Lots of questions come up concerning various “oil” and poly finishing mixtures and methods. Below are links to two articles by Bob Flexner that provide a great deal of information on the subject. The first is from 2008, the second from 2011.
The short and sweet version is plain old varnish, poly/alkyd/phenolic (poly is about all that can be found these days) thinned ~1:1 with mineral spirits (or any ratio you desire) actually works as good or better than all these other magic potions because it dries hard, not soft. As Bob says, there are different “levels” that can be achieved with a wiping varnish determined by the amount left on the surface: wipe off completely, leave a thicker film, or anywhere in between. Given 5 minutes or so to fully soak into the wood, and then wiped off almost dry, wiping varnish will have the same look as BLO, but because it dries hard, provides some protection to the wood. The only thing mixing BLO with varnish accomplishes is to making a softer, less durable, slower drying finish.
I’ve found quartering the blue shop towels and folding into a “brush” makes a good applicator, as do old t-shirts etc. If you find the surface too sticky to wipe off, simply add some wiping varnish mix to the surface. This will thin it and allow it to be wiped off.
XYZ Finish looks Better
One thing Bob doesn’t discuss is color. Some of the different finishes have more color to them, and impart more color to the wood, which many people like (me included). In the picture below are the following 3 finishes in order left to right: Minwax Poly, BLO, Deft Danish Oil.
Below are each of these applied to soft maple. A heavy black line separates each one. Each was applied for ~ 5 minutes, continually keeping the surface wet, then wiped off “dry”. The poly and BLO were thinned 1:1 with MS, the Deft was not.
There isn’t much difference between the poly and BLO, but more difference may occur with more coats. The Danish Oil is noticeably darker, just as it is in the plastic cup above, though notice to a lesser degree when applied to the wood.
Below is a picture of the same piece of wood, but now showing a reddish-orange color at the far right. This was created using Minwax poly thinned 1:1 with MS, with W.D. Lockwood oil soluble dye added. This mix was applied the same as the others. As you can see, quite a bit of color can be added this way – this is just one application. You may not like the color, but this was some mixture I had left over from a project. Just about any color to varying intensities can be created this way.
Below is a picture of poly with yellow dye added on the left next to BLO on the right. Pretty close match.
All of your wipe on finishing requirements could be addressed using the same base finish, an oil based varnish, poly/alkyd/phenolic. Varying the amount of thinner will vary the application and end result, and coupled with how much is wiped off, the finished film thickness. Varnish can be purchased in different glosses, or gloss can be rubbed down in gloss with steel wool or synthetic steel wool. Oil soluble dyes, or the dye (liquid portion after settling) of oil based stains can be used to tint the varnish to the desired level. If a lot of color is desired, just add a little poly varnish to the dye to act as a binder – otherwise varnish topcoats will lift and mix the dye reducing intensity.
I like it because I can sand a surface to smooth it out or fill the grain and not have to be concerned with sanding through the film – the tinted varnish will just blend it right in, no different than all of the store bought finishes that have more color to them. Depending on the project, sometimes I will do a coat or two of highly thinned varnish with dye to get the color and surface I want by sanding or steel wool, then use just thinned varnish without added color to build a film. Dry or wet sanding works. There are many varied approaches in using wiping varnish and a little color. For the initial application. there’s no need to remove the sanding dust. It will be wiped into the negative grain and any remaining dust will be wiped off with the final wipe of the 1st coat. This will enhance negative grain. If you want less negative grain visibility, then wipe off all the dust before application.
There are two big advantages to this approach: 1) cost, 2) about any color can be achieved. A quart of Minwax poly is ~$11-$12, which can make 2+ quarts of wiping varnish when thinned. A gallon of MS is ~$14. The Lockwood dyes are ~$7.50-$12.50 per ounce package, that will make ~ 8 oz of intense dye (I use naptha and store in glass canning jars to prevent evaporation). That 8 ox of dye will last a long time. I get the little 2 oz plastic cups with lids at Walmart and mix up the wiping varnish in them for small projects. A set of stainless kitchen measuring spoons handle all of the measuring activities.
A lot of the bowls I have posted in my projects were finished this way.