Introduction: Applying Traditional Varnish Oil

Traditional varnish oil is my favourite type of finish for indoor furniture pieces. My favourite brand of varnish oil is Tried and True. It’s completely non-toxic, it doesn’t smell up my house, it provides good protection and it looks beautiful.

However, some people say this is a difficult finish to apply. I don’t find using this finish difficult, I think it just takes a little know-how. This is how I do it.

Step 1: Materials

Varnish Oil

Micro-fibre tack cloth

Lint-free cloth or rag

0000 Steel Wool

Disposable gloves (optional)

Step 2: Prepare the Piece for Finish

Begin by preparing the wood surface for the finish. This means sanding (or hand planing) the finish as smooth as you want. For most indoor furniture, I will move my way up through the sanding grits on a hand-held random orbit sander, beginning at 120, then going to 150 or 180 and finally finishing at 220.

Before applying finish, it is important to remove as much of the dust as possible from the work piece. I start by vacuuming the piece with shop-vac. Then, I dust the entire piece a micro-fibre tack cloth to remove any remaining dust.

Step 3: Apply the First Coat

Try to apply the finish in a relative dust free environment i.e. not in your shop right after you have finished sanding. This finish should also be applied at room temperature.

Gently dip your lint free cloth into the varnish, brushing off excess on the edge of the lid. Begin applying a very thin coat and working your way over the entire piece, occasionally adding more varnish to your cloth. It’s very important that the finish be applied in thin coats and not dripping or pooling anywhere.

Step 4: Dispose of Your Oily Rag

You must now safely dispose of the oily rag. Improperly disposed oily rags can spontaneously combust. It’s very important that they not be scrunched up in a ball and left somewhere like the garbage. Hang them outside to dry in a safe area or spread them out flat. They should not be in a pile. Once they cure, the cloth will be hard and brittle and you can throw them out.

Step 5: Wait an Hour, Then Rub It Out

Wait for about an hour – this will allow the varnish oil some time to penetrate into the wood. Come back to your piece and rub it with a clean lint-free cloth until the surface is completely dry. You can run your bare fingers on the piece to see if it feels right – it should feel dry, but a bit oily.

Step 6: Wait a Day, Then Burnish

Allow the piece to cure for a minimum of 24 hours. Come back and burnish (rub) the piece with a soft cloth or 0000 steel wool. The more you rub the better it will look. Burnishing will make the piece feel soft and silky to the touch.

Step 7: Repeat As Many Times As You Want

For a typical piece of furniture I will repeat this process to build up 2 or 3 coats. Additional coats will deepen the shine and increase protection. If you are finishing a high use piece like a chair or a kitchen table, you may want to add more coats.