Years ago, while working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I visited the furniture conservation department to ask for some help finishing one of my own pieces. I got a one-word reply: “Waterlox.” After more than a decade as a professional furniture maker, I consider Waterlox my mainstay, too. The reasons are many.
Waterlox Original Sealer/ Finish has a tung-oil base modified with resins, giving it the luster and vibrancy of pure oil with the quick build and durable protection of a lacquer. Its unique formula also lets you brush it on thick or wipe it on thin. My approach takes advantage of both qualities: I brush on coats first, which saturates the wood and provides a foundation for a series of thin, smooth coats, padded on with a folded rag. I only need to level the surface twice—once after each stage—and I do it with steel wool, which follows every contour and leaves a smoother surface than sandpaper. The whole process couldn’t be simpler, easier and more foolproof, delivering a deeply lustrous semigloss that’s also lovely to touch.
This versatile finish will work for almost everything you build. You can apply it thinner for a more natural look or build it up for a deeper luster and more protection. I usually apply five coats, building the finish to a medium film that has durability and depth while letting the wood’s beauty shine through. I’ve found that water beads up on the surface of Waterlox and I’ve never experienced any discolored rings from hot or cold beverages, with or without coasters. At the same time, the film is flexible, so it won’t chip or flake. If there’s damage somehow, Waterlox is easy to repair, letting you blend new finish in with the old and avoid having to strip an entire surface to bare wood.
Keys to Success
No finish is perfect, and Waterlox does have a few minor drawbacks. I have developed techniques to eliminate most of those, and the pros vastly outweigh the cons. It isn’t cheap, but neither is nice wood or the time you invest in a beautiful piece. In all cases you get what you pay for.
Keep the Shop Warm
One thing people don’t realize is how sensitive Waterlox is to temperature. The finish will lay flatter and meld together better in a warmer shop. If applied much below 65 degrees, it tends to clump up and show brush and rag strokes. So turn up the heat in your shop.
If you’re heating your shop with a space heater or wood stove, make sure the actual finish and the piece of furniture is up to temperature before you begin padding on coats. If your shop isn’t heated regularly in winter, it’d be best to store the finish somewhere that is.
Keep Oxygen Out of Can
Waterlox comes out of the can thin and ready to use. Unfortunately, as many users have found, it becomes viscous and turns to gel if left in a container with too much air in it. My technique requires thin and watery coats, so I go to great lengths to keep it that way. It’s not difficult.
As soon as I get the finish home, I transfer it from its store-bought can into several smaller glass jars with metal screw-on lids (not plastic). I wash and save my old peanut butter, pickle and small, glass condiment jars, in a variety of sizes.
When the finish in the jars gets down to just over half-full, I transfer it into smaller jars, leaving as little air in the new container as possible. If there’s even 1″ of airspace, I displace the oxygen by blowing into the jar as I put the lid on. I take a deep breath, hold it for a bit so my body uses up most of the oxygen, and then crack the lid and exhale into the container before screwing down the lid tightly. You can also use an off-the-shelf product called Bloxygen to displace that airspace, or add clean glass marbles to the jar to bring the finish level back to the rim (and thus decreasing the airspace).
If one jar becomes a little more viscous than the others, I use it for the brushed-on coats, as this will not affect the quality of the final finish. And I almost always open a fresh jar for the final padded coat so it lays flat.
Protect Your Lungs & Hands
Waterlox produces a fairly strong odor, so I consider a proper vapor respirator to be a must. I also wear latex gloves to protect my hands and keep them clean.
Prepping Surfaces for Waterlox
Prepping the surface for Waterlox is pretty standard. Sand all of the surfaces to #220 grit, and remove the dust with compressed air. The first few coats aren’t particularly sensitive to dust, but, if possible, move the piece to a cleaner area or room for the final padded coats. Dried glue will resist any oil finish, leaving light areas, so do your best to remove squeeze-out. However, if you discover a missed spot after brushing the first coat, Waterlox is forgiving— just let the finish dry, sand the area and reapply. No one will be the wiser.
I break down pieces if I can for finishing, removing tabletops from bases, for example. And I put strips under the workpieces to lift them off the table when applying Waterlox, so they don’t pick up debris and the finish doesn’t pool around the bottom. I seal these strips with Waterlox so they don’t wick finish from the piece.
Start with Two Coats
I start with two brushed coats of Waterlox, which saturate the wood with finish and establish a foundation for the padded coats that follow. After brushing, I smooth the wet finish with a cotton rag, to remove drips or puddles and leave a wet, even coat.
A large, soft, natural-bristle brush works best, but there’s no need to break the bank. I use a 1 3/8″ round domed-sash brush by Jack Richeson & Co. It holds a lot of finish and fits nicely into the glass jars I use.
The first step is to get as much finish transferred onto the furniture as possible. Then I use the brush to move the finish around and evenly cover the surface, returning to thirstier areas like end grain or spalted wood to give them more finish. Since Waterlox starts getting tacky after about 15 minutes in a warm shop, it works best to break a big piece into sections, brushing finish onto one section and then wiping down the previous one, and so on.
I remove the excess with clean, lint-free cotton rags. The goal isn’t removing every bit of excess but just avoiding pooling and drips. So leave the piece glossy with wet finish rather than wiping it down to a matte look. If an area is still absorbing a lot of finish at this point, feel free to move more finish there with the rag. That said, the next coat should even out the look. Before leaving the piece to dry, make a last spot check for drips and pools.
