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Oil Finishes


My oil finishes are less than satisfactory. I tried several oils and really like Tried and True. What is the difference in these oils and the application techniques to improve my finish? – Jack Grube


Bob LaCivita replies: Many woodworkers choose oil finishes because they are easy to apply, any shop dust that lands on them will get wiped away and they are not plastic looking. I find a good oil finish is not easily achieved. Most directions on the cans read – apply one coat, wipe off and apply a second if desired and wipe off. Meaning two coats is a complete finish. I have never reached the sheen or luster I want with this method.

Most commercial oil finishes have a high concentration of VOC’s (solvents and driers) that evaporate while drying. Most of the product goes into the air.

Oils like Tried and True have either low or no VOC’s. Hence, more oil stays on the wood and requires a long dry time. Other oils such as, Waterlux and Formby’s are mixtures of oils, varnish, and who knows what. The varnish is what causes these oils to build faster.

To produce a high luster oil finish, I use Waterlux high gloss – very expensive $70.00 a gallon. Only buy what you will use. It gels after a while and this depends on how long it has sat on the store shelf. You can use this method with other oils too.

On a simple piece with no nooks or crannies, I brush a coat on and let it dry overnight. I sand this almost off with 220 grit. If the piece has detail, I wipe it dry after the first coat and sand when dry. I then apply the second and third coat, wet sand it with 320 grit and wipe it dry. I apply three more coats and wipe dry. That’s six coats. Sometimes I may have to wet sand a later coat if I leave a rag streak.

Remember to soak the oily rags in water and dispose of them as soon as you are finished. I leave rags in a water filled container outside. I have seen them ignite.

Jon Siegel replies: The current issue of Fine Woodworking (Aug ‘05, Issue #178) has a comprehensive article by Chris A. Minick which does comparison tests on oil finishes. It is the best treatment of the topic I have ever seen in print. Products were tested for viscosity, dry time, color, sheen, penetration, measured solids, water resistance and cost.

Interestingly, the Tried & True oil was rated as the worst performer of all the finishes tested. Minick states, “Tried & True Varnish Oil is hard to apply, hardly penetrates the wood, has no sheen, is expensive and – worst of all – doesn’t dry.”