Tung Oil Advantages and Disadvantages on Furniture & Exterior Uses

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Tung oil is a favored choice among craftsmen in the United States and around the world when it comes to finishing woodwork. Its popularity stems from its remarkable qualities and versatile applications.

If you’re considering using tung oil for your project, I’m here to provide you with a comprehensive overview of its pros and cons. This will help you make an informed decision and understand what to expect when using this finish.

The Pros and Cons of Tung Oil: An Overview

What I Like

What i don't Like

About Tung Oil and Tung Oil Finish

Tung oil, also called China wood oil, is a pale-yellow drying oil that polymerizes into a waterproof gel resistant to alkalis and acids. Wood makers primarily utilize it as a finishing oil and waterproof agent.

This oil is naturally derived and extracted from tung tree nuts—making it additive-free and non-toxic. That means it is eco-friendly and safe to use in all environments and on a vast selection of items.

Tung oil

When oil comes into contact with the air, something fascinating happens – it starts to harden. This transformation occurs through a process called polymerization. 

When you use this oil on surfaces like wood, it gives them a shiny and see-through coating. It’s like a magical makeover for your wooden treasures.

Tung oil is mainly made up of fatty acids sensitive to atmospheric oxygen. Oxidation will occur upon contact with the element by creating cross-links between nearby molecular chains. That hardens the resin.

Aside from giving the wood a glossy and more attractive finish, tung oil also adds an extra layer of protection.

Applying this protective coating to wood adds an additional layer that offers defense against various potential threats. It serves as a barrier to safeguard the wood against insect infestations, cracks, moisture damage, and dents.

Using tung oil

8 Advantages Of Using Tung Oil

There are several reasons why wood makers and fine furniture craftsmen should settle and pick tung oil for their projects. As long as they are coating the surface with tung oil, they can expect the following benefits:

1. Waterproof

Tung oil can protect your woodwork from moisture and water droplets. Applying it to your wood project can ensure that it has a water-resistant coat that can prevent water molecules and moisture from penetrating the wood.

Even if the original or raw wood has no water resistance, coating it with tung oil would be enough to keep it safe from water and liquid. Although, for that, you need to ensure that the wood is at least cured and that you didn’t miss a spot.

waterproofing

2. Non-Toxic

Among the many advantages of tung oil is its natural and non-toxic characteristics. Since it is derived straight from its source, you can expect this oil to be wholly fresh and safe to use on any wooden surface.

It was created using seeds from trees and is made with no added artificial ingredients or preservatives. With its natural and safe nature, you can undoubtedly use it on kitchen furniture and even kids’ toys without worrying.

3. Food-Safe Finish

Aside from being a non-toxic finish, tung oil is also completely food-safe. This fact is based on how the oil is made from tung nuts. With its food-safe properties, you can use tung oil on kitchen utensils.

If you use tung oil for your project, apply and cure it properly. Otherwise, the oil’s chemical ingredients can cause trouble.

Safe finish

Concentrated tung oil has no volatile or aggressive compounds that you can consider hazardous to vegetables and meats. It is among the best kinds of oil that can give optimum protection for food.

4. Easy to Apply

Applying tung oil on a wooden surface is easy enough. As long as you are aware of how to use and apply the oil, you can coat it on any wood project.

You may add linseed oil or other solvents to tung oil, making the application process much easier since it can now quickly penetrate the wood. The oil creates an impermeable layer as it allows the wood to breathe.

The application should be easy, and spreading a layer of tung oil would be just as smooth.

Spreading tung oil

How You Can Use Tung Oil Properly?

Here are the simple steps for properly applying tung oil on a surface:

  1. Prepare. Clean up and wipe down the surface to prepare it. As you do so, strip any existing finish on it. After that, sand the wooden surface thoroughly.
  2. Coat. Thin down your tung oil by adding a solvent to make it easier to apply. Use a fresh rag or brush to soak a tiny portion of concentrated tung oil.
  3. Let sit. Allow the oil to sit for a half hour at least—if possible, make it 1-2 hours for better absorption. Clean off any excess oil with a clean rag.
  4. Coat again. Ensure you let the wood rest for at least 3-7 days in between coats to cure correctly. Most projects need about 4-6 coats. Don’t forget to sand the surface before applying the next coat.
  5. Let it cure. Allow the wood to cure entirely for several weeks after applying the desired coats.

