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Here are three nice ways to help give walnut its best finish possible. Each method produces beautiful color without making the wood look unnatural.

When we say walnut looks great with a finish, you’re probably asking, “Um… which finish?” Good question. However the answer isn’t exactly a simple one because you can apply dozens of techniques to walnut and the wood will . . . look great.

But here are three really good ways to give walnut a nice appearance in your custom walnut furniture projects or small decorative projects that you can easily master. Each board you see above is a glue-up panel 10″ to 12″ wide, and about 24″ long, and each one is detailed below.

1. Grain Filler: Adds Contrast and Helps Achieve a Glass-Smooth Top Coat

Why and When?

It should be pretty clear that a tinted woodgrain filler (AKA paste wood filler) adds emphasis to the grain pattern by putting a little contrast in the pores. This method is especially useful when you want to make a table top, desk top, counter, to get a smooth clear top coat finish. And especially if you want to get a high-gloss sheen, you’ll want to fill the grain before applying your clear finish.

Supplies & Products

    • Sanding sealer (Zinsser SealCoat is used in this sample)
    • Old Masters Woodgrain Filler
    • A dark brown oil stain (Zar Moorish Teak used in this sample)
    • Cotton rags, shop towels, foam brushes
    • Putty knife or a 6″ squeegee
    • Denatured alcohol
    • Mineral Spirits or paint thinner
    • Abrasives and/or finishing pads
    • Latex gloves

How to apply it

  1. Prep your work as you normally would by hand planing, scraping and/or sanding. You shouldn’t need to go any finer than 180 or 220 grit for this process. Once it’s smooth and flat, seal the wood with a thin coat of sealer. If using SealCoat, apply it with a “shellac pad” – a small cotton rag balled up and soaked in SealCoat, then wrapped in a clean cotton rag.
  2. Lightly scuff sand once it’s dry.
  3. Prepare the grain filler. Oil based grain fillers are usually a dull gray or tan color and therefore need to be tinted with an oil stain. The darker the oil stain, the more contrast it’ll provide in the pores. 2 parts filler to 1 part stain. Mix it in a cup.
  4. Apply the grain filler. Use a brush or a rag to apply the woodfiller to your work going with the grain. Work it in for 2 to 3 minutes, then let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes. It’ll leave a thick coating all over your work piece.
  5. Remove the grain filler. Going diagonal to the grain with a putty knife, squeegee or old credit card, scrape the grain filler off the surface . This pulls it off of the surface, but leaves it in the pores. You can gently wipe left over residue with a shop towel
  6. Allow it to dry, usually 8 hours.
  7. Sand if necessary. Sometimes you’ll find a deposit of grain filler on the surface that you missed when wiping it off. If so, use 220-grit wet/dry sandpaper and a little bit of mineral spirits. Filler clogs sandpaper quickly, the mineral spirits helps keep the abrasive from loading up too fast.
  8. Apply a coat of sealer.
  9. You should discover that one application of the grain filler doesn’t fill the grain 100%. If you’re satisfied with the appearance, though, move on to your top coat. Otherwise, do another application of the grain filler. Usually three applications of grain filler alternated between coats of sealer is sufficient for 100% fill. Then apply your top coat of choice.

 

2. Wet-Sanded Tung Oil Varnish: Augments Natural Contrast in Walnut + Fills Grain

Another way to fill grain is to simply use the dust from walnut mixed with oil. To some degree, this method is easier than using grain filler.

Why and When?

If you like the look of an oil finish, consider trying tung oil varnish. This finish gives walnut a dark yet warm color, and if you choose to apply it by wet-sanding, this too can fill the grain as above. The appearance is only slightly different – but different nevertheless. Tung oil varnish can be used by itself, and then buffed to a semi-gloss or satin sheen with paste wax after 3 or 4 coats. Or, once the tung oil varnish dries, it can be topcoated with polyurethane, shellac, or lacquer.

