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Quarter sawn white oak finish examples

Whether you want a light, natural color or a dark color, there’s a way to make the figure really pop out. The raw quarter sawn white oak board on the left is compared to a dark mission finished piece and a piece finished with Danish oil.

Arguably, the best part of quarter sawn white oak is its surprising figure.

Before you finish your quarter sawn white oak projects, consider how to make that beautiful ray figure look its best.

The good news is that you have several simple techniques that provide impressive results. It takes no special hard-to-master technique, or an arsenal of chemicals, or a new set of tools to add to your shop.  In fact, you can get a popping finish without even stepping foot into a “real” woodworking shop.  You could do this within the tight confines of a veranda of a New York City apartment if you had to.

In this video we demonstrate 3 nice ways to finish quarter sawn white oak to get the best pop from the figure.

(ALSO: See our selection of quarter sawn white oak lumber )

Since so many folks frequently want an easy finish that comes in “just one can” but will also provide a heck of a result, the secret budget-friendly answer is in a can of clear Danish oil.  And all you have to do is apply it after your final sanding and before your top coat of choice – and the top coat is entirely optional.  The reason is because Danish oil, such as by Deft, is a penetrating tung oil and urethane finish that’s highly effective at highlighting wood grain without obscuring it. Danish oil will seal the wood (in addition to adding depth to the grain) with a hard urethane once it’s dry.  So you don’t necessarily have to use a shellac, lacquer, or varnish on top of it.  Only if you want to. However, a top coat of lacquer or vanish is a good idea if you’re making a piece of furniture that needs the protection, or if you want to achieve a semi-gloss or gloss sheen that Danish oil doesn’t provide. Do both, and you’ll get both a bold and protective finish.

But because wood finishing has so many methods and techniques, and because you’ll have your own personal tastes, we’ve made three different demonstrations in this video. And each one is vastly different to give you an idea of what you can do. Hopefully you’ll find that there’s a lot of solid information that you can replicate or build upon. These are the 3 processes you’ll see in the video:

1. A Clear Finish that Highlights The Figure

Clear natural finish on quarter sawn white oak

When you want a clear or natural finish on quarter sawn white oak, beware. An application of varnish or lacquer or shellac might look nice at first, but there is a better way. The piece on the right was first finished with a coat of clear Danish oil, then it has 3 coats of sanding sealer and 3 coats of lacquer. The difference should be evident.

2. Staining Quarter Sawn White Oak to Accentuate the Figure


Two ways to stain quarter sawn white oak with an oil pigment stain: add it to a stainable grain filler (left), or apply it right to the wood and give it a scuff sand to remove color from the figure (right)

3. Creating a Dark Mission Style or Arts and Craft Style Finish

mission style finish on quarter sawn white oak

A mission style or arts and crafts style finish is pretty easy to achieve, if a little involved. But the results are impressive, and the colors you can produce are wide-ranging.


What Do You Think of These Finishes on Quarter Sawn White Oak?

It should be very evident as to why you should go a step or two further than just a basic wipe on varnish or a similar one-step finish.  You’re going to have a fantastic looking finished piece.

All of the processes above are also top coated:

  1. 3 coats of dewaxed shellac sanding sealer
  2. Sanded between each coat of sealer (220-grit)
  3. 3 coats of spray lacquer
  4. Sanded between each coat (220-grit)
  5. Final coat is buffed with buffer’s polish

How ever you choose to finish your quarter sawn white oak project, finishing off the surface like this gets you a perfect glass-smooth surface, and you’ll be the envy of all your woodworking buddies.

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

  • Ben

    Hi Mark,
    Regarding the third method above, did you sand after the third coat of dye as well? Also, do you see any advantages of sanding to 320 before dying and between coats of shellac?

    • It’s usually a good idea to sand that last coat too, but it’s just as much art as it is science. Use your eye.
      The only difference 320 grit makes in my opinion is how it feels to your hand. No discernible or significant diff in how the product applies or how it all looks in the end. So, no, I don’t see an advantage – but to each his own in this matter.

  • Sandy Schuhmacher

    Hi Mark, I have white oak kitchen counters that have about 6 coats of Howard conditioner on them and I am still getting water spots and raised grain in spots. Anything you know of that will give it a better water resistant seal?

    Thank You,

  • Will Epperson

    Mark, thank you for this great post. I was wondering if you ever did something similar but in grey. I’ve tried all kinds of grey stains and after reading this I tried diluting some black dye but on both quartersawn white oak and red oak i can only get black or dark brown; diluting won’t give me grey. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    I’m going to continue testing different dye approaches since it seems to be the best way to color the wood and not just the grain but it’s certainly becoming expensive to test!


