Tung Oil vs Polyurethane: A Comprehensive Guide to Wood Finishing

In the woodworking and furniture craftingdry fully, your finish can make all the difference. The final touch protects your piece, enhances its beauty, and showcases the wood’s natural charm.

Two popular choices for wood finishing are Tung Oil and Polyurethane. Both have their unique properties and uses, making them favorites among woodworkers.

But how do they compare, and which is right for your project? Let’s dive in and explore these two fascinating finishes.

What is Tung Oil?

Tung Oil, a natural wood finish, has been a trusted ally of woodworkers for centuries. Originating from the seeds of the Tung tree, primarily found in China, this oil is known for its protective and beautifying properties.

Tung Oil penetrates deep into the fibers when applied to wood, enhancing the wood’s natural color and grain. It creates a rich, warm finish that’s water-resistant and durable. Unlike synthetic finishes, Tung Oil allows the wood to breathe, which can help prevent cracking and warping over time.

One of the key benefits of Tung Oil is its ease of application. It can be applied with a cloth, brush, or even your hands, and it doesn’t require any special tools or skills. However, it does take some time to dry, and multiple coats are often needed to achieve the desired finish.

Tung Oil is a favorite among artisans who value a natural, hand-rubbed finish for their pieces. It’s commonly used on furniture, flooring, and other wooden surfaces that benefit from a durable, water-resistant finish.

What is Polyurethane?

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Polyurethane, a synthetic wood finish that offers high protection. Polyurethane is a plastic resin available in water- and oil-based forms. It’s known for its durability, resistance to heat, chemicals, and wear, making it a popular choice for high-traffic areas and surfaces with a lot of use.

Unlike Tung Oil, Polyurethane creates a hard, protective layer on the surface of the wood. This layer is highly resistant to scratches, stains, and damage from water or chemicals. It also provides a high-gloss finish that can make the wood look polished and refined.

Polyurethane is a versatile finish that can be used on various wood types and projects. It’s commonly used on floors, kitchen cabinets, and other surfaces that need high protection. However, it can be more challenging to apply than Tung Oil, and it requires a well-ventilated area due to its strong fumes.

Comparing Tung Oil and Polyurethane

When it comes to wood finishing, choosing between Tung Oil and Polyurethane often boils down to personal preference and project requirements. Both finishes have their unique advantages and potential drawbacks. In this article, we will provide a side-by-side comparison to help you make an informed decision.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Tung Oil:

Eco-Friendly and Non-Toxic

  • Tung Oil is a natural product, making it an eco-friendly choice for those concerned about the environment.
  • It is non-toxic, ensuring a safe application and use.

Enhances Natural Beauty and Grain

  • Tung Oil penetrates deep into the wood, bringing out its natural beauty and emphasizing the grain pattern.
  • This finish provides a warm and rich appearance, making it particularly suitable for antique furniture or any piece where the wood’s character should be highlighted.

Drawbacks of Tung Oil

  • Tung Oil requires a longer drying time than other finishes, which can be time-consuming.
  • Multiple coats are needed to achieve the desired finish, further extending the application process.
  • Regular maintenance is necessary to uphold its appearance and protective qualities.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Polyurethane:

Provides a Hard and Protective Layer

  • Polyurethane forms a hard and protective layer on the wood’s surface, safeguarding it against scratches, heat, and chemicals.
  • This makes it an excellent choice for surfaces that experience heavy use or are prone to wear and tear.

Durability and Low Maintenance

  • Polyurethane finishes are known for their durability, offering long-lasting protection to the wood.
  • They require less maintenance than Tung Oil, making them suitable for those seeking a low-maintenance option.

Application Challenges and Aesthetics

  • Applying Polyurethane can be more challenging than other finishes, requiring careful attention to achieve a smooth and even coat.
  • Everyone may not prefer the high-gloss finish of Polyurethane, as some individuals might desire a more subtle or matte appearance.

Breathability and Potential Long-Term Effects

  • Unlike Tung Oil, Polyurethane does not allow the wood to breathe, which can lead to potential issues over time.
  • This lack of breathability could potentially result in cracking or warping of the wood as it expands and contracts with changes in humidity.

Tung Oil and Polyurethane in Different Applications

When it comes to wood finishing, the performance of Tung Oil and Polyurethane can vary based on the wood type and environmental conditions. In this article, we will explore both finishes’ characteristics and suitability for different applications.

Tung Oil: Versatile and Protective

Suitable for Various Wood Types

  • Tung Oil demonstrates versatility by performing well on a variety of wood types, including hardwoods like oak and mahogany, as well as softer woods like pine.
  • It excels on porous woods, penetrating deeply and providing a robust and durable finish.

