What is a durable but natural looking finish for a Walnut dining table? - Woodworking Talk - Woodworkers Forum
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post #1 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 02:25 PM Thread Starter
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Arrow What is a durable but natural looking finish for a Walnut dining table?

Hi folks,

I know this kind of question has been asked a thousand times, but I have to ask because my head is awash with different opinions from trawling the internet looking for the right wood finish.

I am making a Walnut dining table, and when I come to finish it, I need a finish that is two things...
1. Durable: as it's a dining table, it will get wear and tear. Ideally I don't want to be in a situation where it needs to be refinished/repaired again and again.
2. Natural looking: that looks as if the timber is bare and unfinished (or as close to this as possible with commonly available products). I don't mind if the timber colour becomes a little richer, but I don't want the surface to have any kind of sheen, or apparent film layer.

My understanding is this...
Wax is not an option because of its durability - it's susceptible to wear and also moisture.
I've used water-based matt varnish in the past, but it leaves a plasticky look to the surface. I've read that thinning the varnish and applying just a couple of thin coats will give a less plastic look - any thoughts on this?

So, I'd appreciate suggestions about what products would achieve this type of finish - please let me know what kind of experience you've had with what you're suggesting!

Many thanks,

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post #2 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 03:59 PM
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You're asking for 2 contradictory things there; natural looking finishes, mostly oils like tung or linseed, will leave the wood looking like nothing is there, but offer almost no protection. Bulletproof finishes, your polyurethanes and epoxys and what have you, will shrug off near anything you can throw at the wood, but do tend to look and feel plasticky.

You'll hit the same issue trying to make the stronger finishes look natural. A thinned down coat of matte varnish will look a little more natural, but won't offer much in the way of protection. Dings and scratches will show up easily, and it won't hood up to the abuse a dining table will get. Pain to clean too.

For a dining table, prioritize durability over anything else. The last thing you want is a giant red stain in the middle of your table from where someone spilled tomato sauce on your lovely natural oil finish that makes the wood look like nothings there. A good oil based poly will shrug off nearly anything you can throw at it and will hold up to use, plus its easy to clean. Yes, it looks plasticky, but would you rather it look plasticky or have to refinish the top every month?

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post #3 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 06:31 PM
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Watco Danish Oil finish will give you a natural wood finish. It can be beautiful on Walnut. A durable finish that is easy to touch-up if dinged. But a drawback is a wet glass left overnight will leave a white ring on the table. Same for Lacquer, Shellac and others. Poly can take the moisture but you lose some of that natural wood look.
Bottom line, that's why some people pay $6,500 + for a dining table and then pay another $200 for table pads to cover their beautiful table.

If you don't have time to do it right the first time, when will you have time to do it over?
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post #4 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 07:13 PM
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First, apply boiled linseed oil (with a brush, then wipe off excess after about 15 or so minutes) to bring out the color of the walnut hues. Give each application a weeks or two to dry - apply as many coats to achieve light or dark hue, as you wish. Then get dewaxed orange shellac flakes (and dissolve in Behlan solvent) and apply multiple (maybe 8-15 coats over a few weeks until the grain is filled in - I don't use sealer), then using fine to really fine (200-400 or more grit) sandpaper (wet sand using water) work down these shellac layers until smooth but without breaking through the shellac layers to the linseed layer. Lastly, apply a number of coats (until the finish is really smooth) of polyurethane (your choice of satin, semigloss, gloss, etc, to withstand water from whatever source is placed on the surface) with light fine sanding (again water wet sanding) between layers, with the final coat of polyurethane applied carefully to make sure it is all smooth to your liking. That's all!
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post #5 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 07:32 PM
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Another option is to try a can of Epiphanes Woodfinish Matte. I havnt tried this stuff yet but saw some on finished wood table (looked very natural), liked it, and will try it. It's expensive.
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post #6 of 6 Old 06-26-2017, 10:21 PM
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I have a potential answer but it depends on your definition of "durable."

If you mean "Won't ever take any damage," then I agree with the poster above who said that the two requirements are mutually contradictory. There is no "natural" finish that will provide the kind of protection that a nice thick coat of poly will.

HOWEVER, if you mean "May take minimal surface damage but will continue to look good," then I'd advise the technique I used on my own coffee table: Friction sealing with tung oil.

The tung oil soaks into the wood and gives the wood itself a beautiful appearance while also protecting it from moisture. And the specific method of sealing - which is basically sanding it all the way from 220 to 4000 (yes, 4000, not 400) grit - makes it very durable. After over a year of use in the busiest area of the house with no particular care taken to reduce damage (and a toddler constantly banging his cars on it), there are a couple surface scratches - but touching up is as easy as wetting a paper cloth with the oil and giving it a quick wipe (which is a lot easier than repairing the same scratch in polyurethane!). And most importantly, it still looks amazing and the scratches are barely noticeable.

You can get the total technique here, and I really think it would give you what you need: I plan on finishing my own dining room table this way when the walnut we have is fully cured.
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