Supplies & Products

    • Old Masters Tung Oil Varnish
    • 220, 400 and 600 grit wet/dry sand paper
    • Cotton rags, shop towels
    • Mineral Spirits or paint thinner
    • Latex gloves

How To Apply It

  1. Prep your work as you normally would by hand planing, scraping and/or sanding. You shouldn’t need to go any finer than 180 or 220 grit for this process.
  2. Using a rag or shop towel, coat your work piece with a liberal amount of the Tung Oil Varnish. Be sure to get the edges and end grain.
  3. While the oil is wet, sand it with 220-grit wet/dry sand paper. Go with the grain. Wrap the sand paper around a block if you want, or just use your fingers. The wood dust mixes with the oil and creates a paste, so as you sand back and forth, the paste will compact into the pores. You may need to add a little more oil as you sand. Sand until you’ve covered the entire work piece.
  4. Use a rag or shop towel to wipe off the excess, and work across the grain. Let it dry for 4 to 6 hours.
  5. Once it’s dry, sand the surface smooth with 220-grit or 320 grit sand paper.
  6. Repeat the oil application, and perhaps move up to 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper on this coat.
  7. After the second application dries, sand the work piece smooth (use the same grit you used to apply the oil) and decide if it needs a third application for filling the grain.
  8. Apply a topcoat of shellac, lacquer or varnish if you want, or buff and polish as is.

Safety tip: oily rags can spontaneously ignite, so do not ball up your used oily rags in a pile. Instead, dry them out by laying them out flat on the ground, or drape them side-by-side over the edge of a trash can, brick wall, clothesline, etc. When they’re dry, they’re safe to throw away.


 

3. Hide Sapwood and Create an Even Color with Dye and Glaze

Maybe you want more control over the final color, or need to deal with sapwood in your walnut. Try this.

Why and When?Sometimes you need to arrive at an evenly colored project, blend walnut sapwood, or created a suite of projects that you’d like to have matched in color. Or maybe you simply want to give your walnut a good, rich color that’ll last for the long haul and resist fading for years to come. This might be a good process for you. There are several steps, but fortunately they’re not difficult. See a video demonstration of this process here.

Supplies & Products

    • Dark brown dye of your choice (Behlen Solar-Lux “Brown Maple” used here)
    • Sanding sealer (Zinsser SealCoat is used here)
    • Dark brown gel stain (Old Master Dark Walnut)
    • Cotton rags or shop towels
    • Linen-sided sponge
    • Latex gloves
    • Mixing cup
    • Denatured alcohol

How to apply it

  1. Prep your work as you normally would by hand planing, scraping and/or sanding. You shouldn’t need to go any finer than 180 or 220 grit for this process.  Then raise the grain by wiping your work with a wet rag, letting it dry, and doing a light sanding once again at the same grit you left off with.
  2. Prepare the dye. Dilute your dye by 50% or more, using denatured alcohol and/or water. Solar-Lux dries quickly, but if you use water to dilute the dye it won’t dry as fast. That’s helpful for getting a even color. Diluting it and applying multiple coats to build up to your color is also a safer way to achieve an even color.
  3. How you apply the dye depends on how large your project is. It’s best to spray larger projects, but not entirely necessary. For hand application, use a sponge with linen on side and soak the sponge with dye and lightly wring it out. This kind of sponge helps you to stay in control of the color. Work quickly, and avoid overlapping where the dye has already dried.
  4. If you created some lap marks, fix them sooner rather than later. There are a couple of ways to do that. First, use a rag that dampened with denatured alcohol and wipe your project down, working the lap marks out as best you can. If they still exist, sand them. Yes, you’ll remove some color, but that’s okay. You’ll be applying another coat (or two or three) of dye anyway.
  5. After your last coat of dye dries, seal the wood with a thin coat of dewaxed shellac.
  6. Scuff sand the sealer if necessary
  7. Apply a dark brown gel stain as a glaze. Wipe it on, and wipe it off, but be careful when wiping off. This step loads the dark gel into the wood pores and also give a kiss of color to the surface of the wood. Don’t wipe off too little, and don’t wipe off too much.
  8. Allow it to dry, then apply your top coat.
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


  • Wes Chapin

    Hi, Mark. I watched your video and the above instructions on finishing American black walnut using Behlen’s solar-lux dye and Zinsser’s Seal Coat. I followed your directions but I must be doing something wrong. Here’s what happens:

    I first applied a mix of 50% Zinsser’s Seal Coat and 50% alcohol to the wood to reduce any tendency to blotch and let it dry (not in your instructions, but recommended by another website). I then applied a mix of 9 parts Behlen American Walnut dye, 1 part Behlen retarder and 6 parts water per your instructions and let it dry. So far so good.

