We have a set of oiled oak computer desks and bookcases. My wife noticed that the surfaces felt raw and dried-out. So we decided that “we” would refinish them. I found a blog post by “The Wood Whisperer” that made it sound so easy that a novice could do it. Here’s a novice’s account of how one project went.
Equipment and supplies
Every Dungeon and Dragons-style adventure starts with an inventory of the adventurer’s weapons, amulets, omelets, etc. Here’s mine:
- Old clothes.
- Kneeling pad, like a folded towel; also a set of supple, robust knees if you can get them.
- Trouble light; you can’t paint what you can’t see.
- Tarps that you trust to protect whatever is underneath them.
- Bits of wood or other flat things to prop furniture up from tarp so oil won’t pool around bottom edges.
- 320-grit sandpaper; about half a sheet per large piece of furniture.
- Sanding block; I used a slotted plastic cube that my razorblades come in.
- Vacuum with hose and brush attachment.
- Mineral spirits; I used about a quart to strip furniture and clean brushes.
- Screwdriver (flat) to pry open childproof cans.
- Rags; hand-towel size seemed most useful. See “Avoid fire hazard” note below. Discard when project is finished.
- Gloves? Depending on how squeamish you are; my project got gooey. I discovered that mineral spirits dissolve disposable latex examination gloves; the fingers dropped off after a few minutes. You’d think that mineral spirits would make short work of Scotch Tape residue left on woodwork by children, but nooooo! Luckily, mineral spirits didn’t seem to hurt my skin. My exam gloves were impervious to Dutch Oil.
- Dutch Oil, an oil-and-varnish mixture; about 1/2 pint per large piece of furniture., plus some for drawers and shelves.
- Disposable tray or bucket to pour oil into so you can dip brushes in it. Bonus points if it has a corner or spout so you can pour unused oil back into the can.
- Fans; Dutch Oil stinks.
- Respirator; Dutch Oil really stinks. I happen to have a respirator, and it cut out nearly all the stench without causing me any breathing difficulty. A real respirator with cartridge filters is way better than a surgical mask that only blocks large dust particles. They cost about $50, and they’ll make a great impression if you happen to answer the door. Or, on one blustery day, I just turned off the furnace and opened all the windows.
- Brushes. I used a 2 1/2-inch chisel-tipped brush for tops and sides, and a 1-inch chisel-tipped, angle-cut brush for edges and other details.
- Putty knife for scraping masses of drips off overpainted furniture!
Strip and clean
I lightly sanded the desk. I wrapped sandpaper around a sanding block for the flat parts, and used loose sandpaper for the rounded parts. I sanded with the grain. Sanding against it where two pieces met at a right angle was a bad idea; it made ugly grooves.
I vacuumed what I’d sanded, and also the area around it to the extent I could. Then I wiped the sanded parts with a rag wetted with mineral spirits. The idea here is to pick up sanding dust and any stains, etc.
I painted the desk with oil. The instructions on the can said to “flood it,” which I took to mean “slather it on,” and to put on two coats. For my previously-oiled oak furniture, this was way too much oil. I had to work a lot harder to get it off again than when I’d put it on. One light coat turned out to be plenty for me.
Midway thru the project, I realized that it’s worth thinking thru the order in which I paint the parts of a desk. Painting the underside and inside first helped me avoid bumping against wet surfaces while I was in there. If I needed to paint the top and bottom of a shelf, turning it upside down and painting the bottom first seemed to work best. This way, if drips collect during the final painting session and I damage the surface while cleaning them up, it’s in a place that doesn’t show as much.
Remove excess oil
Wiping seems to be the critical step in finishing with oil. After a brief waiting period (15 minutes, per the directions on the can) while the desk was still wet, I wiped it down. I learned to wipe it hard with a new rag, rather than gently with a rag that’s already clotted with old oil.
Some parts were still so sticky after drying for a couple of days that I doubted they would ever be usable, especially when I’d given them two coats of oil. After consulting a web forum about the problem, I sanded them, put down lots of mineral oil, and quickly wiped them hard with new rags before it could evaporate. Some spots required several cleanings.
Avoid fire hazard
Reader Judith Buck-Glenn reminded me that the oily rags are liable to catch fire spontaneously. “The Wood Whisperer” advises;
Oil cures by means of an exothermic reaction. This means the reaction produces heat. So a folded up oily rag can very easily burst into flames as the oil cures. Its best to lay your used rags out in a single layer on concrete and let them dry thoroughly. Once dry and stiff, the rag is safe to dispose of in the regular trash.