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Wood finishing is a mystery to many woodworkers. But I think this video above will help communicate the essentials to the craft of applying a nice, smooth, clear protective finish on a piece of furniture.

What Are The Basics of Getting a Fantastic Wood Finish?

  1. Apply several light coats rather than thick, heavy coats
  2. Let each coat dry thoroughly
  3. Scuff before applying the next coat and
  4. Polish the final coat after it cures for a couple of weeks

So the video above walks you through those 4 steps on a solid American walnut wood desk top. The video is actually the second part in a series on how I finished my custom built standing height desk. Since the ash base is dyed black and glazed with a gray stain for a unique look, I put that in a separate tutorial. More about how I finished that in “Part 1” >

The solid walnut top, above, is a slightly different story. I finished it with just a hand-rubbed tung oil varnish, applying 8 coats to protect the top surface while giving the walnut a gorgeous, natural warm glow, too.

In this video, you’ll follow along as I work through each step from prepping the raw panel all the way to polishing the final coat.

Watch the Video to Get a Few Pointers On:

  • dealing with a cupped solid wood panel
  • wet-sanding an oil finish to highlight the grain
  • using a sanding sponge
  • scuffing with synthetic finishing pads
  • polishing the last coat for a beautiful shine

Products Used:

  • Old Masters Tung Oil Varnish
  • Howard Restor-A-Shine Polishing Compound
  • Synthetic finishing pads
  • 220-grit sanding sponge
  • Scott Shop Towels

Quick Gallery of Images of The Walnut Top:

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


  • Ann

    Hi there. I am a complete novice but working on a narrow thick walnut table top. It’s wood from my family’s farm that was cut about 60+ years ago! I think this board wasn’t used before now because one end has a large knot but for my purposes, it adds to the charm. The surface is fairly smooth but does have some rough surfaces on the sides where it was cut. I think I like these but want to give it some darkening and make it more durable as we plan to use it behind our sofa for lamps, books, to set a coaster on for a drink, etc. I was about to start with tung oil varnish and got scared that I should sand more…
    I don’t mind the rough spots but not sure I can get the tung oil varnish to go on without being gummy where it’s not perfectly smooth. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3f93ff0a5d57fdc482a8ba87b4911edd463181d20401d8b350ca48e7e021e212.jpg

  • Jennifer Hart

    I am finishing a walnut rolling library ladder for our kitchen. We have a end grain walnut butcher block at the end of our counter and would like a similar oiled finish for the ladder since we do not care for the glossy look. Since it is a ladder though, I’m concerned about slipping on a slick finish as well. Will this Tung oil method be a good fit?

  • Matthew Merten

    I’m finishing a walnut slab desktop, attempting to follow your directions exactly, but even after a week of drying, it is still tacky. Not tacky to the point stuff sticks in it, but a bit like a rubber sheet. I did the bottom as a test, 65 degrees, low humidity, wipe on, wet sand, wipe off after a few minutes with blue shop clothes, dry 6-24 hours, scuff. This was the 5th coat. Tried cleaning with mineral spirits, but no improvement. Maybe the coats are still too thick, or I should let them dry longer? I ordered a new bottle of Old Masters Tung Varnish to see if that helps. I saw one person on an amazon review with the same problem. Any suggestions before I go after the top of the slab? I’m nervous. Thanks for any advice!!

  • Hamid Mostajabi

    Thank you so much for the great video! I would like to do the same finish on my dining table. I have two questions.
    1: Does oil finish prevent the food stain such as ketchup?
    2: Do I need to apply Polyurethane for more durability? I would like to make some live edge tables
    for sell. Thank you in advance for your help!

  • JDR Throwaway

    Thanks for posting this awesome video. I’m on about coat 5 and think I may be in an infinite loop. I scuff, apply polish, and wipe, but… I’m using the blue paper towels as you are doing, and even a very light wiping seems to take most if not all the oil off that I just put on. When after you wipe, does it still look wet? Mine goes back to an entire table with a dull dry look. For a test, I tried a heavier coat and not as much wiping. It ended up with what appeared to be thick spots of high gloss that didn’t dry after 5 hours. I ended up wiping it down with mineral spirits and back to my dull (yet looking better) top.

