Natural-Looking Wipe-On Finishes

Finishers discuss how to apply Danish Oil and wipe-on poly to a table top. December 15, 2005

I have a job to do a 60" diameter slab top. The customer wants a next-to-the-wood finish, like on antiques. She does not want a plastic look. The wood may be a South American type. What would you use for this - a wipe on poly/varnish? They said that they don't mind a little maintenance.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor L:
Well, polyurethane is plastic and too many coats of varnish will look plastic. They said they don't mind the maintenance? In that case, you can use an oil finish (tung oil, linseed oil, etc) and then wax and buff. They will need to wax it 2 or 3 times a year and put some elbow grease into it to make it work.

From contributor S:
Would you need to finish both sides (top and bottom) so it would not bow due to humidity, or is that not a problem with the oils?

From contributor L:
Best rule of thumb is to do to one side what you do to the other. You don't have to put a stain on the underside of the table because that is just a colorant. But you should at least put a couple of coats of oil and a coat of wax to seal it off. If you use one of the newer tung oils, they have been polymerized and actually leave a film type surface that has some durability. Standard tung oil is just as effective as boiled linseed oil. The old timers used it to make their tables and furniture and some of it is still around over 200 years later, so that has got to say something about the old world finishes.

From contributor D:
Danish oil is what you could try, and you could throw in a little wipe-on poly, too.

day 1 - Danish oil
day 2 - wipe on poly
day 3 - Danish oil
day 4 - wipe on
day 5 - Danish oil

Sand between coats to your liking. I like to sand the last coat of wipe on up to 2000, then put Danish oil on. Wiping off the excess is key with the oil - the more you rub, the better it'll be. You're essentially polishing the top. You'll get a fairly durable finish that's low to the wood and doesn't require a whole lot of maintenance. Give it a shot of lemon oil once or twice a year.

From the original questioner:
Why oil/poly/oil/poly/oil - what does this do? Any brands that you like and why? I don't do this type of finishing, and want to understand the whys.

From contributor D:
Danish oil is a mixture of poly or varnish and oil. With Danish oil, the poly/varnish gives you a little more protection than plain oil finishes. Basically, it's a thinned wipe-on poly. With Danish oil, the more coats you do, the better the piece looks. When you get enough coats on, the piece will have a glowing, low-to-the-wood (in the wood, not on it) finish.

I like Deft. I'm usually satisfied with 10 coats. Sometimes more, sometimes less. That's two a day for five days. Follow the directions on the can. But on the last coat of the day, really, really, really rub it down good. I just use those Scot box-o-rags paper towels. The more elbow grease you put into it, the better the finish is. That's where the wipe-on poly comes in. (Minwax satin is pretty good stuff.) It alleviates some of the elbow grease. By putting on a thin coat of wipe on, you're basically cutting out a few of those coats of oil. The part involving the elbow grease, anyway, since you leave the poly on. The reason I like to finish (final coat) with oil is because you wipe it/rub it dry. When you walk off, nothing is going to land in your wet finish and make you cry the next morning. It's kind of like polishing. You stop when you're satisfied with how it looks. Avoid too much wipe on, too thick or too many coats. It takes really thin coat(s) to avoid the plastic look of a film finish. But doing this kind of gives you a finish that's in the wood, like an oil finish, but also has some film finish qualities. The key is the wiping, rubbing off the oil completely.

You can also make your own wipe-on finishes by mixing varnish/poly, linseed oil, turpentine/mineral spirits. But the already made kind do just fine.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Some of those tropical woods contain chemicals that interfere with the curing properties of oil-base finishes. Get a scrap of the wood and do a test to see if the oil-base finish dries hard or stays sticky. If it stays sticky, you'll need to seal the wood before using the oil-base finish.

To avoid the plastic look (all synthetic finishes are a type of plastic), keep the finish thin. You can use whatever you want as long as you don't build a significant film.

I would not alternate coats of oil/varnish blends (Danish oil) and varnish/poly. Oil/varnish blends are soft compared to varnish. Never apply a hard finish over a soft finish.

From contributor D:
I have a table that I used that exact finish on, and cups with dripping moisture on the exterior have been left on it overnight several times without the faintest sign of moisture intrusion, alcohol left on it for several minutes once with no problem. And with daily use, it was virtually scratch free for a long time, until our son turned about one, now... If there were only a toddler-resistant finish impervious to matchbox cars crashing and jumping. Maybe the book says this won't make a good finish, but in real life it seems pretty good for furniture that's actually used and not just displayed.