How to Use a Tung Oil Finish


A pure or polymerized tung oil finish is easy to use and will produce beautiful results on any type of wood, inside or out. Tung oil finishes are usually applied to unfinished wood, but they can be used over oil based stains.

Other types of existing finishes, such as varnish, must be removed, as tung oil is a penetrating oil. It needs to penetrate deeply into the wood fibers and pores.

Preparing the Wood

New wood needs to sanded smooth prior to application. This finish does not build a film like varnish, so you need to do most of the sanding before any tung oil finish is applied.

If the wood is rough, start with medium grit sand paper and then finish with a fine grit. Remember to always sand in the direction of the grain.

After sanding, do any repairs. Fill any holes or cracks with wood filler. If you plan to use a wood stain beneath the tung oil finish, choose a stainable filler. If you don’t plan to use stain, choose a colored wood filler that approximately matches the wood’s color. Do a final sanding if necessary and remove all dust with tack rags.

Exterior wood surfaces should be cleaned with water and a scrub brush to remove any residual stains or finishes. A pressure washer can be used, if needed, but low pressure should be used. All stains, such as rusty nail heads, also must be removed prior to applying tung oil. Allow all wood surfaces to fully dry before proceeding.

Staining the Wood

Any oil base wood stain can be applied. A tung oil finish has an amber color that will change or enhance the stain’s color. Consider this when you choose the color. You may want to test the results before proceeding with the project. Apply the stain and finish to a scrap piece of similar wood.

Choose traditional colors that will be subtle and still enhance the wood grain.

Applying Tung Oil

Applying tung oil to a wood kitchen countertop using a brush.
A can be applied pure or thinned up to 50% with mineral spirits or turpentine. Thinning the first coat increases penetration, decreases the drying time and produces better results.

The typical application method for smooth interior wood is hand rubbing. Dip a soft cloth or rag into the finish and rub onto the wood. Keep applying until the wood is saturated. Use a natural bristle brush for hard to reach areas. Allow each coat to remain on the surface for 20-30 minutes. Then wipe all areas to remove any excess that remains. Check for drips or runs after another few minutes.

Applying tung oil to wood countertops, cutting boards or wood bowls is very easy. First only use 100% pure tung oil without thinning. Apply liberally with a brush or rag. Using circular rubbing motions will help the oil penetrate. Finish by using a rag to remove any excess by lightly rubbing in the direction of the wood grain. Repeat when dry.

Drying is a slow process and takes between 24 – 48 hours. The time depends on the porosity of the wood and whether you thinned the finish.

It will take 3 – 4 coats to achieve a waterproof surface. Lightly sand or buff the wood with extra fine steel wool between coats. This achieves better results than using sandpaper.

For exterior use, brushing is the best method for application. Thin the first application to increase penetration. Pick up all drips and runs after 30 minutes. Continue to apply additional coats. It takes 4 – 6 coats on new, very porous woods like cedar.

Maintaining Tung Oil Finishes

Maintenance is very easy. Remove light scratches with a light sanding and the addition of another coat of tung oil finish. Interior wood surfaces might need another coat every 2 – 4 years and exterior wood 1 – 2 years depending on exposure to sun light and the wood species.

45 Responses

    1. I have it on good authority that on chopping boards a non drying oil makes more sense.
      A drying oil will form a solid film if you start cutting on the board you will also cut through this solid finish as a result bacteria can stay there if not really well cleaned, a non drying oil like coconut oil would refill these cuts in the wood. Common sense or what?
      Regards Jacob

  1. Thank you for a this article. I’m wondering if pure tung oil can be applied over a water based stain? I seem to be finding conflicting info on the matter….

    1. Yes and no. Tung oil is best over itself (raw wood) or oil base stains. Water based stains can “seal” the wood and not allow the Tung oil to penetrate. You can give it a try by thinning the Tung oil 1/2 (50%) for better penetration. If the oil won’t penetrate, just pools on the surface, then wipe it off and use a clear wood finish like varnish.

