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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30 Comments

  1. Grizz

    Very helpfull thanks so much!

    • Jacob

      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. 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….

    • 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

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

  4. James Packer

    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??

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

  6. Susan

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

    • 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

    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?

    • 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

    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?

    • 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

    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?

    • 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.

  10. Linda

    I have a table that a friend refinished for me with pure tongue oil. A can of the spray air like you use to clean out computer keyboards was set on it and it left a ring. Can I just sand lightly and put another couple of coats of tongue oil on it to repair?

  11. Eric

    We just got unfinished knotty alder doors for our front entry. We want to apply an oil base stain then finish and maintain with tongue oil. My question is does the oil based stains like Minwax brand have unwanted ingredients that would cause problems for the tongue oil penetration. If so where would I go to get a proper stain and what brand? Thanks for any help.

    • The oil based stains on the market will work fine with Tung Oil. The only ones that might cause problems are the thicker gel stains. Use a standard wiping stain and thin the first coat or 2 of Tung oil for good penetration.

  12. Tammy

    Thank you for all of this information! I was just price checking for walnut, cherry, etc. and they are so expensive. My husband and I have drawn up plans for building our own butcher block table and wanted to use some walnut in the table top (our new cupboards are stained black walnut) and we were quoted such a high price per 2x4x8 that I have been looking at alternatives.

    I can use the same stain on oak or pine, it is oil based, and then use tung oil on top of that? Will it remain a food safe surface? How long do I have to wait before treating the block with the tung oil?
    Thank you for your help!

    • The stain color will be different on the Pine when compared to the Walnut. You should stain a couple sample boards, pieces of Pine and Walnut, and make sure you like the results. If needed you can try different stain colors to get a closer color match.

      Tung oil alone is a food safe surface but adding the stain complicates things. Technically, adding the stain is no longer a food safe surface but that applies only as a cutting surface. If properly sealed with 2 or more thing coats of Tung oil and not cut into I don’t think you will have any problems. I recommend using a citrus solvent and thinning the first coat to better penetrate the wood better.

  13. KF

    I am in the process of refinishing my double wooden front doors. I have sanded off the existing finish which I think may have been a polyurethane; whatever it was, it was peeling and flaking and in need of removal. I live in central Florida and humidity is an issue. The doors are under a deep porch and the sun exposure is limited to the bottom 1/4 of the doors, morning only as they face directly east. This is where the finish was in bad shape. Water exposure rarely occurs. I am not sure if the doors are mahogany or another wood which would give them a red tone. A contractor friend of mine told me that they were Anderson doors, just as are all my sliders and my windows. They are over 20 years old and I don’t know if Anderson uses mahogany in their production or if I am just seeing remnants of a previous stain in the wood. I have been leaning toward using tung oil vs a pigmented stain, not only for the benefits of the penetration but for the ease of maintenance. With the humidity and the UV exposure to the bottom portion, is this enough? One individual in a woodcraft supply store told me I would have to reapply tung oil every couple of months without a topcoat and that here in Florida I needed to have one. He suggested an oil based varnish, which I had already been considering, however I would go as far as putting a marine grade one on the doors. I just hate to get in that sanding cycle to reapply every year or 2. Is he correct in his comment? And if I do need an oil based varnish, then do I need to skip the tung oil and just use a good marine grade tung oil varnish like Epifanes? Or Man O’ War? Thanks!

    • Yes, you will need to reapply the Tung oil often as it will dry out and be oxidized by UV light also mold could be an issure with high humidity. But maintenance would be easy; clean, light sanding, reapply. It will build up after a while providing additional protection but UV resistance is very low, quick oxidation.

      A marine varnish, Man-O-War, is a good choice but you are correct that reapplication will require sanding. Probably every couple years.

      A good way to tackle this is apply Tung oil (2+ coats, thinned for penetration) and see how it wears. Apply until the wood won’t take any more. If needed you can go over the tung oil with the varnish.

  14. Barry

    My son is building vegetable boxes for a non-profit garden co-op (Eagle project). The wood is poplar. The co-op has requested a food safe pure tung oil. 2 questions:

    1. They have also requested us paint a logo on one side of the box in black flat paint. Can we just put the 3-4 coats of tung oil on that stenciled piece of wood after logo is painted on – simply wiping off tung oil excess over the painted section? The paint will provide protection on the logo, the tung oil covers the rest? Is that a plan?
    2. What do we thin the first coat of tung oil with that’s considered food safe?

    Thanks for any advice you can give.

    • #1 Correct, just apply the Tung oil as usual and wipe off the excess.

      #2 I would apply unthinned, allow first coat to soak in overnight before applying a second coat. Normally, the first coat is thinned with mineral spirits but this isn’t food safe. There is a food safe thinner, citrus solvent, that is food safe. Check it out and see if something you want to invest in – https://www.realmilkpaint.com/shop/oils/citrus-solvent/

  15. Helen

    Hi. I,m using Tung oil on an indoor floor, on the can it says the oil is toxic and I should use a respirator when applying it. Is this correct?

    • It isn’t a pure Tung oil. Might be a Tung Oil Varnish or have ‘other’ components added. Follow the can instructions for the product you have.

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