How to Finish Oak

How to Finish Oak – Best Treatments for Red and White Oak Wood

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There is something truly luxurious about the aesthetics of oak furniture, one that simply cannot be mimicked by other types of wood. If you love the rustic look, chances are you will have an abundance of oak furniture, and possibly oak flooring to instill that aged feel to your home.  Even if you are a fan of the more modern minimal interior design, oak furniture (with all its detailing), can be simple when it is not overly done with other trinkets. Is it not amazing how oak wood can last so long? This type of wood is notorious for its strength, but a lot of the time, the longer-lasting items of furniture have been coated with finishes that provide extra protection to the surface of the wood, preventing liquid spills, or damages from accidental nicks. This tutorial will teach you how to finish oak wood, whether it is your floor or your favorite piece of furniture. We will include the best finish for oak products designed for finishing oak of all types, so by the end of this tutorial you will have learned all you need to know about finishing red oak and finishing white oak. Not only that, but we will also include the best natural oak finish products. Oak finishes often involve adding a stain, so we will explain the process of staining red oak, and white oak.



Why Is Oak Wood So Popular?

Oak trees are one of the most ancient tree species that are around today. They have been around for so long, and some of the largest and oldest trees have aged to about 500 years old, which is astonishing to think of the times that they have endured, managing to escape being shopped down to be used for furniture. Oak trees grow tall and strong, and they provide an amazing amount of shade, so there is more to appreciate from these trees than their ease of building.

Mature Oak Tree in Forest

Not only is it a beautiful addition to your garden, it is also a very versatile type of wood to build with. The heartwood of the tree is strong and robust, so it is able to create strong chests of drawers, dressing tables, flooring in your dining room or living room, decking for your patio, and even making strong roofs for your home. If you want to build the smaller, less hardy things like the skirting of your floor and ceiling, leg and armrest on your furniture, and possibly a shelf that is not going to be carrying very heavy things, then you can use the sapwood.

Finish on a Live Edge Oak Cabinet

Oak wood is very popular because of how durable it is, and the ease of building with it adds to that. This means that the items of furniture made from oak wood will cost a bit more than furniture made from other wood. This is also why you will see people trying to salvage their oak flooring when they are renovating so that they can reinstall it into their new home. It is expensive, and a lot of people cannot simply fork out the amount that it costs, and reusing what they have is the better option.

The Amish are highly industrious as a culture, and they have used oak wood for their wood crafting purposes for generations. Oak is a very versatile and well-rounded wood, and the Amish have used it for generations, primarily for residential construction and agricultural construction. It is one of the most durable and flexible woods that they can find.

Traditional Oak Woodwork



Differences Between Red Oak and White Oak

When you hear the term, “natural oak”, this is usually referencing white oak, which is also the most popular type of oak wood, and thus, more available for purchase than the red oak counterpart. But, finishing oak wood is much easier when you understand the differences between red and white oak wood. Let us go through a few of the most prominent differences.

Oak Tree Lumber


Red Oak Wood

Woodworkers have always preferred working with red oak because of its unique aesthetic, especially in contrast to white oak. However, these woods share a lot of the same properties, which is why they can be used interchangeably if need be. You might initially think that white oak is the lighter wood of the two, but it is actually red oak that is lighter than white oak. You will find red oaks in the North Eastern Regions of the United States. There is something truly unique about the rain pattern of red oak, and it is reflected in the beauty of its appearance.

Red Oak Wood Grain and Color

Red oak is called Red, but the color of the wood is surprisingly more pink than it is red. Sometimes it leans towards an orange tone, as opposed to pink, but both are just as beautiful. What makes the color of the oak, is the soil that it is grown in, the moister the soil, the deeper the pink will be. Sometimes, in highly moist soil beds, the wood can have a salmon pink color. One thing to take note of, however, is that the deeper the pink, the softer the wood will be. Luckily, most jobs with this type of wood are still finished off with a stain, and a clear topcoat for extra protection, so the soft wood is not really an issue.

One thing to keep in mind regarding red oak is that it is not as rot-resistant as white oak wood. This means that it might sustain more infections over a shorter period of time.