    The trouble comes when I then apply the 100% Zinsser’s Seal Coat over the dye. Almost as soon as I start brushing the shellac on, it reactivates the dye and I end up with a mess. I’ve tried minimizing overlap when applying, but that doesn’t help, because the Seal Coat migrates into the adjacent shellac.

    Any suggestions on what I’m doing wrong will really be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    Wes

    • Couple of issues.
      #1 apply the dye right to bare wood, not on top of a coat of sealer.
      #2 let the dye dry over night if you can.

      The dye and sealcoat both have alcohol in their base, so, yes, they can activate each other. The trick is to let the dye dry really well, and then when you do the sealer, move briskly and don’t work it back and forth. Just lay down single passes in one direction, even if you get a starved pass. Just let it dry, give it a very light scuffing then put down another light goat of sealer to finish it off.
      I don’t think sealing the wood first helps matters with this recipe, as walnut isn’t much of a blotchy wood, plus dye does best being applied to bare wood.

    • Also, this video we made has more details about applying dye and sealer
      https://youtu.be/ggMa5g3I_y4

  • Neil

    Hey Mark; If I want to use a grain filler to achieve a very smooth surface for a desktop, can I employ the recommended steps for grain filler and then apply option 3 afterwards in order to blend in the sapwood? Just wondering if the grain filler will inhibit the dying process.

  • Rocky

    Hello. I am preparing to finish a custom “fancy” grade walnut gunstock. I will be starting with Minwax Antique Oil finish for the first several coats then top coating with a few coats of Minwax wipe on Polyurethane. I have used this combination before with great results. I would however like to cut down on the number of coats required to fill the pores. I have collected the sanding dust from the wood and I am thinking about making a paste with it and the oil. Will this work the same as “sanding in” only hopefully shortening the process. If so what would be the best way to proceed? Thanks, Rocky

    • Yes, it’ll work, but I don’t know if it will shorten the process. I think it will still need a 2-3 applications to get the wood filled.

      • Rocky

        Thanks Mark.

  • Samani

    Hi Mark,
    We are using walnut for exterior area, and we are using oil but the walnut turning to yellowish colour when rubbed down.
    Which of your products can yo suggest for us to use?

    • Can you explain yellowish? Provide a picture?
      The simple solution, without knowing any more about the situation, would be to apply an exterior dark stain first. Or perhaps your first coat of oil could be tinted with a bit of dark brown dye.

  • Alex M

    Hello Mark,

    I went with option 2 Plus, I did the sealcoat, and 4 layers of gel urethane on top after tung oil. It turned out really awesome everyone comments on it. I was wondering if there are options for finishing the top coat of gel urethane? I saw a bunch about rubbing out or automotive polish, I was wondering if you had any preferences. I’m not looking for a satin or high gloss.

  • James Osteen

    Hello, Mark,
    I got excellent results using your color control technique. Now, I would like to ask your advice on a variation. Instead of just getting uniform natural brown color I want to bring out the warm red/gold highlights. What would you suggest?

  • eric ahlquist

    Hello Mark,
    I’ll using walnut in a project of mine and bought all the products you mentioned in hopes of copying the finish exactly. One problem I encountered is that the Zinser sealcoat i used acted like a barrier to anything I tried to apply next, even after light sanding!!! I had to sand the whole piece down again to get it to accept the stain. It’s almost like shellac should be used last in place of polyurethane. Then I started reading about how shellac was almost completely replaced by poly and that it has no place in NEW (bare wood) projects. Is there something I’m missing here? Why wouldn’t I use a product like minwax prestain conditioner?

    • The SealCoat should behave much like a barrier. That’s the idea. It seals off the dye and provides a way to just let the stain do a glazing or a slight color toning. The trick here is that you have to use your own artist’s touch as you wipe it off. Go gently, feather it as needed or desired. The stain’s effect will be slight, not drastic, and that’s the idea.

