Finishing oak with finesse

Learn the tricks of the trade when finishing oak

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  • 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.

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