Finish Choices for Walnut Paneling

Finishers give a contractor advice on whether to use water-based poly or some other finish on a new walnut paneling install. October 28, 2005

I just installed 15K linear feet of walnut tongue-in-groove wall paneling throughout a house. The designer recommended against a latex poly claiming it's "not good for the wood", and that an oil poly is better. The customer wishes to preserve the natural "raw" color and matte finish of the walnut, so Tung Oil is out because it causes the walnut to yellow/brown. Does anyone have any thoughts on why a clear latex poly is not a good idea?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor D:
I have used clear latex poly on some cherry baby furniture and it worked ok. It’s not as glossy as an oil-based, but it has lasted for three years now and still looks good. I liked it because it does not change the color of the wood. How much has the designer worked with latex poly? Is he/she a professional finisher also?

From the original questioner:
Latex poly seems to be the right choice because the client wants a clear finish without any gloss. He wants to preserve the look of the pre-finished walnut. The designer is opting for an oil poly because she insists latex is a poor product (without providing any reasoning why). But as you highlighted, the oil adds a slight gloss/sheen to the walnut which is not what the client wants. Our finisher suggests a coat of sealant followed by two coats of tung oil. But as you know, this makes the wood look darker/yellow. Any input as to why I should avoid a latex poly?

From contributor D:
I personally would need the designer to give me a good reason why I should not use latex poly. Everything that I know of latex poly is that it gives a clear finish, durable, easy to use and clean up which are all great aspects of it. The only thing that I can think of is the wood may pick up some moisture from the water based poly but it did not seem to be a problem to me. I think that a lot of people look at oil based products as a more durable products but they do not realize that the quality of water based products have improved greatly. Most exterior paint used around here (Alabama) is a water based paint and stands up for years - 32 degrees in the morning and 100 degree heat in the afternoon, rain, drought, tornadoes, etc. I personally would not hesitate to use a water based poly.

From contributor B:
I've found that water-based poly makes walnut look different and that most people(customers) think it looks more "natural" with oil based products. I would suggest trying thinned out Danish oil. One light application, let it dry really well, and then go with water-based poly.

From contributor U:
I think water-based poly on walnut would not be satisfactory. An oil based poly (fast dry for less fumes) would bring out the richness of walnut. And you should use satin or flat poly finish, not semi-gloss. You could take two pieces of walnut and coat one with water-based poly and one with oil-based poly and show the customer and let him choose, and then get him to initial the choice he made for the record.

From the original questioner:
I have produced several samples including oil and latex poly and tung oil. The customer clearly prefers the latex poly sample. But I wanted to get all of your opinion first because I was warned about using latex poly. I agree that oil brings out the richness of the walnut better, but the customer appreciates the "softer" look of unfinished walnut.

From contributor T:
I think designers should stick to designing and leave the finishing to the finishers. I finish all my projects with either latex poly or water-based lacquer and they work great. They maintain the original color for a longer period of time and they are more scratch resistant than oil based.
It's the first time I hear that latex poly is not good for the wood.

From contributor M:
I think if the designer is going to warranty the finish then by all means go with their choice. If I have to warranty the finish my word is final or I don't do the job.

From contributor T:
I agree with Contributor M 100 percent. Remember it's your name attached to the job.

From the original questioner:
Actually it's my name attached to the finished product. Does anyone have anymore feedback on the pluses and minuses of oil vs. latex poly? Or any other neutral clear non-glossy finish to consider for walnut?

From contributor T:
If the designer is so concerned about the effects the finish has on the wood why don't you use boiled linseed oil followed by a wax. It's not as durable though but it will look great. Personally I would just add a little amber to my water-based coat and presto.

From the original questioner:
I'm still trying to find out whether there's any substance to the designer's comment that latex is not a good finishing choice. All of the parties like the "transparent" results of the walnut finished in the non-gloss latex poly. Before I have the finisher proceed, I want to make one last effort to see if there's any reason not to use this product.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
If the customer likes it, there's no good reason not to use a good quality water-base finish. Not all of them have that "cold" look that so many people associate with them. There are oil-modified water-base finishes as well as water-reducible shellac that come pretty close to a solvent-based look. Only an experienced finisher/woodworker would know the difference. Walnut will change color in time - it gets lighter and get a more orange like color. The clear coats won't stop that from happening, no matter which one is used.