Applying Polyurethane Over Tung Oil

Dive into the world of woodworking and home improvement projects, and you’ll quickly discover the importance of wood finishes. One topic that often sparks debate among enthusiasts and professionals alike is the application of polyurethane over tung oil. This guide will delve into the nitty-gritty of this subject, shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks, and the process involved. So, let’s get started!

Understanding Tung Oil and Polyurethane

Before we delve into the specifics of applying polyurethane over tung oil, it’s crucial to understand these substances and why they’re used in wood finishing.

Tung Oil: Nature’s Gift to Woodworkers

Tung oil, often referred to as “China wood oil,” is derived from the seeds of the tung tree. This natural product has been a staple in the woodworking industry for centuries, thanks to its unique properties. Tung oil penetrates deep into the fibers when applied to wood, enhancing the wood’s natural beauty by bringing out the grain patterns. It also provides a robust, water-resistant finish that’s highly resistant to scratches and does not darken over time.

However, tung oil takes a while to dry, and achieving a high-gloss finish requires several coats. But the wait is worth it, as the result is a warm, hand-rubbed finish that’s hard to beat.

Polyurethane: The Modern, Durable Finish

On the other side of the spectrum, we have polyurethane – a synthetic finish that has gained popularity in recent decades. Polyurethane finishes are known for their durability, resistance to heat, chemicals, and wear, making them a go-to choice for high-traffic areas and surfaces that take a beating.

Unlike tung oil, polyurethane forms a hard, protective film on the wood surface. Depending on the product used, this film can be either glossy or matte. It’s also available in water- and oil-based variants, each with unique benefits and drawbacks.

Polyurethane vs. Tung Oil: A Quick Comparison

When choosing between tung oil and polyurethane, it’s not a matter of which is better, but rather which is more suitable for your project. Tung oil is ideal if you’re after a natural, low-sheen finish and don’t mind the longer drying times. On the other hand, if durability and resistance to wear are your top priorities, polyurethane would be the way to go.

Differences Between Tung Oil and Polyurethane

When it comes to wood finishing, understanding the differences between tung oil and polyurethane is crucial. These differences lie in their composition, application, and the results they yield.


Tung oil is a natural product derived from the seeds of the tung tree. It’s a pure substance with no additives or synthetic components. On the other hand, polyurethane is a synthetic product made from combining polyol and isocyanate. It’s available in water- and oil-based forms, each with unique properties.


The application process for tung oil and polyurethane also differs significantly. Tung oil is typically applied with a cloth or brush, penetrating deep into the wood, enhancing its natural grain and color. It’s often used on pine and oak, imparting the wood a warm, rich tone. However, it requires multiple coats and a fair amount of drying time between each coat.

Polyurethane, in contrast, forms a hard, protective film on the surface of the wood. It can be applied over paint or stain and is often used in furniture restoration projects for its durability and resistance to wear. It’s typically applied with a brush; unlike tung oil, it dries relatively quickly.


The results yielded by tung oil and polyurethane are distinct. Tung oil leaves a natural, matte finish that enhances the wood’s character, similar to what you’d get with Danish oil. It’s ideal for projects that highlight the wood’s natural beauty.

Polyurethane, however, provides a glossy or semi-glossy finish, depending on the product used. It offers excellent protection against scratches, heat, and chemical damage, making it ideal for surfaces with a lot of use.

Why Apply Polyurethane Over Tung Oil?

Now that we’ve explored the differences between tung oil and polyurethane, you might wonder why you’d want to apply polyurethane over tung oil. The answer lies in the unique benefits this combination offers.

Applying polyurethane over tung oil allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds. You get the deep, rich enhancement of the wood’s natural grain from the tung oil, coupled with polyurethane’s durability and protective qualities. This combination results in a finish that’s not only beautiful but also highly resistant to wear and tear.