      You don’t have to use dewaxed shellac, though. You just need to use a sealing method that’s compatible with the other products in your formula. Dewaxed shellac happens to be pretty universal and works with virtually everything. Minwax Prestain Conditioner is a different animal — and it actually might work, meaning it might produce a result you like. But what it doesn’t do is create a sealed layer between the dye and the stain and the result will most likely be different. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just not what I used here.

  • Marcos Alexandre

    Hi Mark,
    Because I thought it would be an easier approach, I decided to use the method 2 by using Tung Oil to finish some walnut work that I made. I ended up buying the oil at Lee Valeys here in Canada and after applying it, I just realized that I used the 100% Tung Oil and not the Polymerized one. The assistant at LV suggested the 100% pure and to be honest, I wasn’t aware of the difference.
    That being said, after applying the oil, wet sanding and leaving it for about 24 hours, the look of the wood is very dull and dark as well, although I think it will get lighter.
    My question for you is , have I done a big mistake by using this the pure oil instead? I’m afraid of proceeding with the second coat and getting too dark. Plus, there’s a thick layer on top of the pieces. I’m hoping I didn’t screw everything up. Please help! Here are a few of pictures.

    Thanks in advance!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/427f264ca1d9738bc2e2319a89942168cce9e8246a677ec6d95e5988286e0936.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7c81b4bedf3f7b955f2f1d9738464df22adaa186c2f5f3ea48d50b8da429c6ba.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/427f264ca1d9738bc2e2319a89942168cce9e8246a677ec6d95e5988286e0936.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4c92114423aeac6bda6f697c5cc9807703ac35c201b9551233913b5524df3961.jpg

    • Sorry for my delay, Marcos. Let me see if I can help.

      First of all, you didn’t screw anything up by using pure tung oil. It really does help walnut look great, but it just behaves a little bit differently from the polymerized stuff. Colorwise, they’re very similar.

      The big thing you need to know is that you really should either 1) thin 100% pure tung oil with mineral spirits 50/50 before applying it to your work or 2). apply it lightly, don’t bathe it in tung oil. Either way, wipe off the excess with a clean rag. You don’t want any left of on the surface, it’ll leave a tacky mess for an untold amount of time. In order for the stuff to dry well, you need to do one or the other – apply it lightly or thin it.

      The difference between pure Tung Oil and polymerized tung oil (or what in the U.S. we’d call tung oil varnish) is pretty basic: polymerized dries faster and provides a tougher finish that can be polished to any sheen you want.

      Pure tung oil won’t add any sheen, regardless of the number of coats. But it can be top coated with a lacquer or poly (or another type) after it’s cured if you want to do so. Pure tung oil by itself adds very mild protection, unlike the polymerized tung oil which provides much more substantial protection. As far as color is concerned, they should be more or less equals. But different brands may or may not behave differently (!!!).

      Another coat of the tung oil shouldn’t darken it any more than it is now. It’s done.I doubt it’ll lighten up. For that matter, I don’t think another coat of the tung oil will do anything for you except take up your time. It’s done the job that it can do at this point. You didn’t screw anything up, you’re just taking a different path.

      The thing to do now is possibly wait, or you can try cleaning off the surface with a good rub down with mineral spirits. It won’t be fun or fast. But once it’s good and dry you can then apply a sealer, then apply a nice top coat finish if you’re looking to get a different sheen.

      • Marcos Alexandre

        Hi Mark, thanks so much for your time in responding my question. Phew, I feel much better now. What I’ll do is to remove some of the oil left and wait until it dries properly. I’m hoping in a couple of days if the weather cooperates. As far as sheen is concerned, I would like to have a bit oh shine, so I’m thinking about using some Brazilian Carnauba wax.

        Anyway, I hope this information provided can be used for future reference by others.

        Thanks again for your response!

        Marcos

      • Marcos Alexandre

        Hi Mark, I’m back with one more question if you don’t mind.
        I would like to get a bit of sheen and protection as I see some finger prints marks in the wood so I tried to apply some Minwax Clear Oil Based Polyurethane in one of the sides and it never dries. It’s kind of sticky even it’s been almost 4 days I apply the coat. I assume the tung oil has cured yet (I applied it 15 days ago)?