White Oak Wood

While red oak trees are found in the northeastern regions of America, white oak trees are found in the Eastern regions of the United States. Because of the strength and versatility of the wood, it has become one of the most popular options of wood to build anything that needs to be strong. No matter whether the item you are building lives inside or outside, it is a suitable wood for many projects. From chests of drawers, dressing tables, dining room tables, bookshelves, flooring, and decking, this wood is very highly sought after.

Ring Patterns on Oak Stumps

White oak is different from red oak, not only in its coloring but also because it is resistant to infections, so it will not rot as easily as its red oak counterpart. Red wood’s rings within the grain are spaced out more freely, so it is more absorbent, but white oak wood is more compacted, so liquids or insect invasions will not be as much of a threat.

White Oak is Insect Resistant

Because white oak wood has a more compact grain, it is more watertight, which is why most carpenters like to use this type of wood for outdoor decking and roofing, boats, or anything that will be exposed to liquids.

The funny thing is that the name of this wood will lead you to believe that it is a white color, or at least lighter beige. But, this is not the case. White oak wood is more of a brown or gray color with a bit of opacity. This is only really noticeable once the wood has been cut into boards.

White Oak Floor Boards

In contrast to the darker red oak wood which has a deep tone to its natural coloring, the light oak is more suited to flooring because the tone of the white oak wood will have less effect on the stain or paint colors. This makes it slightly stronger, which is why, as opposed to red oak, it is much easier to endure damage when compared to it, but the drawback is that white oak is a little more expensive.




What Finishes Are Suitable for White and Red Oak Wood?

Learning how to finish oak, means you need to know what the best finish for oak is. This means you should have an understanding of all the different oak finishes that you can choose from. Staining red oak or white oak is the part of your woodworking project that will bring out the color of your build, so make sure that you are aware of how each one looks once it is dry, and which is more suitable for either red or white oak.


Brushing or Spraying a Lacquer Coat

A lacquer cat is typically quite glossy, and when you apply it to your oak wood it will reflect the sunlight beautifully, giving it that stunning sheen we all appreciate so much aesthetically. Lacquer can be applied by either brushing it on with a paintbrush, or it can be applied via a spray mechanism.

Lacquer for Oak Wood Finishing

Lacquer makes a strong finish for your oak wood, and it sticks well to the surface of whatever you are building. It provides strong protection to your wood’s surface, making it impervious to liquid spills or excess humidity in the climate you are living and working in.

An amazing benefit that you might appreciate is that it has less work involved. You do not need to apply a primer before you coat it on, because it already adheres so well to the surface of your oak wood. It also is useful as an oak finish because there is less maintenance that you will need to do once the lacquer is applied. It is easy to clean and is so strong that it lasts a lot longer and provides much more durability than most wood finishes.

Lacquered Wood is Easy to Maintain


Danish Oil Treatment

For some reason, Danish oil has a bad reputation when it comes to finishing red oak or white oak. Some people believe that it goes too deep into the surface of the wood, and that that is a problem, but this is not exactly the case.

Danish Oil for Finishing Oak Wood

Danish oil treatments are ideal as a natural oak finish, and it does not get scratched as easily as lacquer might, so having young children around will not leave your oak flooring looking tarnished from the inevitable scratches. It is much stronger, and because it penetrates so deeply into the wood’s grain, it lasts a lot longer. This means less effort is involved because it does not require a fresh coat every few months.

Most manufacturers of the various Danish oil treatments will likely state on the packaging that you must use it in moderation. If you do so correctly, then it can be one of the best oak finishes that you could decide to use. Being a natural oak finish, it brings out the color of the wood beautifully and highlights the natural grains.

Wood Grain and Color of Light Oak Wood


Beeswax Treatments

Beeswax is one of the most versatile substances that is available. It can be used to heal many skin ailments, or even just act as a moisturizer for very dry skin. In the industrial and carpentry industries, beeswax is also used as a treatment for wood, and it makes a beautiful oak finish. It is a natural oak fish, and it highlights the beautiful undertones of the wood, as well as every color within its grain.

