads are sometimes call “synthetic steel wool” you can find them here
      https://www.woodworkerssource.com/shop/search.html?Search=synthetic+pad

  • Matthew Groters

    Hi Mark, I like the process you describe here for finishing the mahogany. Would you suggest I vary the procedure for a small patio side table with walnut slats for the top and shelf? I suspect you won’t recommend the gel poly for finishing the frame for the reasons you stayed in comments to others.

    • Hmmm, hard to say other than I *probably* wouldn’t use any of these products on a patio table. Good weather resistance characteristics tend to be the ace card when picking a wood finish for an outdoor project.

      Do you expect to keep it out of direct sunlight? My usual preference is to use an exterior oil finish (Watco makes one that you can find at hardware stores) and apply 3 or 4 coats. Since it’s very easy to refresh it after a year or two of living outside, that’s my typical suggestion. Just clean off the table and wipe on a new coat when it needs it. That finish will also give a really nice warm glow to the color of the wood.

      Or an exterior or marine varnish is the second good choice for outdoor furniture. Usually that’s a brush-on affair and, yes, a little easier to deal with than a gel form between the slats.

      • Matthew Groters

        Hey Mark, thanks so much for your reply to my question. I actually intend to be keeping this inside most of the time. It will be in my new son’s room for the time being. I really like the Finish you achieved with that tung oil and I mainly asked about varying it for outside because I might have it outside in the summer at times but it would probably not live outside permanently maybe just for parties or stuff that we have going on outside. Because of that and because it would be in a house most of the time filled with little children running around I wondered if it might be prudent to apply an additional top coat over that rubbed out tung oil finish. This would be to protect it from whatever abuse it might sustain. Any comments you could have about this I would appreciate very much. PS there is a picture of this side table attached. At least I tried to attach it.

        • Oh, okay. Sure thing! Then forget everything I just said. You could use this finish sequence in the video, no problem. You’ll like it.

          Sadly, it won’t be indestructible….but for the uses you just said it’ll be fine. Any kind of furniture needs to be handled with care over the long haul, but life happens too. Kids, spills, dents, and scratches are inevitable. That’s what re-finishing is for 🙂

          • Matthew Groters

            Thanks! Do you think that Tung oil finish could benefit from the extra protection of a polyurethane top coat to give it extra protection against a kid plentiful environment? Or would this take more away from the overall finish quality to be worth it? I guess what I’m trying to do is achieve a quality oil based finish with a protective top coat of something that will preserve or lock in and protect the oil finish underneath. Is that a common practice or doable? Or is it not recommended? For instance I remember you did the video of the Walnut standing height desk with Danish oil and then topcoated with polycrylic water based polyurethane from minwax. I thought it turned out great, so I was wondering if I could get a similar finish using the Tung oil you used on the mahogany followed by an oil based polyurethane for added protection?

            • Yes, actually that’s exactly what I did in this video with the mahogany table top. It’s topcoated with a gel polyurethane just for a tougher final coat.

              The tung oil varnish I used on my desk top has been surprisingly durable too! Even though I use it everyday shuffling papers and coffee mugs, its been a pretty solid finish.

  • Phoebe

    Hi Mark, I appreciate your knowledge on this. Well experienced. How about using other kind of woods with finishing like this?

    • Sure thing. I take requests! Anything in particular you want to see?

      • Phoebe

        Hi Mark, just let me see with any kind..Thanks

  • Don Edwards

    Mark, did you use the same process on the entire table, or just the top? I got inspired by this video and purchased mahogany when you had the sale a couple weeks back. I am ready to assemble the legs and rails, and wonder if I skip the poly will the finish appear much different from the top? I’ll send a picture when complete…

    • You can skip the poly on the legs and rails. And that’s probably what I would do since they’re easier to finish with that thinner wipe on tung oil varnish.

      Gel is harder to wipe out of the corners and crannies, and that’s really the top reason not to use it on those parts. 3 or 4 wipe on coats of the tung oil varnish will work fine on legs and rails. You’ll get the color that way.

      Again the reasons for the gel poly on the table top is that you can build up a tougher coating faster. So for table tops its fantastic. But the gel formula is not as easy to use on project parts with tight corners, reveals, appliques. It’s not wrong, impossible or dumb to use it on this kinds of areas, just more painstaking.

    • To answer your question, no, the maple legs and rails are actually finished with dewaxed shellac and lacquer, both sprayed on. Which is another approach you could take.

  • Dan Watson

    Mark: Appreciate your knowledge and experience. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the use of CrystaLac wood grain filler? I saw it being promoted by knowledgeable people and bought some to test out on a piece of Mahogany and was impressed, but not sure about its longevity. For me, one of the challenges of doing a wood finish is to not have it look like plastic laminate with so many coats of filler and protection. I am always looking for ways to keep a wood feel and look without going overboard. Thanks.

    • I’d say there’s no reason to use a grain filler of any kind when you want the feel of wood texture. Grain filling to get that glass-smooth finish might be in stark contrast to the finish you prefer to do. But in the instances where you do want that kind of finish, then yes use a grain filler. I’ve never used Crystalac, so I have no real opinion about it. But I can say I do like using dark tinted grain filler to add a kiss of contrast rather than color matching or attempting a clear filler.

  • Roger G. Fordham

    Hi Mark, I just watched your video on finishing a Mahogany top and liked your four step process. I just finished making a solid Alder Table Desk and was wondering if you would change any of the four steps you used? I don’t want to stain the piece but would welcome your suggestions.

    I enjoy all of the finishing videos you put up and am a frequest purchaseer of wood and supplies at the Tempe store.
    Best regards and keep up the good and valuable work.

    • Hi Roger. Sure, this process would work fine on alder.
      However, since alder doesn’t have much open grain, it’s debatable if the wet sanding application would give you much benefit. It won’t hurt, though. But the only advantage that I think you’ll notice is in how nice it will feel to the touch after a couple coats. Whether it’s sanded in or not, the tung oil varnish will certainly give the alder a nice warm amber.

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