In my new house, all the cabinetry is natural bare oak. The house is about 8 years old. Chances are the cabinetry is original and doesn't appear to be finished with anything.

I'm considering using tung oil to help liven it up a bit and protect it. However, I've never used tung oil and honestly, rarely, if ever, do projects such as this.

Is using tung oil on oak cabinets a good option?

Are there better alternatives than tung oil? Such as a clear polyurethane?

I don't really want to paint or stain the cabinets because color will change. I merely want to protect the cabinetry at this point.


It's possible-but-unlikely that there's nothing on them. Most likely they were done with a penetrating oil finish, - tung, walnut or linseed oils, or in the most minimal, least-color-changing but non-hardening realm, mineral oil.

You could use any of those (use BOILED linseed oil inside, or else that never hardens, either) again, though linseed and tung may darken the finish a bit, or your could simply put a coat of paste wax on (I prefer "bowling alley wax" for non-floor purposes - it does not have the grit that some floor waxes do, and I prefer the clear to the "tinted" stuff, as well.) You can also mix walnut or boiled linseed oil with paste wax, rub on, rub off. Check the "look" of anything you intend to try on a surface like the inside of a cabinet door to make sure it works for you before you apply it to the whole face of the cabinets.

Polyurethane will drastically change the look of the cabinets from a "more like raw wood" to "clear plastic coating over the wood" look. Whether that's good or bad is a matter of taste (and hard to go back from.)

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  • Thanks. From what I've read, I'm leaning towards avoiding waxes. But I hadn't thought of linseed oil. Very helpful tip about the polyurethane. I'll definitely avoid that. – Scott Jul 7 '14 at 19:26
  • If you do not want the gloss but want to use poly simply use a satin sheen poly. I refinished walnut floors in a house and the satin poly was very durable and while shinier than bare wood did not drastically change the appearance of the wood. For extra protection you can also apply a natural stain prior to the poly. Natural stain simply emphasizes the differences in the wood grain, brings it out so to speak without altering the color. – James Jul 7 '14 at 20:29

I would recommend an oil based satin wipe-on poly. I like Watco. It will give you the same look as tung oil but give you better protection, easier clean up in the future, and on something like oak it will be easier to apply (oils tend to weep back out of the pores as they dry which you will have to wipe off several times).

Wipe-ons are the same thing as regular polyurethane but they have a more aggressive solvent so they go on thinner and penetrate deeper. After your prep work (which will depend on whatever is already on the cabinets) just get the product on there in whatever manner suits you working in manageable sized areas, then wipe it back off with a nice paper towel (I like Viva) before it sets. Once dry, sand lightly with 280. Repeat as many times as you can stand, at least 3.

Make sure you soak your rags in water before you throw them away or they can spontaneously combust. Seriously it can happen. Good luck!

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