help with tung oil on a guitar

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Forum topic by kdownes posted 10-15-2009 04:23 PM 8967 views 0 times favorited 22 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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9 posts in 3168 days

10-15-2009 04:23 PM

Topic tags/keywords: tung oil mahogany guitar finishing

Hi everyone,

I just found this site this morning, and I hope these aren’t questions that have been answered a kagillion times already. I started my very first woodworking project a couple of weeks ago, which is refinishing a solid-body electric guitar. I bought a cheap instrument made of good wood (mahogany) with a nasty original finish (camouflage!). I decided to stain it a deep red to show off the grain I imagined was underneath, then finish it off with tung oil, which I’d read was a nice and easy-to-apply finish. I took it apart, sanded away the original finish, applied a grain filler (Behlen water-based mahogany grain filler, which was pink!), sanded that down, applied Behlen red mahogany stain, sanded again, and am now in the process of applying the tung oil. I’ve cut the oil to about 50/50 with mineral spirits, which I also read was a good way to go, and have so far applied four coats. Here’s where the questions come in.

- How long must I wait to reapply coats of tung oil? All the things I’ve read suggest that after applying a coat, letting it sink in, and wiping off the excess, it should be ready to recoat in 12-24 hours. But the last coat I put on was about 36 hours ago, and if I touch the surface its still a bit greasy to the touch. This has been true for previous coats as well, and I’ve gone ahead with applying more after a full 24 hours, which I hope wasn’t a big mistake. I’m doing this work in my basement, which is quite dry (we keep a dehumidifier down there set to about 60% humidity). Should I wipe it down again until the greasy-ness is gone, then apply another coat, or just wait until it is completely dry?

- Related to the first questions, how long should I expect to wait after applying the final coat? I’ve seen three to four weeks elsewhere online—is this a good rule of thumb? Obviously I need this instrument to be dry and sealed since it’s going to be played regularly, and although I’m anxious to put it back together, I can be as patient as I need to be.

- There seems to be some debate about using 0000 steel wool between coats. I’ve gently rubbed steel wool on the surface between the last two coats, and I imagine some of this is a matter of taste and what you want for the finished product (I’m looking for a nice matte finish, ultimately). Any recommendations on this front? I noticed that after the steel wool, the oil wiping rags pick up a lot of red tint from the stain—I’m guessing this will eventually stop happening as the oil coats build up and seal in the stain—is that correct?

- I’ve seen some recommendations about using a wax on top of the final coat of tung oil—is this a good idea, particularly for something like a guitar that will be used and handled a lot? If so, any recommendations for particular waxes that would be good?

I hope this isn’t too many questions for a single post. Thanks so much in advance for any advice. This is something of a test project for future, more expensive guitar refinishing projects, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can!


22 replies so far

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4241 days

#1 posted 10-15-2009 05:04 PM

At this point, my question would be “How does the finish look to you?” If it pretty much looks the way you want it to look, so far….so good.

Next, I think you have the wood pretty much saturated with the tung oil. It cannot absorb any more, which is why it is not drying. I’d take a clean rag and wipe it down as thoroughly as possible, then let it sit for a couple of days and see what happens. Once it dries out, I’d put a coat of paste wax on (good old Johnson’s is fine), just because I like the way it feels, and because it will add a little extra moisture protection.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Rick  Dennington's profile

Rick Dennington

5908 posts in 3217 days

#2 posted 10-15-2009 05:33 PM

Hello Kieran, and welcome to Lj’s. Glad you could join in. Good place to be for all your woodworkin needs, and get excellent advice and help.
Now for your questions: I’ll try to help a little.
(1) You should never remove the original finish from an instrument that came from the factory. Even if it is a cheaper instrument as you stated. That’s a “no-no”, because you’ll loose 50-60 % of the value of the instrument if you ever decided to sell it. I have several vintage instruments(some as old as 50+ years), and they all have the original finish. Even if you decide to keep it, it won’t be original anymore.
(2) The finish that’s put on at the factory is a nitro-cellulose(a spray-on varnish, if you will), over the stain. Mine are all accoustic, and would kill the sound with the wrong finish on it. On electrics, the finish is there for looks and design mainly. All the sound is fed through the pickups and electronics.
(3) I would not have put tung oil on it, even cut 50 %. It needed a good spray varnish on it. Just my .002.
How long did you let the stain dry before applying tung oil? Sometines tung oil never drys good over certain finishes and feels sticky all the time. The more coats you put on the worse it gets, sometimes-not always, but some.
(4) If were mine(my opinion only), I would take it to a good luthier for a finish repair, or send it back to the factory and have it done over and right. Not trying to critisise,just stating what I would do. Good luck. Rick.

-- " At my age, happy hour is a crap and a nap".....