Preparing for the Application

Properly preparing the wood surface is essential before you start applying tung oil and polyurethane. This preparation will ensure the finishes adhere well and yield the best results. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Clean the Wood: Clean the wood surface to remove dust, dirt, or grease. You can use a damp cloth for this purpose. Ensure the surface is completely dry before moving on to the next step.
  2. Sand the Wood: Sanding the wood helps to smooth out any rough spots and opens up the pores of the wood, allowing the tung oil to penetrate better. Start with coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually move to finer grit. Always sand in the direction of the wood grain to avoid scratches.
  3. Remove the Dust: After sanding, remove the dust using a vacuum or a tack cloth. This step is crucial, as any remaining dust can interfere with the application of the finishes.
  4. Test the Finish: Before applying the tung oil and polyurethane to the entire piece, it’s a good idea to test them on a small, inconspicuous area. This will give you an idea of how the finished piece will look and allow you to make any necessary adjustments.

Applying Tung Oil: A Detailed Guide

Once the wood surface is prepared, you can apply the tung oil. Here’s a detailed guide on how to do it:

  1. Apply the First Coat: Using a clean, lint-free cloth or a brush, apply a generous amount of tung oil to the wood. Make sure to work in the direction of the grain. Let the oil soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes, then wipe off any excess oil with a clean cloth.
  2. Let it Dry: Allow the first coat to dry for at least 24 hours. Tung oil takes longer to dry than most other finishes, so giving it enough time is essential.
  3. Apply Additional Coats: After the first coat has dried, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper, then apply a second coat of tung oil. Repeat this process until you’ve applied at least three coats. The exact number of coats will depend on the type of wood and the desired finish, but three is usually a good starting point.
  4. Final Drying Time: Once you’ve applied the final coat of tung oil, allow it to dry for several days before applying the polyurethane. This will ensure that the oil is fully cured and ready to accept the polyurethane.

Applying Polyurethane Over Tung Oil: A Step-by-Step Guide

Once the tung oil has fully cured, you can apply the polyurethane. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  1. Stir the Polyurethane: Before you start, stir the polyurethane gently to mix it thoroughly. Avoid shaking the can, as this can introduce bubbles that will mar the finish.
  2. Apply the First Coat: Using a high-quality, natural-bristle brush, apply a thin coat of polyurethane to the wood, working in the direction of the grain. Be sure to apply it evenly to avoid drips and runs.
  3. Let it Dry: Allow the first coat to dry for the time recommended by the manufacturer, typically 2-4 hours.
  4. Sand Between Coats: Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out any imperfections and provide a better surface for the next coat to adhere to. Wipe off the dust with a tack cloth.
  5. Apply Additional Coats: Apply a second coat of polyurethane, following the same steps as above. For the best results, apply at least two to three coats, allowing each to dry and sand between coats.
  6. Final Drying Time: After applying the final coat, let the piece dry for at least 24 hours before using it. This will ensure that the polyurethane has fully cured and hardened.

Frequently Ask Questions

When applying polyurethane over tung oil, several questions often arise. Let’s address some of the most common ones:

Can you put a top coat over tung oil?

You can apply a top coat, such as polyurethane, over tung oil. This can enhance the durability and protection of the wood. However, letting the tung oil fully cure before applying the top coat is crucial.

Can you apply polyurethane over wood oil?

Yes, polyurethane can be applied over wood oil, including tung oil. The key is to ensure that the oil has fully dried and cured before applying the polyurethane.

Can you seal wood after tung oil?

Absolutely! Applying a sealant like polyurethane over tung oil can provide an extra layer of protection and durability to the wood.

Can you mix tung oil and polyurethane?

While mixing these two finishes is technically impossible, it’s generally not recommended. Applying them separately allows you to reap the benefits of each: the deep penetration and natural enhancement of tung oil, and the hard, protective layer of polyurethane.

Special Considerations for Different Types of Wood

The type of wood you’re working with can significantly impact the application and result of tung oil and polyurethane. Here’s what you need to know:

Tung Oil on Pine

Pine is a softwood known for its light color and prominent grain. Tung oil can enhance these natural characteristics, giving pine a warm, rich tone. However, pine is so porous that it may require more coats of tung oil to achieve the desired finish.

Tung Oil on Oak

Oak is a hardwood with a strong, open grain. Tung oil works beautifully on oak, enhancing its natural grain patterns and giving it a durable, water-resistant finish. As with pine, you may need to apply several coats of tung oil to oak for the best results.

