Keep the Hot Sauce Off the Table – Testing Finish - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Keep the Hot Sauce Off the Table – Testing Finish

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comparing four common finishes

From left: Osmo Polyx Oil in “Natural” (for pale woods) topped with Osmo Polyx Oil no. 3054, Cabot water-based polyurethane, Minwax oil-based polyurethane (satin), Minwax Helmsman spar varnish. Test subjects are arranged from left to right according to the degree of ambering imparted by the finish.

Note: Next Monday’s post will be an update shedding light on the results here and adding further important information.

As a maker of custom furniture and cabinetry, I use a variety of finishes. Some pieces need minimal protection – perhaps sealed with shellac and a coat of buffed wax, or finished with a blend of boiled linseed oil and polyurethane. Sometimes I brush oil-based poly onto horizontal surfaces that are going to get a lot of household wear; sometimes I use Osmo because an ultra-low sheen is what my client desires. Other jobs call for conversion varnish or lacquer; although I’ve sprayed lacquers when working at other businesses in the past, I don’t spray in my shop, so I sub such work out.

I have a basic repertoire of finishes to choose from, depending on a client’s aesthetic preferences and way of living. (Some people treat their home as carefully as if it were a museum. Others are like bulls in a china shop, leaning back in chairs and flinging spaghetti sauce in the kitchen.) I add new finishes occasionally, subjecting each to the following test (and sometimes additional tests) before agreeing to use it. On every job I discuss finish options in detail, explaining pros and cons and giving my recommendation based on whatever considerations are important to the client. Then I let him, her, or them make an informed decision.

Fortunately, most of the people I work for are not entitled idiots ready to blame me for their own recklessness, but intelligent humans willing to use their brains and take responsibility for how they interact with their furniture. I am not in the business of promising bomb-proof products. (If you are, good luck with that.) Most of my clients are happy to use heat- and moisture-impervious coasters. Some are especially concerned about scratches, others about ease of repair, the degree of ambering imparted by a finish, and so on. The one consideration I’ve found universal* is resistance to stains from drips, spills, and splatters. No matter how careful you are (and how firmly you advise your guests to put their glasses or cups on coasters), accidental contact with potentially damaging liquids is inevitable unless you keep your furniture wrapped in protective plastic.

This post is intended to provide the kind of information that I find generally useful in my work as a designer-maker of furniture, whether built-in or freestanding. You should perform your own experiments using the specific substances likely to be used around your work. (For example, I only tested comestibles here, not pharmaceutical or cleaning products.)

The four finishing products here are readily available and easy to use. None requires spraying or added a catalyst.

Note: I have described the process I used to apply each of the finishes, but your results may still diverge from mine, depending on other variables (among them the vinegar content of your hot sauce).

To ensure a basic level of consistency I made four blanks from a single piece of curly maple, which I resawed, then cut in half.

Testing, testing …

comparing four common finishes

Team Destructo. In my experience, when it comes to furniture in kitchens, the most destructive forces are plain old water and fats (oils, butter, nut butters, etc.). But I wanted to test a few other liquids that commonly make their way to coffee and dining tables (and occasionally to bedside tables, dresser tops, or serving trays).

comparing four common finishes

Key: 1 – Vodka,  2 – red wine, 3 – ketchup,  4 – olive oil,  5 – butter, 6 – hot sauce, 7 –  soy sauce,  8 – a wet glass of water (insert The Scream emoji.)

comparing four common finishes

The finishes. Not pictured: Osmo 3054


I sanded each block to 220 grit and removed the dust. I applied each finish as described below, then left each for 24 hours before performing the experiment. I put the same substances on each sample and left them in place for one hour, then wiped them off with a damp rag, dried them with a paper towel, and observed the results.


I applied two coats of Osmo Polyx Oil in Natural, which is recommended for use on pale species to retain the coolest tone. I applied the finish with a shop cloth, wiping away the excess and smoothing between coats with a white non-abrasive pad. Then I applied a further coat, this time of Osmo Polyx Oil 3054 using the same method.

Performance: The red wine and hot sauce left marks – a barely noticeable mark in the former case but a bad stain in the latter. There was no discernible effect left on the finish by the other substances.

comparing four common finishes

Cabot Water-Based Poly

I had the lowest expectations for this one, thanks to my experience with other water-based polyurethanes. I started using water-based finishes around 1990, happy about the promise of durability without petroleum solvents, but in too many cases the performance failed to match the promises. I wanted to try a new (to me) water-based finish for this test.

I applied three good coats with a foam brush, scuffing between with a non-abrasive pad.