5. Pleasing Color/Attractive

Tung oil offers an attractive natural transparent color to your woodwork. But to achieve the desired glossy color on the wood, you must be patient since it takes a while for the oil to penetrate and cure. 

Once applied and cured on a wooden surface, it will give the project a deep golden-rich appearance with hints of wet floss. It proves that tung oil is not only used for protective coating but is also utilized by many for enhancing the wood’s appearance.

tung oil color

Around eight coats of good tung oil will help you achieve a lovely glossy finish. The gloss is attractive because it does not replicate a plastic shine. Instead, it appears like a natural shine that gives the wood a darker look.

6. Non-Yellowing

Applying tung oil on a wooden surface means it will not turn yellow or rancid over time —as most other oil finishes do. That means that you don’t have to worry about discoloration or fading.

Using tung oil also ensures the wood project keeps its color and appearance. It will even look fresh and new. 

The oil’s ability to help the wood maintain its color makes it different from other finishing oil like varnish, Linseed oil, and polyurethane finish. They can cause discoloration to wood surfaces if used.

non yellowing

7. Acid and Alcohol-Resistant

Aside from being waterproof and non-toxic, another fantastic benefit of using tung oil is its resistance to various acids and alcohol. It’s why tung oil is a popular option for cutting boards, tables, and desk countertops.

With its high resistance to many things, tung oil makes an excellent finisher for various interior woodwork as it gives adequate protection against certain environmental elements and can improve the overall appearance of a project.

8. Elastic

The last advantage of tung oil is its elasticity. While this oil hardens exceptionally well, it still has much elasticity and flexibility. Hence, even amidst harsh climate conditions, you can expect the tung oil layer to withstand and survive it.

With it protecting your woodwork, it won’t easily crack and even increase the wood’s lifespan. Tung oil’s elasticity allows it to adapt to the wood increasingly well.

elasticity

If the wood contracts and expands thanks to humidity changes, the tung oil coating will adapt quickly to this change and will contract and expand along with the wood—all without losing its stability.

6 Disadvantages Of Using Tung Oil

Since the advantages of tung oil are done, it is time to move to the disadvantages and drawbacks. Knowing the flaws of the oil would be as beneficial to you as learning about its advantages, as it means you can avoid mistakes early on.

1. Slow to Penetrate

It is pretty known in the woodworking industry that tung oil is relatively slow to penetrate the wood. That means that wood makers will need much time and patience to apply tung oil in a wood project successfully. 

Unlike other wood finishes, tung oil requires at least six or more coats to penetrate the wood surface completely. Not only does it require more work for you, but it also consumes too much time since you will need to wait hours between applying the layers. 

Disadvantages of tung oil

The drying time for each layer should be at least three days and more due to its slow penetration. Sanding, however, can help increase the penetration process of the oil.

2. Unpleasant Smell

With it taking more time than most to penetrate wood, you must endure its unpleasant scent for a while. Tung oil releases a mildly unpleasant smell for a few days while being cured and applied.

Those that would use tung oil are highly advised to use a mask. The pungent odor of the tung oil is relatively harsh and can cause respiratory problems if you’re not careful enough. 

Fortunately, the smell tends to go and fade away when the coat is drying. Also, there is a way to reduce the smell of tung oil if you cannot stand it. Dilute and thin it down using mineral spirit, as it can tone down and mask the distinct scent of the tung oil. 

unpleasant smell

3. Extended Processing Time

Tung oil takes a lot of time to cure completely—around 30 days, to be specific. Note that you should avoid placing woodwork coated in tung oil under the glare of direct sunlight until it is cured.

The long wait for the tung oil to penetrate and settle is among its most significant drawbacks. It usually is the deal breaker for many wood makers. During the curing process, I suggest not placing any heavy items on top of the wood and must protect it from dirt and dust.

