Linseed Oil Finish for a Period Home

The clients want an authentic old-time linseed oil finish. A contractor gets advice on how to make it work. July 9, 2005

My client has insisted on using linseed oil for his kitchen cabinets. I told him that water protection is not a strong suit, but he insists that his 1790 reproduction house should use finishes available during that time.

What product can be applied over a boiled linseed oil finish on natural cherry and cherry plywood that would offer protection? He insists on brushing it on.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor L:
Been there, done that, dealt with those clients. My mainstay in business is the 18th century. These people are very rigid about keeping their homes up to par pertaining to age-related materials. Give them what they want and put in your contract that the finish requested by the client is ill-suited for water protection and will not be under warrantee for water damage. But you've got to admit that the 18th century stuff is still around and if it was taken care of, it still looks great.

From contributor D:
You could try a thinned long oil varnish. This would be a film forming finish, but thin coats might pass, and they'd be a lot more durable than linseed oil.

From contributor M:
I can't comment on linseed oil's looks (I wouldn't know it from a Minwax paste finish… lol). But you better use incredible caution with linseed oil. A large, local cabinet shop here in SC had a nasty fire because of linseed oil spontaneously combusting. Caused unbelievable damage. Be absolutely certain that all of the rags and other cloth/brushes that contacted the oil are disposed of properly.

From contributor W:
I understand your client's desire for authenticity; I just hadn't realized sheetgoods were around in the 18th century!

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
Oils, waxes, spirit varnishes, and oil varnishes were all available during that period. The most durable of these, the oil varnishes, used resins that aren't nearly as good as modern resins and the varnishes of the time didn't hold up at all compared to today's varnishes. But a modern oil-base varnish certainly fits with the theme of a traditional finish. I'd do some samples for the customer to look at and explain the durability properties of each. Use oil, shellac (not widely available in the U.S. at the time, but a realistic option), and varnish. Used in combination, you can achieve a very attractive look as well as the durability needed for kitchen cabinets.

From contributor B:
Also, your linseed oil will darken most woods as compared to other finishes. Some people don't like that darkened look after it's done.

From contributor T:
So far, not a word about linseed oil being available both raw and oiled. Very important distinction that can't be ignored. Paul is correct on what finishes were available and now appropriate, but Paul, why would you say shellac is hard to obtain? It's in every catalog I get (lots). Zinsser Seal-Coat (de-waxed shellac) is on the shelves everywhere.

From contributor L:
If you've got a month of Sundays to wait for the finish to cure you can use raw linseed oil. If you want it to dry in a couple of nights, I suggest using boiled linseed oil. They boil it to make sure that it doesn't go rancid.

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I was saying shellac was not widely available during that period, though "seed-lac varnish" is discussed in "A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishing" published in 1688. Shellac wasn't widely used in the states until the mid 1800s.

Linseed oil doesn't go rancid; you're thinking of non-drying vegetable oils. "Boiled" oil is actually treated with metallic driers, not heated.

From contributor R:
You may want to go to this website: I have used their product, original wood finish, polymerized linseed oil with beeswax on veneer mahogany. A lot of work is needed to rub on the finish and it would take two coats, and the sheen is just below a satin lacquer finish. I did apply a Liberon paste wax to add some protection and warmth.

From the original questioner:
This is the answer I needed for topcoating linseed oil. Makes sense to me.

From contributor P:
You're absolutely right about linseed oil being a poor choice in the kitchen or bath; it just doesn't have any durability characteristics. If you use boiled linseed oil, you can topcoat it with any finish once it cures enough. One finish that's very popular and provides very good protection goes like this:

Sand to 180, remove the dust, and apply a light coat of oil (linseed, tung, Danish oil, varnish, etc.).
Let the oil cure. Give a heavy coat of boiled linseed oil at least a week, other oils per the directions on the can.
Brush or pad a coat of shellac. You can use any grade of shellac you like; they all look good.
Let the shellac dry for at least 4 hours and lightly sand just to smooth using 320 grit and remove the dust. A second coat of shellac is optional (sand again if you use a second coat).
Brush or wipe a varnish over the shellac (if you used Waterlox for the oil sealer in step 1, you can also use it for the topcoats). Let the varnish dry per the directions.
Sand lightly with 320 grit to smooth/level the surface and apply a second coat of varnish. 3-4 coats should be good.

Do some samples, the larger the better, and see which looks best to you and the customer. Try one with blonde shellac and another with orange shellac and do a sample with one coat of shellac and another with two coats to see the difference. If you use polyurethane varnish for your topcoats, make sure to use dewaxed shellac to promote good adhesion.