What Is an Oil Rubbed Finish On Wood + 7 Step Tutorial

If you’re working on a wood-based project then one of the best ways to bring out the beauty of wood and its grain is through oil. An oil-rubbed finish on wood will completely take your wooden furniture to new heights.

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For this purpose, you might want to use something like Danish oil or tung oil. Boiled linseed oil is good, but the problem with it is that it never fully cures. It creates a sticky layer on the wooden surface which does not feel good to the touch. Let us understand what is an oil-rubbed finish properly and the steps to follow to achieve one perfectly in the next section.

What Exactly is an Oil Rubbed Finish 

People usually just saturate their wood with oil and let it dry off, to create a protective finish. While that is mostly enough, it does not hold a candle to what an oil-rubbed finish can achieve. Not only does it enhance the grain, penetrate wood, and create a protective finish, it also smoothens it.

When you rub oil into a piece using fine-grit sandpaper it removes coarse grit sandpaper marks. But along with that, you are also creating a paste of oil and sawdust by sanding. This paste fills in the open pores of the wood while allowing the oil to deeply penetrate it. While the oil dries inside the wood and hardens, the filled pores make the surface of the wood smooth.

With the smooth finish, you are able to achieve an almost reflective surface out of just oil. And it also provides the wood with an antique look as well, without altering the color of the wood itself. It just deepens the color and beautifies the grain even further.

7 Steps to Achieve an Oil-Rubbed Finish on Wood

An oil-rubbed finish allows you to create a shiny, almost satin finish on the wood. To do that you need to apply oil using fine-grit sandpaper. The oil mixed with the really fine sawdust will create a paste that fills in the pores. This will smoothen the surface of the wood while creating a protective layer thanks to the penetrating properties of the oil.

To achieve the best results from an oil-rubbed finish, it is required for you to repeat the process a few times. Also, after the finish, you can preserve that smooth and shiny finish with an additional polish using a compound.

Step 1 – Preparing the Wood

Before everything, you need to prepare the wood by sanding it. This is to remove any marks and scratches caused by the tools. You start off at 80 or 100 grit sandpaper and then make your way up to 220 grits. Once you are done with that, wipe the piece clean with a clean rag.

Step 2 – Applying Oil Using Sandpaper

For this step, you will be using Danish oil but simple tung oil is also a great alternative. Pour some oil on the wooden piece and then start sanding using wet/dry sandpaper. The sandpaper should be around 400 grits for a smoother finish.

Step 3 – Rubbing the Oil Finish

Slowly sand the oil on the wood using a 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper. You don’t need to sand it too much, just a little throughout the whole piece. Keep sanding it till you have completely sanded the whole piece.

What you are doing is creating a mixture of oil and sawdust that will fill in the pores. The oil also penetrates deeply through the pores into the wood creating a very strong finish once it dries. It dries into a hard protective finish that makes wood water and spillage-proof.

Step 4 – Wiping Clean the Excess

One thing to keep in mind is that the layer of oil on the surface should be very thin. So use clean rags to rub the whole piece until the excess has been completely wiped off.

Now you need to wait for the oil to dry, which will take around 6-12 hours. The timing may vary depending on the oil you have applied to the wood.

Step 5 – Scuffing With Synthetic Abrasive Pads

Once the oil is dry and it does not feel sticky to the touch, use fine synthetic abrasive pads to scuff the surface of the wood. Lightly scuff the piece with the pads making sure to cover the whole thing from corner to corner.

This is so you can knock off any dust nibs and other residues that might scratch the surface of the wood and ruin it.

Step 6 – Rinse and Repeat

So now you have to repeat this process a few times, it will take about 5 to 8 coats of oil. The whole process may require a few days as it will take time for the oil to dry every time you apply a new coat.

Make sure there aren’t any dry areas on the wood anywhere. Usually, you don’t need more than 8 coats of oil and scuffing to get the best results.

Step 7 – Applying a Polish (Optional)

Once you are done with your oil-rubbed finish, you can take it a step further. If you have the time and resource at hand, why not apply a polishing compound to the piece. This will end up creating a reflective glossy surface on the wooden piece.

To apply, pour a small amount of your favorite polishing compound, we used Howard Restor-A-Finish Polishing Compound. Use a clean rag to rub the polish onto the wooden piece. It will take some elbow grease and effort on your end to bring it to a gloss finish.

Best Oils to Use for an Oil-Rubbed Finish

So as we said before, not all oils can be used for an oil-rubbed finish on the wood. The reason being that linseed oil does not cure well and it stays sticky even after fully drying off. And because of that, it is off the list of recommended oils for use.

Tung oil is more favorable, so using products that contain tung oil does well. Also, Danish oil dries and cures well, it has a great finish that protects wood well against moisture.

This Old Master Tung Oil Varnish is a great choice for an oil-rubbed finish. It does wonders and gives the wood a natural but deep look that just makes the grain pop out.

For Danish oil Watco Brand Danish Oil is one of the best ones out there. It comes in various colors, you even have an option for a natural clear finish. The Watco Danish oil is really famous amongst woodworkers throughout the globe.

Tips to an Oil-Rubbed Finish for Beginners

For beginners, an oil-rubbed finish might be a bit difficult to achieve at first. This is why here are some tips to get the best results: 

  • When sanding with oil, try not to overdo it. When you are new to something, you might feel like you are not doing enough. But in this case, you don’t have to overdo it.
  • Make sure you get every nook and cranny while sanding. Don’t want to leave any area dry.
  • Sand in the direction of the grain, don’t go against the grain otherwise it will create scratches.
  • Use clean rags to wipe off excess oil, if you don’t have clean rags after the first coat, wash and dry them.
  • When using a polishing compound in the end, make sure you buff the surface of the wood properly. The more you buff, the more glossy finish you get at the end.
  • Make sure to wipe off the excess of the oil properly, otherwise, it will take too much time to dry.

Why Get an Oil-Rubbed Finish?

Oils unlike other finishes are natural, they provide wood with the nourishment it needs to make it stronger. Other finishes are normally used to protect the wood from moisture by drying to a hard film. A good example of that is polyurethane and lacquer. Then we have stains and shellac that alter the color of the wood and darken it. 

But oils not only protect the wood from moisture and spillage, but they also replenish the natural oils inside the wood. So you make the wood strong from inside out using oils. An oil-rubbed finish gives the wood an antique look. It deepens the color of the wood while also making it smooth.

Although a normal oil finish that you just wipe on is all good and well, it does not give you the smoothness that you can get from an oil-rubbed finish. The latter will not only look good but also feel good to the touch by the time you’re done with it.

Final Thoughts

By now you should have understood why an oil-rubbed finish is superior to a wipe-on oil finish. Though it is a more lengthy task and requires more effort on your end, the final results are worth it. And if you follow the steps mentioned above, you will get a perfect oil-rubbed finish without any problems.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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