Finishing a piece takes about one-third of the total time it takes to build a piece. That’s a lot of time. It’s easy to underestimate how long the finish process will take, and easy to rush a beautiful piece of furniture to its end simply because you can’t stand waiting for the oil to dry. Time is the one ingredient, however, that can’t be fudged.
The following tips apply to hand-rubbed oil finishes. This is one of the oldest and most beautiful methods of finishing, because it accentuates the natural graining of the wood. The process is relatively simple, but getting on enough layers for the finish to become protective takes time. It consists of sanding, rubbing on, rubbing off, drying. Sanding, rubbing on, rubbing off, drying. Sanding, rubbing on, rubbing off . . . you get the idea.
Tip#1: Spare no expense when preparing your surface.
How a piece feels to the hand is one of the first ways a person interacts with a piece of furniture. Always give the wood the “hand test” before applying the first coat of oil. Remove any obvious rough spots and tool marks first. You want to have different grades of sandpaper in stock, ranging from 150 all the way up to 1,000 grit. Use the 150 to sand out the rough spots, and move on to 180. Once you’ve sanded down to 220, you’re ready to apply your first coat of oil. The 1,000 grit comes in once you’ve applied a good three to four coats of oil.
Tip #2: Don’t use spandex.
Rather than buying finish cloth, we like to use recycled old clothing for rags. These are usually perfect as they are already nice and soft. You want to avoid using any dyed fabric, or cloth with synthetic, man-made materials such as spandex. White or light-colored 100% cotton is best.
Tip#3: Be Generous.
Your first coat of oil is the most important. Get into every little nook and cranny. Don’t be afraid to soak the cloth. If you notice any patches or areas where the oil isn’t soaking in, this is mostly likely glue. You will need to scrape off the glue with a hand chisel before any of the oil can soak in. And yes, make sure you get at least one, preferably two coats, on the undersides of tables, shelves, and chairs. Even though no one sees this, you want to treat both sides of a piece of wood the same way. Otherwise, there is danger the board may cup or bow over time.
Tip#4: Go with the Grain.
Always apply the oil in the direction of the wood grain. This will give you the most even coverage. This same rule also applies when sanding and rubbing off the oil.
Tip#5: Liven Up the Lighting.
It’s easy to miss drips, smudges, and spots in weak or poor lighting. Make sure you expose every surface to the test of bright light. This includes the interiors of drawers and back corners. Sometimes I wear a headlamp if the piece is big, so I can really get at the back interiors of cupboards. It also helps to move the piece into different lighting, such as overhead or floor lighting. Sometimes you catch spots or mistakes that you might have otherwise missed.
To read about other types of wood finish, check out this article on Wood Finish.
To read about Iron-Biffing, Dan’s favorite process for natural dyeing, check out The Magic of Iron Buffed Wood.
Dan’s philosophy on wood dyes and stains: Dyeing without Killing.