4. Pricey

Tung oil is more expensive than similar finishing oils like Linseed oil. You can save money by purchasing bulk amounts of Tung oil if you plan to use it on an extensive amount of woodwork.

pricey

Typically, it is almost 25% more expensive than other finishing oils like Linseed oil, polyurethane, varnish, and some paints.

5. Inconvenient to Store

As mentioned, you should not expose tung oil to direct sunlight. It tends to react with light and heat, which can ruin the product. This feature makes it hard to store as it must be placed in a dark area.

Once exposed to light and heat, the oil container will form a gummy-like deposit around the corner of the can’s lid. Once those form, the tung oil goes bad and becomes unusable since the chemical structure has already changed.

6. Doesn’t Smoothen Wood Grain

It does not smoothen wood grain. Thus, you must sand the surface after each coat to attain that smooth wood grain. Also, the brush marks made during the coating will disappear after sanding.

tung oil grain

Can Tung Oil Waterproof Wood?

Yes, applying tung oil to wood is enough to make a protective coating that can prevent water and moisture from penetrating the surface. Tung oil can absorb atmospheric oxygen to form a waterproof layer on a wood surface.

Tung oil can help woodwork and pieces to tolerate extreme weather conditions like snow, rain, and humidity changes. Once it cures and hardens, it will create a tough and robust protective layer upon reacting to atmospheric oxygen.

tung oil waterproofing

Ideal Uses of Tung Oil

Aside from tung oil’s advantages and disadvantages, another thing about it that you need to know about is its uses. Tung oil and Finish can be used for various woodworking and furniture applications.

It is a popular wood finish you can apply to any wood project. Here are its best uses:

How Many Coats of Tung Oil Should You Use?

You need at least 6-8 coats of concentrated tung oil to achieve a perfect finish. Although, it could vary depending on the application and wood type you use. The level of sheen and glossiness also matters.

Generally, six minimum tung oil coats should be utilized to have a better finishing coat. Note that the more layers you apply, the shinier it gets. 

coating tung oil

Just be mindful of the number of coats. Excessive amounts can cause a blotchy surface, and the drying time would undoubtedly be higher than needed.

Can You Use Tung Oil to Darken Wood?

Tung oil does not darken the wood. While it can change the color of the wood surface, it doesn’t necessarily darken it. Applying tung oil would give it a slight timber tint, but it will only change the color slightly.

Mostly, it can make the wood pop and glisten with a warmer amber luster. Dark tung oil, however, is a total game changer. It can change the wood color to a darker shade. This oil contains dark pigments and has been modified explicitly with hydrocarbons. 

It will darken when you apply and coat it on a wooden surface. Though the result typically depends on the wood species used. Light-colored wood will successfully turn it into a dark mahogany shade.

Tung oil doesn't darken wood

Meanwhile, dark-colored wood might stay the same since its natural color resembles the desired results.

Linseed Oil vs Tung Oil: Which is Better?

Under the untrained and unprofessional eye, tung and linseed oil have no noticeable difference. They seem similar and have the same purpose.

Also, they are both finishing oils that can attain an attractive and natural-looking finish. However, if you observe and compare them critically, you will notice a few key differences.

How can you tell them apart? How can you know which is better suited for your woodwork project? To help, here is a breakdown of the significant differences between tung oil and linseed oil.

 

Pure Tung Oil

Raw Linseed Oil

Source

Nuts from tung tree

Flaxseeds

Drying Time

2-3 days before the next coat

Several weeks

Number of Coats

6-8 coats

At least three coats

Uses

Interior and exterior wood furniture, kitchen utensils, children’s toys, and countertops

Concrete, wood, and ingredient in paints, stains, and varnishes

Appearance

It dries transparent but will add a slight color on lighter wood shades

It dries with a yellow tint, which becomes more and more apparent over time

Cost

High

Average

Durability

High

Relatively low, it is prone to scratching

Food safety

Food-safe in its pure form, and once fully cured

Food-safe in its pure form, and once fully cured

Water resistance

High

Low

Sheen

Matte

Satin

Maintenance

Requires frequent reapplication

Requires frequent reapplication

Now, which is better? The answer will depend on various factors. You can choose which is better for you based on your woodwork project and preference for finishing oils.

