Cedar is a popular option for woodworkers because it’s durable and resistant to decay. Still, it isn’t perfect — without proper care, your furniture will be susceptible to damage.
Tung oil is usually applied to wood for added protection, but how do you use it? Let me walk you through using tung oil on cedar without wasting time and money.
Can You Apply Tung on Cedar Wood Pieces?
If you have cedar wooden furniture or creations, you can use tung oil on them with no issue. In my own workshop, using tung oil on cedar has often produced outcomes that I’d describe as honey-drenched natural artistry. The sheen also brings out the beauty of cedar by deepening the hues and emphasizing its grain pattern.
Tung oil is extracted from a Tung tree’s seeds, which are common in Asia. It is made up of fatty acids that harden when exposed to air. Cedarwood with tung oil forms a very hard layer as a result.
The product also gives cedar a protective film that keeps moisture, insects, and rot at bay. The oil, when absorbed by the wood fibers, forms a barrier that allows the cedar to remain in good condition for a long time. I’ve found that it prevents many of the common problems wood faces as it ages—think cracking, warping, and rotting.
Tung oil is also versatile – it can be used on both indoor and outdoor wooden pieces. The finish can be applied on decks, panels, fences, as well as furniture and musical instruments.
There are different kinds of tung oil finishes. Pure tung oil leaves a finish close to light yellow, while dark tung oil makes cedar darker when applied.
You might also see tung oil varnishes and paints sold in stores – these have tung oil as a base. However, other additives make it dry faster than plain tung oil.
They are typically labeled as containing petroleum distillates which have high VOC, so remember to wear protective gear for your safety.
Instead of penetrating the fibers, these sit on top of the wood surface. Still, they make cedarwood more durable against UV rays and moisture and resistant to dents and scratches.
Tung Application on Cedar: What are the Advantages?
Tung oil has advantages and disadvantages. But focusing on the pros, it’s impressive how tung oil improves the appearance of cedar wood. Aside from its protective elements, there are more advantages to using tung oil on cedar, and here are some of them:
Tung oil is waterproof
Cedar wood is porous, so even though it offers some resistance to decay, water and moisture being absorbed can kill all your hard work. Tung oil is an ideal finish in making up for this vulnerability, especially if you plan on putting your cedar furniture outdoors.
Tung oil, when utilized on cedar, creates a durable and safeguarding layer on the wood’s exterior. This natural oil undergoes polymerization upon exposure to the air, resulting in the formation of a resilient barrier.
However, it is important to apply the oil properly and cure the wood for it to work. Make sure you don’t miss any spots, or else the wood might rot on the inside. The effect also isn’t forever – I would recommend reapplying tung oil after six to 12 months.
Tung oil is non-toxic
Pure tung oil is a natural oil extracted from crushed tung seeds and preserved as purely as possible. It also doesn’t have VOCs, unlike other finishes in the market. However, it has to be fully dried or cured, some for at least two weeks – check the manufacturer’s instructions to achieve the best results.
Still, it is best to exercise caution when applying any finish, including tung oil. The product has tungstic acids, which, while natural, can cause allergies and skin irritations in others. Also, it can cause adverse effects when ingested or inhaled.
As with other finishes, I recommend you use tung oil while in a well-ventilated area where children and pets won’t have access. It is also a good practice to wear protective gear, including gloves, masks, and eye protection.
Ensure, however, that the tung oil you’re getting does not have any petroleum distillates or other solvents. These cancel out the non-toxic properties of pure tung oil.
Tung oil is food-safe
Pure tung oil is food-safe when fully cured, an advantage it has over other finishes like teak oil.
This means it is recommended for application to dining ware, kitchen utensils, cutting boards, and anything else that comes in contact with food. You can also apply it to toys that children are prone to put in their mouths. (Check out other food-safe wood finishes here!)
However, make sure that you are using pure tung oil, as this is the variant that does not come with harmful solvents. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter so that you can use the wooden pieces for food preparation.
Tung oil is easy to apply
You don’t have to be an experienced woodworker to use tung oil. There is also no need for any complicated equipment. All you need are your cedar wood pieces, tung oil, and your preferred applicator.
Like other finishes, you need to apply the finish by following the direction of the wood grain for better absorption. Each application has to be dried completely before putting on another coat.
While you will need to reapply in the future to keep tung oil’s protective capabilities, maintenance is pretty easy. Just make sure to follow the instructions on the can for the best results.
Tung oil can enhance cedar wood’s natural color
Cedar, on its own, already has a beautiful reddish-brown or yellowish-brown color. However, tung oil can make cedar wood warmer and darker with a nice sheen.
It can take a while for the color to deepen – you’ll be able to see more of it once the oil penetrates the wood deeper and oxidizes.
The final color will depend on a few factors, including the condition of the cedar and the number of tung oil coats applied. The finish will also vary from one brand to another.