View kdownes's profile


9 posts in 3168 days

#3 posted 10-15-2009 06:38 PM

First of all, thanks for all the kind welcome emails—much appreciated!

And thanks for the replies to my questions. As for how the finish looks to me at this point, it’s definitely getting there. The last coat of oil looks pretty good—more uniform with a nice sheen and color emerging. Again I’ve seen lots of descriptions online suggesting 8 to 10 coats as a good rule of thumb and so far I have only four, but maybe the wood is saturated as Charlie suggests.

To Rick’s comments: this is most definitely not a vintage instrument nor a new instrument of any significant monetary value, even with the original finish. Its value, as far as I’m concerned, extends only as far as it is useful to me as both a project and an instrument to be played eventually (hopefully soon!). The whole idea was to experiment and learn, so I went in expecting that it would end up a modified instrument (and it’s going to have much better electronics in it than it came with when I’m finished). I chose tung oil after seeing lots of people using it (and seeming pleased with the results) on the Warmoth guitar forum, although of course it’s a matter of taste. As for the stain drying time, I waited nearly a full day after the second coat of stain before putting on the first coat of tung oil.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4241 days

#4 posted 10-15-2009 10:20 PM

You said that the last coat of oil was not drying. Did the first three coats dry well? As Rick said, stain that wasn’t fully dry would cause the oil to be gummy, but that should have been obvious after the first coat.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View kdownes's profile


9 posts in 3168 days

#5 posted 10-16-2009 03:17 AM

Looking back on my notes (I’ve been trying to keep a journal of everything I’ve done for tips and things to avoid in the future), it looks like I let the stain dry for more like a few hours than a full day. It was certainly dry to the touch when I applied the first coat of oil, but maybe that wasn’t enough. Previous coats of oil seemed not gummy but a little bit greasy, though not quite as much as this last one. I’ve been following what appeared to be fairly consistent suggestions online of letting it dry for 12-24 hours and then applying another coat, so I waited at least that long between each of the previous coats. But maybe not long enough.

Charlie, I took your earlier advice and wiped it down again this afternoon, and I’ll just let it hang out for a few days and look it over again to see where things stand. I still got some reddish tint on the cloth I used, which makes it seem like things aren’t getting properly sealed or the oil isn’t polymerizing. Maybe it just needs to sit for a week or so? I think I can muster the patience for that! :) Thanks again for your help.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4241 days

#6 posted 10-16-2009 04:14 AM

Good plan.

Some close-grained woods do not soak up stain very well. I once stained some maple and top coated it with polyurethane the next day. Well…the stain wasn’t quite dry after all, and it took about a week for the whole mess to really dry.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View knotscott's profile


8055 posts in 3398 days

#7 posted 10-16-2009 03:07 PM

This does not really answer your question, but when I was building my one and only guitar, the true luthiers were pretty emphatic about using nitrocellulose lacquer for a finish. They claim in moves better with the instrument, sounds better, and wears well. It might still be possible to apply over the oil once it dries…check into it before hand if you decide to go that route.

-- Happiness is like wetting your pants...everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth....

View moshel's profile


865 posts in 3706 days

#8 posted 11-03-2009 11:30 AM

I think your problem comes from a usual confusion between Tung oil and Pure Tung oil.
I use solely Pure Tung oil, ond from your description it seems that thats what you have as well. The cheaper Tung oild have undergone a process of polymerization and have some additives that speeds up drying.
Pure tung oil cures slowly. Very slowly. I usually wait 1-2 days between coats, and most of the time give the first coat 5 days to dry. I let the last coat dry for at least 2 weeks. I found that it truly cures only after 5 weeks. Your mileage may vary…

It is very important to wipe tung oil and not to leave any wet areas – they will become a problem later.
I think Tung oil will give you the sheen you are looking for without much sanding or using steel wool between coats. if you are looking for high sheen, wet sand the last coats with 400-2000 grit wet and dry sandpaper.

when properly cured and applied, Tung oil finish is second to none. it will be hard wearing, will look good for a long time and will resist almost anything from moisture to acids.

-- The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep...

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4150 days

#9 posted 11-03-2009 12:19 PM

Which brand of tung oil are you using?

-- 温故知新

View kdownes's profile


9 posts in 3168 days

#10 posted 11-03-2009 03:20 PM

I’m using Woodcraft tung oil and have been cutting it with mineral spirits (I’ve since seen things online about folks using citrus-based thinners, which I think I’ll try next time). I’ve been wiping it down about 20 minutes after I apply the oil/thinner mix, and checking on in periodically during the couple of days I’ve let each coat dry to look for any emergent wet areas. After Charlie’s last post, I let it dry for a full two weeks before doing anything, then I applied another coat this past Saturday and another yesterday. I figured I’d do a couple more this way, then one final coat of 50/50 oil and thinner (or maybe no thinner?) and let it sit for about six weeks. With each coat it does seem to be getting more uniform, but even with these latest coats, some areas seem to dry much more quickly than others. Oddly, the parts that start to look less shiny right after I put a coat on are the places that feel most greasy for the longest. It is probably a combination of not-so-great surface preparation, grain filling, etc, but I’m new at this! :) Luckily the part of the body that seems to look the best and be the most uniform is the front, which is what will be seen most often, of course. The back has a mysterious splotch, and the bottom seems to be taking the longest to dry of any other part (maybe because I have it hanging up from the neck screw holes to dry?).

