On Oil Finishing | Seven Years of Mistakes and Some Pontification

So it’s been seven years since I’ve started building guitars and all I can remember since I started was how to nail the ‘perfect’ oil and wax finish. I used to pour over articles written by many well-known online woodworking magazines and sites and found that every woodworker had his/her own style and after modifying my style over and over again I’ve come to realize one thing. 

There isn’t a wrong way to finish using oil and wax. 

I’ve said this before to some people who’ve taken the time to ask me questions either through this site or through Instagram or Facebook. At least 90% of traffic to this site are from people searching for ‘oil finish tips’ rather than traffic directed from the guitars I’ve made. I’ll get people saying how they’ve tried to get a ‘hand-rubbed’ oil finish look but were dissatisfied with the end results. I get this, I really do.  I was once in that frame of mind. I’d spend hours and days applying multiple coats of different oils- and I’ve tried nearly all oils on the market by now- and I’d be disappointed with the end result more often than I’d like to admit. It’s taken me six or seven years to realize that a lot of hedges on our expectation of what a finish should look like, rather than the result it gives in and of itself. 

Typical questions are “How much protection can I get from an oil and wax finish?” or ” Is this better than lacquer or poly”. I tell my commenters that I choose repairability over ‘protection’ as it takes me minutes to repair a ding in an oil/wax finish as opposed to hours to days for others. Finishes like Tru-oil, Wipe on/Spray on Poly and other film forming oils are damned near impossible to spot-fix without witness lines. If those appear you’ve just compounded your problem and now have to sand down to bare wood and start all over again. 

So I tell my readers the same thing, oil and wax protect against moisture and light scratch marks but it’s not a hard finish. Finishes like shellac and lacquer tend to burn into each other allowing for easier repairs and are decently hard but still thin. The other hard finishes and “tung-like” oils that form a film are far more difficult to manage but they do give more protection. 

As for Oils, try standing up to various grits on multiple test pieces and apply the oil and wax product and let the results speak for themselves. I’ve sanded up to 320 only on a guitar and others up to 2000. Each one had a different look that suited the build. The most recent Mini-guitar I completed was sanded up to 400 only. I’ve written about the finishes I’ve used and posted pictures showing their results. As always I welcome questions about any and all of it. I learned all this from my time online and I’m happy to help anyone who’s in the same shoes as I was when I started this obsessive hobby. 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bob Ogle says:

    Hi Alex, your dad just told me about your guitar building prowess. Unreal!!
    You have way too much talent for one individual.

    1. Thanks Bob!!! its been a while! howve you been?

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