My advice is to test the tung oil first on a small area of the piece to make sure that you’ll get the hue you’ll like.
Tung oil is not prone to discoloration
Another advantage tung oil has over other finishes is that it doesn’t yellow over time. You have to reapply after six to 12 months, but that’s only to reestablish the protective barrier. The color will stay the same and be easy to reapply each time.
Tung oil offers resistance to acids and other harsh chemicals
Tung oil not only offers wooden pieces protection from the weather and water, but it also protects cedar from harsh chemicals. The protective layer that forms once tung oil oxidizes blocks acids from penetrating the wood.
A cutting board with a tung oil finish won’t be destroyed when exposed to acids from citrus fruits, for example. The natural oil is also resistant to alcohol and acetone. If you spill anything, you just have to clean it up with a cloth – it won’t destroy the film from tung oil.
Tung oil has high elasticity
Cedarwood expands and contracts in time due to changes in temperature and humidity. Tung oil might create a pretty hard layer on the wood, but it is also elastic, which means it will also expand and contract along with the wood.
The flexibility of the finish will ensure that cedar won’t be susceptible to cracks, scratches, or any other form of damage.
Steps to Use Tung Oil Finish on Cedar Wood in 6 Steps
By now, you should have a good understanding of why tung oil is recommended for cedar. Still, you need ample preparation and proper application to reap the benefits.
In the following steps, I’ll guide you through the process of using tung on cedar, from surface preparation to the final finish.
Before proceeding, make sure that your workspace is well-ventilated, with your tools easily within reach. Lay rags or newspapers on the floor to avoid getting any spills.
Step #1: Preparing the Surface
Don’t skip this step – if you want wood with an even and smooth finish, you’ll have to prepare the surface. This applies to any kind of wood finish besides tung oil.
If you’re working with treated wood, it is important to remove the existing finish before applying a new one. Wet the piece to raise the wood grain.
Afterward, sand the surface and remove the finish completely. Moisten and sand the surface as much as needed until you achieve the desired effect.
Take a tack cloth and remove any debris left. It’s also important to clean the surface of any grime or contaminants, as these can interact with tung oil, leaving streaks and blotches. Here’s a pro tip: trisodium phosphate  works well on stubborn stains.
Wipe using circular or linear motions, and work against the grain. Let the wood dry completely.
Step #2: Thinning the Oil
Pure tung oil is naturally thick in consistency. Thinning tung oil before application makes it easier for the product to be absorbed by the cedar. Layering a coat on the surface should also be smoother.
You can skip this step if you are planning to apply the oil on any pieces that come in contact with food.
To thin the tung oil, you will need a cup or a jar. Pour even quantities of tung oil and mineral spirit inside and mix them substances steadily.
Make sure to follow the instructions carefully to prevent diluting tung oil and weakening its protective capabilities.
Step #3: Applying the First Tung Oil Coat
Using your applicator, dip in the jar and apply the tung oil on the wood evenly. It’s okay to be generous with the amount as long the application is uniform, and you don’t miss any spots.
Make sure to follow the direction of the wood grain during application to prevent blotches.
It should take about half an hour after the first coat to appear saturated. While it would appear wet, there shouldn’t be any puddles.
It’s important to remove these puddles, bubbles, and excess coats so your work doesn’t get any blotches. A damp cloth should be enough to do the job.
Step #4: Drying and Sand the Surface
The coat may appear dry after the first 45 minutes, but check the manufacturer’s instructions to determine just how long you should wait. It usually takes six hours for tung oil to completely dry. Only then would I recommend going for another coat.
Once the tung oil is dry, take your abrasive finishing pad or steel wool to sand the wood. Use them over sandpapers to remove dust nibs because they won’t clog up. They are also reusable as long as you wash them.
Step #5: Applying More Oil Coats
You need to apply multiple coats of tung oil to bring out the beauty of cedar wood.
Before every coat, lightly wet sand the cedar to enhance the contrast of the fine pores. Be careful not to overdo it so that you ruin the first coat. Gently wipe the surface using a sponge.
Wipe off any residue and let the surface dry first before applying tung oil. Here, you’ll have to repeat the steps mentioned earlier.
Anywhere between five to eight coats is ideal. If you notice any dull spots, this is usually an indication that you need more coats.
Wet sanding is only recommended for applications before the last two coats. Make sure to remove any excess product every time so that the wood is primed to cure.
It’s important to note that tung oil has a short application time of approximately 10 minutes, so work quickly and carefully.
Step #6: Letting the Oil Dry and Cure
Each application of tung oil should be dried for approximately six hours. This is important to do in between coats so that the tung oil is absorbed evenly.
After the final coat, the piece should be allowed to cure for two weeks. Tung oil, like other oil-based finishes, typically takes a longer time to cure than regular finishes.