Performance: With the other water-based polys I’ve used in the past, I’ve found that butter and oil got through the finish and left a mark. This Cabot poly was impervious to oils. The only stain came from the hot sauce.

comparing four common finishes

Minwax Oil-Based Fast-Drying Poly (Satin)

This has been my go-to finish for table tops; other than conversion varnish, I’ve found it to be the most durable. Polyurethane gets a bad rap in part because so many people apply it thickly or with the wrong kind of brush. I’ve found that three thin coats applied with a natural bristle brush, scuffed with 320 grit between coats, will produce a nice satin sheen — granted, it’s not as low-luster as Osmo, and oil-based poly is more trouble to work with because it requires several hours in a dust-free environment.

Performance: This one showed no discernible marks. If I try hard, I can persuade myself that I see a spot from the hot sauce, but I think I’m imagining it.

comparing four common finishes

Minwax Helmsman Spar Varnish

I applied three coats – the first two with a foam brush, the third a heavier coat with a natural bristle brush. I scuffed the finish between coats with 320 grit and removed dust.

Performance: The only substance to leave a mark was the hot sauce. The mark is barely noticeable, but … well … it’s there.

comparing four common finishes


Each of these finishes has its uses, depending on the durability, sheen, and degree of ambering you desire. My favorite for appearance is Osmo, but the winner for durability is the oil-based poly.

Thanks to the vinegar in the ketchup and hot sauce, our kitchen now smells like a chip shop.

From now on I’m keeping the hot sauce off the table.

For what it’s worth, I give every client a detailed set of care instructions on completion of the job. These instructions always advise wiping up any spills or splatters immediately and drying the furniture with a soft cloth, as well as using heat- and moisture-impervious coasters or dishes beneath glasses, serving ware, or potted plants.

*Full disclosure: I do have one client who relishes the prospect of her table developing a patina of stains and scratches that will record its history.

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Showing 11 comments
  • rwyoung

    Perhaps more is coming, but why test after only a 24 hour wait for finish to “dry”?

    It is my understanding that it takes up to 200 hours (7-10 days) to get a full cure on many finishes.

    Betcha distilled vinegar is #1 or #2 ingredient in that hot sauce. Nice and acidic, good for penetrating finishes and pulling along the red dye into the wood.

    For reference, the ANSI/KCMA test for finishes used on kitchen cabinets uses vinegar, lemon, orange and grape juices, tomato ketchup, coffee, olive oil, and 100-proof alcohol for 24 hours and to mustard for one hour. Not sure what kind of mustard and why only for an hour. There are also tests for hot, cold, moisture and detergent too.

    And I assume they allow manufacturers to supply finished samples which would have been cured according to other sets of specs.

    Lemmie know when you find the ladder out of this rabbet hole.

    • Nancy Hiller

      Yes, more is coming, including a mention of manufacturers’ recommended curing time. Absolutely, vinegar in the hot sauce: acid, as with the wine. Re. the short period between application and testing, my point was to subject these common finishes to the kind of abuse to which many people subject them. I should have pointed out in the first post that there can be a significant difference in performance between “it’s dry so let’s go ahead and use it” and manufacturers’ recommended curing periods, which are 30 days in some of these cases.

  • dzehner2

    THANK YOU! This is an awesome article, and one I’ll be passing onto a client that I’m building a dining table for. 🙂

    • Nancy Hiller

      You’re welcome! But before you pass it on, please read (and also pass on) the post that’s coming on Monday, the 16th, which will include some critical additional information in addition to an update on the performance of the finishes here. (Really, you won’t believe it!)

  • 8iowa

    A couple of years back, I attended a Chris Schwarz class at Highland Woodworking. Chris suggested a 50-50 mixture of turpentine and boiled linseed oil for a workbench finish.
    So…..I purchased turpentine and boiled linseed oil at the “big Box” and applied the mixture on my new workbench. Two weeks later the surface was still tacky. Drying took a very long time.
    Since then, thru a Bob Flexnor article, I found that many times turpentine is not really real turpentine, nor is linseed oil. If I could find the “real” ingredients this might be a good finish.

    • Nancy Hiller

      That’s not a finish I can comment on, unfortunately. I’m sorry. The closest finish to what you describe with which I’m familiar is boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits (a petroleum-based solvent), which is not identical to turpentine (a solvent most commonly made from pine resin). Thinning with solvent would help the oil penetrate into the surface of the wood. You might try to contact Bob Flexner via his blog and see whether he would elucidate the matter in a post (if he has not already written here on the subject).

      • Nancy Hiller

        With apologies for the awkward syntax in sentence three…

  • earthartinc

    So hot sauce is a pretty good stain for us in the South West….

  • SSteve

    Team Destructo: worst cocktail ever.

  • 7-Thumbs

    Great, so now I not only have to worry about what wine goes with a meal I also need to worry about what finish goes with the meal. Thanks.

    • Nancy Hiller

      Never underestimate the finish…or the wine.

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