I am creating an oak table top that will undoubtedly be exposed to a certain level of physical abuse (e.g., plates sliding across the surface) and water (e.g., glasses placed without a coaster, spills).

Is it possible to finish this wood in a way that will protect it from these elements, while still providing a raw, unfinished look?

I've seen tables in the wild that have the appearance I'm after and are exposed to a lot of abuse. For instance, the tables of this local restaurant appear almost unfinished, and water doesn't bead as if a natural oil has been applied, yet there are no water stains:

Unfinished restaurant tabletop with water enter image description here

  • 1
    I'm assuming you've already ruled out matte polyurethane? Mar 17, 2015 at 16:22
  • @BrownRedHawk I should remove "matte" from the title, I really mean unfinished
    – drs
    Mar 17, 2015 at 16:27
  • Do you want it to look AND feel unfinished? Or just look unfinished? I think you can make it look unfinished by using a matte varnish, but it will certainly alter the feel. An oil-based finished (e.g. mineral oil, tung oil, boiled linseed oil) will not alter the feel much but has very poor resistance against damage. I think, if I remember right, it does okay with water, but has to be reapplied frequently.
    – dfife
    Mar 17, 2015 at 20:01
  • @dfife I'm more concerned with the look than the feel. I see tables in restaurants that achieve both. The next time I'm at one I'll add a photo. It's hard to imagine they're re-oiling all of their tables every so often. The finish looks so raw and the tables face so much wear and water, I don't know how they do it...
    – drs
    Mar 19, 2015 at 12:56
  • How committed are you to oak? There are woods which are inherently resistant to weather, rot, and insect damage and can be left unfinished...
    – keshlam
    Apr 1, 2015 at 4:06

14 Answers 14


To keep the surface appearing as raw as possible and protect against water, I would suggest mineral oil. It will not prevent any mechanical abrasion, but will look natural and non-glossy without altering the sheen (much).

  • 3
    Since it sounds like the OP is asking about a table to eat at, the other nice thing about mineral oil is that it's food-safe. The downside is it needs to be applied often.
    – Steven
    Mar 17, 2015 at 20:12
  • 1
    It does have to be applied, and reapplied. I have personally found that after a few coats there tends to be a saturation limit where it might eventually only need it once a quarter or so. Ideally your cleaning regime might include 'mineral oil the table' once a month and that would take care of it. Mar 17, 2015 at 20:15

Based on your comment (i.e., you're more interested in the look than the feel), it'd suggest using a matte finish. Rich Lawrence suggested a water-based poly, but I'd actually go for an oil-based poly (varnish). Water-based poly's aren't very scratch resistant (I actually finished my oak table with a water-based and had to replace it within a few months).

A matte finish will reduce the reflectivity you'd otherwise get from a glossy finish, will protect the wood moreso than an oil (tung oil, boiled linseed oil, mineral oil, etc), and (once it has cured) is food-safe. Depending on how scuffed the surface is, you might have to apply using a spray gun. I once tried to finish reclaimed wood with a brush and got splinters of wood in my brush, so watch out for that.

Below is an example of a box I built for my wife's photo business. The inside was planed, so it has a smooth surface. The edges and the outside, however, were left rough and covered with a matte varnish.

Unfinished wood with a matte finish

  • 1
    Nice box. Nice picture!
    – FreeMan
    Jun 2, 2016 at 15:16

Another option to consider is wax. In this case, butcher block paste wax would be a traditional option (which is edible/non-toxic, like the wax on apples). It has similar constraints as the aforementioned mineral oil. Paste waxes also come in various tints which leave an unfinished look but allow some slight modification to color of the table.


While Tung, Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO), and other hardening oils will provide some protection, non-hardening oils like mineral, olive, or vegetable oil do not provide any significant protection. Hardening oils contain resins that undergo a chemical reaction (non-reversible) within the wood. Naturally, non-hardening oils do not.

Wipe on finishes like Danish oil or Arm-R-Seal are oil and varnish blends that are applied in thin coats which maintains a lot of the natural feel of the word. They build a thin film (as opposed to hardening and non hardening oils which do not) and this protects against light wear and water. However, they generally give the wood some color.


Let me shortly explain my background on this topic. I completely sympathize with your desire to keep the natural wood look and color in wood projects. In my experience most woodworkers love the finished look. Whenever I hear a woodworker say: "And now for the most satisfying part: the finish", I personally feel I'll often see a beautiful modern looking piece of furniture be transformed into a dark brown 70's cabinet or table. In other words, it's a style choice and I've been on the same quest as you have been.

There is one relatively new option that will do what you're looking for but has a big side note. Nano coating is a new technology that will basically let you coat almost any surface (including wood) with an invisible layer that completely blocks liquids and dirt. When I say invisible I mean 100% invisible so it adds zero gloss and has zero effect on the color of the wood. If you do a YouTube search on "Nano coating wood" you will see some examples. The big side note is that there is still very little known about potential health implications. Some researchers have compared the molecular structure of nano technologies to that of asbestos. In some countries it has been cleared for safe use (in Germany it is used to make luxury car windows water repellent and it is used in fabrics) but in most countries research is still being done and a conclusive result on long term health effects is just not available. I have a bottle at home but it's still closed. I just don't dare to use it (yet).