Even though it won’t always be sticky, you should refrain from touching the project for 14 days.
Once two weeks have passed, the oil should be very solid but also polished. Only then will it be ready for use.
Knowing all these, let’s take a moment to review some common questions related to the use of tung oil on cedar.
How Many Coats of Tung Oil Do You Need on Cedar Wood?
It will depend on what you’re trying to achieve, but I generally go for 5-8 coats of tung oil. You can also consult the instructions on the can for the recommended number.
A minimum of five layers will provide enough coverage on wood. Remember, though, that the more coats you apply, the more will it be able to achieve ideal water resistance and durability.
While some products won’t give as much stain, more coats of tung oil generally mean a more intense tone on the wood. More coats are especially important if you are working with highly porous wood.
Fewer layers of tung oil can make the finish lighter and sheer, but that would also mean reduced resistance to moisture and other elements. Anything less than two coats will be insufficient in shielding the wood fibers from water, causing irreparable damage later on.
If you’re unsure whether you’ve applied enough coats of the finish, you can press the surface lightly. It should feel smooth if you’ve used enough tung oil.
Another way to determine is by giving the surface a few droplets of water. A thick enough finish should not absorb the liquid.
Is Tung Oil Resistant to Water?
Yes, tung oil is known for its water-resistant properties.
How it works is that it polymerizes when in contact with oxygen, creating a protective film that prevents water from being absorbed by the wood. To get the best results, you need to apply the product to the wood evenly and without missing any spots.
However, the water resistance of tung oil degrades over time. Remember to reapply the finish about six months to a year after to maintain the condition of your cedar pieces.
Is it Advisable to Use Tung Oil on Exterior Cedar Pieces?
Yes, tung oil works great on outdoor cedar pieces. Besides water resistance, it also can protect wood against discoloration that is caused by exposure to sunlight. Just make sure to apply a minimum of five coats to get this benefit.
Some tung oil blends offer better protection, producing resins that prevent physical damage and block UV rays. However, be careful when using these blends on items that will come in contact with food. These additives might cancel the food-safe properties of tung oil.
See Also: Pros and Cons of Tung Oil
Best Tung Oil Products to Use on Cedar Wood
Here are some quality tung oil products that you can use to coat cedar wooden pieces:
1. HOPE'S 100% Pure Tung Oil
If you’re in the market for a premium wood finish, I can personally vouch for HOPE’s Pure Tung Oil. This stuff soaks right into the wood fibers, giving your pieces a lasting beauty and protection. The fact that it’s made from 100% pure tung oil means it’s excellent for a wide variety of woods—I’ve had great results with cedar.
Unlike other finishes that form a film, it’s absorbed by the wood while remaining flexible to shield your furniture against moisture and everyday wear.
It is great for use on any surface, including bare, weathered, and stripped wood, floors, countertops, bricks, cast iron, and stone, creating both a low-gloss and non-slip surface.
2. Real Milk Paint Pure Tung Oil for Wood Finishing
Another tung oil that’s captured my attention is Real Milk Paint’s Pure Tung Oil. I was impressed by its ASTM quality test—it really lives up to the hype. It leaves a waterproof, matte finish with a light honey color that looks natural.
The finish is flexible and great for use in anything made out of wood, which includes decks, furniture, and flooring. It also works just as well on concrete and brick. The food-safe pure tung oil will also give your wooden kitchen equipment the necessary protection.
Real Milk Paint’s tung oil also doesn’t contain any petroleum distillates or VOCs, so it is safer for use than other oil-based options. I would still recommend using this in a well-ventilated area.
3. Furniture Clinic Pure Tung Oil for Wood
Furniture Clinic’s tung oil is another option if you want your pieces to have a natural matte finish.
The easy-to-apply oil is versatile and can be used on anything made out of wood, including tiny children’s toys. It can also be used on countertops, butcher blocks, and anything else in your kitchen, as it is both food-safe and resistant to food stains – just make sure it cures properly.
This pure tung oil has properties to resist moisture, oil, and alcohol while also keeping the wood from drying too much that it leads to deterioration. All you have to do is wipe the oil on the prepped surface, and it can cure at room temperature.
Best Oil for Cedar Wood
On its own, cedar already is known for its durability. But if you want to be more cautious as well as improve the appearance of the wood, your best choice would be tung oil.
While other oil-based options can also be used on cedar, pure tung oil generally bests them in terms of protection and maintenance.
Linseed oil is another popular choice, giving cedar an amber tint. It is also more affordable. However, tung oil can provide longer protection from water and moisture. Wood with linseed oil will incur damage faster after repeated exposure to water.
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Tung oil on cedar has plenty of qualities that make it a great wood finish. It is water-resistant, protective, and aesthetically pleasing.
It is also easy to apply, as I have explained in this article. However, always remember to allow tung oil to cure properly so you can reap the benefits.
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