Beeswax Oakwood Treatment

A beeswax treatment can be easily found in most hardware stores because it has been dubbed one of the best products to use for finishing red oak and white oak. It is very simple to apply because you need only a cloth and a bit of elbow grease. Wipe the cloth in the container that the bee’s wax comes in, and then rub it in with circular motions over the surface. Once it is all spread out, you need to buffer it with the same cloth, so continue those circular motions.

If you are a lover of the environment and living consciously, then it will be advisable to choose this type of wood finish because it is completely free of toxins. There are no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), so you can appreciate that if you are sensitive to fumes that other types of finishes give off.

Beeswax Oak Finish is VOC Free



Finishing Your Oak

While knowing what products are better for oak can help you choose a finish, if you do not understand the process that finishing oak requires, then it will sit as a wasteful product on the shelf in your work shed. This is not only a pity in terms of your wallet, but also in terms of general waste in the world. Rather understand how to do it, then buy something and give up for lack of knowledge. In this next section, we will explain how to finish oak, so that you do not waste the product you have just bought, or are planning to buy.

Paint Sprayer for Finishing Oak


Preparing the Board

A bit of preparation is the first order of business for your oak finishing. This means that the oak board or plank that you are working with will need to be sanded down. This applies to both red and white oak types.

Sand Oakwood Before Applying Finish

The grit of the sandpaper for white oak wood should be about 120 to 140, but the red oak can be sanded down with slightly more rough-textured sandpaper because the wood is softer. When you are finished sanding, make sure there is no residue (sawdust left from the sanding process by cleaning the surface of your wood with a damp cloth.

Wipe Away Dust After Sanding Oak


Preparing the Stain

Once you are happy with your freshly sanded board or plank, and sure that you have left no dust behind from the sanding process, you can get out the product you have chosen for staining red oak or white oak, and you can prepare that for use. You will need a stick to mix the product so that all the substances are combined, as they tend to separate when they are left in storage for too long.

Stir Stain Before Finishing Oak

Preparing the stain or the finish comes with selecting your application method. If you have bought a spray-on type of finish, then your method is predetermined. Otherwise, you can apply the stain using a brush of some sort. Beeswax stains are usually applied with a cloth and then buffed into the wood’s surface.


Applying the Wood Stain

The method for applying the wood stain depends on the type of finish you have bought. Some products have been manufactured for spraying, and others are made as liquid that must be applied similarly to how you would apply paint – with a brush.

Apply Stain to Oak with Brush

If you are working with the liquid form, the size of the brush that you use will depend entirely on how big the project that you are creating is. If the spaces are large, a bigger brush is preferable, and if the space is small with little nooks and corners, a smaller brush will work better. When you dip the brush into the stain, you must ensure that it only goes in three-quarters of the way and that the stain does not touch the ferrule of the brush (the metal part that holds the bristles to the handle) so that the stain does not cause it to break down and make the bristles fall out.

If you are working with the spray mechanism, make sure that you hold the nozzle at the recommended distance from the wood’s surface so that there are no visible liquid drips. Make sure that the stain is applied in steady motions so as to achieve the smoothest and most even finish. 



An oak finish might not have seemed like such an important thing to you before, but now, after reading this tutorial, we hope you appreciate the furniture in your home even more, understanding the process they have undergone to make them as elegantly beautiful and long-lasting as they are. Ideally, you should be more clued-up on how to finish oak wood, whether you are finishing red oak or white oak.



Frequently Asked Questions


How Easy Is Staining Red Oak?

Oak is easier to work with if you are considering the staining part of the finishing process. It is much more absorbent, so the stain seeps right into the wood’s surface. But generally, red oak is thought to be the easier type of oak to work with and apply stain to.


What Is the Quality of White Oak?

The quality of the wood that you need will depend on what you are building with the wood. If you are looking at the general reasons that make it good quality, then white oak is a lot stronger than most hardwoods, and will resist rotting for longer. It is also very versatile, so it is able to be used for multiple projects and builds.


Why Does White Oak Cost So Much?

In addition to being versatile, white oak is highly popular across many industries, making it more expensive than other hardwoods. White Oak trees also take a long time to grow, so they are expensive because of that.

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