Your go-to durable finish for white oak

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    Matt Mahan

    Hi all,
    I’ve been fortunate enough to have more shop time than expected the last couple of months and so I am suddenly closing in on the finishing stage of a relatively large project – a kitchenette dining table I’ve made out glorious Ohio-grown white oak. Over the past couple of years it has cemented its standing as my favorite wood. I’ve used quartersawn stock for this project. However what I’ve realized is that I have very little experience with durable finishes for this wood (meaning urethanes, varnishes, the stuff you would typically use to finish a table top). I’m not a big fan of those kinda of finishes and usually opt for something softer and more natural, but those “hipster” finishes aren’t going to cut it for a table top that has two full grown adults and one minihuman abusing it on a daily basis. Any advice on what I should look into? My parameters are: (1) must keep the white oak looking natural – minimal darkening or “enhancing” (2) must be durable versus water, spills, food, wear, etc. and (3) must be maintainable. Many thanks in advance.


    Durability for a dining table, that I understand, but looking “natural” is very subjective. Ok, we won’t bury the top under a 1/2 inch of epoxy, that’s not natural, but where to draw the line? Do you consider shellac natural? It’s a film finish, so not a “close to the wood” finish, and shellac certainly “enhances” and can easily “darken” wood to which it is applied.

    Anyways, for the last handful of decades, a pre-catalyzed lacquer, sprayed from a gun, has been the best answer for durability and quality of results while still minimizing time to completion (which means it keeps costs down). New coats melt into the previous coats, so repairs can also be made perfectly.
    However, it is a film finish, like shellac and so you might not find it “natural”. Like shellac, you can minimize the darkening by carefully selecting a version specifically designed to avoid darkening, but most believe it doesn’t “enhance” grain and chatoyance as much as shellac, so perhaps you’d consider a pre-cat lacquer to be more “natural” than shellac.
    It might be the king of durability, at least among the common dining table finishes, but it will require a spray gun, probably a spray booth, too, and proper protective gear for yourself — both for application and any repairs.

    Recently, hard wax oils like Rubio and Osmo have become much more popular. They are “close to the wood” finishes — the exact opposite of a film finish like shellac or pre-cat lacquer. They were invented as floor finishes, so they are durable, but in a very different way from the pre-cat lacquer I mentioned above. A pre-cat lacquer will form a barrier protecting the wood beneath. Slam your keys into the table, and the wood underneath is undamaged, even though the finish itself might show a big set of scratches, delaminations, dents, and certainly will require a repair. You could say it tends to maximize the appearance of damage to the finish.
    Hard wax oils are the opposite — slam your keys, and the wood will take whatever damage it takes, but except for the area where the keys actually removed finish, the finish will be undamaged. So it tends to minimize the appearance of damage to the finish.
    They don’t require any gear to apply, especially if you get a 0 VOC version — wipe them on — but like high-end lacquers, they tend to be expensive. They are very easily repairable — just scuff or sand the damaged area, and re-apply. Unless there’s been changes due to UV, the repair is going to be invisible, and if you get the 0 VOC versions, you can repair the piece in place. Also, they all seem to offer a version which has a minimal darkening effect on the wood.
    Given your criteria, I think this is the direction you would prefer, relying on the strength of the white oak to provide the durability. You’ll be doing regular cleanings and repairs with children, but that’s always the case.

    In between, you can get a not-so-bad dining table finish by combining shellac undercoats topped with a wipe-on poly for durability. However, it probably won’t be natural enough for you, if I understand your criteria.

    It’s an age-old question; good luck and post pictures when you’re finished!

    Sven-Olof Jansson

    Just a picture showing water based polyurethane [floor] varnishes: four layers of semi-gloss on Silver Birch (Betula pendula); and four layers of matte on White Oak (Quercus alba).

    The birch one became more glossy than I expected, and also imparted some yellowing of the wood.

    The idea behind matte varnish for the kitchen cabinets was to make them stand out less in a very small kitchen. It didn’t change the wood appearance very much, but did cause swelling.

    Sven-Olof Jansson
    London, UK; Boston, MA


    For a table top that needs to be durable, my go to is General Finishes Arm-R-Seal. As it is oil based, it will impart some amber. Try it on some scrap and see if you like it. I’ve not found anything more durable. Use good fire safety with your rags and applicators because of the oil. This is a by-hand finish, not spray.

    Leave adequate time between coats. Don’t rush it.

    Another option is Waterlox, but I have not tried that on a table. The traditional Waterlox sealer / finish leaves a medium gloss sheen. If you want satin, there is a satin topcoat that could go overtop of it. I’ve not tried their satin yet and have concerns about applying it on vertical surfaces because Waterlox (and Arm-R-Seal) like to run, so I tend to use thin coats. The Waterlox satin instructions say to make sure to use a wet coat. Maybe it would be fine, but I’ve not tried and was concerned about streaking, so I’ve always stayed with the traditional medium gloss sheen when I use it, e.g., on a chair.

    Getting back to your requirements, the Arm-R-Seal (and probably Waterlox) will be good bets for durability. You need to apply them to test pieces to assess “natural” as that is purely subjective. As for maintainable, that is the bane of all finishes. I don’t know what to say there.

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