Ideal for Outdoor Furniture

  • Tung Oil’s water-resistant properties make it a suitable choice for outdoor furniture that is exposed to varying weather conditions.
  • It can withstand the elements while preserving the natural beauty of the wood.
  • However, it should be noted that Tung Oil may darken lighter woods and requires regular reapplication to maintain its protective qualities.

Polyurethane: Durable and Aesthetically Pleasing

Perfect for High-Use Surfaces

  • Polyurethane, known for its hard and protective finish, is an excellent choice for surfaces that experience frequent use and wear and tear.
  • It is commonly applied to hardwood floors, kitchen cabinets, and tabletops, where durability is essential.

Enhances the Look of Light and Dark Woods

  • Polyurethane works well on light and dark woods, offering a high-gloss finish that gives any piece a polished and refined appearance.

Not Suitable for Outdoor Use

  • While Polyurethane provides excellent protection indoors, it is not recommended for outdoor furniture.
  • When exposed to extreme weather conditions, Polyurethane can crack and peel, compromising its longevity and appearance.

User Experiences with Tung Oil

Woodworkers who have used Tung Oil often praise its ability to enhance the natural beauty of the wood. They appreciate the warm, rich finish it provides and the way it allows the wood’s grain to shine through.

Users also value Tung Oil for its ease of application and the fact that it’s a natural, eco-friendly product. However, some users note that Tung Oil can take a while to dry and requires multiple coats, which can be time-consuming. Regular maintenance is also needed to keep the finish looking its best.

One user shared their experience using Tung Oil on a handmade wooden table. They loved how the oil brought out the natural colors and patterns in the wood, giving the table a unique look.

They also found the application process straightforward and enjoyable, although they mentioned that it took several days for the oil to dry fully.

User Experiences with Polyurethane

Users often praise polyurethane for its durability and high level of protection. Users appreciate that it creates a hard, protective layer on the wood’s surface, making it resistant to scratches, heat, and chemicals.

This makes Polyurethane a popular choice for used surfaces, such as kitchen cabinets and hardwood floors.

One user shared their experience using Polyurethane on a wooden floor. They were impressed with the finish’s durability, noting that it stood up well to heavy foot traffic and resisted scratches and scuffs.

They also liked the high-gloss finish, which gave their floor a polished, professional look. However, they did note that applying Polyurethane can be a bit challenging, especially for beginners, and that the strong fumes require a well-ventilated area for application.

How to Apply Tung Oil

Applying Tung Oil to your wood project can be a rewarding process. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you achieve the best results:

Step 1: Prepare the Wood
Start by sanding the wood surface to ensure it’s smooth and free of any dust or debris. Start with a coarse-grit sandpaper and gradually move to a finer grit for a smooth finish.

Step 2: Clean the Surface
Wipe the surface with a damp cloth to remove any remaining dust. Allow the wood to dry completely before proceeding.

Step 3: Apply the Tung Oil
Pour a small amount of Tung Oil onto a clean, lint-free cloth. Apply the oil to the wood, working toward the grain. Ensure the oil is applied evenly across the surface.

Step 4: Let it Soak
Allow the oil to soak into the wood for 15-30 minutes. If you notice any dry spots during this time, apply more oil as needed.

Step 5: Wipe Off Excess Oil
After the oil has soaked in, wipe off any excess oil with a clean cloth. Be sure to remove all excess oil to avoid a sticky finish.

Step 6: Repeat
For a more durable and glossy finish, repeat the process. Allow the piece to dry for 24-48 hours between coats. Typically, 2-3 coats are sufficient, but you can add more if desired.

Step 7: Final Buff
Once the final coat has dried, buff the surface with a clean cloth to enhance the shine.

How to Apply Polyurethane

Applying Polyurethane requires more technique but can provide a highly durable finish. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Prepare the Wood
Just like with Tung Oil, start by sanding the wood. Make sure the surface is smooth and free of dust.

Step 2: Stir the Polyurethane
Stir the Polyurethane gently before use. Avoid shaking the can as this can create bubbles that will show up in your finish.

Step 3: Apply the First Coat
Using a high-quality, natural-bristle brush, apply the Polyurethane in long, even strokes along the grain of the wood. Work quickly to maintain a “wet edge,” which helps prevent visible brush strokes.

Step 4: Let it Dry
Allow the first coat to dry completely. This can take several hours, so be patient.

Step 5: Sand Between Coats
Once the first coat is dry, lightly sand the surface with fine-grit sandpaper. This helps the next coat adhere better. Wipe away the dust with a damp cloth.

Step 6: Apply Additional Coats
Apply a second and, if desired, a third coat of Polyurethane, following the same process. Remember to sand lightly between each coat.