    • I would make two tests with gel stains right on the bare wood first. A gray gel stain, and a black gel stain. In the Old Masters line up, that would be “Weathered Wood” and “Spanish Oak.” Then decide if there needs to be a dye color underneath it. White oak is so tan that maaaaybe that’s the right “canvas” color to start with.

      • Will Epperson

        Great! Thanks for the reply Mark. I will let you know if it works.

  • Pam Thorpe

    Hey can someone help me pls – I’m working on old drop leaf table made from oak – I’ve had to use paint stripper to remove the old varnish but the stain is still in the grain of the wood (actually looks quite nice)

    Question, can I still use the sand/dye/shellac/gel stain/shellac process?? Or will the old stain still in the grain cause problems??

    • Sorry for my late response, didn’t see your question until now. The short of it is yes you can use the dye method even with a little stain left in the grain. It’ll go right on top, and the shellac will seal it all.

  • Walter

    Thank you for your video; it’s very helpful. I have some nicely figured quarter sawn red oak. Would you follow the same method(s) to pop the figure in quarter sawn red oak? Are there any differences you’re aware of in finishing the qs red oak versus the qs white oak? Would you suggest a different color / type of stain or dye?

  • DB

    We are installing 6″ wide white oak planks in our house next week. My wife wants the finish product to be very light and no sheen. (Basically completely natural looking.) How in the world do I get that look and still protect the wood? Thank you for any suggestions!

    • 6″ planks . . . floors? Or something else? The amount of protection you need and the finishing process to use sort of depends on the answer to that. But to take a stab at it, the lightest and “clearest” protective finish I can think of is two steps. First, clear dewaxed shellac for a sealer; this part is important because it helps keep the wood as naturally colored as possible. Second, your protective topcoat in a flat or satin sheen. That could be polyurethane, lacquer or another durable finish (a flooring finish if this is for a floor). There could be other ways to do it, too, but it really depends on the level of protection you’re going to need.

  • Jack Dany

    Avoid anything that has any carving or intricate details on it.

    Plus, catching things early in the repair process reduces the chance that you will need to redo the repair,
    increasing the repair cost and the time before your property makes you money.

    If you need to use a spray on these items, be sure to use a product that
    is approved for items that you or your loved ones come in contact

  • Pansy Benson

    Thank you so much for your great post and pictures are really very awesome. Great post.

  • Coyne

    There is NO dye or stain that compares to the depth and glow of proper fuming of white oak. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now and the luster that you can achieve with fuming is the hands-down winner when compared to dyes or stain. The only issue with fuming is the fact that summer and winter wood fume different shades and you can get different shades. This can be used to your advantage as seen in the attached image. This is a balsamic jar holder is small, about 3 x 4 x 7 inches and everything is morticed and tennoned (the bottom is tongue and grooved). (The vertical small sticks are 1/4″ and have 1/8″ mortice and tennons.). Anyhow, the point here is that the four legs are from white oak from a different part of the country and fumed a different color and shade. This worked out quite well for this object.

    I do agree with you on the luster of an oil finish. I tend to use the Maloof Poly/Oil Finish as it has better protective features. And yes, i know I could mix my own but I’m lazy (to a point ;>)).


    • I just knew someone would mention fuming at some point. You’re the winner of that award. Agreed, it gives amazing results. Thanks for the picture and for sharing your advice.

    • Matthew Hegedus

      That’s really beautiful!

  • Great advice I think I will use the Danish oil and follow up with a top coat of laquer as you suggest .From experience I think the added protection is a must…

  • Frank Magner

    When you say to use a 50% / 50% mix of “Dye” in your video on finishing QS white Oak, what do you mean to mix with the dye for a 50/50 mix? Mineral spirits perhaps?

    Thank you, the video is great and I’m just assembling some supplies getting ready to perform your example.


    • Frank, that would be a 50/50 mix of dye and its base. Usually that’s either water or denatured alcohol. In the video it’s a denatured alcohol based dye, not mineral spirits. The brand I used is Behlen’s Solar-Lux dye with their “reducer” (another term for solvent, but it’s basically denatured alcohol). That specific product, Solar-Lux, isn’t the only way to buy dye.

      You can also buy little bottles of universal tints, pretty common at woodworking stores (Mixol or TransTint are brands you might find). These you do not want to mix 50/50. Usually a few drops per quart of solvent are all you need. A little bit goes a long, long way. Universal tints are also used for directly tinting clear top coats, mixed right in to shellac, varnish, lacquer, etc.

      I may not have been clear about diluting the dye right out of the bottle. The purpose for diluting it is to control it better. Dyes are very unforgiving because they dry quickly, within a few moments. If you overlap on a part that’s dry you’ll clearly see where you overlapped — your dye job will be streaked and uneven. And at full strength, it’ll be downright alarming. So, diluting it gives you some margin for error. Then apply the dye in several coats (let each coat dry before the next one), building up to the color you like.

