One of my favorite finishes to use is Minwax Antique Oil. This easy to use finish is very traditional and provides a surface that is so luxurious to the touch you'll want to use it on all your fine projects. It is also quite durable and, if applied as outlined below, will even fill the pores, to some extent, on porous woods. Ever since I learned about this product at Conover Workshops, I have favored it over nearly all other methods, except French polishing perhaps.
Antique Oil comes in a red can (or at least all of the cans I have ever seen are red) and can be somewhat difficult to find on the shelf in your local finish store. As long as they sell Minwax products, they should be able to get it in, although I have had more than one Sherwin Williams salesperson tell me otherwise. It is based on linseed oil, as many traditional finishes were, has a mineral spirit base, and dries hard, with a satin finish.
To use this method you need a can of finish - obviously, one appropriately sized disposable, foam brush for each coat you are to apply, a short, wide-mouth jar, lint-free rags, and a few sheets of each of 320X, 400X, 600X, and higher grits of wet/dry silicon carbide paper.
First, I start by pouring the Antique Oil finish into a small, glass, wide-mouth, Mason jar. I usually place a couple of inches in the bottom. I do this because it is impossible to dip a brush in the solvent-style cans they sell the finish in. Besides, who wants to contaminate a whole can of finish with a dusty brush.
Now you are ready for the first coat. Apply a liberal amount of Antique Oil to the piece with a foam brush. Don't make it sloppy wet but you want a nice, healthy amount of oil on the wood. I do the piece in sections and start, usually, on the inside (where sometimes I don’t even bother to do more than two coats and sometimes I don’t even sand them). You have to finish all sides of a piece so that you get an even amount of moisture transfer in and out of the wood on every side.
After the area you have coated has set for five minutes, wet sand the area with 320X wet/dry paper wrapped around a wood block. Remember, the piece has already been sanded so you aren't trying to level the surface, you are just working up a slurry where the wood particles that have been scraped off are carried in the oil and become lodged in the pores of the wood. There is no need to sand for hours, just long enough to work the finish into the area you are applying it to evenly. You may notice that the sandpaper starts to stick to the wood - meaning you need more lubricant. Just brush on a little more oil and keep sanding.
Once you have worked up a nice slurry all over the area you are finishing, immediately rub it down with a rag to remove all of the excess. You may need to change rags once in a while when you notice them getting too wet with oil. This is perfectly fine. Make sure you have plenty of rags available, and don't count on using them again. Move on to the next area of the piece and continue until it is all coated. I prefer to let it sit now for 24 to 48 hours before going at it again.
The first coat is the slowest as the oil has yet to sink into the wood; actually the first coat of any finish is the slowest so this is only natural. There are ways of speeding up the process. I like to apply the finish to the first part of the piece then let it sit for most of the five minutes at which time I promptly brush on the first coat to the second area I am doing. Then I sand and rub out the first component followed by an application of finish to the third section. By that time the second part is ready to be sanded and rubbed out. For example, on a small cabinet, I might start by oiling the backside of the face frame. Then I would move on to the cabinet sides on the inside. While the sides were soaking I would go back and sand and rub out the backsides of the face frame. Subsequently I would oil the inside back, and while that was soaking in I would sand and rub out the inside sides. I think you get the picture. Don’t necessarily follow my way of doing it. You might find a better way.
The last step in the first coat is hazardous waste management. Oil finish cures by oxidation, the same process as burning. Thus, it generates heat. One or two rags balled together would generate enough heat to start on fire so you have to be careful about handling them. The same goes for the brush you have been using. When I have completed the coat of finish, I lay out all of the rags, the brush and the nitrile gloves I have been wearing on the floor of my shop, which is concrete. I don't actually think it matters what your floor is made of unless you have a carpet - which I hope you don't. Within 24 hours, they will all be hard and crunchy, signifying that the oxidation process is complete and the oil is cured. They are now safe to dispose of. Remember to do this after every coat and, although it is somewhat inconvenient to have wet, stinky rags lying on your floor, you shouldn't have to worry about spontaneous combustion.
I think I forgot something. Minwax Antique Oil is mineral spirits based, so it stinks horribly while you are applying it. It really bothers my lungs so I wear a half mask with organic vapor cartridges. As alluded to previously, I also wear nitrile gloves.
In a couple of days on goes the second coat of oil. I do the piece in sections again but this time I brush on the oil, let it sit there for 30 or 40 seconds, then commence sanding with 400X wet/dry paper wrapped around a wood block. Once a slurry has been worked up evenly over the area I am applying finish to, I rub it down immediately with a fresh rag, then move on to another area. Once complete it should sit for 24 hours.
It is decision time. The more coats you put on, the smoother the surface will be, but more than three is probably wasting your time - I have never used more than three coats. If you do want to put a fourth or fifth coat on, do them like the second except, take one step higher on the scale of grit of paper used for sanding. If I were to do a fourth and fifth coat, I would use 600X then 800X respectively, and finish with the final coat in 1000X. I really think that would be overkill, but I am planning to try it out, just for kicks, to see what happens.
For your final coat, apply the oil in much the same manner as the first coat. Brush it on, then wait for ten minutes or so. This will allow the oil to soak into the fine flour-like wood dust you have been filling the pores with. Once the ten minutes has passed, use 600X wet/dry paper (if this is your third coat, 800X if it is your fourth, and so on) to sand to an even slurry, re-wetting as necessary, then rub out immediately with clean rags. The result, other than quite a few rags and brushes to go in the trash, will be quite stunning. You get the beauty of the natural wood color, a deepening of the grain, and a smooth, silky surface that you won't be able to stop touching - all this and a durable, hard finish in the bargain. Of course, I would wait a couple more days for the oil to completely cure before I put that piece of furniture into daily use.
© 2011 Howard Ruttan - inthewoodshop.org