    1. Yes, wood dye should mix in just fine. But, I’m not sure what the end result will look like. Recommend experimenting before committing any project.

  2. I have finished a table top with liberon quick drying tung oil and have applied 5 coats so far I cannot seem to get a perfectly smooth finish someone has told me after the final coat sand with 600 grit paper and mineral oil is this ok??

  3. Can this be used after cleaning an already antique Tavel and chairs without removing previous stain?

    1. Yes, Tung oil can be used but if the surface is already sealed with another finish then it won’t work very well. Tung oil dries very slowly and works best when it can penetrate into the wood a bit.

      An alternative is a product called Watco. Watco is a Danish oil and can be rubbed on over other finishes. Watco is found at your local hardware store.

  4. Question; My friend just made me a table and I want to use the tung oil. So, I just use this I don’t have to put anything else on it like a sealer right? Just the tung oil, 3-4 times and use steel wool in between the coats?

  5. Once you have applied a tung oil finish what can be used to maintain the finish until it is recoated? Lemon oil ok? What type of polish is suggested?

    1. Once you have applied 2 or more thin coats of tung oil and it has throughly dried, any polish or wax can be used over top to protect or enhance the wood. Pure lemon oil is a good choice as it doesn’t contain any waxes. Wax will need complete removal before any additional coats of tung oil can be applied in the future.

      Another product to use is a Dutch Oil finish such as Watco. This is a thin tung oil/varnish with color (like a stain). Great to use on stained woodwork to renew the woods color and sheen.

      Of course, thinned tung oil can be applied anytime to renew the finish. No need for fancy polishes or waxes. Simply hand rub a coat when needed.

  6. We have a mahogany wood wall that was finished with ting oil, we applied 4 coats and it has a nice consistent shine. Our issue is that the color of the wood is too bright, can I paint over the tung oil finish? Would you suggest sanding lightly and using a latex paint? I prefer oil based paints but I feel that the tung oil has a finish that won’t be penetrated by oil paint?

    1. Light sanding and an oil based wood primer is needed to form the foundation for paint. Once painted the mahogany will be covered forever, shame as mahogany is really nice wood.

  7. I have a table that a friend refinished for me with pure tongue oil. A can of the spray air like you use to clean out computer keyboards was set on it and it left a ring. Can I just sand lightly and put another couple of coats of tongue oil on it to repair?

  8. We just got unfinished knotty alder doors for our front entry. We want to apply an oil base stain then finish and maintain with tongue oil. My question is does the oil based stains like Minwax brand have unwanted ingredients that would cause problems for the tongue oil penetration. If so where would I go to get a proper stain and what brand? Thanks for any help.

    1. The oil based stains on the market will work fine with Tung Oil. The only ones that might cause problems are the thicker gel stains. Use a standard wiping stain and thin the first coat or 2 of Tung oil for good penetration.

  9. Thank you for all of this information! I was just price checking for walnut, cherry, etc. and they are so expensive. My husband and I have drawn up plans for building our own butcher block table and wanted to use some walnut in the table top (our new cupboards are stained black walnut) and we were quoted such a high price per 2x4x8 that I have been looking at alternatives.

    I can use the same stain on oak or pine, it is oil based, and then use tung oil on top of that? Will it remain a food safe surface? How long do I have to wait before treating the block with the tung oil?
    Thank you for your help!

    1. The stain color will be different on the Pine when compared to the Walnut. You should stain a couple sample boards, pieces of Pine and Walnut, and make sure you like the results. If needed you can try different stain colors to get a closer color match.

      Tung oil alone is a food safe surface but adding the stain complicates things. Technically, adding the stain is no longer a food safe surface but that applies only as a cutting surface. If properly sealed with 2 or more thing coats of Tung oil and not cut into I don’t think you will have any problems. I recommend using a citrus solvent and thinning the first coat to better penetrate the wood better.