        Should I wipe some some mineral spirit or just let it dry by itself? Also, do I need to apply the sealant before the Polyurethane?

        Thank you

  • https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/55462242a1f9a0d4d004c6650deb0995ca526d42ba007d99885744b391eedda5.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/da3b205028b7c3000ca41eaa074aac8f8c0b087d329d0dcb0652d780aeb9a296.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/19913d4e2e13a7a548bac1bcf745d07e33fd7b4dd73d914956c1fbc6998e1f77.jpg

    Hi Mark,

    I’m building a table out of reclaimed walnut from a 150 year old church and would love your expect advice. The problem is the wood is so orange and red after all these decades (see images).

    My goal is to make the table look like classic black/dark walnut.

    I’m a huge fan of your wet sanding example above and I have a wide variety of wood stains (all look terrible on the wood), pure dark tung oil, dark wood dye and a plethora of other tung oil finishes.

    How would you recommend I finish the table to return the old walnut to its previous glory?

    Thanks in advance!
    -Ben

    • Hi Ben. this is going to be a fun project!
      But first thing’s first. I’m pretty confident that the wood in these pictures is cherry, not walnut. It struck me in the first second looking at your pictures. Might explain why the wood is so red to you, and why the stains aren’t looking terrible on the wood (cherry accepts stains very poorly).

      Being cherry is not a bad thing, it just changes the conversation a little bit.

      To make it ultra-dark, I have two ideas.

      My first inclination would be inclined to try a three layer process. But test it first. Let’s assume we’re talking about prep sanded wood to 220-grit. Then, the following:
      First: dyed or tinted dewaxed shellac (or Zinsser SealCoat) that’s *about* the tone of brown you want, but slightly lighter. Tinted shellac will seal the wood and color it.
      Second: apply a dark brown (or possibly black) wiping or a gel stain after the shellac is dried. Wipe on, then gently wipe off before it starts to set up. Somewhat feather it or blend it as you wipe off to leave a gentle but even haze of color on the surface. This should establish a rich, even color over your project.
      Third: clear top coat finish, probably a urethane or table top varnish or something similar that’s tough for a table.

      A second method to try is instead of the tinted dewaxed shellac, apply a coat of your tung oil varnish* (see note below). Let it dry then apply the wiping or gel stain as above. Once that dries, protect with a clear top coat.

      *On the tung oil varnish, since it too can be tinted with dye you can try two variations.
      1). straight from the can, and/or 2). tinted with dye to darken to be more brown.

      I’d test those out, then evaluate and adjust if needed.

      • Awesome! Thanks so much Mark. You are a life saver 🙂

        I will try both methods and test various dyes to get the color I want. Once I get the result I want, I can post the pictures here.

        Thanks again!

  • Andres

    Hello, I am trying to figure out how to finish my kitchen walnut cabinets and like option #2 however I am concerned with the walnut getting overly dark. I would like to bring out the contrast in the wood as described in option #1 but would like a satin finish to the cabinet, additional being a kitchen I want to make sure whatever I do protects the cabinets from water, food, etc.

    I have attached an image that I like and it was described as “receiving a final sand and then a finish coat of Rudd Duracat lacquer with a UV additive is sprayed applied”

    Whats the best way to bring out the grain without using a tinted grain filler. What happens if I just apply a clear satin lacquer without applying Tung oil prior?

    Thank you for your help.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0db85a226c286ebbe4d10c65f7b734f7ab3851eb52567b006462184fd801f98d.jpg

    • You can use the grain fill and still get a satin sheen if you want. I mentioned the gloss because a grain fill is a pretty critical step for achieving a piano gloss sheen, but grain fill isn’t what produces the sheen.

      You can forego the grain filler, but still enhance the grain by 1). sealing the wood, 2). applying a dark wiping stain that you wipe on and wipe off 3). sealing again, then applying the top coat. Doing this limits the stain to just accent the grain rather than coloring the wood, somewhat like the grain filling method.

      I think you should make some test samples and see what you like. Try a finish sample with and without the sealer-stain-sealer I mentioned, and topcoat both with lacquer. Which one looks better to you?

