Woodworkers Club of Houston
Hand Applied Finishes
by Ray Lancon
Hand applied finishes are the oldest single method of application and there is
just a ton of written material on the subject. You need be very careful whose
instructional material you buy or merely read. Many of these instructional
materials become "infomercials" for a product the author or producer
is attempting to market. They tend to be less than objective, but then we all
tend to be less than objective in one way or another. I will do my best to
tell you where I have a bias and why. This missive constrains itself to
finishes that are applied with a rag. There are by no means the only finishes
that can be applied this way but they are the simplest and most readily
available. An outstanding result can be obtained from any of them, sufficient
to even satisfy your in-laws.
The specific types of finishes that you use are important. Watco (Danish Oil) is an oil/varnish mix which simply means that some oil and a little varnish have been combined to give a slight film finish. It should not be built beyond about 2 coats or you will have a very soft buildup. Watco and all of the other oil/varnish - "Tung" Oil finishes - Danish Oils have this in common. They also provide very little in the way of scratch and water protection. They also have the need to be refreshed over time to maintain their appearance. Most of these use linseed as their base. There are some oil/varnish mixes that use real Tung. Tung, either alone or in combination with other oils.
I think there is a mystique about tung oil that seems to make it something that it is not. Tung oil is simply that, oil. It does not contain varnish. There are so many products on the market that call themselves tung oil finishes that do not contain a drop of tung in them. When you see or hear of someone using "Tung Oil Finish" odds are there was no Tung in it. There are only a couple of advantages to Tung over any of the other common oils such as linseed. It is more water-resistant than linseed and tends to dry just a little bit clearer than linseed. It is very slow dry and significantly more time need be allowed between coats. For most practical applications I can see no real reason for the tung oil and linseed would be a better choice. You will find that if you were to use a linseed "Danish Oil" rather than a tung-based product you would have a mix that would dry faster and provide a more consistent coating. In either case, this finish should not be built up beyond about 2 coats.
Oil/varnish mixes do not provide a high degree of protection but are very easy to apply and very easy to repair. It is difficult to get more than a satin finish out of it. This is not to say that they are not wonderful finishes because they are. A couple of coats of an oil/varnish mix followed by a paste wax coat gives a wonderful satin, hand rubbed effect
.If you are looking for protection, a deeper finish and/or a higher sheen use a wiping varnish/poly. If you are choosing a varnish product, I suggest a poly since it is If the toughest. Poly tends to get a bad rap about the plastic look. Any film finish will get that plastic look if built to an adequate depth. People tend to put poly on in giant thick coats that never have a chance to level. They overwork it to the point that it gets drag marks, sags and runs. None of this is the fault of the poly. A poly, properly applied can provide a finish that will rival any finish you will find on the finest furniture. One other thing I want to stress; poly is varnish. There is a lot of "I love varnish but would never use poly". That is donkey dust, they are the same product It is only the addition of some poly resin to a varnish that makes one something other than the other.
If you choose a poly there are more decisions to make. Do you want a durable finish or a hard one? A durable finish is one that is a little softer and will take more abuse (kids). It will not polish to a high, high gloss but will develop a wonderful depth. A hard finish is less resistant to abuse and scratches but will polish to a fine furniture finish. MinWax Poly is a durable finish. Varathane Professional or Waterlox are hard polyís. I prefer Waterlox but it is more problematic to get than the Varathane Professional.
If you are using a varnish or poly thin it by 50% or more and wipe a coat on with a clean lint free cloth. The sleeve from a T-shirt is ideal but any rag about this size will work well. Many woodworkers use paper towels with excellent results. For thinning the varnish/poly use either paint thinner or benzine/naptha. The benzine/naptha is a little clearer than paint thinner and will dry faster. Allow it to dry a couple of hours and wipe on another coat. When you wipe on the coats do it quickly just as if you were wiping down a table surface with water. Donít go back over it or you will drag it. If you miss a spot, ignore it, you will get it on the next coat. Apply 4, 5 or 6 additional coats of the wiping finish. The number of coats is not scientific but, this seems like a minimum. More coats will give you added depth. Quit when you are happy with it. Gently sanding between every other coat with 320 grit dry paper is highly desirable. In sanding all you are trying to do is to knock any nasties off of the surface. Donít sand the last coat
You are done Ė almost.
Wait a couple of weeks. Clean the surface completely and polish with a white automotive polishing compound such as 3M, DuPont or Turtle wax. This may seem like a lot of work but it really is not. None of the steps takes very long it is the waiting between steps that is lengthy. This polishing step is subjective. If you feel that the finish is just fine, leave it alone other than a good coat of paste wax.
For all applications I push MinWax if the desired finish is going to take some abuse such as children, If the application is one that requires a deep polished effect that will have little abuse in the way of bangs and things being dropped on it I push Varathane Professional. My favorite varnish/poly is Waterlox but again is not universally available and is expensive. It has some other application idiosyncrasies so I stick with the previous 2 products. Please understand that the MinWax, Varathane and Watco are not unique but are 2 products that I use and find to be very satisfactory for their specific uses and I stick with them. If you have another brand that you like then stick with it.
Go to TOP of page