Step 7: Let it Cure
Once the final coat is applied, let the piece cure for several days before using it. This allows the Polyurethane to harden and provide maximum protection.

Remember, safety first! Always work in a well-ventilated area when applying Polyurethane, and wear protective gloves and eyewear.

Safety Precautions for Using Tung Oil

While Tung Oil is a natural product, it’s still important to take certain safety precautions when using it. Here are some safety measures to keep in mind:

Ventilation: Always work in a well-ventilated area when applying Tung Oil. This helps to disperse any fumes and ensures a safer working environment.

Protective Gear: Wear protective gloves when handling Tung Oil to prevent skin irritation. If you’re sensitive to fumes, consider wearing a mask or respirator.

Proper Disposal: Be careful when disposing of rags used to apply or clean up Tung Oil. They can spontaneously combust if not handled correctly. To dispose of them safely, lay them flat to dry in a non-combustible area or soak them in water before disposing of them in a sealed, water-filled metal container.

Storage: Store Tung Oil in a cool, dry place out of reach of children and pets. Always seal the container tightly after use to prevent spills and fumes.

Safety Precautions for Using Polyurethane

Polyurethane is a chemical product, and it’s crucial to take safety precautions when using it. Here are some safety measures to consider:

Ventilation: Polyurethane fumes can be harmful, so always work in a well-ventilated area. If you’re working indoors, open windows and use fans to circulate the air.

Protective Gear: Wear protective gloves to prevent skin contact with Polyurethane. Safety glasses can protect your eyes from splashes, and a respirator or mask can help protect you from inhaling fumes.

Fire Safety: Polyurethane is flammable. Keep it away from open flames or sparks, and don’t smoke while applying it.

Disposal: Like with Tung Oil, rags used with Polyurethane can spontaneously combust. Dispose of them safely by laying them flat to dry in a non-combustible area or soaking them in water before disposing of them in a sealed, water-filled metal container.

Storage: Store Polyurethane in a cool, dry place out of reach of children and pets. Always seal the container tightly after use.

Remember, safety first! Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using Tung Oil or Polyurethane.

Can You Mix Tung Oil and Polyurethane?

The idea of mixing Tung Oil and Polyurethane might seem appealing as a way to combine the benefits of both finishes. However, it’s generally not recommended.

Tung Oil and Polyurethane have different properties and work in different ways. Tung Oil penetrates the wood, enhancing its natural color and grain, while Polyurethane forms a hard, protective layer on the surface.

Mixing the two could result in a finish that doesn’t adhere properly or doesn’t provide the benefits you’re looking for.

If you want to use both finishes on a single piece, a better approach might be to apply Tung Oil first to bring out the wood’s natural beauty, then apply Polyurethane on top for added protection.

Always test this method on a scrap piece of wood first to ensure you’re happy with the results.

Tung Oil vs Other Finishes

Tung Oil is just one of many options for wood finishes. Here’s how it compares to a couple of other popular choices:

Linseed Oil: Like Tung Oil, linseed oil is a natural product that penetrates the wood and enhances its natural color and grain. However, linseed oil doesn’t provide as much water resistance as Tung Oil and may darken the wood more. It also takes longer to dry.

Varnish: Varnish, like Polyurethane, forms a hard, protective layer on the surface of the wood. It’s more durable than Tung Oil and protects against scratches and wear. However, it doesn’t enhance the wood’s natural beauty to the same extent as Tung Oil.

Also read: Danish Oil vs Tung Oil

Polyurethane vs Other Finishes

Polyurethane is a popular choice for wood finishing due to its durability and protective qualities. But how does it stack up against other finishes? Let’s compare it to linseed oil and varnish:

Linseed Oil: like Tung Oil, it is a natural product penetrating the wood to enhance its natural color and grain. However, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection as Polyurethane.

Linseed oil finishes are less resistant to water, heat, and scratches. They also take longer to dry and may darken the wood more than Polyurethane.

Related: Linseed oil vs polyurethane.

Varnish: Varnish is similar to Polyurethane in that it forms a hard, protective layer on the surface of the wood. However, there are differences in the finish they provide.

Varnish is available in a range of sheens, from matte to high gloss, and it tends to yellow less over time than Polyurethane. However, it’s not as resistant to heat and chemicals as Polyurethane.

Related: polyurethane vs varnish


Choosing between Tung Oil and Polyurethane ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences.

If you value a natural, hand-rubbed finish that enhances the wood’s character, Tung Oil could be your choice. It’s eco-friendly, easy to apply, and provides a warm, rich finish.

On the other hand, if you need a finish that can stand up to heavy use and provide a high level of protection, Polyurethane might be the way to go. It’s durable, resistant to scratches and heat, and gives the wood a polished, high-gloss finish.