Pros:a finish that accentuates the wood's quality instead of covering it
Cons:Raises grain a little; labor-intensive
The Bottom Line: When you've put a lot of work into a wood project, give it the finish that it deserves: Formby's Traditional Tung Oil Finish.
The project I'd (finally) completed was small, and I'd made an unusual choice of woods: half clean, yellow-blond poplar and the other half a handsome, chocolaty walnut. The choice of woods and colors were the entire point of the piece, so when it came time to apply a finish I wanted something to accentuate the wood's grain and texture without overpowering its natural colors. My Dad liked tung oil for subtle finishes, so I followed his lead by choosing some of Homer Formby's Traditional Tung Oil Finish, the Low Gloss version. Even though Formby's is now a member of the MinWax family, Homer's bespectacled face still decorates the label, and - at least according to MinWax - the formula remains the same.
That formula is 70% aliphatic hydrocarbons (mineral spirits), with the other 30% a proprietary mixture of oils and resins of tung oil, pressed from the nuts of a tree native to east Asia. Formby's Tung Oil is intended for use as a hand-rubbed finish, which you apply with a lint-free cloth using a circular motion like you might wax a car (think "Karate Kid": wax on, wax off). After the finish dries - some twelve hours, unless the humidity is high - you apply another coat (I prefer to soften the grain with a light application of steel wool between coats). Repeat until the finish is satisfactory.
Tung oil finishes like Formby's are penetrating finishes, blends of varnish and oils that soak into the grain of the wood. The spirits evaporate, leaving the varnish and oils behind in the wood's pores. The result is a finish that hardens the upper layer of the wood instead of spreading over it. This soaking action raises the grain slightly, which is why I use the steel wool.
For my project, I applied five or six coats over a period of three to four days, with steel wool between coats followed by a shot of compressed air to blow away any vagrant threads. The result's a matte finish that slightly darkened both species of wood, leaving it with a somewhat wet look. End grain soaks up the oil more, so it's noticeably darker. The surface stayed nice and smooth, especially the walnut. If the surface dries out or gets scuffed, the label tells me I can apply new coats over the original finish any time.
Though more expensive than brush-on stains and definitely more labor-intensive, I highly recommend Formby's Traditional Tung Oil Finish to accent the hard work you've already put in on your project.
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