  • Patrick Berg

    Dave, thanks for answering my question. I’m going with the water base Timbermate. I was wondering if I should tint the grain filler before applying it? Also, you list zinsser wood sealer as a needed supply in method 3 but I’m not seeing it in the steps listed. It does say to seal the wood with dewaxed shellac. I have dewaxed shellac flakes. What consistency would you recommend for a small batch?

    • Timbermate can be tinted but it’s easier to just buy a color of Timbermate that’s about the shade you want. It comes in about a dozen colors. So, it can be tinted, but it’s not worth the effort. Plus it’ll take stain or dye after it’s dried, too.

      As for sealcoat, that’s the same thing as dewaxed shellac. Its just a premixed version. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. If you mix your own, try a 2-pound cut.

  • Patrick Berg

    How can I get the glass like finish from method 1 with the dark even colors of method 3?

    • Instead of using a gel stain for the glazing step of method 3, use the tinted wood grain filler. It’ll perform the two roles, filling grain and adding a touch of brown color.

      Another way to do it is with a water based grain filler such as Timbermate. Timbermate applies a little differently from oil based paste wood filler. Apply it after you prep sand, but before the dye step. Then it accepts dyes really well and fills the grain wonderfully. Continue with the steps in method 3. Dye, seal, glaze, topcoat.

      Really good question! Glad you asked.

  • sam

    Hi Mark – just finished watching your “working with walnut” video. Great advise!! If I need to fill in some knot holes/cracks, at what step in the process should I do this and do you have a recommended filler?

    • Depends on the filler you use, actually! Some are intended to go on before finish, others after finish. I would recommend water based Timbermate wood filler, and apply it before the prep sanding. It accepts dyes, stains and finishes.

      • Sam

        Thx Mark – I had read several articles indicating before and after – guess now i know why! I’ll go wuth your recommendation. Thx!!

  • ennis

    My walnut cabinets were only finished with satin conversion varnish and they do not look rich and deep like your photos. What can be done now?

    • It’s not ideal, but you may be able to glaze with a dark oil based gel stain right over the conversion varnish. Wipe it on, wipe it off and feather/blend it as you go.

      It’s easy to test first, too, without destroying the existing finish job.

      Pick up a dark brown gel stain, some mineral spirits, a cotton rag for an applicator and have some disposable shop towels. On the inside of one of the doors, test the gel stain. Wipe it on, swirl it to ensure it grabs onto the open grain, then gently wipe it off with a shop towel. Do a small area about 6″x6″ first. If you don’t like what you see, before it dries wipe it off with a towel dampened with mineral spirits. It’ll come right off as if it was never there.

      If you do like what you see, let it sit for a couple of days. See if it’s adhering to the conversion varnish. If so, do the whole set of cabinets. Once it dries, you could *probably* live without another topcoat over it. In an ideal situation, your gel would be sandwiched between layers of sealer. But since cabinets are already finished with a conversion varnish, this is about as painless of a “plan B” as I can think of.

  • al12

    I am pairing the walnut with curly maple and am curious if the wet sanding with tung oil will cause the curly maple to darken since the is very little grain to fill on the maple. I know that the tung oil will darken it but am not looking to have the walnut dust do so as well.

  • Cliff

    Hi Mark, I like option 1 here but am a bit unsure. I am finishing a walnut table. Could I stain first with an oil Minwax (Special Walnut) to seal and establish a base color then move to a darker stain added to wood filler for a more dramatic effect to level the table, then finish with a gloss? Please advise?

  • Steven Swanger

    Just want to thank you all for some great advice. Was all very helpful as I consider how to finish a slab of walnut I’m making into a coffee table. Am thinking about using something clear for the base/legs — maybe a piece of v-shaped plexiglass or a 12×12 class block at either end — don’t want a heavy base or 4 legs. Any thoughts?

  • Dat Nguyen

    On method 3, can I use General Finish Gel Urethane for the top coat?

  • robert oquinn

    can somebody build me a table? please 2`x2` with 2 10” drawers.

  • Dana

    I would love some advice for a walnut (glue-up) kitchen table top. I think I am going to go with the Tung oil option – but am curious about the poly or topcoat varnish to use. I want a satin or flat finish but I have 3 kids that will leave wet glasses on the table. What is the best finish?

    Also – can anyone explain the finish difference between tung and danish oil?