I have a feeling that part of the problem, too, is that this guitar had a finish on it that I removed to experiment, and I may not have sanded it down far enough in some places. But from what you’ve all been saying, it’s also a matter of just being patient and letting the oil properly cure. Much as I want to put it back together and play it (which I’ll do regardless of how it looks) I am trying to cultivate that patience. I’ll post some photos soon (including some before and after shots). Thanks again to everyone for your replies and advice!

View Julian's profile


880 posts in 3548 days

#11 posted 11-03-2009 04:12 PM

If there was a finish on it prior to this, that may be part of the problem. Also if you don’t sand it properly the oil will absorb differently on the piece causing the oil to soak in more in places causing the blotchy look. Grain filling won’t help the oil dry faster.

-- Julian, Park Forest, IL

View stanjay100's profile


9 posts in 3422 days

#12 posted 11-03-2009 04:28 PM

Have you considered polyurethane satin finish over the oil once it dries to give you a uniform, low lustre finish?

Stan, Long Island, NY

View woodbutcher's profile


592 posts in 4189 days

#13 posted 11-03-2009 05:43 PM

While I am by no means an expert on finishing, I have and do use tung oil quite often.I’ve heard you refer to a greasy feeling! Does it actually have a gummy or tacky feeling? Tung oil will often cure on the surface and not underneath. I apply tung oil first always, and usually mix it 50/50 tung oil/mineral spirits first coat, second coat is 3/1 tung oil and MS, third coat is pure tung oil and all subsequent coats are pure tung oil. Applying tung oil over sealers, will only prolong the drying and curing time for tung oil. I wait days after the first application and have waited a week or longer between subsequent coats for the oil to dry. I am using only oil and MS, and finally only oil. Karson, another LJ’er here has had success using Japan Drier in mixing his BLO and speeding drying time. While I hope that your applications of tung oil will eventually cure properly, I’m afraid that they may never cure. I hope I’m wrong. If the first coat of tung oil did not dry and cure properly, none of the subsequent coats will either. It sounds like from the fact that you are still seeing stain permeate through the wiping of subsequent coats that this is the problem. Again, I hope that I’m wrong. Please keep us apprised as to the final outcome of the finishing.

Ken McGinnis

-- woodbutcher north carolina

View kdownes's profile


9 posts in 3168 days

#14 posted 11-04-2009 04:36 PM

Stan—I hadn’t considered that, but it’s a good idea. I have some Briwax I was going to put on over the oil finish once its dry, but I do like satin finishes, so maybe poly is the way to go. Any brand recommendations?

Ken—I have a sinking feeling you’re right. I just went down to the basement to check on the progress, and while parts of it appear to be drying OK, even the dry parts don’t seem completely dry. I can, for example, press a finger on the surface, and it leaves a noticeable print behind—I don’t know if this is normal or not. The parts I’m concerned about don’t feel gummy so much as greasy. I didn’t use a sealer, only a grain filler.

I decided to try an experiment this morning—I have a block of mahogany I got from Woodcraft that I was planning to stain the same color as the guitar and use to mount a small music box. I sanded down one side of it, applied the grain filler, and I’ll let that dry and sand it down, then stain, and try the tung oil. I’ll let that first coat sit for longer this time and see what, if anything, goes differently. If it does go differently, and I have a feeling it will… well, time to break out the sandpaper, I guess! It would be a bummer to start over but better that than a surface that will never cure properly, especially since the guitar will be rubbing up against my clothes a lot when I play it. Thanks for the tips and I’ll post again as my little experiment proceeds.

View stanjay100's profile


9 posts in 3422 days

#15 posted 11-04-2009 06:27 PM

I just very successfully covered 4 coats of Watco Tung Oil with 3 coats of Minwax Wipe On Polyurethane Satin Finish. It looks great and dried well.
I would wipe your surface down very well to remove any excess oil. Then I would buff it with a buffing pad if you have one, perhaps one that attaches to your drill.
Then I would wait a few days to allow whatever oil is left and exposed to cure.
Then sand lightly with 220 grit sand paper.
Apply 3 or 4 coats of poly until you have a uniform, non-blotchy finish.
LIGHTLY sand with 320 grit between coats.
You will love the finished product. I do on my coffee table.

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