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I'm buying a pine loft bed that comes sanded but unfinished. I'm wondering what the best finish to use would be. I have no experience finishing wood. I want to go for a natural look, and I also want a durable finish that does not require too much maintenance. I would certainly hope that glasses don't leave permanent rings on the desk. I'm not 100% sure how I feel about polyurethane's look and feel.

The bed has a number of components (posts, mattress and safety rails, a desk, a ladder, bookshelves, mattress slats), so it's possible that different parts need different treatment. If I'm too busy, I might choose to only finish the desk, as the manufacturer says that they recommend finishing the desk, but that other parts of the bed can be left finished or unfinished. However, I'd certainly prefer to finish the visible parts of the bed if possible.

I don't know whether I want to stain the bed at all. I like the color of natural pine, and staining it would be additional work.

Google research originally brought me to Waterlox Tung Oil finish, and I think the oil finish look is something I'd like, but the long curing time has given me pause. It seems from the instructions that I should apply 4 or more coats, each of which takes a day to dry, and then leave it for another 3-4 days before assembling, after which I'll need to make sure my bedroom is cross-ventilated for a couple months (which I think would necessitate replacing my AC with a window fan). It's not necessarily completely unacceptable, but it poses some complications for me. I'd either be working in a not-so-ventilated basement workshop (with standard Waterlox), or I'd be doing it mostly outside (with marine Waterlox) and be careful about rain and sunlight.

What are my other options? I'm not averse to using a more generic Home Depot type product if it will look nice and protect the wood, especially if it will work faster without being too difficult.

  • You can edit your previous question if you want to add detail to it. It got migrated from diy.SE – ratchet freak Aug 24 '16 at 23:31
  • I can do that; I thought this was a different question, so made it separate. Would you prefer that I put them together? – Zorgoth Aug 24 '16 at 23:33
  • Ah no it's indeed 2 separate questions. It's fine to keep them both separate. – ratchet freak Aug 24 '16 at 23:37
  • Are you reading the instructions on the Waterlox container or general Tung Oil instructions? My bet would be that Waterlox Tung Oil Finish is not Tung Oil and so Tung Oil instructions do not apply. See woodworking.stackexchange.com/a/574/10 – drs Sep 6 '16 at 13:29
  • I'm using only the Waterlox instructions. It isn't Tung Oil but it is made with Tung Oil: waterlox.com/what-is-waterlox – Zorgoth Sep 7 '16 at 16:31
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I don't know whether I want to stain the bed at all. I like the color of natural pine, and staining it would be additional work.

I'd certainly be in favour of not staining myself. It's not only that it means the pine is used as pine (not trying to pretend it's something else) but it and other similar softwoods are notorious for staining badly, giving awful blotchy results. So staining can make the wood look worse, hardly the intent.

Google research originally brought me to Waterlox Tung Oil finish, and I think the oil finish look is something I'd like, but the long curing time has given me pause.
...
What are my other options? I'm not averse to using a more generic Home Depot type product if it will look nice and protect the wood, especially if it will work faster without being too difficult.

I was going to recommend an oil finish myself for ease of application and generally being the simplest of true finishing options. Merely waxing the wood is one of the simplest options of all if aren't leaving the wood bare, it provides nearly no protection to a functional piece (why it's not classed as a finish in its own right by many people) although it's fine for small things like decorative turnings and boxes.

The simplest of all oil finishes are actually plain oils of vegetable origin (nut or seed oils) and a key benefit of them and not a wood finish or polish of some kind is that oil is the sole ingredient.

So there are no solvent vapours or other VOCs to worry about, making it ideal for application indoors in a domestic environment. Cleanup also doesn't require solvents, just soap and water is all that's needed. In contrast, Tung Oil Finish will typically have a large solvent component (usually accounting for more than 50% of what's in the tin!) so it has a very pronounced solvent odour.

The principal finishing oil is linseed oil, specifically what's sold as boiled linseed oil (BLO for short). There is also raw linseed oil but this dries very much more slowly and has different uses.

The other main option is tung oil, this gets many recommendations today which I think personally are misplaced*.

So I would very much recommend BLO. I should mention that boiled linseed oil does have a characteristic smell which some people don't like, but many adore it.

Info and tips on applying an oil finish from previous Q&As:
Why is there a progressive reduction in oil for finish/maintenance? Is it necessary?
How do I prepare and take care of a wooden countertop?