Tung Oil vs Danish Oil: Are They The Same?

Aside from looking into tung oil’s advantages and disadvantages, we should also consider how it compares to other alternatives. Among the standard finishes, today are tung oil and Danish oil. They work relatively the same, so wood makers tend to compare them.

They are two types of finishing oil with distinctive differences and properties.

danish oil

Both finishing oils can achieve the desired results in finishing woodwork but durability, appearance, and drying time are just among the most significant differences.

For a more detailed look, here is a comparison table between the two oils:

 

Tung Oil

Danish Oil

Source

Nuts from tung tree

Blend between tung oil and linseed oil with mineral spirits

Drying Time

2-3 days before the next coat

6 hours to a day

Number of Coats

6-8 coats

3-5 coats

Uses

Interior and exterior wood furniture, kitchen utensils, children’s toys, and countertops

Wooden surface, including exterior and interior furniture, windows frames, doors, and hardwood floors

Appearance

It dries transparent but will add a slight color on lighter wood shades

It is not glossy when it dries out 

Cost

High

Low

Durability

High

Low compared to tung oil

Food safety

Food safe in its pure form and once fully cured

Food safe

Water resistance

High

High

Sheen

Satin

Satin/Semi-gloss

Maintenance

Requires frequent reapplication

Requires frequent maintenance

Is Tung Oil Ideal for Cedar Application?

Yes, you can apply tung oil on cedar with no problems. Out of all oil wood coatings, tung oil tends to provide the best water and moisture protection. 

Tung oil can provide a natural look to cedar. It dries out with a transparent finish, enhancing the cedar’s color and making its grain pop.

Is it Recommended to Apply Tung Oil On Oak and Walnut?

Yes, applying tung oil [1] over oak and walnut surfaces is okay. The tung oil coat provides a protective layer over the oak and walnut, giving them a slightly darker rich look. 

The oil tends to stick well on both wood types. It can also offer protection against harsh weather elements, moisture, water damage, and insect attacks.

applying tung oil

Can You Put Tung Oil Over Stains?

You may use tung oil over the stained wood surface. Before that, ensure the stain is oil-based since tung oil might be incompatible otherwise. 

Notably, tung oil also does not combine with water-based stains. This can be fixed by lightly sanding the water-based coat before applying the tung oil. It builds a good adhesion between the surfaces.

Can You Paint Over Tung Oil Finish?

Yes, you may paint over the tung oil finish — only if it’s entirely and perfectly cured. The oil provides a background where you can paint.

It toughens and strengthens the wood surface, which makes it a suitable undercoat for oil-based and latex paint. Just ensure you properly prepare the surface by sanding and applying primer.

painting over tung oil finish

Can You Stain Over Tung Oil Finishes?

Staining over tung oil coatings is possible, but note that it does not penetrate evenly since the oil is already cured. It means that the surface is already hardened and protected.

The layer of tung oil does not apply to wood stains, so penetration is not entirely possible. Using the wood stain over the tung oil defeats the purpose of the oil since the protective layer will be sealed and covered.

Is Tung Oil Recommended For Outdoor Use?

Yes, tung oil can be used on exterior furniture and wood surfaces. It is a natural drying oil that can provide proper water resistance and protection to the wood. 

Coating and curing your exterior furniture with it will allow it to tolerate and even withstand extreme weather conditions like snow, rain, and climate changes. 

tung oil on exterior

Additionally, tung oil offers insect protection and can make it less prone to cracks to dents. With proper maintenance, you can expect your exterior furniture to last for years with tung oil coatings.

Conclusion

Tung oil stands out as a top-notch natural finish that can greatly elevate your woodworking endeavors. It’s important to recognize that it sets itself apart from other finishing oils in distinct ways.

In essence, there’s a whole array of benefits and drawbacks to consider when working with tung oil. Understanding these aspects is crucial for wood enthusiasts, as it empowers them to make informed decisions about whether it’s the right choice for their projects.

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Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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