Any other finish will always have an effect on the color and shine of the wood. Some more than others like other answers suggest. Even brands among the same finish might have different impacts due to different compositions. The only way to find out what comes closest to what you're looking for is to try a lot of them on pieces of scrap wood.

As for the restaurant tables in your photos, it could be that a varnish is used that actually contains some white coloring. That could compensate for the wood getting darker from the finish and give it that more unfinished color.

Another option could be that a varnish has been used that after hardening has been sanded down a bit again to give it that raw, dusty look and feel but still maintaining the protective properties.


I used a water based polyurethane matte finish on an oak table recently. It gives a slight amber tint but is protective against water and alcohol.


I have use Clark's Cutting Board Finish

which leaves the wood looking more unfinished that anything else I've ever used. Even so, it does darken the wood slightly (all finishes do). Like any wax, it is very easy to add more after the surface has been in use for awhile. It has a nice citrus smell which dissipates after 12 hours or so. I used this on some toys I made because it is guaranteed food safe.

I have also used Watco Danish Oil in the natural color and it leaves a very similar finish. Again, it darkens the wood a bit - much more so when it's fresh but when it cures, it is close to the original color of the wood. And, like wax, it is not very tough but if scratches happen, you can wipe on another coat very easily which will cure in 12 hours or so.


I've used Tung oil with good results. It is mildly protective. Keeps moisture out for the most part. If the wood is inherently soft, it doesn't do much to prevent marring though. It darkens the wood the tiniest bit, but doesn't make it look like it's got a finish on it.

Here's the one I used, low gloss finish:tung oil

Here is a table I used it on. Reclaimed redwood, planed down.

enter image description here

  • 4
    If you used "tung oil finish," that's different than tung oil. Tung oil finish is typically varnish + mineral spirits + tung oil. See canadianwoodworking.com/get-more/tung-oil-debunking-myths. Quoted: "... according to Bob Flexner in his book, 'Flexner on Finishing', [tung oil finish is] really a wiping varnish made with (maybe) a little tung oil, a resin and a thinner."
    – dfife
    Mar 19, 2015 at 19:54
  • Good point! I knew this, but forgot to add it to my post. Mar 19, 2015 at 23:02
  • 1
    Nice table! Just curious why you didn't align the nearest board with the white wood section up to match the other 4 slabs.
    – FreeMan
    Jun 2, 2016 at 15:18

A matte or flat water based poly will give the closest look to no finish and provide a lot of protection. I recommend Target EM9000. It may leave the wood with a little bit of a wet look. I've not tested for it because I always want some color to the wood.


You might try Polyethylene Glycol (PEG). It's used as a wood stabilizer on green wood (it's common on turnings) and I have heard that you can get food safe variations. It would be worth testing out.

  • this will probably act and feel similar to a soap finish - a bit slick, and it will dissolve in water.
    – aaron
    May 30, 2017 at 12:22

It appears the wood shown is red oak, in the picture.

In my experience any oil will darken the colour of the wood.

Water born polyurethane has the least colour change on wood. For a very natural look, apply thin coats then flatten the finish with steal wool this in my opinion give it the closest to an unfinished look.


For a very natural looking but still durable finish, look into hard wax oils, they come in different gloss levels but “raw” hard wax oil from Osmo should do the trick. I use hard wax oil almost exclusively and can highly recommend it for tabletops. (I personally fabricate around 50 dining tables per year (among other things) and I am yet to find a better product)

The other option you may want to consider is a soap finish. This will look just like raw timber and will offer some protection from staining spills etc. It is however more difficult to get right and will not be as durable.


The tables in the restaurant were probably finished by a professional cabinet maker. I would bet that they used a flat conversion varnish and didn't build up with extra coats. I've been searching for finish like you describe for a few years now and i'm sorry to say that we can't achieve it without a professional sprayer set up (including spray booth). There may be a place where you live that rents their spray booth. Don't waster your time trying the stuff that the other guys mentioned. I've tried all of that stuff and it doesn't work. They don't really understand your question to begin with. There is one thing that you can do at home that will come close to what you are talking about. One coat of matte Ceramithane applied with a sureline paint pad. It is water based, crystal clear, no yellow, amber, etc. No change in color but very slightly darker. It darkens the wood like water on application but lightens when dry. Cermithane is very viscose so it doesn't fill the pores and grain on the first coat so the wood texture is preserved. The Ceramithane is pretty tough and will protect the wood water and staining.

  • I can't even... how can you say "[the other guys] don't really understand your question to begin with" while in the same breath saying you tried all the same stuff they recommended yourself?! Were you intentionally admitting that you didn't really understand the problem to begin with yourself....? ;-)
    – Graphus
    Jan 7, 2018 at 9:55

I would suggest a paste wax finish.


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