      Some tips for applying dye:

      • Work quickly as you apply it.
      • You can overlap your dye while it’s wet, not a problem.
      • If you do overlap on a dried section you can even it out if you do it soon. Keep a rag nearby that’s soaked in the solvent and just a tiny touch of dye, and use it to blend your overlap area
      • To dye a large area (table top perhaps), spray the dye if you have equipment (Earlex sprayer?)
    • Frank Magner

      Great Mark! Thank you very much for the tips. So, I shouldn’t have a problem using denatured alcohol versus the “Behlens Reducer” you used. My Solar-Lux dyes just arrived today so I’ll give it a shot! Example: 2 oz. dye to 2 oz. of denatured alcohol for a 50/50 mix correct?


      • My pleasure Frank!

        But, yes, no problem with denatured alcohol, and it’s a hardware store kind of item. Easy to find. And yes, 2 oz of this dye to 2 oz of denatured alcohol is 50/50 mix and a good place to try first. You’ll eventually discover that the a precise dilution doesn’t matter too much. If you think it’s too light, you can lay down your next coat of dye usually within 5 minutes, too. And then another if you’re inclined. Let me know how it goes.

  • Here’s an example of a finished piece of quarter sawn white oak (below). It won’t be evident in the pictures, but the process of applying a sanding sealer, sanding it smooth, then applying a series of coats of lacquer and sanding between each coat application produced a flawless glass smooth surface.

    Then some paste wax rubbed in gave it a nice sheen:

  • BDS

    What would I use to buff out my pieces I’m building?

  • RLB

    How does it work on pens? If so what procedure?

    • Same procedure. Lucky you, pens are small and easy so you can test a few pretty easily.

  • BN

    I am in the process of building a coffee table out of qswo. I used a power sander in our woodshop and the wood now has a dark cast to it. What caused this and will hand sanding remove the dark cast?

  • Shawn

    What about Purple Heart? I have a piece that I bought from your, “one of a kind”, section. It has some figure to it. I used teak oil on some Red Mangaris, then varnished with Minwax Helmsman and it really made the curl in it pop. Could I do the same with the Purple Heart?

    • Purple heart presents an added issue. You probably should stick with a clear top coat finish like lacquer or shellac. Oil (Danish, linseed, teak, etc) will darken purple heart, likely darker than you want.

      Or……I’d test some aniline dyes on some small pieces of the purple heart. As stated above, aniline dye is a great way to pop the figure. Working with the purple color of purple heart will be a challenge, but aniline day can be mixed to very specific colors – even vivid purple. You’d really want to test it out on some sample pieces, of course.

  • RB

    Nothing makes the grain pop better on hardwood than aniline dye. What most hobbists don’t appreciate is aniline dye is virtually foolproof. Plenty of working time and all you have to do is make sure the dye completly covers the wood. Let dry; light sand and apply the stain coat. Dye can be purchased for mixing w/ water; alcohol or solvent- difference is in the time you have to work the dye and whether you are using indoors or outdoors.

    Most all the tinted oils will improve the grain contast but not close to what you can do w/dye.

    BTW, you improve the finish with a s hardwood sealer in advance

    • Great answer about the aniline dye! Very true, it’s another good method and often overlooked. So many woodworkers turn their noses at dyes, but they’re very good especially for figured wood.

  • FB

    I need help on a project made of white oak and ready to be sanded…customer wants this a dark stain…and gave me a can of minwax english chestnut 233 do I use a pre stain conditioner??

  • JR

    Boiled Linseed oil strained twice will also make the wood pop.

  • Jim

    What about an – oil/varnish blend? Tried and True brand is what I’ve been using on other projects – It has little or no solvents so I don’t get the usual odors.

    • Yes, oil/varnish. Essentially that’s the same as what’s used in the first picture under “A Clear Finish That Highlights the Figure”. The board on the right. It’s a Danish oil, also known as an oil/varnish blend. Then it’s also top coated with lacquer just to show that you can get the benefits of both the oil/varnish blend and the protection/sheen of a top-coat finish.

  • Fixer

    I love popping the grain with oil, I had a problem on my slab table made of Alder, I experienced blotching, it was minor but it was a prototype for a more figured wood for my next try, The question is how do you prevent blotching on wood before oiling the wood, does a sanding sealer followed by oil still pop the grain, your thoughts ????

    • Anonymous

      Oiling doesn’t cause blotching. Only staining does that. Follow the process:

      1. apply Danish oil. let cure fully.

      2. apply sanding sealer. let cure. sand. repeat as needed until pores are filled.

      3. apply protective topcoat, rubbing out afterwards. (shellac, varnish, lacquer).

    • Alder? Alder does blotch with regular oil based wood stain (not the same as a Danish oil, though). What did you use on the Alder?

  • BV

    I like it!