Applying a linseed oil and wax finish is one of the easiest things to do…
If. You. Follow. Instructions.
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Every single problem I have encountered with applying this simple finish can be traced to not following the application instructions. Why is it always user error? Because almost nothing else can go wrong. The finish isn’t particularly sensitive to humidity, temperature or the way you apply it. You can put it on with a rag, steel wool, synthetic woven pad or cheesecloth. There are no brush strokes to overlap or tip off. There are no spray patterns to learn. Heck, the workshop can even be a little dusty.
So what can go wrong with this finish? Well, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s you.
Here are the instructions.
- Prepare the raw wood just like you would for any clear finish. Remove excess glue. Make sure all the show surfaces are prepared to the same level of refinement. Break the sharp edges.
- Apply a good coat of the linseed oil/wax finish. Saturate the wood, especially the end grain. Get the whole chair, box or shelving unit covered with the stuff. Look for dry spots (especially on end grain and in corners).
- Now get a clean rag or towel (we use Huck towels). Rub the entire project until you have absolutely and positively removed all excess from the surface. If there is a greasy film that you can leave a fingerprint in, then you have not removed enough. You should keep rubbing the project until the wood is basically dry on its surface. It will feel a little cool to the touch but there should be no discernible greasy film.
- Wait 30 minutes. Get a coffee or a glass of water.
- Go back to the project with a clean rag or towel and rub it dry again. Some woods will leach out some of the oil after the first application, and you don’t want that stuff pooling on the wood. Get in the corners. It’s easy to miss a few spots on the first rub-down, so this is your chance to find the excess.
- Go away for two hours. When you return, the project can be handled. Sit in your chair. Move the shelves to their final resting place.
- Now wait for two or three weeks. Look at the project. Are you happy with the sheen? If so, walk away. Does it look a little dry? Then return to step two and apply another thin coat of the stuff.
- Now wait a year. Look at the project. Are you happy with the sheen? You know what to do.
If you haven’t figured it out, the biggest error people make with this finish is they don’t remove the excess finish. They leave a little extra on top, thinking: “That will add extra protection.” Wax/oil finishes don’t work that way. When you leave a little extra, the excess bunches up like a rubbery scab. Or it refuses to fully dry.
This problem is especially acute with casework. The woodworker finishes the interior of the secretary or cabinet then closes up the case – robbing the finish of the air it needs to cure. So the finish never dries. And it smells awful. If you use this finish on the interior of something, you have to leave its doors and drawers open until it cures (which is two to three weeks).
Most projects don’t need the interior to be finished (historically, finishing the inside of a piece was seen as a waste of time and material).
Finally, take the rags or pads and lay them out to dry. Don’t bunch them up – it’s a fire hazard. In Europe, many woodworkers burn the rags. In some parts of the country, they put the rags in plastic bags filled with water. I lay the rags out, and I have never had a problem.
Troubleshooting tip: What if you left too much of the finish on the surface, and it is a sticky mess the next day? Get a solvent such as low odor mineral spirits or a citrus solvent (limonene) and flood the surface. It will dissolve the excess wax and oil, and everything can then be wiped away. Wipe the project until it is dry and you are back to wood. Let the piece dry overnight. Then begin again with step two above.
— Christopher Schwarz