For oil finishes, such as tung or linseed, it's common to see advice where you apply multiple coats early on, then fewer and fewer coats progressively. For example, a common adage is: "Once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year, and once a year for life."

I understand why you would want to do multiple coats early on (as a finish) and a few coats over the long run (for maintenance). But what is the purpose of the intermediate phases, i.e., in the example above the once a week/once a month phases? If it's simply to continue the finish, couldn't you just compact those into the finishing process (e.g., roughly once a day for three weeks), then swap to the maintenance phase?

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If it's simply to continue the finish, couldn't you just compact those into the finishing process (e.g., roughly once a day for three weeks), then swap to the maintenance phase?

It's possible this may work for some*, but not in my experience. The main practical issue is that as you build up the oil in the surface wood fibres with the initial coats the wood becomes successively less and less absorbent, and by a certain stage (which will be variable with wood type and minor differences in technique) this can lead to multiple later coats applied closer together more easily building up to a gummy surface. And any amount of soft surface film is to be strenuously avoided when doing an oil finish.

*No two workshops are exactly the same and two people working in Phoenix and Tampa respectively would not have anything close to the same experience during even the first week!

And I wouldn't suggest you go as far as 20 coats anyway. Something that is not clearly stated in almost any guide is that past a certain point you gain nothing with further applications of oil, which is something either implied or directly stated by many old-timers giving advice on finishing ...the type of person most likely to trot out the old adage you quoted :-) You do definitely gain something by applying more than the 2-4 coats that are not uncommon today, but past about six or eight I defy anyone to see any difference whatsoever (on most woods) if they are applying the oil in the correct manner.

Here's why: after the initial buildup within the wood oil finishing is nearly entirely about burnishing of the surface, not "building up the finish" in the sense that most people would understand it (particularly if they're more familiar with varnish or an oil/vanish product like "Danish oil").

  • It could also be about cleaning the surface - buffing it with another coat of oil will help remove not only dust/particulate, but also a lot of schmutz that tends to accumulate on everything always.
    – aaron
    Jan 11, 2016 at 12:27
  • @aaron, for upkeep certainly but that's something in a completely different timeframe. And actually it's preferable to clean the surface with some sort of degreasing cleaning mixture to remove wax, sebum etc. before you oil, partly because it's far more effective and partly to prevent the aforementioned schmutz from becoming mixed with the oil and being spread over the wood. You can get buildup of crud in the grain or pores if you don't do this, as well as some reduction in the clarity of the finish (regularly seen on old oiled pieces because they haven't been cleaned per se).
    – Graphus
    Jan 11, 2016 at 13:50
  • ok makes sense... and just like cast iron seasoning that wouldnt remove anything already crosslinked. I've been starting to lean towards oil finishes in my work, so I'll keep this in mind. Thanks.
    – aaron
    Jan 12, 2016 at 15:42

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