Safety note: when working with BLO you must be careful of any application and wiping rags or paper towels. Don't leave them bunched up as they are a fire hazard. Leave them to dry flat on the floor if you can, or draped over the back of a wooden or metal chair, once stiff and hard they are safe to dispose of in the household waste.

This previous requirement is however a problem:

I would certainly hope that glasses don't leave permanent rings on the desk. I'm not 100% sure how I feel about polyurethane's look and feel.

An oil finish is not water-resistant. About the only thing you can apply that is virtually guaranteed to protect the wood from sweaty glasses is varnish unfortunately, with polyurethane being one of the best (and easiest to buy) choices.

So for your purposes consider varnishing only the desktop portion. It isn't uncommon in furniture work to finish tabletops with a full protective finish and have the legs and other components more lightly finished.

Varnishing conventionally to a high standard is not easy, but there's an excellent workaround for that these days and that's thinning the varnish and wiping it on. This converts a regular varnish into what is sold as wiping varnish. It's much easier for the novice or first-timer to achieve a great finish with wiping varnish.

More details in the following Q&As:
What is the difference between wiping polyurethane and wiping varnish?
Protecting against water damage

The characteristic look and feel that I think you're not a fan of shouldn't be a problem if you wipe the varnish on. If you do end up with a slightly glossier finish than you'd like you can reduce the shine very effectively by wiping the surface down lightly with a nylon scrubbing pad/pot scourer (clean of course!) Use light pressure and stroke in the direction of the grain.


*There is no real benefit to using tung oil for an interior piece — it's more difficult and slower to build up a good finish (slower in the sense of taking longer to do as some sanding is part of the recommended method), it dries more slowly on top of this so the wait times are longer, plus on top of it all eventually it ends up looking the same as if you'd used BLO. And you pay more for all of these advantages :-)

Tung oil is reputed to build up to a more waterproof finish, but there are faster and more reliable ways of achieving that end.

  • Is Tried and True the best brand of BLO? Or are there other good choices? It's nice that it's non-toxic, which I'd appreciate if I'm working inside. The danish oil looks especially promising because I could apply 2-3 coats per day, while with the other BLOs or Waterlox I can only apply one coat per day. The Waterlox says that while the drying time between coats is only 1 day, you have to wait 3-4 days after the last coat to use the furniture and 30-90 days for a full cure of the Tung Oil. Does the BLO have similar behavior? I don't want to put varnish on top before it's fully cured. – Zorgoth Aug 25 '16 at 14:52
  • How many layers of poly or whatever else would I need to put over the BLO to get water protection? Also, what will be the difference in protection between the T&T Varnish oil and Danish oil? Also, I think the Waterlox is supposed to be waterproof because of whatever they add to it? They specifically say that glasses won't leave rings. My impression was that if I use that, I won't need to use polyurethane. So I guess in terms of time, the two big questions are: – Zorgoth Aug 25 '16 at 14:58
  • (1) How long to wait after last coat before applying poly? I'd like to know my total turnaround time in both cases (with Waterlox, I finish in ~1 week -- with Danish BLO+Poly, I finish in 2 days + any additional cure time + poly cure time). With a different BLO product + poly, I finish in 4-5 days + any additional cure time + poly cure time. (2) Can I apply BLO outdoors (given a modicum of shade and protection against any unexpected rain) -- I suppose I could also try doing it inside my apartment, since it's non-toxic. (3) T&T says burnishing with steel wool is recommended. Should I? – Zorgoth Aug 25 '16 at 15:07
  • @Zorgoth, With BLO as it's not a surface coating the exact specifics of the oil don't actually matter much, and anyway all the common ones are almost identical. "Danish oil" is a completely different thing (it's a dilute oil/varnish blend), which because of the varnish component builds up a slight surface film. It's a little optimistic to think you'll put on 3 coats in a day. Some may have more driers than others though. How hot and dry it is where you are will play a big part, but if temps are modest and it's not super-dry I think 2 is the absolute maximum you'd get away with. [contd] – Graphus Aug 26 '16 at 5:36
  • [contd] @Zorgoth. You should wait a couple of days before using an oiled piece of furniture, a week if you can. But even if you varnish you can't safely use the piece the next day, it's advised to wait a few days but a week (or longer) is better to let the film toughen up — full cure takes much longer than initial drying. Poly can be applied the same day as BLO is applied but most people wait a day... remember than all excess oil is wiped from the wood so there's practically no liquid oil present (the wood is quite dry to the touch) and anyway poly already contains some oil so it just melds. – Graphus Aug 26 '16 at 5:43

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