    Thanks!

    • Sure thing. It’s pretty straight forward to get the sheen and protection you want.

      My recommendation is a gel polyurethane, largely because once you experience using gel polyurethane you’ll probably ditch brush-on poly for life. There’s very little skill needed to apply gel, whereas brushing a finish requires some techniques. Plus, it provides a satin sheen. And on a large project like a table, this kind of finish just makes sense, too. Just my recommendation, though. The next steps work no matter what kind of topcoat you choose to put on the tung oil varnish.

      Start by applying the tung oil varnish as outlined in the article above, and once the last coat dries sand it smooth to remove dust nibs – use either a non-woven synthetic finishing pad or a 400 grit wet/dry sand paper. At this point I’d suggest sealing it with a coat of dewaxed shellac (Zinsser SealCoat), padded on. Let it dry, then scuff sand it to remove dust nibs and/or any runs or ridges you may have left. This sealer step does a couple of things, but the biggest one is that it ensures good adhesion of the polyurethane.

      Then apply the gel polyurethane. A lint-free cotton rag, blue shop towels, or a foam brush would work. You simply wipe it on, then buff/wipe it off with a fresh rag or towel. You’ll leave a thin coat of poly, so you don’t need to be very liberal with the finish. Let it dry, do a little light scuff sanding, and repeat for another 3 or 4 coats. The final coat should be sanded with fine grit wet/dry sandpaper (and a little soapy water) or with a synthetic finishing pad. That should leave you with a gorgeous satin sheen on a hard, durable polyurethane finish.

      For posterity, I’ll point out this second method. You can apply the tung oil varnish over the course of numerous coats until it builds up instead of applying a separate poly on top of it. It’ll probably take no fewer than a dozen coats to get there, though. The varnish in it cures very hard, and so the end result will be plenty durable. Then you can rub it out with 0000 steel wood and paste wax to get a satin sheen on the final dried coat. It’ll be a beautiful finish, but will take a long time to achieve. And the wax will need maintenance at least once a year.

      • shawn

        I like the suggestions you mention here. as i was reading about the oil-based gel polyurethane, it mentioned that oil based urethane will amber over time. if i want to avoid this, could i use a water based polyurethane with the sealing step you mention between the tung oil and urethane top coat?

        • You bet!

          The water based product may have trouble adhering directly to the oil varnish, so don’t skip the sealer step. It’s kind of the magic ingredient. Also, be sure to let the oil dry a few days first.

    • Ah! And the difference between Tung Oil Varnish and Danish Oil: They are both a canned version of an oil varnish blend, they apply the same way, behave the same way, provide a similar final appearance, and both can be used by themselves or under another topcoat finish such as shellac, lacquer or polyurethane. The difference between the two is nuanced (my opinion). The oil in Tung Oil Varnish by Old Masters is indeed tung oil, whereas the oil used in Danish oil by Watco is linseed oil. Linseed oil has a warm, amber color and tung oil has a more clear color. Danish oil often is available as a clear/natural color and other colors with tint added (“Cherry,” “Dark Walnut,” etc.).

      They both do what they say they’ll do, and they both do it well. They emphasize the beauty of wood while offering some protection to wood. I don’t believe there’s a clear advantage to one over the other. If you test both on a sample board, you might discover that you prefer one over the other. Or you might not.

  • James Hauschultz

    I am finishing a walnut gun stock which method is best for that? I want it to last and not fade but i want the filler also thanks

    • I’d probably suggest the tung oil varnish. To fill the grain, I find it’s easier to work with the bends and curves of a gun stock by wet sanding the oil rather than applying a grain filler. But either would work.

  • Andy

    Mark, why use the initial coat of sealer? I can understand the final coat before finishing but won’t that first coat keep the filler from penetrating any small spaces?

    • I use the sealer before the grain fill for two reasons. First, it’s easier to scrape the filler off the project. Second, it prevents the stain in the filler from coloring the wood too much. You can skip the sealer, there’s no harm in that. But the initial coat of sealer will only just barely get into the wood grain, so there’s no risk of it preventing the filler from doing its job. I’ll be just fine. It mostly just seals the main surface.

      • Andy

        I’ll buy that. Makes sense, Mark.

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