Finishing oak with finesse

Learn the tricks of the trade when finishing oak

Submitted by WOOD community member WOOD Magazine StaffSubmit a Shop Guide
  • Finishing oak with finesse

    The following slides show the look of red oak with various finishes. Because of oak's cellular structure, the pigments in oil-based stains collect more in the wood's open grain areas, while the smoother, denser, surrounding areas retain less. This can result in strong light/dark contrasts. A 180-grit final sanding may neutralize this contrast. In addition, you may find that oak has small regions of fibers with a lot of cellulose (technically called tension wood) that absorb stain better than the other areas. Though subtle compared with pine, this uneven absorption can give oak a blotchy appearance. If it occurs on a stained and finished test piece, try sealing the next test piece prior to staining, using a conditioner, sanding sealer, or wash coat. You also can add stain pigments to the clear finish to reduce blotching.

  • Clear and dark walnut stain (Danish Oil)

    Finish Pros

    • Very easy to apply
    • Good moisture resistance
    • Easy to maintain, just apply another coat
    • Natural appearance

    Finish Cons

    • Slow drying time, and finish can "bleed" back out of pores for several hours
    • Little or no surface protection
    • Dull and lifeless appearance
    • Mechanical bond only
  • Gloss water-based finish

    Finish Pros

    • Good clarity, no yellowing of wood
    • Easy to apply
    • Good moisture resistance
    • Good durability
    • Good for the environment
    • Water cleanup
    • Fast-drying; projects can be fully finished in one day

    Finish Cons

    • Hard to repair
    • Difficult to polish
    • Mechanical bond only
    • Gives oak a "cold" appearance
  • Polyurethane finish

    Finish Pros

    • Very durable, some tinting possible
    • Great moisture resistance
    • Good scratch resistance
    • Good clarity

    Finish Cons

    • Slow-drying
    • Prone to collect dust during application
    • Difficult to repair and touch up
    • Lifting or wrinkling may occur after second coat; avoid this by adhering to the re-coat time frame per manufacturer's directions
    • Mechanical bond only
  • Finished with shellac

    Finish Pros

    • Great clarity, gives wood "depth"; orange shellac gives wood an amber hue
    • Fast-drying; projects can be fully finished in one day
    • Each new layer "burns" into the previous forming a chemical bond
    • Easy to tint with alcohol dyes
    • Easy to repair
    • Can re-coat at any time

    Finish Cons

    • Poor chemical resistance
    • Marginal moisture resistance
    • Short shelf life (about six months for flakes); pay attention to dates when buying premixed shellac in cans, again, avoiding material older than six months
  • Finished with gloss lacquer

    Finish Pros

    • Fast drying
    • Easily tinted
    • Easy to repair
    • Good moisture and chemical resistance
    • Great clarity, especially with gloss lacquer; too many coats with satin lacquer will result in a "foggy" appearance
    • Polishes and rubs out to a mirror finish
    • Each new layer "burns" into the previous, forming a chemical bond
    • Lack of a flatting agent in the gloss film means more strength and durability

    Finish Cons

    • Harsh solvent content; use in well-ventilated area
    • Fume build-up could result in an explosion if in presence of pilot light, electric motor, etc.
    • For best results, spray equipment is required

    Note: All samples are from the same red oak board and use the same color stain (Minwax Dark Walnut).
    * Gloss finishes reflect light far more in actual wood than in photographs of the samples.

Tip of the Day

Rope trick helps haul the goods

100673229

Without someone to help, maneuvering sheet goods can become just about impossible. But with just a... read more

Talk in Finishing and Refinishing