Three steps on how to do a hand rubbed oil finish.
I believe woodworkers of all levels turn to an oil finish because it’s a fairly simple finish as well as several other reasons.
1. You don’t have to worry about compatibility issues.
2. You don’t have to worry about bugs, fuzz, dirt or anything else falling on your fresh coat of poly or lacquer.
3. Fumes are pretty tame compared to lacquer which can be deadly.
If you’ve read my sanding guide you know I typically sand to 220. An oil finish I sand up to 320 grit with my Bosch random orbit. Let me just say, Bosch makes the best r.o. out there in my opinion. I wet sand oil with mine, drop it many times, swing it by the cord… all of the stuff it’s not made for and it never lets me down. It’s priced fair enough to replace if you do break it, which is unlikely. They do make a few higher priced sanders that you may want to look at, pretty amazing sanders. They are so well balanced and run smoother than any other sander in that price range and then some.
Back to the finish…
After you sand with 320 grit you’re ready to oil. I use to make my own oil with boiled linseed oil, gum turpentine and varnish, mix it 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. You can always just grab a can of Watco Danish Oil Finish, it’s actually a pretty good finish, or Sam Maloof finish.
I made my own instructions and here they are.
1. Wipe on the oil with soft cloth ( I like to do one surface at a time). Wipe it on heavy hitting the spots several times that absorb it quickly.
2. Immediately, grab the random orbit with 320 grit and sand going across the grain. This will create a slurry that will fill in small pores.
3. Use a clean cloth and wipe across the grain and work the slurry into the pores. If you wipe with the grain, it will pull the slurry out.
1. Wipe the surface with oil, it won’t take near as much as the first time.
2. Use 600 grit wet/dry paper and spend a fair amount of time working every inch.
3. Wipe across the grain with a clean cloth.
Repeat day 2 but with 1000 grit. Remember, do not soak the wood with oil or you will risk bleed out. Spend more time with the 1000 grit and really work the surface. I actually go to 2000 grit paper over a good 5-7 days. Going to 600 grit is often enough for most people.
This is where the wood really comes to life, and what you are left with is a very close to the wood finish. At close to eye level, you will see a mirror finish that feels smoother than silk, at a distance it will have a really nice almost flat sheen.
That’s pretty much it, it’s a simple finish that does take a little time and elbow grease that is well worth it.
A few notes about this type of finish. It’s durable but not to the extreme of polyurethane. Use coasters, clean up spills immediately, don’t drag or drop things on your finish.
If you scratch the surface it’s a simple repair unlike film finishes. Simply apply a touch of oil or rejuvenating oil.
You can use a paste wax over the oil after it’s dry but I don’t like to use wax for 2 reasons. Once you wax the surface, it’s done! Secondly, if you ever decide you want to change colors, you will need to use a chemical stripper to remove the wax. If you sand the wax, it will heat it up and melt it into the pores. The pores will not accept stain if they are filled with wax, and it doesn’t add much durability. You can put a film finish over some oils however, you will need to make sure the oil is dry, dry, dry.
Below is a short clip of the first step on a sample panel of walnut.
So, there it is, how to do a hand rubbed oil finish, at least how I do mine.
Have any tips for other readers? Please leave them in the comments below.