You’ve likely heard of hard wax oil. The finish is a blend of natural oils and waxes that’s become a go-to for enhancing and protecting the wood. Brands like osmo, Rubio Monocoat, General Finishes, and Fiddes are popular brands.
You can find most of them on Amazon here.
Are hardwax oil finishes the end all, be all? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s explore the pros and cons.
Pros of Using Hardwax Oil
When it comes to finishing wood furniture, hardwax oil offers several advantages that make it a preferred choice for many woodworkers.
Here are some of the key benefits:
1) Natural Look and Feel
- Enhances Wood’s Beauty: Hardwax oil penetrates the wood, highlighting its natural grain and color variations. This results in a rich, warm appearance that’s hard to achieve with other finishes.
- Matte to Satin Finish: It leaves a matte to satin finish, avoiding the glossy, plastic-like appearance of polyurethane. This finish is often more appealing for those who prefer a natural, understated look.
2) Ease of Application
- Simple Process: Applying hardwax oil is straightforward. It’s rubbed in with a lint-free cloth or scotch brite pad and then buffed off.
- No Specialized Equipment Needed: Unlike some finishes that need sprayers or other specialized tools, hardwax oil can be applied with basic tools.
- Protection Against Wear and Tear: Hardwax oil forms a protective layer that guards against scratches and general wear, making it suitable for furniture that sees regular use.
- Water Resistance: It offers a degree of water resistance, protecting the wood from spills and stains.
- Easy to Repair and Touch Up: If the finish gets scratched or damaged, it can be easily repaired. Often, only the affected area needs to be re-oiled, which is less labor-intensive than refinishing the entire piece.
- No Need for Complete Stripping: Unlike some finishes that require complete removal before reapplication, hardwax oil can be reapplied over itself after a light sanding.
5) Eco-Friendly and Safe
- Low VOCs: Hardwax oil finishes are often low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), making them safer for indoor air quality and less harmful to the environment.
- Natural Ingredients: Being made from natural oils and waxes, they are a more eco-friendly option compared to synthetic finishes.
Note: you should still wear the proper PPE when applying.
Cons of Using Hardwax Oil
While hardwax oil offers many advantages, it’s important to consider some of its limitations and challenges.
Here are the main drawbacks:
1) Longer Curing Time
- Extended Drying Period: Hardwax oil can take longer to dry and cure compared to some other finishes like lacquers or shellac. This means the furniture piece may be out of commission for a longer period, which can be inconvenient.
- Vulnerability During Curing: Since it remains soft for a while, the finish is more susceptible to damage from dust, spills, or scratches until it fully cures.
In my experience, a full cure time is about 7-10 days.
2) Maintenance Requirements
- Regular Upkeep Needed: To maintain its appearance and protective qualities, hardwax oil finishes require regular maintenance. This might involve periodic reapplication, which can be more frequent than with other types of finishes.
- Susceptibility to Wear: Although durable, these finishes can show wear over time, especially in high-traffic areas or on surfaces like tabletops.
- Higher Price Point: Generally, hardwax oil can be more expensive than some other finishing options. This cost factor can be a consideration, especially for larger projects or for woodworkers on a tight budget.
- Cost of Maintenance: The ongoing maintenance and the potential need for more frequent reapplication also add to the long-term cost.
4) Limited Protection
- Less Resistant to Heat and Chemicals: Hardwax oil is not as resistant to heat and certain chemicals as some synthetic finishes. Hot items placed on the surface might cause damage, and spills of aggressive substances can stain or damage the finish.
- Not Ideal for All Furniture Types: Given its limitations in terms of heat and chemical resistance, hardwax oil might not be the best choice for all types of furniture, especially those exposed to harsh conditions.
Best Practices for Applying Hardwax Oil
Applying hardwax oil effectively is key to achieving the best finish and durability. Here are some best practices to follow:
- Clean and Sand the Wood: Start with a clean, smooth surface. Sand the wood thoroughly, progressing through finer grits until you reach 120 grit. I then sand to 150 grit and then back down to 120 grit to give the oil something to adhere to.