Best Polyurethane for Wood

When choosing a polyurethane for your wood project, consider the type of wood, the intended use of the piece, and the look you’re going for. Oil-based polyurethanes tend to give the wood a warmer, amber tone and are more durable, making them a good choice for high-traffic areas and outdoor furniture. On the other hand, water-based polyurethanes are clear and won’t alter the wood’s color, making them ideal for light-colored woods.

Tips for Finishing Wood with Tung Oil and Polyurethane

Finishing wood with tung oil and polyurethane can yield beautiful, durable results. Here are some expert tips to help you get the best results:

  1. Patience is Key: Both tung oil and polyurethane require time to dry between coats. Don’t rush the process; giving each coat enough time to dry will result in a better finish.
  2. Sand Between Coats: Lightly sanding the wood between coats will help the next coat adhere better and result in a smoother finish.
  3. Use Quality Brushes: A high-quality brush can make a big difference in applying tung oil and polyurethane. Look for a brush with natural bristles and clean it thoroughly after each use.
  4. Consider the Environment: Both tung oil and polyurethane should be applied in a well-ventilated area. Also, avoid working in extreme temperatures or high humidity, which can affect the drying time and the finish.
  5. Protect Your Work: Once your piece is finished, give it time to cure before using it. This will help protect the finish and ensure it lasts for years.

Exploring Other Finishing Options

While applying polyurethane over tung oil is a popular choice, it’s not the only option. Other finishes can also be used over tung oil, each with its unique properties and effects.

Shellac Over Tung Oil

Shellac is a natural finish derived from the secretions of the lac bug. It dries quickly and gives a warm, amber tone to the wood. Shellac over tung oil can create a beautiful, high-gloss finish. However, shellac isn’t as durable as polyurethane and can be damaged by heat and alcohol.

Varnish Over Tung Oil

Varnish is a blend of oil, resin, and solvents, forming a hard, protective film on the wood’s surface. Applying varnish over tung oil can provide added durability and protection. However, varnish can be tricky to apply and requires a longer drying than other finishes.

Wax Over Tung Oil

Wax is another option for finishing wood after applying tung oil. Wax provides a soft, satin sheen and adds a layer of protection against moisture and wear. However, wax isn’t as durable as other finishes and needs to be reapplied periodically.

Is Tung Oil Waterproof?

Tung oil is known for its water-resistant properties. It penetrates deep into the fibers when applied to wood, providing a robust, water-resistant finish. However, while tung oil is water-resistant, it’s not entirely waterproof.

DIY Wood Projects Using Tung Oil and Polyurethane

Tung oil and polyurethane are versatile finishes used in various DIY wood projects. Here are a few ideas to inspire you:

  1. Refinishing Furniture: Breathe new life into an old piece of furniture by refinishing it with tung oil and polyurethane. This combination can enhance the natural beauty of the wood while providing a durable, protective finish.
  2. Building a Coffee Table: If you’re up for a bigger project, consider building a coffee table from scratch. Use tung oil to bring out the grain and color of the wood, then apply polyurethane for a glossy, durable finish.
  3. Creating a Cutting Board: Tung oil is food-safe and can be used to finish a DIY cutting board. Remember to apply polyurethane only to the non-cutting surfaces, as it’s not food-safe.
  4. Making a Picture Frame: A handmade picture frame can be a meaningful gift or a beautiful addition to your home decor. Finish it with tung oil and polyurethane for a professional look.

Product Recommendations

Regarding tung oil and polyurethane, the quality of your products can significantly impact the results. Here are some of the best brands available in the market:

  1. Tung Oil: Pure Tung Oil by Real Milk Paint is a high-quality, food-safe product perfect for various wood projects.
  2. Polyurethane: Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane is a clear, oil-based, durable protective finish that provides long-lasting beauty to finished and unfinished wood.

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using these products to ensure the best results.


Applying polyurethane over tung oil can be a game-changer in your woodworking projects. This combination allows you to enjoy the deep, rich enhancement of the wood’s natural grain from the tung oil, coupled with polyurethane’s durability and protective qualities. Whether you’re a seasoned woodworker or a DIY enthusiast, this technique can elevate your projects to a new level of beauty and durability.