I am about to start assembling a box

box, assembled

to stow away items that otherwise overrun a desk.

many pens

The box arrives in small pieces.

box in pieces

Before assembling, I'd like to apply some sealant so that it stays clean for some time, even if an uncovered pen here or there touches the wood.

I'm proceeding with elimination. The first three options are out:

  • Linseed oil: I've found out that it produces a rather unpleasant smell that lasts for months.
  • Tung oil: No experience, but the smell reportedly lingers.
  • (Water-based) polyurethane: would be ideal, but it's overkill for this simple project. Every little piece would have to be held somehow while I brush poly on. Polyurethane works better on large surfaces: table tops, floors, ...

The remaining options are:

  • Mixture of (extra-virgin?) olive oil + fresh lemon (ratio 2:1). This seems a bit arcane. Might that be the right solution for this project?
  • Shellac in crystals, to be dissolved in alcohol. If a felt pen is left open against the wall, will shellac really stop the wood absorbing all the ink?
  • Danish oil: I know too little about it. Is that an easy-to-use sealant?

Color-wise, I'm happy if it gets a yellow patina right away from the oil, or over time. Just so long as it doesn't get stained with dirt too soon.

I'm aware there are already far too many questions here and a huge amount of information on various sites advising on the merits of one oil/sealant or another.

Which sealant would you use for this particular project?

  • @Kris I like this option: no brushes, and a touchless application (though of course it must be done outside and without breathing it). But is "lacquer" an actual substance, or is it a generic name, and the contents of the spray can are ultimately one of polyurethane, shellac, etc? – Sam Nov 25 '20 at 23:50
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    amazon.com/Deft-037125017132-Interior-Lacquer-12-25-Ounce/dp/…. Lacquer satin sheen – Kris Nov 25 '20 at 23:58
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    "even if an uncovered pen here or there touches the wood" This is a tough requirement — even commercial highly durable finishes are prone to marring and possible irreversible marking (barring abrasive removal of some of the finish) by certain inks. Also please be aware that "sealant" is a misnomer in woodworking terms, it's not like a sealant used around sinks for example to prevent water egress, in that context the word means literally what it means, in woodworking the word is used very loosely (often as a synonym for "finish"). – Graphus Nov 26 '20 at 8:46
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    Re. linseed oil, I don't know how you've been applying it or on what but the smell should not linger for weeks, much less months ~ Even with an absorbent material like hardboard where you have to flood it (literally a couple of tablespoons will disappear into a largish piece of it) the characteristic odour should be largely dissipated in about 2-3 days, even in cooler weather like now. Ditto tung oil, although the smell of that is often found to be more pleasant than that of linseed. Anyway this is an aside, no oil provides anything like the kind of protection you're looking for. – Graphus Nov 26 '20 at 8:53
  • @Graphus Interesting observations. About sealing: I'm not thinking of waterproofing the wood, just attempting to stop very long streaks from forming from a drop of ink. About linseed: the problem may have been the size of the table I used (5ftx3ft) and the excessive amount I put. It seems that poly is the king/queen of solutions. Now the questions becomes: what is the second-best solution? – Sam Nov 26 '20 at 16:34

Before assembling, I'd like to apply some sealant so that it stays clean for some time

That's not a good approach. It does sometimes make sense to finish pieces before assembly, especially when parts will be hard to reach afterward. The down side is that because glue doesn't bond well to most finishes, so when pre-finishing you need to mask off all the areas the will receive glue. That'd take far more time than it's worth for such a small project. You'll be better off assembling at least the major components of the box, such as the main box and the top trays, and then applying finish. You could really assemble the whole thing first since any parts that will be unreachable afterward will also be hard to see.

Linseed oil: I've found out that it produces a rather unpleasant smell that lasts for months.

That's true if you're talking about raw linseed oil, but the linseed oil that people use most often for finishing is treated to significantly speed up the polymerization (drying) process. They used to treat it by actually boiling the oil, but modern versions are usually treated with chemicals instead. Even so, the stuff is still known as "boiled linseed oil" or "BLO" for short, and it's a good option because it's easy to apply, looks good, and offers at least some protection.

(Water-based) polyurethane: would be ideal, but it's overkill for this simple project.

Of the finishes you mentioned, polyurethane probably provides the most protection against markers and such. It's relatively cheap, available in a range of finishes from matte to glossy, and it can be applied several ways. The easiest way would be to spray it from a can.

Mixture of (extra-virgin?) olive oil + fresh lemon (ratio 2:1).

Some people swear by olive oil as a wood finish, but I'd avoid it especially for something like a storage box. Olive oil doesn't polymerize into a hard surface the way that "drying" oils like linseed oil do, and the concern is that the oil in the wood could eventually turn rancid and smelly. I'd avoid this.

Shellac in crystals, to be dissolved in alcohol.

There are a lot of good things about shellac, but preparing it isn't one of them. Dissolving the flakes takes a long time, and after you've done that you may need to let the wax settle out (unless you buy dewaxed flakes). That's a lot of work for just the small amount you'll need for this project, and once prepared shellac only keeps for a relatively short time. Even the flakes eventually go bad. You'll be better off buying a small can of prepared shellac. It's even available in spray cans, which would make application very quick. Shellac isn't impervious to markers to the degree you're probably hoping for, though.

Danish oil: I know too little about it. Is that an easy-to-use sealant?

Danish oil is usually just another name for polymerized linseed oil or sometimes tung oil, so see above. It dries to a hard film that gives some protection and looks nice.

Danish oil: I know too little about it. Is that an easy-to-use sealant?

I'd use spray on water-based polyurethane because it's quick and easy to use, cleans up easily, and provides the most protection of the solutions under consideration. If you're not into spray cans, most of the spray products are available in liquid form for brushing or wiping on. Minwax Polycrylic is one example.

If polyurethane is unacceptable for some reason, then I'd probably choose BLO or shellac. Both are easy to use. Tried & True is one brand of polymerized linseed oil that's easy to use, goes a long way (a small can will last through many small projects like this one), looks great, and is very safe.

  • I agree that for this the OP probably doesn't really want to go to the trouble of making their own shellac but you've over-sold some of the issues. Making it is largely a hands-off process, so the time it takes is sort of irrelevant since you can be doing other stuff. But anyway how is 4-6 hours or overnight a long time? That's even without speeding the process up. "Even the flakes eventually go bad" Oh man, way to put someone off! If stored properly the flakes are practically immortal — I know of people using up stocks that are decades old. – Graphus Dec 1 '20 at 8:48
  • @Graphus Don't get me wrong -- I love shellac! Time to dissolve depends on how much you're dissolving in a given volume of alcohol, and also how big your flakes are. But the larger point is: if all you're finishing is this one project, then why buy flakes and ethanol and a jar and then spend your time mixing when you can just by a 1/2 pint that's ready to go? Or a 12 oz spray can that won't even need a brush and gets the project done in less time than it took me to write this answer? If you've already got flakes etc., great, use that, but that doesn't seem to be the OP's situation. – Caleb Dec 1 '20 at 18:33
  • I'm with you on assembling the major parts, but as the moving parts are wood and will need finishing to match I reckon the risk of sticking the mechanism together with finish would be too high, as well as different areas being masked when closed and when open. The moving parts appear to be screwed on so gluing to a finished surface isn't a worry. – Chris H Dec 17 '20 at 14:12

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