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I started some furniture projects with Baltic Birch plywood this summer. I've been using low-VOC Varathane gel stain (clear) and their Diamond Wood Finish (Semi-Gloss) to finish the pieces, and I do like the look I get with that. But, since the temperature is starting to drop I can't leave the pieces outside on my balcony for the finish to dry!

So, I'm looking for options to finish the raw plywood that I can let dry inside my studio apartment.

I've looked at non-toxic/no-voc oils, such as Real Milk Paint Co.'s Tung Oil. It seems like that might be a good option for a No-VOC finish, but I know there's a lot out there.

  • Would this "No-VOC" option still stink up my whole place?
  • Are these natural oils suitable for mid-wear plywood piece, like a coffee table? (I understand that it won't be the same as a varathane.)

TL:DR; Help me not gas myself and my partner with varathane fumes over the winter.

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  • Make sure you search previous Q&A on finishing. So-called "tung" oil is often not anything you think it is, and offer very little of same results that the finishes you are comparing it with. If you want the wear and water resistance of the Varathane brand your best bet is choose a low VOC version of that and just keep your windows open during the cure time. Since it cures pretty fast, you might get away with this. – jdv Oct 18 '20 at 2:14
  • Thanks! I updated the question for clarity, since it must have missed the point. 1) There wasn't any questions that seemed to answer the "stink up the place?" question, which is my primary concern. 2) My research suggests that the Varathane options I was using are low-voc, and they were too stinky for me! 3) I'm in Canada, so "open the windows" doesn't work in winter as we're well below the curing temperature! – Erin Oct 18 '20 at 14:48
  • I'm Canadian as well, and my point is that you really have only two choices: open a window to act as a poor "heat exchanger" (your apartment won't drop to 10degC or whatever the posted curing temp is with a single window open) or hold off finishing until spring. – jdv Oct 18 '20 at 14:51
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    "Would this "No-VOC" option still stink up my whole place?" Basically yes, but not everyone objects to the odour. I've read many comments from peeps who absolutely can't stand the smell of tung oil, while others don't mind it at all (or actually like it). So it's much the same as with linseed oil. I happen to love the smell of it, but many complain about how much "it stinks" or its "offensive smell" which I don't get at all :-) "Are these natural oils suitable for mid-wear plywood piece, like a coffee table?" Unfortunately this is one of those things: ask 10 woodworkers, get 11 answers :-| – Graphus Oct 19 '20 at 7:43
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    P.S. just checked the actual link you posted, versus what it shows as. [I was about to recommend you look at other brands of tung oil since I was certain the Real Milk Paint Co.'s version was going to be at the $$$ end of the spectrum.] So, if you do decide to go with tung oil I would recommend in the strongest possible terms NOT to get that half-and-half crap! As a general point any diluted finish you pay a premium for them doing the thinning! But second, and much more important, that "non toxic" citrus solvent all the 'green' stuff uses is not in any way non-toxic, it just smells very nice. – Graphus Oct 19 '20 at 7:53
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You don't have much of a choice here. Using a curing, non-penetrating finish requires time to off-gas and cure.

If you can't stand the odour there isn't much you can do about that. Though, modern water-based low VOC finishes cure very fast, and the odour dissipates quite quickly. You will probably have more issue with dust mitigation with the required light sands between coats. (Which I think is probably the more important health and safety aspect of finishing inside; the curing finishes you have chosen are reasonably safe if you have some air movement. The fine dust, however, gets everywhere and is hard to mitigate.)

Just opening a window and letting things air out for a few hours will not drop the ambient temperature in your apartment to below the curing temperature, assuming you leave your heat on. It'll be wasteful of that heat energy, of course, and it depends on the outside temperature. Doing this in SW Ontario late autumn vs. Winnipeg or Edmonton in January is altogether two different situations. But it's not like opening a window will ruin the curing process. As long as you don't literally freeze yourselves it'll be fine.

Your only other option is to choose a penetrating finish, like the wiping oils you mention. Check the previous Q&A for advice regarding best ways to choose and apply those. But these finishes don't add much in the way of protection. And even those finishes need some time to cure to some extent, which comes with its own odour problem. There will be less dust to contend with if you take this route, as well.

I suppose you can also put off your finishing until spring, or if you really want to get serious, see if you can rent a shop space with like-minded hobbyists. There may be "makerspace" style shops where you live (there is where I live) where you also get the advantage of local experts and a shop space.

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