Traditional wood oils have been used to preserve and protect wood for thousands of years and remain as popular as ever. Although modern wood oils promise better durability, fewer coatings, faster drying times and less maintenance, traditional wood oils are still the first choice for many skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, woodturners, toy, furniture and furniture makers.

What are wood oils and how do they work?

Wood oils are essentially the natural oils that are extracted from vegetables, plants, trees, nuts and seeds. On a microscopic level, wood is full of holes, not unlike a pack of straws viewed end on. Applying a wood oil fills these holes and in doing so, keeps the wood supple and waterproof. Once exposed to Oxygen, these oils oxidise and harden in the surface of the wood grain to become part of the wood. The finish they provide is dry (non-greasy), and to varying degrees, moisture, stain and dirt resistant.

What are traditional wood oils?

Whilst there are many ‘old school’ wood oils, the most commonly used are without a doubt Danish oil, Teak oil, Tung oil and to a lesser degree Linseed oil. There is no set formula for Teak or Danish oil meaning that they can vary from brand to brand. This sometimes means that an oil from one brand may differ slightly to another giving different drying of finishing characteristics.

For those that use these oils on a regular basis, it’s often a case of trying products from different brands to find the oil that best meets their requirements. This said, most formulas are very similar and a preferred product is usually easily found.

What’s the difference between old and new wood oils?

Whereas traditional oils were blended through experimentation with naturally occurring ingredients, modern wood oils such as ‘hard wax oils’ are scientifically formulated from blends of oils, resins, solvents and chemicals to make them more durable, longer lasting and faster drying. This makes newer oils more suitable for large projects such as flooring and decking where faster drying times, better durability and reduced maintenance are a major consideration. It’s usually carpenters, wood craftsmen, hobbyists and restorers who prefer the slower drying times and the ability to build layers that traditional oils offer.

Danish oil

Danish oils are a bit of an oddity in that although it is widely sold by many manufacturers, there is no defined formulation to its composition. Danish oil is typically made from blends of Linseed oil and/or Tung oil, mineral spirits, synthetic resins and varnish to make it durable and easy to work with. Rustins Danish oil however is considered to be the ‘original’ formula.

Danish oil Uses

Danish oil is a highly versatile oil that is water resistant and food safe. This makes it a popular choice for real wood kitchen worktops, food utensils, wooden tool handles and more. It dries to a hard, satin finish and is very easy to maintain.

The name ‘Danish oil’ simply comes from the fact that during the second half of the 20th Century, Scandinavian furniture, protected with an attractive low sheen finish, began to be exported around the world. This finish was given the name ‘Danish oil’ because of where it came from.

Tung oil

Pure Tung oil is extracted from the seed of the tung tree, which is native to China and a few other Asian countries. It is considered to be an environmentally friendly wood finish as it doesn’t contain any other ingredients or manufacturing processes. It is also less known as China wood oil and its use is thought to have originated in China as far back as 400 B.C.

It’s worth noting that whereas some Tung Oils are pure, some brands of ‘tung oil’ do contain additives and other ingredients to assist with application and drying.

Tung oil Uses

Tung oil started out as a popular choice for boat decks and floors but because of its flexible, durable and food safe properties, is now more widely used on a whole host of projects. Because it doesn’t darken and is resistant to mould, it is widely used on interior and outdoor furniture, wooden toys, cabinets and musical instruments such as guitars and more.

Teak oil

Teak oil, strange as it may seem, has nothing to do with the Teak Tree. As with Danish oil, it’s made from a blend of ingredients, namely Linseed oil, pure Tung oil, mineral spirits (petroleum naphtha) and varnish. Petroleum naphtha is derived from petroleum and is used as a thinner for the oil. The reason why Teak oil is called ‘Teak oil’ is purely down to giving the product a purpose, namely being suitable for use on Teak wood, such as Teak garden furniture. Formulations can vary from brand to brand based on the quantities and quality of the ingredients used.

Teak oil Uses

The primary use for Teak oil has traditionally been for exterior wood such as outdoor wooden furniture and for wood on boats. Teak oil is designed to slow down the natural greying process of Teak whilst protecting it from weathering. Although Teak oil can be used on most types of softwood and hardwood it is better on hardwoods. The thin nature of the oil means that softwoods that are more porous than hardwoods and contain less natural oil will soak up more of the oil, potentially making it an expensive choice. The use of Teak oil in warm, humid environments can actually promote the growth of mould.

Linseed oil

Linseed oil is produced from the pressing of the seeds from the flax plant and has many uses. Also known as Flaxseed oil, Linseed oil in its raw state is also used as a food additive and available in capsules as a food supplement. Although Linseed oil can and is used as a standalone product in its ‘raw’ and ‘boiled’ variations, it is more commonly blended with paints and other wood oils to make other products including Danish oil and Teak oil.

Linseed oil Uses

Most famously used on cricket bats, Linseed oil is more suitable for interior wood. As with most other types of wood oil it enhances, beautifies and restores interior wood. Linseed oil can be more difficult to apply than other types of oil and the ‘raw’ version can take up to a week to dry. Some say that raw Linseed oil never fully dries. The ‘boiled’ version of the oil dries quicker in around 24 hours, enabling projects to be completed faster.

So there you have it, while modern alternatives like hardwax oils, decking oils, countertop oils and door oils are more convenient and formulated for specific projects, there will always be a place for the traditional wood oils that have been around for decades or longer.