Darbin Orvar

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My adventures in building, diy, construction, testing and finishing.

Using a Varnish Oil and Thinking about Durability

There are a few different concepts I wanted to cover in this week's blog and video. So this is less of a project piece and more of a thought piece. Not everyone is concerned with what I am concerned with but please bare with me as I go over what I think is a subject deserving of more coverage.

Last week I made a sort of silent film where I constructed a sheet music box and finished it with a wipe-on varnish oil. Because it was silent I did not go into why I chose it nor how I came upon the product. I covered some of this in the last blog post but I want to expand upon some of the things I was concerned with in the Fine Woodworking piece I referred to last week.

A round up of products is always questionable. Did you include every product? Or, is there any bias in the tester? And so on. Letting go of those points for a minute I suppose there were really two points that struck me about the article. Firstly, Chris Minick is a scientist by trade, and product reviews are definitely not science. Second, I thought it was questionable to have a product round-up including oils, strongly oil-based finishes and a variety of wipe-on varnishes including polyurethane. Granted that the article was about wipe-on finishes, but why then would you have a set of criteria which when reviewed even cursively by a beginner would yield the same conclusion as the lab-coated reviewer?

To put this plainly: reviewing a product is not science. Science is to discover that which is unknown, these products are clearly known. Anyone even mildly familiar with finishes would not compare wipe-on type oils such as Watco Danish Oil or Boiled Linseed Oil in the same breath with a wipe-on poly where the criteria were strictly durability and water/heat resistance. Finishers use Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish or Tried and True Varnish Oil for very different reasons than they use other products, and durability alone rarely determines what one chooses.

I wrote to the company that makes Tried and True and asked where they saw their product. I mentioned the article by Fine Woodworking and asked them to clarify where they picture their product in relation to the polyurethanes mentioned in the round-up. In their response they believed that their product is not meant to compete against polyurethanes.

Given that, it is not hard to see that craftsmen of all types choose their finishes for more than just the simple concept of durability. Personally I am not looking for a perfect finish, or a fool-proof finish, a term I have read and heard one-too-many times. I am looking for what belongs on each and every project individually. There can't be a perfect finish for counter tops, violins, floors and sheet music boxes. Each project has different demands.

Which brings me to my next point: durability and product preservation. We often take the better-safe-than-sorry approach to finishing, especially when a client is involved. Better to go a little overboard with protection, than worry it is not enough. This makes sense. You don't want to go against a client's wishes or cause undo problems. So polyurethane and lacquers are certainly important to achieving this. So sometimes its just not worth taking the chance.

Since I made the box for myself and wanted to try something that was for myself, no clients or expectations were involved. I did not have to worry solely about durability and I could free myself and try out a product I had not used before. A can of Tried and True Varnish Oil had been sitting on my shelf for a while and this seemed like a great project to try it out on. I like to explore new finishes, so I buy a few and test them on scrap wood, later on coming back to them when an appropriate project comes up.

Such a small box doesn't need too much finish, and I could take my time applying it, so the rather finicky nature of the product could be explored. Overall I really liked the product and said as much in my last post.

I guess it comes down to what we expect and how we assume certain things in life. I often try and challenge my own assumptions about products and techniques, and one of the great problems I see is why would you use something that does not provide the utmost in protection for something that offers very little. That is the crux of the varnish vs. oil argument.

My real concern with scientific-style reviews is the misleading nature as to what science is and how it does not belong in product testing. Immediately it makes me imagine all sorts of absurd comparisons.

If I lined up water, motor-oil and olive-oil while donning my lab coat, and went on to test which was better for engine lubrication I obviously would have some instant winners. The point being water and olive-oil should not have been in the round-up to being with.

Nothing is the good-for-every-use product that everyone may want. I would not line up hard film finishes with oil. Even though many products attempt to cross the line between a varnish and an oil with varnish oils, there is some instant recognition that the durability of a finish is simply one of many factors that expert finishers consider.

The bottom line has to be that you have to do what you want to do, but know that there is no real restriction. You can safely use products in ways not necessarily recommended by the manufacturer or that are generally accepted. It's about understanding what may happen and your tolerance for accepting responsibility.