Wood Finish: Tung Oil vs. Polyurethane

Tung oil vs polyurethane

There are many types of wood finish that are currently sold on the market, most of which fall into the stain or varnish category. A stain protects by soaking into the wood while the varnish protects by creating a protective barrier. The most popular type of stain is tung oil and the most popular type of varnish is polyurethane. Both have their own set of pros and con, which is why we will examine the difference in tung oil and polyurethane in this article.

Tung Oil Wood Finish

Compared to polyurethane, tung oil is a much older product. It has been used to protect wood products for many centuries, with origins in likely in China. Tung oil, also known as China wood oil, is rumored to be first used in China to waterproof ships. As a stain, tung oil will soak into the surface of the wood, which makes it ideal for waterproofing outdoor furniture.

Tung oil will take much longer, at least 48 hours, for a single coat of stain to completely soak into the surface and dry. In order to fully waterproof a wood surface, at least seven coats of tung oil should be applied with a clean cloth. Compared to polyurethane, finishing wood with tung oil could take up to two weeks before a wood surface is completed.

Common Questions and Answers About Tung Oil

  • How attractive is tung oil? Since tung oil is rubbed onto the surface of the wood with a cloth before it soaks in, it will naturally enhance the grain of the wood. The result after applying tung oil enhance the grain of the wood. The more coats of tung oil that are applied, the shinier the wood surface will appear to be.
  • How durable is tung oil? Tung oil is a very durable finish and more layers of the stain will provide even more protection. that you add over one another, the more durable that it will become. Tung oil is an excellent choice to make the table in your outdoor wood surfaces more durable while making them more polished looking at the same time.
  • Tung OilIs tung oil food safe? Tung oil is a non-toxic substance, which many users consider to be one of the best aspects of the stain. People feel better knowing they are able to use the stain on any wood surface without causing harm to their loved ones and pets.
  • How expensive is tung oil? Tung oil is not cheap. Those interested in using tung oil should be prepared to spend 60 dollars or more high quality, brand name tung oil.
  • How much maintenance is required for tung oil? When it comes to maintenance, tung oil needs to be touched up on every few months in order to keep its shine. In order to keep the sheen, an additional coat should be applied.

If you are looking for a quality tung oil check out what is available on Amazon.

Polyurethane Wood Finish


Polyurethane is actually a type of polymer. It was developed in 1937 as an alternative before WWII. After the war, polyurethane became popular as a wood finish. Polyurethane only covers the surface of wood, so the varnish does not provide a completely waterproof protective barrier.

While the type of varnish doesn’t completely waterproof a wood surface, it does take a much shorter time to dry compared to tung oil. Polyurethane is applied to a wood surface with a brush or sponge in order to smear the varnish. This type of varnish usually only takes 12 hours to dry, which is significantly less time than tung oil. While polyurethane takes less time to dry than tung oil, it cannot provide a protective barrier like the stain. Polyurethane can make wood watertight, but will require only two layers in order to be protected.

Common Questions and Answers About Polyurethane

  • How attractive is polyurethane? Polyurethane is not as attractive as tung oil though it is completely transparent as long as you choose a polyurethane that is based in water. In contrast to this, polyurethane that is based in oil will leave behind a very slight yellow color.
  • What kind of wood surfaces is polyurethane
    best suited to protect?
     
    When it comes to wooden surfaces that receive a lot of foot traffic, your top choice should be polyurethane over tung oil. Polyurethane can take more wear and tear than tung oil without the need to reapply regularly.
  • Should I use polyurethane that is based in oil or water? Polyurethane that is based in oil will leave behind a slight yellow color when applied, whereas a water-based polyurethane is transparent. The trade-off is that oil-based polyurethane is also slightly more durable than the water based varnish and will be able to take in more wear and tear. Oil based polyurethane is also more resistant to extreme temperatures.
  • How clean does the wood surface have to be before applying polyurethane? It is extremely important that the wood surface is as clean as possible before adding a polyurethane finish. Any particles that exist on the wood will be integrated into the finish after it is applied if the surface is not completely clean. If applying to wood flooring, it is important to scrub the flooring thoroughly before adding the varnish.
  • Is polyurethane safe? Polyurethane is not only very Polyurethane Wood Finishlow in toxicity, but it’s also known for having very limited odor as well. When applied in the recommended amount, polyurethane is a very safe finish to add to the wood surfaces around the home.
  • What forms is polyurethane available in? You
    can buy polyurethane in a number of different forms, including wipe on and spray. Between the two, the wipe on form is by far the most common and is best applied with traditional paint brushes or a sponge.
  • Can you use polyurethane over tung oil? Yes,
    and not only that, polyurethane and tung oil are completely compatible so long as the tung oil is applied first and is completely dried before applying the polyurethane.

If you are looking for a quality polyurethane check out what is available on Amazon.

Tung Oil vs. Polyurethane Conclusion

The biggest difference between tung oil and polyurethane is that tung oil will sink into the surface of the wood whereas polyurethane will only cover the outside of the surface.

The advantages to using tung oil is that it creates a truly waterproof surface, is very attractive, and is one of the safest wood finishings to use. The disadvantages are that it requires you to recoat the surface at least once every six months to a year, it takes a long time to dry, and is also quite expensive. Tung oil is best used on surfaces other than floors, such as furniture, gun stocks, and picture frames.   

The advantages to using polyurethane is that it has a significantly less drying time, does not have to be recoated over on a scheduled  basis, and is a far superior choice than tung oil for finishing wood floors. The disadvantages to polyurethane is that oil-based polyurethane can leave behind a slight yellow tint, and it requires the wood surface to be completely clean before applying in order for it to be effective.

You could use either tung oil or polyurethane depending on the task that you have at hand. Both finishes have their pros and cons, but both are also proven wood finishes that have been used for many years.  

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