Oil Finishes Are Easy to Apply to Wood

April 16, 2021 Updated: April 16, 2021

Dear James: We just bought an older house with lots of natural woodwork. Can we sand it down and refinish it with another natural oil finish? What are some tips to apply the finish? —Tammy V.

Dear Tammy: Staying with a natural oil finish is a good idea both for its original attractiveness and the resale value of your house someday. If you do not count your time in refinishing and applying the oil, it is a fairly inexpensive project anyone can do.

The chances are good that the old woodwork currently has a natural oil finish on it. You can usually tell by the soft and deep appearance and how it feels when you touch it. Using the same refinishing method as was done originally is a timesaver and makes any application errors less apparent.

An oil finish is not going to be as durable as a urethane or other polymer finish. It will not resist water and food stains well, and you cannot get a gloss or even a semigloss appearance with it. Other than its attractive appearance, the primary advantage of an oil finish is it is easy to repair if the wood gets scratched. Just sand out the scratch and apply more oil.

It helps to understand how an oil finish cures so you know how to apply it. It does not technically “dry.” Two common finishing oils, tung and linseed, absorb oxygen into the oil surface. This can take from hours to days, depending on the type of oil. Boiled linseed oil cures faster than raw linseed oil because drying compounds are added to it.

This oil-oxygen combination decomposes, producing compounds that react with other fatty acid molecules. As they react with one another, they form stable chemical bonds and become a polymeric surface finish.

Raw linseed and boiled linseed oil are the most commonly used oil finishes. This is because they are inexpensive and easy to work with. As the finish on the wood ages, it will darken slightly. This is an advantage if you desire an antique appearance or you feel the natural wood color is too light.

Tung oil is more expensive, but not excessively so. It can be found at most paint stores. It produces a somewhat more durable finish than linseed oil, and it does not darken the wood as much as linseed oil.

Walnut oil is an excellent finishing oil, but it is considerably more expensive than the above two oils. It dries very slowly, but it will not change the color of the wood. To find it in its most pure form, purchase it in the edible oil area at your supermarket.

The key to an attractive oil finish on wood, as it is with almost any wood finish, is the initial preparation of the wood surface. Oil is more sensitive to fine scratch marks in the wood because it does not bridge them as well as some other finishes that are applied heavier and in fewer coats.

A machine sander can be used for the first pass. With curved surfaces, you have no choice but to hand-sand from the start. If you can machine-sand, use P180-grit sandpaper followed with 180- and 220-grit garnet hand-sanding. You may also burnish the surface with 400-grit sandpaper.

Liberally apply the oil, and give it 30 minutes or so to soak into the wood. Wipe off the excess. Allow it to dry overnight, and lightly buff the surface. Apply three more coats similarly.

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