Tung Oil and Shellac on Walnut

Tips on using this old-style combination, with a few concessions to modern conditions. March 26, 2007

I am building a cabinet for a customer out of solid walnut and he told me he wanted an amber shellac topped off with Danish oil. He showed me an article in Popular Woodworking that demonstrated this. I have to admit it is a very nice looking finish, but there are a few things that concern me. In the past I have not used shellac on walnut, and I have read that it can cause a misting effect. Is this something I need to worry about? Also, how well will the Danish oil penetrate to give a good topcoat? I am accustomed to applying several coats of Danish oil over a period of a couple of weeks. I was wondering if this will be necessary with the shellac underneath or if a few coats will do the trick. Also, would you recommend anything else... wax, conditioner, etc.?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor T:
Are you sure of the sequence? Oil followed by shellac makes much more sense. By the way, shellac and walnut are a match made in heaven. Love the look of orange shellac and walnut.

From contributor H:
People have been putting shellac on walnut for hundreds of years.

From the original questioner:
Yes, you are correct, my mistake - it is oil then shellac. I know the finish will look good, but do you suggest any other topcoat such as lacquer or paste wax? Also, there is minimal sapwood on the cabinet. Would you dye the wood before doing anything, or will the shellac bring out the beauty of the wood with the sapwood as well?

And last, what would be a good sequence for doing this? I am familiar with using oil only on walnut but have never used shellac. Is the oiling procedure the same (sand it into the wood, creating a slurry, and then wiping excess off), followed by __?__coats of shellac.

I appreciate your help. I am really excited about this because I have seen walnut finished this way and with the wood I have, I know it will be stunning. I am sure you can appreciate my apprehensiveness to jump right into it, though. Just want to learn all I can before trying to tackle this.

From contributor W:
Danish oil is a mix of oil, varnish, and lots of thinner. It does a beautiful job of coloring walnut, but it takes a lot of applications to build any film or sheen. You can apply it as you have in the past.

Shellac (or lacquer) will provide a film, some sheen, and a little more protection for the oiled wood. If you're going to brush shellac on, be sure to thin it down to 1# to 1 1/2# cut before brushing, and use a good quality brush. You can also pad it on (1# cut) or spray it on (2# cut).

I'd recommend a bit of practice if you've not done shellac before, but the great thing about shellac is that if you mess it up, you can fix it with a little alcohol.

From contributor N:
This finish will offer very little water protection and no alcohol protection. If the cabinet is going near moisture, use another topcoat that offers water protection. Die will help pop the grain, but it will look good without it. Fine Woodworking online has many helpful articles on finishing walnut and a recent article on an oil/shellac finish procedure, however you must be a subscriber.

From contributor P:
From what I understand, the oil provides a little more depth or pop to the finish, but the oil will also darken the piece over time. Shellac is not too difficult to apply - either spray, pad, or brush. All are useful skills to have. Shellac doesn't offer the best protection, but it is the easiest to fix. I would use a little linseed oil with drier in it, let it dry for a few days, then apply the shellac. If color needs to be altered or sapwood hidden, you can tint shellac with alcohol stains.

From contributor D:
This same effect can be achieved using an orange dye (very dilute) and then using conversion varnish over it, which is just about bulletproof. The orange whatever (shellac or dye) is needed, as walnut in its native state is grayish. The orange warms it up.

The problem with Fine Woodworking is that they have "The Tortured Artist" point of view, like Sam Maloof, hand applying some concoction of varnish and paste wax. That's great if all you're going to do is look at it, but if you're going to use it, you need something that can take a beating. Dye and CV can take a beating.

From contributor F:
The posters above all have valid points. Here is my $.02 on how to finish walnut with shellac and oil. You have three or four variables here: color, figure, durability and/or sheen. The finishing process should address those in that order.

You should set the color either with a dye (alcohol or acetone-based), or if the natural color of your wood is good, the pigments in some of the Danish oil formulas will work. Ironically, I have found that Watco "Cherry", which since they changed their formula several years ago is now more accurately "Slurpee Red", gives a good warmth to American black walnut.

Once the color is set, a 1# cut of amber shellac is a great barrier coat. The warm orange in it will only help your color. Then, if you didn't use an oil in step 1, a coat of Danish oil or BLO will bring out the figure in the wood. Then, another coat of 1# amber shellac will seal the oil (after about 24 hours drying) and add a little more warmth.

On top of all that, I agree with the above posters - you need a durable topcoat. The shellac barrier coat is great because just about anything will stick to it, water-based, lacquer, oil-based poly, anything. That will give the durability and set the final sheen.

I have found that shellac is kind of a "magic bullet" in finishing, at least when working in darker, warmer tones. Plus it almost never screws up your piece, it dries in 10 minutes, and you can always pull it off with alcohol.

So, the finish schedule would be:
Color (dye, stain or oil)
Oil coat (natural)
Topcoat (whatever finish your shop is used to)

From contributor J:
How does oil or blo (3rd step) on top of shellac add color to the wood? Why not dye followed by oil and then shellac? The dye and the oil don't have the same solvents, so why shellac in between?

From contributor Y:
I recently discovered using shellac with Waterlox over it. This gives good tone and the Waterlox is quite hard and durable for a wipe on finish. The Waterlox would give more build than a Danish oil