How to Use a Tung Oil Finish

A pure or polymerized tung oil finish is easy to use and will produce beautiful results on any type of wood, inside or out. Tung oil finishes are usually applied to unfinished wood, but they can be used over oil based stains.

Other types of existing finishes, such as varnish, must be removed, as tung oil is a penetrating oil. It needs to penetrate deeply into the wood fibers and pores.

Preparing the Wood

New wood needs to sanded smooth prior to application. This finish does not build a film like varnish, so you need to do most of the sanding before any tung oil finish is applied.

If the wood is rough, start with medium grit sand paper and then finish with a fine grit. Remember to always sand in the direction of the grain.

After sanding, do any repairs. Fill any holes or cracks with wood filler. If you plan to use a wood stain beneath the tung oil finish, choose a stainable filler. If you don’t plan to use stain, choose a colored wood filler that approximately matches the wood’s color. Do a final sanding if necessary and remove all dust with tack rags.

Exterior wood surfaces should be cleaned with water and a scrub brush to remove any residual stains or finishes. A pressure washer can be used, if needed, but low pressure should be used. All stains, such as rusty nail heads, also must be removed prior to applying tung oil. Allow all wood surfaces to fully dry before proceeding.

Staining the Wood

Any oil base wood stain can be applied. A tung oil finish has an amber color that will change or enhance the stain’s color. Consider this when you choose the color. You may want to test the results before proceeding with the project. Apply the stain and finish to a scrap piece of similar wood.

Choose traditional colors that will be subtle and still enhance the wood grain.

Applying Tung Oil

Applying tung oil to a wood kitchen countertop using a brush.
A can be applied pure or thinned up to 50% with mineral spirits or turpentine. Thinning the first coat increases penetration, decreases the drying time and produces better results.

The typical application method for smooth interior wood is hand rubbing. Dip a soft cloth or rag into the finish and rub onto the wood. Keep applying until the wood is saturated. Use a natural bristle brush for hard to reach areas. Allow each coat to remain on the surface for 20-30 minutes. Then wipe all areas to remove any excess that remains. Check for drips or runs after another few minutes.

Applying tung oil to wood countertops, cutting boards or wood bowls is very easy. First only use 100% pure tung oil without thinning. Apply liberally with a brush or rag. Using circular rubbing motions will help the oil penetrate. Finish by using a rag to remove any excess by lightly rubbing in the direction of the wood grain. Repeat when dry.

Drying is a slow process and takes between 24 – 48 hours. The time depends on the porosity of the wood and whether you thinned the finish.

It will take 3 – 4 coats to achieve a waterproof surface. Lightly sand or buff the wood with extra fine steel wool between coats. This achieves better results than using sandpaper.

For exterior use, brushing is the best method for application. Thin the first application to increase penetration. Pick up all drips and runs after 30 minutes. Continue to apply additional coats. It takes 4 – 6 coats on new, very porous woods like cedar.

Maintaining Tung Oil Finishes

Maintenance is very easy. Remove light scratches with a light sanding and the addition of another coat of tung oil finish. Interior wood surfaces might need another coat every 2 – 4 years and exterior wood 1 – 2 years depending on exposure to sun light and the wood species.




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18 Comments

  1. Grizz
    Posted August 15, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Very helpfull thanks so much!

    • Jacob
      Posted March 16, 2017 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      I have it on good authority that on chopping boards a non drying oil makes more sense.
      A drying oil will form a solid film if you start cutting on the board you will also cut through this solid finish as a result bacteria can stay there if not really well cleaned, a non drying oil like coconut oil would refill these cuts in the wood. Common sense or what?
      Regards Jacob

  2. Posted December 3, 2015 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you for a this article. I’m wondering if pure tung oil can be applied over a water based stain? I seem to be finding conflicting info on the matter….

    • Posted February 2, 2016 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes and no. Tung oil is best over itself (raw wood) or oil base stains. Water based stains can “seal” the wood and not allow the Tung oil to penetrate. You can give it a try by thinning the Tung oil 1/2 (50%) for better penetration. If the oil won’t penetrate, just pools on the surface, then wipe it off and use a clear wood finish like varnish.

  3. Wayne
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Can you mix wood dye in the first coat of Tung oil?

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, wood dye should mix in just fine. But, I’m not sure what the end result will look like. Recommend experimenting before committing any project.

    • Julie B
      Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Did you try the coloring?

  4. James Packer
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I have finished a table top with liberon quick drying tung oil and have applied 5 coats so far I cannot seem to get a perfectly smooth finish someone has told me after the final coat sand with 600 grit paper and mineral oil is this ok??

    • Posted April 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, sanding will work well. You can also use very fine steel wool.

  5. Posted June 2, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Good informative post, It will definitely help a lot of doing something like this.

  6. Susan
    Posted June 29, 2017 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Can this be used after cleaning an already antique Tavel and chairs without removing previous stain

    • Posted July 1, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Tung oil can be used but if the surface is already sealed with another finish then it won’t work very well. Tung oil dries very slowly and works best when it can penetrate into the wood a bit.

      An alternative is a product called Watco. Watco is a Danish oil and can be rubbed on over other finishes. Watco is found at your local hardware store.

  7. Delia
    Posted July 20, 2017 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Question; My friend just made me a table and I want to use the tung oil. So, I just use this I don’t have to put anything else on it like a sealer right? Just the tung oil, 3-4 times and use steel wool in between the coats?

    • Posted July 20, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Correct, make sure to thin the first coat for maximum penetration of the tung oil. Amount of coats required depends on type of wood, 3-4 is typical.

  8. Cynthia
    Posted August 1, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Once you have applied a tung oil finish what can be used to maintain the finish until it is recoated? Lemon oil ok? What type of polish is suggested?

    • Posted August 1, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      Once you have applied 2 or more thin coats of tung oil and it has throughly dried, any polish or wax can be used over top to protect or enhance the wood. Pure lemon oil is a good choice as it doesn’t contain any waxes. Wax will need complete removal before any additional coats of tung oil can be applied in the future.

      Another product to use is a Dutch Oil finish such as Watco. This is a thin tung oil/varnish with color (like a stain). Great to use on stained woodwork to renew the woods color and sheen.

      Of course, thinned tung oil can be applied anytime to renew the finish. No need for fancy polishes or waxes. Simply hand rub a coat when needed.

  9. Brandylee
    Posted September 2, 2017 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    We have a mahogany wood wall that was finished with ting oil, we applied 4 coats and it has a nice consistent shine. Our issue is that the color of the wood is too bright, can I paint over the tung oil finish? Would you suggest sanding lightly and using a latex paint? I prefer oil based paints but I feel that the tung oil has a finish that won’t be penetrated by oil paint?

    • Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Light sanding and an oil based wood primer is needed to form the foundation for paint. Once painted the mahogany will be covered forever, shame as mahogany is really nice wood.

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