Repair & Maintenance

Applying a tung oil finish

By Eleanor Stern
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Tung oil provides a durable, yet natural finish for fine furniture and woodwork
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The history of tung oil

In ancient Chinese, the word Tung meant 'heart'. Tung oil originates from a tree which grows in China whose leaves are heart shaped fronds, and bears a fruit called the tung fruit. The tung fruit grows in clusters, each of which contains four or five nuts. When the nuts are dried and have been compressed, they yield about 20% oil.

The ancient Chinese have been using tung oil as a sealant for thousands of years. Tung oil was used to finish the large wooden masts of Chinese ships called junks, on furniture of Chinese royalty, and as legend has it, to seal the Great Wall of China.

It was not until 1912 that Tung oil finish made its way to America. The American ambassador to China shipped Tung trees to California in an attempt to cultivate the plant but they died due to improper growing conditions. However, perfect growing conditions in the Gulf States prompted farmers to establish Tung plantations.

Tung oil

After Tung trees made their way to the United States, craftsmen quickly noticed that tung oil created a beautiful rich furniture finish. According to , " Of all the clear furniture finishes, tung oil is probably the easiest and most durable of the easy finishes for beginning furniture refinishers to use and is still among the favorites of seasoned refinishers. "

Tung oil is elastic, so it can adjust to the expansion and contraction of wood from temperature and humidity without cracking. The oil saturates the wood, seals it from moisture, and creates a sheen coating on the surface of the wood. Many coats of tung oil produce a protective surface coat for your furniture.

Surface preparation

Experts say that surface preparation is about 90% of a good finish. After any old paint is stripped from the surface of the furniture, it is imperative to prepare the surface. Make sure the surface is thoroughly dried for 24 hours and that there are no bits of old paint left.

Next, you'll need to clean the surface with a few home furnishing supplies like stripper, after-stripper cleaner, denatured alcohol, or lacquer thinner and 0000 steel wool. After your furniture has dried completely from the cleaning and rubbing with steel wool, use cotton gardening gloves to run your hands over the surface of the wood. If your gloves do not snag, you have done a thorough job. If they do, go over the surface again with stripper cleaner, and 0000 steel wool.

Staining wood Staining the wood is the next step after stripping it. Experts recommend staining it with an oil based stain. Always choose a color no darker than you want your piece of furniture to be. Oil stain can be applied with either; a ruler, brush, soft cloth or even your hand. Once you get an even stain, wipe the excess off and let the furniture dry overnight.

Applying a Tung Finish

After the surface has been prepped and stained, you may proceed to apply the tung oil finish. Apply the tung oil generously with a brush, cloth, or even your hand. Let the wood soak in the tung oil for approximately five to ten minutes.

When your table has finished soaking, remove the excess tung oil before it dries on the surface. If you leave the tung oil on for too long and it dries, apply some more to soften the hardened residue and then wipe off the extra.


Whenever you're dealing with chemicals you must always wear eye goggles. Make sure you have quick access to water in case the tung oil accidentally spills on you. In the event that you spill tung oil on your skin, wash it off with soap and water. If the finish gets in your eyes, and continual burning occurs seek medical treatment immediately.

During the entire sanding process, it is recommended to wear a face mask to prevent you from breathing in any dust and debris. Make sure you do your project in a well-ventilated area and be sure to not breathe in fumes from the finish or the paint thinner.

The rags used to apply tung oil may spontaneously combust. To prevent this from happening, soak them in water and throw them away in a metal container as soon as you are done with them

How many coats should I apply?

Apply three or four coats of tung oil to vertical surfaces while Horizontal surfaces, such as table tops, should have six to ten coats for best protection. Let each coat dry for at least 24 hours before adding the next coat.

Maintaining a tung oil finish

Every four to six months rub your tung oil finish with 0000 steel wool, clean it with a tack cloth and apply another coat of tung oil. When you maintain your tung oil finish properly you will never have to refinish again and your furniture will look brand new forever!

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