    • Yeah, I hear ya. Are you also wet sanding or are you just wiping on and wiping off?
      Basically You just want to leave as light of a coat as possible when you wipe it off. Largely because the heavier the coat the longer it will take to dry. It’s a balancing act for sure to try not to wipe it dry or leave too much. The deal is after the first coat, the wood is sealed. So all you’re doing with the next coats (aside from the wet sanding part, if you’re doing it) is slowly building the varnish.
      If you get higher gloss spots, they can also be knocked down with a red or gray finishing pad.

  • Jack_S

    Great video! Two quick questions: I’ve made a walnut coffee table with poplar legs that come up through the top (pic attached of it unfinished https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/247a0b00e43e9cd5eb798fe5b9a727e201091984fcf21131cfb3c6860e35927b.jpg).

    Will the wet sanding mess up the lighter colored wood that inset? Also, in one of your other videos, you mention that walnut can lighten over time — is that a concern with this finish?

    • The wet sanding probably wont have a drastic effect on the color of the poplar. At least no more so than the oil itself, which will darken it a couple shades.
      Yes, this finish isn’t 100% protective of UV light. It will lighten or get that aged amber look as the years go by.

      • Jack_S

        Thanks!

  • Brian Baumbusch

    Hey Mark, thanks for the great video. How long do you wait after applying the tung oil before wiping it off? Do you wipe off right away or wait 10 minutes or so?

    • Wipe it off within 5 to 10 minutes, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. I haven’t experienced any difference between wiping it off immediately or after 10 minutes. However, if you wait too long it’ll get tacky and difficult to remove. So don’t wait an hour.

  • Bonnie Graham Hall

    Hello, Mark. My husband gave me a live edge black walnut slice for shelving. I would like to keep the edge, do you have any suggestions to preserving the edging? I love the way you did this desk but would also like to keep the edges as well, if possible, the bark.

    Thank you for all the help.
    Bonnie

  • DougBarasatian

    Mark, excellent tutorials. I’m sure I must not be the first to ask, but are there plans available for the stand up desk?

  • Michelle Sardina

    Thank you for that informative video. I have new bare walnut butcher block Countertops. Would this process be recommended or no because of food/varnish concerns?

  • njtrout2000

    Mark, Would you use/recommend a first coat of shellac sealer before the varnish on walnut? Working on a fireplace mantle that has a walnut top and sides. Great Video. Thanks, Andy

  • Chang Yu

    Hi Mark, thank you for the video. This is the best video I have found after spending 4 hours viewing different videos online…

    My question is: should I be worried about the VOC level of the Old Master’s vanish? I have a baby and a dog in the house, and the label on the product’s can indicate s that it has a VOC level around 525g/l

    Thank you.

    • That’s great to hear, I’m glad you found it.
      You definitely need to use it in a ventilated space and wear a respirator while applying it.
      Once it dries, it’s harmless.

  • Noah

    Hey Mark, great video, can I apply each coat in a 24 hour intervals? I won’t be able to do it every 6 hours due to work since I get home pretty late, thx

  • jimschwarzer

    could you use a car polisher to polish the finish or will there be to much heat buildup?

    • I bet you could do that, sure. I don’t have any first-hand experience though.

  • Michael Kratky

    Mark, how is the shelf life of Old Masters Tung Oil Varnish? Used to use Waterlox also a tung oil based finish, but in 90 days it would gel up in the container unless I took air displacement measures like using Bloxygen.

    • The current can in my garage is still liquid, and I’ve had it for 14 months. But, yes, oil finishes can (and will) eventually start to gel in the container.
      A lot of variables play a role, so I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that any one finish is better or worse than waterlox for longevity, or that there’s a hard and fast rule as to how long a finish will last. How many times you open the can, how well you close it up, whether or not you unknowingly left the lid off for a while, how old it was when you got it, etc, etc, etc.

      • Michael Kratky

        Waterlox does have the dubious distinction of a short shelf life , any woodworking blog site will allude to that fact.