  10. I am in the process of refinishing my double wooden front doors. I have sanded off the existing finish which I think may have been a polyurethane; whatever it was, it was peeling and flaking and in need of removal. I live in central Florida and humidity is an issue. The doors are under a deep porch and the sun exposure is limited to the bottom 1/4 of the doors, morning only as they face directly east. This is where the finish was in bad shape. Water exposure rarely occurs. I am not sure if the doors are mahogany or another wood which would give them a red tone. A contractor friend of mine told me that they were Anderson doors, just as are all my sliders and my windows. They are over 20 years old and I don’t know if Anderson uses mahogany in their production or if I am just seeing remnants of a previous stain in the wood. I have been leaning toward using tung oil vs a pigmented stain, not only for the benefits of the penetration but for the ease of maintenance. With the humidity and the UV exposure to the bottom portion, is this enough? One individual in a woodcraft supply store told me I would have to reapply tung oil every couple of months without a topcoat and that here in Florida I needed to have one. He suggested an oil based varnish, which I had already been considering, however I would go as far as putting a marine grade one on the doors. I just hate to get in that sanding cycle to reapply every year or 2. Is he correct in his comment? And if I do need an oil based varnish, then do I need to skip the tung oil and just use a good marine grade tung oil varnish like Epifanes? Or Man O’ War? Thanks!

    1. Yes, you will need to reapply the Tung oil often as it will dry out and be oxidized by UV light also mold could be an issure with high humidity. But maintenance would be easy; clean, light sanding, reapply. It will build up after a while providing additional protection but UV resistance is very low, quick oxidation.

      A marine varnish, Man-O-War, is a good choice but you are correct that reapplication will require sanding. Probably every couple years.

      A good way to tackle this is apply Tung oil (2+ coats, thinned for penetration) and see how it wears. Apply until the wood won’t take any more. If needed you can go over the tung oil with the varnish.

  11. My son is building vegetable boxes for a non-profit garden co-op (Eagle project). The wood is poplar. The co-op has requested a food safe pure tung oil. 2 questions:

    1. They have also requested us paint a logo on one side of the box in black flat paint. Can we just put the 3-4 coats of tung oil on that stenciled piece of wood after logo is painted on – simply wiping off tung oil excess over the painted section? The paint will provide protection on the logo, the tung oil covers the rest? Is that a plan?
    2. What do we thin the first coat of tung oil with that’s considered food safe?

    Thanks for any advice you can give.

    1. #1 Correct, just apply the Tung oil as usual and wipe off the excess.

      #2 I would apply unthinned, allow first coat to soak in overnight before applying a second coat. Normally, the first coat is thinned with mineral spirits but this isn’t food safe. There is a food safe thinner, citrus solvent, that is food safe. Check it out and see if something you want to invest in –

  12. Hi. I,m using Tung oil on an indoor floor, on the can it says the oil is toxic and I should use a respirator when applying it. Is this correct?

  13. Applied Tung Oil to the top of a Wine Barrel, about 4 coats. Tried knocking the shine down with fine steel wool, but now have very fine scratch marks. Besides applying another coat of Tung Oil, what other options do I have to remove the fine scratches?

    1. You could buff the surface with a soft cloth and mineral spirits. Don’t rub too much of too hard, the mineral spirits will dissolve some Tung oil and the cloth will redistribute it filling in the scratches. Test first before committing to the entire top.

  14. just ordered a roasted swamp ash body for one of my guitars, it is unfinished. Am planning on 3 to 4 coats of tung oil with a light buffing using 000 steel wool between coats. Wand to wind up with a satin finish. Is this the correct approach?

    1. This will work but the Tung oil will remain soft. Another great finish for this is a French Polish. Great articles about French Polishing

      It takes effort but it’s a gorgeous finish. Use the pad method for the best result.

  15. I am finishing a piece of hardwood as a cheeseboard but there are a couple small knots and one larger hole in the wood surface. I was planning on using a filler for these prior to finishing – any suggestions on filler options that best go with Tung oil? Paste vs. Epoxy for example?