After leaving the piece for at least 24 hours, apply a second brushed coat. The wood will absorb less this time, so apply a little less finish to prevent drips. This time, wipe down the surface with the grain, which will make marks less visible. Again, spot-check the piece before you leave it and wait another 24 hours for it to fully cure.
Level the Surface
At this point, it’s time to level the surface, removing any debris left in the finish. I do this with medium-grade steel wool, which seems to scrape rather than scratch and grind the surface (like sandpaper would). This leaves a smoother surface for the thin padded coats that follow. You might be tempted to smooth the surface after the first brushed coat, but my tests show that to be a waste of time. You’ll get just as good results smoothing the second coat only. Medium-grade steel wool can get a little prickly and painful, so I protect my hands with latex gloves.
Rub with the grain, as cross-grain scratches can telegraph through to the final finish. Then blow off the surface with compressed air, or brush and wipe off the dust. The surface should feel smooth. Drag your hands over the entire piece, and hit any areas that feel rough with the steel wool again.
Pad on Thinner Coats
My padding technique is inspired by French polishing, and lets me build up protection and luster in a series of thin, smooth coats. The process is very forgiving. If you mess up you can just rub the area out, using steel wool for slight mistakes or sandpaper for bigger ones. Then apply extra finish until the area looks similar to its neighbors, and start applying coats to the entire piece again. Once the piece is in service, the same process works for invisible repairs.
To make the pad, simply fold a lint-free cotton rag to make a palm-sized flat area on one side. Any folds on the working side will produce streaks in the finish. It’s similar to a pad for French polishing, except that there’s no charging cloth wadded inside. Since Waterlox dries slower than shellac, that extra wadding isn’t necessary to keep the pad wet.
I use the brush to charge the pad, dipping it in the jar and pressing it into the cloth. The flat side of the pad should be wet but not dripping wet. As you pad on layers the rag will eventually become saturated. Add finish to keep it from getting sticky.
I use the pad to transfer a fair amount of finish onto the surface, and then even it out into a thin, smooth coat. The technique is more like rubbing than wiping. I don’t lift the pad from the surface as I go. If you stop short and lift the pad, you’ll leave a bump or bubble of finish behind. When you do need to set the pad down on the surface or lift it off, do it in a smooth, gradual motion, like an airplane landing or taking off. I wipe in the direction of the grain, so any marks will be less noticeable.
Areas that are still absorbing finish will appear dull or pale, so wipe these areas a second time to get more finish into the wood and even out the sheen so it looks evenly glossy and wet. At the same time, you’re applying a film here, not a thick coat, so if the finish is dripping, you should apply less to the rag.
You can keep working until you feel a little resistance, but definitely stop when the pad starts to grab, or just before. As the finish tacks, it’ll pull fibers from the pad and you’ll create stroke marks too, creating problems to fix with steel wool later. After the finish has cured for 24 hours, pad on a second coat like the first. There’s no need to buff the entire piece between coats, but it’s worth your time to spot-check for rough spots or drips and knock those down with medium steel wool.
Buff After the Second Coat
Once the second coat is dry (24 hours), knock it down with superfine (#0000) steel wool. Rub with the grain where possible, but don’t feel bad about rubbing cross-grain to smooth out tight areas where one surface meets another. As before, blow off the entire piece with compressed air and feel for areas you might’ve missed. Your hands see far better than your eyes at this juncture.
This is a good time for fine-tuning the finish. If some areas look more matte than others, I just pad on more finish, let it cure and even out the look with more steel wool.
The Most Important Coat
Use a fresh jar of finish for the final coat, so it lays as flat as possible. Pad it on the same way but be extra careful to follow the grain. Once you’ve wiped a section, check it in raking light. If you see a dull spot, give it another wipe and then do a quick overall wipe of the entire section.
If the temperature is low and you get some bumps and clumps of wet finish, wipe it off as best as you can with a clean rag and let it dry for 24 hours. Then buff it with steel wool to smooth the surface, and pad on another thin coat.
Allow the final coat to dry for an extra day or so to help with the final buffing. If the furniture has areas that’ll see heavy use, like a tabletop, or you just want to build up a deeper luster, you can pad on additional layers of finish. Hit the piece lightly with the super-fine steel wool between each additional coat.
The Paper Bag Trick
Furniture is made to be touched, so the final coat of any finish needs to be rubbed out. My favorite tool for this is a plain brown paper grocery bag—a mild abrasive that is foolproof and effective.
The paper grabs small dust particles that have collected in the final coat, leaving a surface that’s soft and smooth to the touch. However, it’ll not fix significant defects in the finish. Buff those out with steel wool and reapply one or more coats of finish with the rag pad. I cut up clean grocery-store bags, and use only sections that are free of print and seams, folding them into a roughly 4″ square. I then buff the wood lightly with the grain, checking the paper often.
Any buildup of finish or debris can mar the finish, so switch to fresh paper as needed. If the finish wants to roll up into tiny pills, it’s not fully cured, so let it rest another day or two. This step will knock down some of the gloss on the piece, and a few months of curing will knock down the gloss a bit further. That’s just one of the many things I love about my go-to finish.
An Alternate Approach for Lighter Woods
Waterlox has a darker hue than some oil finishes, which adds richness to walnut and other medium-to-dark woods, but can make light woods look brownish. That’s OK if you’re going for an aged look on maple or ash, but if you want to preserve the natural color of any light wood, I recommend polyurethane. If you dilute it half-and-half with mineral spirits, you can use the same brush/pad technique I use for Waterlox to get the same beautiful results, with a similar flexibility of build.
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