  • Gerald

    I am making a box frame for a mirror made of walnut. What grit would you recommend going down to before applying finish? I plan to coat the would with a tong oil finish with no stain. Would a pre-stain conditioner make sense to use before finishing?

    Thanks,
    Gerald

    • Usually, I think 220 grit is fine enough. But there’s no harm in sanding finer if that’s what you want to do.
      Do not bother with a pre-stain conditioner, there’s no advantage in your situation.

      The only situation you should bother with a pre-stain conditioner is when:
      1). when the wood you’re using tends to accept stain poorly, and
      2). when you’re using an oil based stain.

  • Erica Smith

    This tutorial was fantastic! We just redid a mahogany table and I’m wondering if there’s a good way to tell when I’ve put on enoigh layers of the tung oil finish? I started and ended with heavier ones to get it to level, but I was nervous about proper application and did 2-3 intermediary layers super thin. We are ready to do the final buff and polish and I just dont want to mess it up at this point!

    • You won’t ruin anything. If you happen to buff through it in places, you can touch it up without issue. As you probably saw in the video, 3 coats left some dull spots for me. Basically You know you’re done when the finish looks good and uniform, no dull spots. It sounds to me that you’re probably good.

  • Wonderful, glad to hear it. One quart will be more than enough for both speaker cabinets. Ideally you’d use it in weather under 90 degrees. If it’s hotter, work in smaller sections at a time. I don’t think speaker cabinets would really need much uv protection, they’re going to live indoors (most likely, right?). But if you want it the extra uv protection, I might be inclined to recommend General Finishes High Performance Water Based topcoat (probably needs a coat of dewaxed shellac first, then this topcoat. For adhesion).
    Otherwise, just let the tung oil varnish dry, then buff and polish.

  • James Savoie

    Great video Mark. How does this type of finish stand up to some of the fading walnut is susceptible to from UV light? I’m leaning towards another one of your finish recommendations using solar-lux dye… But I do love the look of this tung oil finish.

    • No, I would expect the wood to fade *some* over the years. The desk here is about a year old now, and I think it looks fine. in 10 years, the story will probably be different. For a table top, I don’t think it’s to big of a deal because it’s easy to remove and refinish. Consider that with your project.

  • tiarebeauty

    Mahalo Mark for such a thorough and easy to follow video! We are considering a kitchen remodel with an L-shaped reclaimed fir counter top and have been searching for the proper method to protect the top with a nice hand rubbed finish. We want to highlight the wood to match our cottage in Hawaii and feel the high glossy finishes overpower our laidback kitchen. Would the method presented here be ok to use for a kitchen counter top? Any suggestions on how to properly protect a wood counter top… Mahalo for your time!

    • This finish would work on a countertop. To varying degrees, water is problematic for just about any kind of wood finish. Just have to understand that going in. Fortunately this kind of finish is easy to rejuvenate with a light sanding and a fresh coat, so it’s not too big of a deal.

  • Michael Ferrari

    Great video, I am constructing a walnut bench that will be used outdoors. If I follow the same steps will my project be protected from the elements? Any suggestions will be appreciated! Thanks!

  • George M

    Great video and looking forward to using the product on my next project.

    Did you also apply the finish to the underside of the table top? I assume so or else the table might cup or warp?

    Thanks.

    • Yes, it’s applied to the bottom but not sanded in. Just wiped on and off.

  • Ken L

    If I use monocoat, will that be one step, and then done in a single day?

  • Katie Reichle

    where do you find the hand sanding sponge? its definitely not at homedepot. i cant even find anything like it. help

  • Bill Berens

    Mark it looks great. Would this method work for a walnut farmhouse table? Or would you recommend another process like Arm-r-seal or monocoat. I have never sealed a table top and want protection without a polyurethane glaze. Thoughts?

    • Pick any of the three you’re most comfortable with.
      This stuff I used isn’t much different from Arm-R-Seal. Conceptually they’re the same thing, oil + urethane. Different brands, so the minutiae of the recipe is probably different, but the end result is virtually indistinguishable. Both great products and work fine for a table.
      Monocoat would work too, it’s fantastic stuff (and quite expensive!).