Oil finishes - my microcoat method

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Blog entry by KnickKnack posted 08-22-2012 06:49 PM 3440 reads 6 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Some friends visited a few days ago, and commented upon some of my work (it’s hard to avoid – the house is full of it), and, in particular, the finishes on some of my more recent work.
There are many many things in the sphere of woodworking at which I am not very good, but, after several years, I can now reliably get a really nice, oil-only, finish on my pieces. It’s silky smooth, very tactile, and has a soft satin sheen.
My method differs from anything I’ve seen or read (perhaps I’ve not read widely enough?), so, just in case someone might find it useful, I’ll describe it here.

Firstly, I’ve done this with both linseed oil and tung oil with equally good results.
Secondly, I live in a very dusty environment – there has been no serious rain here for about 6 months so there’s a lot of dust in the air. In addition I have no special finishing space so finishing just happens in a corner while I work in the same room.

There have been a few discussions here on the optimal “final grit” before you start to apply finish. The general consensus was that “over smoothing” wasn’t a good thing. I finish to at least 400, usually 600.

The first coat is very important – the idea is to get as much oil into the wood as possible. There are often recommendations to thin the oil for this first coat. I don’t do that, instead I use hot oil. I have a solar heater for this, where the technique was discussed. The general consensus was that this didn’t help. My mileage did vary – it works for me.

Heat your oil.
I use a very small cotton cloth (actually a t-shirt off-cut) – I’m talking about a few inches square. And then you fold it. Really.
Dollop on the oil, get your hands oily. Dollop on more oil. Start with any end-grain, and keep going back to the end-grain. Keep it wet. Dollop on more oil until the wood will take no more. Put some more on the end-grain.
So far, so what the books say.
Do not discard the cloth – squeeze it out and hang it up. But be careful, these cloths can spontaneously ignite.
I keep a pot of sawdust by the door for cleaning my hands – grab a handful and rub it all over – most of the oil will be removed.
Wait about 20 minutes.
Now, with the same cloth (but no more oil), rub over everything. Chances are it will have started to “dry” (I know it’s closer to “cure” and is a complex chemical process – forgive me if I say “dry”) – some parts will still look wet, some will look dry. Once you’re rubbed it all over, it will all look “damp” again. Hang the cloth, clean your hands, have a cuppa, or do something else. Do it again – same cloth, no more oil. The timing isn’t important here. The number of times you do this isn’t important. Typically, if I put my first coat on in the morning, I’ll have done this maybe 8 times this first day. On a small box it takes less than 5 minutes. Every time I’m passing I’ll rub the cloth over it again. You might argue it isn’t doing much – you are, after all, using a barely damp oily cloth. And I think this might be why this “works” – I think of each of these rubs as a “microcoat” – each coat doesn’t put a lot of oil on, but that coat dries quickly and you get a lot of coats on.
Of course, night time comes, and you sleep.
The next day I start by rubbing with a new cloth of similar size. Rub it over – this cloth might get a little oily. You can rub hard. Keep this cloth too, carefully as above, as the “pre-coating” cloth. This rubbing removes any bits of dust (and cat-hair) you’ve accumulated.
I’ve done the second coat with both hot and cold oil. If it’s winter I’ll heat the oil a bit in the solar heater on a window-ledge. In summer I’ll just use my oil at room temperature. Same process, with the same first cloth, but a lot less oil. The idea is just to keep a thin film of wet oil on the piece as long as possible. Again, every hour, every half-hour, every 2 hours, every “whenever is convenient” interval I’ll rub over with that same “damp oily cloth”. If, by the time I’ve gone around every surface, the first surface is starting to look dry, I’ll just go around again. And again. And again until I get bored, it’s time to eat, or it’s staying damp on the surface.
The next day I’ll do the dry second cloth rubbing, and leave it to dry more. Or I might just put on another few microcoats with the original cloth but no extra oil.
I might repeat the process over about a week – some days with some new oil, some days with the previous day’s still damp cloth, some days with no new oil. There’s no schedule – if you’re in the shop for an eight hour day, you can get 15 to 30 microcoats on in that day. If you’re out for a day – it doesn’t matter.
I estimate that this piece had about 100 microcoats and it has just an incredibly beautiful finish.

At some point you have to stop.
A few days of this process makes a nice finish, a few more days makes it richer and deeper, and “more satin”.
I leave it for a week or so to harden up, and then apply 3 coats of wax. The pot says “wire wool” and “wait 2 hours between coats”. I use a cloth both on and off, and I wait at least a day between coats, and several days before the “last” coat.

Well, there you go. That’s what I do – I enjoy doing it this way, I think it suits my dusty environment and, whilst I’m not very happy with how most of my works comes out, I’m rarely unhappy with the finish on it.

Note: I have tried this with Danish Oil and it didn’t work – the finish, not to mention the cloth, got “sticky”.

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

7 comments so far

View kenn's profile


813 posts in 4232 days

#1 posted 08-22-2012 09:13 PM

Danish oil didn’t work because it is a mixture of oil and varnish, it is not a”true” oil. I like the advice. Thanks

-- Every cloud has a silver lining

View Prplhrtjarhead's profile


80 posts in 2618 days

#2 posted 08-22-2012 11:52 PM

I like this method. I used to do something “sorta” similar when I was on the USMC Silent Drill Team. I used “tru-oil” to finish my M-1 Garand stocks (and other’s M-1 Garand stocks). The “micro-coat” thing, that is.

-- "We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness." R. Reagan, "The Speech", 1964

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 3202 days

#3 posted 08-23-2012 01:25 AM

Yep, I do the same thing with BLO but have never tried heating it. The frequent rubs with the used cloth deals with the bleed back that occurs with several types of wood. A little bit of BLO goes a LONG ways with this technique. I put my BLO in a washed out Titebond glue bottle which makes for neat and frugal application.

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3398 posts in 4224 days

#4 posted 08-23-2012 04:21 AM

Thanks for the advice. I need to try this. It sounds like an easier way to get a nice finish on small projects. I’m not sure I’d want to do it on something like this though.


-- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10739 posts in 4564 days

#5 posted 08-23-2012 09:17 PM


I just sent you a PM…

Thank you…

-- Have Fun! Joe Lyddon - Alta Loma, CA USA - Home: ... My Small Gallery:

View rance's profile


4271 posts in 3672 days

#6 posted 08-24-2012 08:17 AM

I came theeeeeissssss close to buying some BLO this afternoon. I had it in my hand but did not buy. I need to ‘fix’ my finishing problems. I also have the problem of being too easilly swayed to someone else’s finishing technique that does not work for me. I really want to try BLO though. I just need to quit switching horses.

Interesting about the difference between DO and BLO.

I too have heard about oversanding raw wood can be counter-productive. I never sand past 220.

BTW, the term you are looking for is SLATHER. You are applying a ‘Slather Coat’. Yep, made this one up myself. :)

-- Backer boards, stop blocks, build oversized, and never buy a hand plane--

View Josh's profile


119 posts in 4450 days

#7 posted 09-08-2012 06:23 PM

I have one coat on a stool I made and I sure like this oil finish. Shellac has been kicking my but. I have such a hard time with shellac. Thanks for the info. Time to go rub again.

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