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I am finishing a piece of acacia glued up stave construction commonly called butcher block. It will be used as a desktop. I sanded it to 320 and put 3 coats of BLO/MS on it. It's mostly cured (I haven't been able to detect any oil residue being picked up if I rub it with my hand or a clean cloth for several days, but there is still some mild odor), and looking really good. I'd be happy to leave it like that as far as appearance, but I figure it needs some more protection.

I've purchased some oil based gloss polyurethane. Oil based because it's cheaper and it seems the most significant advantage of water based is shorter drying times, but I'm not very concerned with that. And gloss because I understand that the additives that create a satin finish weaken the varnish and also cause cloudiness. It's still sealed, though, so I could exchange it if necessary.

I tentatively plan to mix up either a BLO/MS/poly blend or a poly/MS wiping varnish. But, due to my inexperience, I'm confused as to how to balance the look I want with getting enough protection.

Goal: A finish that is protective and will retain a look similar to the one I have now: close to the wood and with a soft sheen, not glossy, and also not matte. I don't mind if the finish needs to be renewed occasionally, maybe 1x/year or so.

Resources & limitations: I'm a total beginner with no skills or experience. I don't have access to any power tools or other equipment or supplies. I have BLO, MS, and oil based gloss polyurethane on hand. Also a sanding block and 150, 220, & 320 sandpaper. & rags. I can, if necessary, pick up some additional items at Lowe's or Home Depot, but I need to keep costs very low. Resources I can spend more easily include time (especially drying/curing time) and moderate elbow grease.

Question: Considering the limitations I've outlined, what is the best path forward to reach my goal? I realize there will be trade-offs and it's at least partly a matter of opinion, but even after a lot of googling, I don't feel informed enough to make a decision. So answers that will help a newbie better understand the pros/cons of different alternatives will be appreciated.

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  • Hi, welcome to StackExchange. Just to begin with I wanted to mention that you're not actually working with butcher block, despite how often this material is called that this day. See my Comments here.
    – Graphus
    Aug 11 at 8:24
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    Now kudos for all the research you've done already, this is great to see. But, there are way too many queries here. Ideally for SE the Question should be about one thing only, with maybe one other closely-related query thrown in. I can shortcut directly to a suggestion on how to get the results that you want, but the body of the Q should be pared back to just the core query in that case. I can do this for you, or you can edit the Question yourself (any amount or number of edits are acceptable on SE).
    – Graphus
    Aug 11 at 8:32
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    If you do want answers to each of the specifics here you should ask them seperately. It's perfectly acceptable for a new user to ask multiple Questions. But do ensure you've tried a search first to see if the topic has been covered previously, as there's a no-duplicates policy on StackExchange.
    – Graphus
    Aug 11 at 8:33
  • Well, I probably would like answers to each of those questions, due to curiosity & for future reference. But the priority is figuring out what to do to finish this not-butcher block, so I'll reword my question accordingly. TY. Aug 11 at 20:17
  • In case you ever want to do a straight oil finish in future, there's no need to thin BLO. Although many people recommend diluting the first coats "because it helps penetration" in almost every case this is just blind repetition of something they've heard someone else say. The fact is, oils have no problem penetrating deeply into wood without thinning :-) And not thinning offers a few advantages, including the chief one that you speed the build of the finish, and with the right types of BLO you can safely rub the oil into the wood with bare hands should you wish to. Plus it smells nicer :-)
    – Graphus
    Aug 12 at 0:05
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What you've done so far will provide a good base for either of the options you're choosing between.

I'd be happy to leave it like that as far as appearance, but I figure it needs some more protection.

It could certainly do with more yes.

An oil finish is minimally protective anyway, and three thinned coats barely starts the process — as covered in some existing Answers the prior standards for an oil finish would mean seven coats, undiluted, were applied in the first week alone, and would typically well exceed a dozen coats before the job was considered completed.

I tentatively plan to mix up either a BLO/MS/poly blend or a poly/MS wiping varnish.

A blended finish1 or polyurethane wiping varnish are both viable options.

As I've pointed out a couple of times previously the main selling point to the consumer for blended finishes seems to be the ease of application and close-to-the-wood look. But the application method can be exactly the same for wiping varnish (apply generously, wipe away all excess) and if only a few coats are used the look is virtually the same while providing superior protection.

However, many people are very happy with the performance and durability of "Danish oil" et al on various household items as you probably have already discovered, so it can't be discounted entirely.

Gloss level
Both options will naturally increase gloss to some degree, the wiping varnish more than the blended finish as you'd expect but not excessively so2. Don't worry about ending up with a too-glossy surface however as gloss level can be knocked back very easily with minimal effort.

At the minimum just buffing the surface after it has first dried with a cloth can reduce gloss by a noticeable amount. If want to go further going over the surface very lightly with fine steel wool should give you what you're looking for.

I don't mind if the finish needs to be renewed occasionally, maybe 1x/year or so.

If you chose to use a blended finish I doubt you'll need to top up anything close to annually; depending on usage you might not need to do a thing for about five years. The last item I finished this way was a chest of drawers whose top is used as a vanity and it is in a high-traffic area, and approximately two years on there are no real signs of wear.

If you use wiping varnish it might not need any touchups or renewal for as much as ten years, again depending on use and how much cleaning it sees.


1 These are basically a homemade version of what's sold as "Danish oil", "tung oil finish" and a few other commercial names in case you didn't read this elsewhere.

2 Particularly if you thin the varnish by 50% or more (and I would advise this, as it makes wiping varnish much easier to work with on large surfaces) and wipe the surface dry after application the gloss won't build up too fast.

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  • Thank you very much for your tremendously useful answer. I looked pretty hard for info to get a better idea of the different levels of protectiveness of different finishes, and while there was plenty that was subjective and often boiled down to just an opinion ("a blended finish isn't enough protection for a desktop" vs "a blended finish is enough protection for a desktop", both of which I saw), I think your answer here is the first that put it in quantitative terms. TY so much for that. Exactly what I was looking for. Aug 12 at 20:25
  • You've also indirectly answered one of my questions I previously asked and then deleted, namely if it's possible to rub out a thin wiping varnish finish to get a different level of sheen. For anyone that reads this that didn't see that, I had asked because all of the "how to"s I'd seen start out with building up the finish. Now at least I know it's possible, and I'll worry about the details of how to do so if/when I find I need to. TY again @Graphus. Aug 12 at 20:31
  • You are most welcome. I can well remember what it was like early on trying to get quantitative info or X v Y, so I'm glad I could do my little bit to shine some light there. Even when someone does a decent bit of research like you've done the different (and often contradictory) stuff from various sources, often freely mixing opinion in with the facts, does nothing to help LOL
    – Graphus
    Aug 13 at 6:30
  • You might find useful some further details. Protection level (especially from water) is directly tied to coat thickness. This is one reason that penetrating finishes usually can't compete with film finishes (varnish, lacquer). But oil is inherently less waterproof than resins so when you blend resins with more oil (e.g. in "Danish oil") it weakens the protective ability on two fronts. Some cutting-edge finishes are changing the playing field tho; Rubio Monocoat for example IS apparently as waterproof as varnish, despite it being applied so thinly. Not cheap, but you only need one coat so....
    – Graphus
    Aug 13 at 6:45

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