Q: I want a beautiful, natural cherry wood dining table I found on Craigslist that I would like to finish with tung oil. So, how much care does someone have to take with the surface so as not to leave water rings? What does one have to do to keep it looking nice?
A: A natural look for wood furniture is certainly trending right now, especially the weathered gray tones that are everywhere, and it is perfect for casual, carefree lifestyles. Bare wood is truly effortless, if you don’t mind wear marks and stains. And accidents happen — any wood finish will scratch if you (or your kids) work at it long enough.
Tung oil is made from plants not petroleum. It’s usually hand-applied and is easily absorbed by the wood, which gives furniture a soft, satiny look rather than a plastic-coated feel. It may darken the wood somewhat, for a richer look. Tung oil doesn’t really build up, either, like wax or heavy polyurethane varnishes, or even linseed oil, which is another plant-based product made from flaxseed. Although 100 percent tung oil is considered food-safe by some — even for salad bowls, cutting boards, and butcher block counters — not all products named “tung oil finish” are 100 percent pure, so read the labels very carefully.
Those white rings you talk about occur when moisture gets trapped under the surface of the finish. They may go away on their own but it could take a while. Check online for ways to fix those. The best way is to prevent them in the first place with coasters under drinks, place mats, or tablecloths, and quick clean-up of spills. Also insulate the table with something under hot dishes. Direct sunlight will also discolor any wood, with or without a finish.
Because wood with tung oil doesn’t have a thick coating on it, some might say that tung oil isn’t as durable as a polyurethane varnish. But it is water-resistant and many dried-on foods or stains may wipe clean with a damp cloth. And since tung oil doesn’t really harden, I’m guessing that any water has a better chance of drying out before getting too deep into the finish. There’s more of a chance of wear from the bottom of your dishes than from water. To refinish, simply wipe on another coat or touch-up as needed, and let dry for two or three days! No sanding or special equipment is necessary unless you’re trying to remove scratches.
Protect this wood according to how you want it to look, and reapply the tung oil when the table starts to look or feel dried out. Other than that, I would say live with this table and enjoy it!