- Remove Dust: After sanding, remove all dust with a tack cloth or a vacuum. Any remaining dust can interfere with the finish.
- Apply Thin Coats: Hardwax oil should be applied in thin, even coats. Thick coats do not penetrate well and can lead to a sticky or uneven finish.
- Use the Right Tools: Apply the oil using a lint-free cloth and then rub it in with a scotch brite pad.
- Work in Manageable Sections: Especially on large surfaces, work in sections to maintain control over the application and ensure even coverage.
Drying and Curing
- Allow Adequate Drying Time: Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for drying times between coats. Typically, hardwax oil takes longer to dry than other finishes.
- Cure Properly: After the final coat, allow ample time for the oil to fully cure. This process can take several days to a week, depending on the product and environmental conditions.
Maintenance and Reapplication
- Regular Maintenance: To maintain the finish, clean the surface regularly with a soft cloth and avoid harsh chemicals. Use recommended cleaning products that are compatible with hardwax oil.
- Reapplication: Depending on wear and tear, reapply a fresh coat of hardwax oil every few years or as needed. Lightly sand the surface before reapplication to ensure good adhesion.
Safety and Ventilation
- Ensure Good Ventilation: While hardwax oil is safer than many finishes, it’s still important to work in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling fumes.
- Dispose of Rags Properly: Oily rags can spontaneously combust. Lay them flat to dry or soak them in water and store in a sealed metal container before disposal.
Hardwax oil is a versatile and effective finish for woodworking projects, offering a unique blend of natural beauty, durability, and eco-friendliness. Its ability to enhance the wood’s natural grain and color, combined with its ease of application and repairability, makes it a popular choice among woodworkers.
For those who value a natural look and are willing to invest time in maintenance, hardwax oil is an excellent choice.
In this section, I’ll address some common questions about using hardwax oil for woodworking projects:
What types of wood are best suited for hardwax oil finishes?
Hardwax oil can be used on a wide range of wood types. It works particularly well on hardwoods, where it enhances the natural grain and color. Softer woods can also be finished with hardwax oil, but they may require more coats for adequate protection.
How often should hardwax oil be reapplied?
The frequency of reapplication depends on the usage and wear of the finished piece. For furniture that sees regular use, reapplying once every couple of years is a good rule of thumb. However, surfaces with less wear may not need reapplication for several years.
Can hardwax oil be used over stains or dyes?
Yes, hardwax oil can be applied over wood stains or dyes. Ensure the stain or dye is completely dry and compatible with oil finishes. It’s always a good idea to test the combination on a scrap piece of wood first.
Is hardwax oil food safe?
Many hardwax oils are food safe once fully cured, making them suitable for kitchen items like cutting boards and countertops. However, always check the product specifications to ensure compliance with food safety standards.
How does hardwax oil compare to polyurethane in terms of durability?
While hardwax oil provides good protection and is durable, polyurethane generally offers a harder, more resistant finish. Polyurethane might be a better choice for surfaces that require higher resistance to water, heat, and chemicals.
Can hardwax oil be used on outdoor furniture?
Hardwax oil is primarily recommended for indoor use. For outdoor furniture, it’s important to use a product specifically formulated for exterior conditions, as these will offer better protection against UV rays and weathering.
How do you clean surfaces finished with hardwax oil?
Clean hardwax oil finished surfaces with a soft, damp cloth. Avoid using harsh detergents or abrasive cleaners, as these can damage the finish. There are specific cleaning products designed for floors and furniture finished with hardwax oil.
Does hardwax oil change the color of the wood?
Hardwax oil tends to deepen and enhance the natural color of the wood, giving it a richer appearance. It doesn’t significantly alter the color but may bring out the natural hues and grain patterns more vividly.