    1. Use an epoxy wood filler, little less toxic for a food surface. PC Woody might be a good choice. It won’t take the tung oil but it will be hard and stay put.

  16. I am screwed. I installed a wide pine floor in 2003 and I used a tung oil and put down about 10 coats. I had some dents and a few chips near the wood stove so In cleaned the surface and applied miniwax tung oil finish on an area about 12 sq feet before i stopped and even thou I was told it was tung oil I realized something was different. What can I do now to keep the floor looking the same?

    1. Yes, as you found out the minwax stuff isn’t exactly Tung oil. At this point use acetone or lacquer thinner to quickly remove as much as possible, make sure to use clean white rags and have a bucket of water to dispose the rags in. Hopefully this will remove some of the minwax finish and allow real tung oil to penetrate and hopefully blend. The acetone, finger nail polish remover, is the better bet but lacquer thinner will work in a pinch.

      This will be really smelly so have windows open, no open flames and make sure to dispose the rags in water.

      1. so I can use acetone even thought the miniwax product has dried? This morning I used 40 steel wool and I will try the acetone once the fire goes out and my wife leaves to go shopping

        1. Give it a try. Either the acetone or lacquer thinner should dissolve the minwax enough to remove some from the surface and (hopefully) open us the wood for real tung oil. You can use the steel wool at the same time to help remove the finish but be careful not to cause deep scratches that will show up later.

          The only alternative is to sand off the minwax finish and try to blend with tung oil.

  17. It’s been very helpful reading this post. It’s so nice that all the questions were answered with knowledge. Sometimes that is so hard to find at a hardware or paint store. I’m hoping you can guide me. I live in Oklahoma and my front exterior double doors are made from cypress and were white washed and had some kind of sealer put on. They get pretty much full sun and rain hits about half way up. The wood has split and peeled. After reading a lot of articles on the internet I thought I would sand them and and put a semi transparent, water based stain on them and use tung oil diluted with paint thinner and then go back and each time increase the strength until I’m at 100%. After reading your answers, I know it should be an oil based stain and also this won’t give any uv protection. I’d like to weather proof them without the complete sanding each year that varnish and poly would require. What do you recommend?

    1. The Tung Oil isn’t good for exterior use. The best way to deal with your door is either apply a spar varnish or exterior rated acrylic clear coat. The varnish is by far the easiest to work with.

      Every year you will need to do a light sanding then add another thin coat of varnish. You are correct that the door will need some extensive work every few years, depending on weather maybe every 4-5 years a strip and refinish might be needed.

      1. You could use Tung Oil if you are willing to do a little work twice a year. This is what I’m thinking;

        The interior of the door can be whatever you want, it’s the outside that is the problem. So, apply tung oil as you specified but plan on reapplying twice a year to keep the door looking at its best. Tung Oil shouldn’t turn black like Rosewood oil or Linseed oil but it will oxidize quickly (turn to a powder). To apply a new coat of Tung Oil you will need to clean the door (mild soap like no-rinse TSP or Dawn dish soap, wipe off the door with clean water a couple times), Then wipe with a solvent, acetone will work well. Now apply a new coat, thinned at 25-30%.

        The stain could suffer bleaching over time. The only way to deal with it is to remove as Tung Oil as possible, solvent and sanding to expose the stain layer, then apply a new coat of stain. Finish as normal.

        This should work.

  18. I just bought an expensive bird house it is white. I’m not sure if its paint but I want to put a sealer on this item. I was told tung oil was safe for animals. I ended up buying the minwax tung oil, I think this was a mistake by what I’m reading. I also want to have some flowers painted on it before I seal it what are your recommendations?

    1. Acrylic artist paints should be fine to use. An alternative is acrylic (water-based) house paints, maybe sample cans found at your local paint store or home improvement store.

      Yes, tung oil would be best choice. You will need to get a pure tung oil not a product with additional components. Thinning won’t be possible as solvents can be dangerous to animals. Plan on applying the oil at least once a year.

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