Canadian Woodworking

Red oak finish

Author: Marty Schlosser
Published: June July 2009

There are few woods easier to finish than red oak. Whether you want it stained and sporting a bulletproof topcoat, or have its natural oak glow shining through, you can’t go wrong with red oak.


I’ve been there myself. You’ve worked hard to get your project to the point where it’s looking good, really good, and you don’t want to mess it up with a finish that’s anything less than terrific. Look no further because here is my tried and proven, easy red oak finish.

Using gloves will prevent your skin from matching your project when applying gel stain 

Use a lint-free, durable paper towel to wipe off excess using strokes parallel to grain direction

If a natural look is desired, skip the gel stain and use the topcoat gel finish

Surface Preparation

It almost goes without saying that every project needs to be properly prepared before being finished. In fact, the vast majority of finishes are ruined or less than perfect as a result of cutting corners at this essential stage. This includes ensuring there’s no residual glue anywhere and that the surface is free of any machining marks or sanding scratches. Once the surface has been properly hand planed or sanded, you’re ready to begin.

Grain Filling

Red oak is an open-grained hardwood, much like ash, walnut or mahogany.

Whether flat-sawn or quarter-sawn, you need to apply grain filler if you’re interested in having a pore-filled finish. That having been stated, my easy red oak finish largely negates any need for grain filling, as the stain and the topcoat are thixotropic oil-based gels that act as though they have fillers in them. Now, how’s that for a time-saver?

Thixotropic: Describes a material which undergoes a reduction in viscosity when shaken, stirred or otherwise mechanically disturbed and which readily recovers the original condition on standing.

Required Materials

Gel finishes are fortunately now being made by a number of the most common finish manufacturers. These oil-based gels are easy to use and provide excellent non-blotching coverage on difficult-to-stain woods such as cherry, pine, birch or maple. Instead of rags for applying these finishes, try using durable, long-lasting, lint-free paper towels.


If you’ve elected to stain the bare wood, don’t sand down any finer than 120 grit, or else your stain won’t take as well and you’ll be forced to add additional coats. Follow the instructions on the can and thoroughly stir the stain. Fold your paper towel into quarters then dip it into the tin to get a generous amount of stain. Apply the stain using a circular motion then leave it on for approximately four minutes before rubbing any excess off with a clean paper towel, rubbed parallel to the grain.

If the colour isn’t dark enough, wait patiently until the stain has set fully before applying a second coat. Note, however that the topcoat will usually darken the stain somewhat, so be careful not to go too dark. If you don’t wait for the stain to dry thoroughly, the next coat of stain will act as a solvent and actually lighten the finish instead of darkening it. Patience is a virtue and a necessary component of all finishing tasks.

Because this is an oil-based stain, the application rags need to be fully dried in the open before being disposed of in the garbage. My usual practice is to lay the finish-soaked towels over the lip of the garbage can overnight. Once the stain has completely dried and you are fully satisfied with the colour, move along to applying the protective topcoat.

Staining has been receiving an unfair rap in some circles, and that’s unfortunate. One of stain’s finest characteristics is its ability to blend in what may otherwise be considered blemishes that would detract from an otherwise beautiful finish. Lighter sapwood areas on a board, or otherwise lighter sections or panels of a project may also need to be stained to even out their colour. In these cases, staining the affected area will help it blend in with the rest of the piece.


Topcoats are applied in much the same way as stain, using a clean paper towel loaded with the gel finish and moved in a circular motion. Work on only one area at a time or your finish will begin to set before you’ve had the opportunity to remove the excess with a fresh towel. Once that has been done, take out another fresh towel and buff it with the grain. Continue moving over the entire piece, one section at a time until all areas have been covered. Apply two more coats, waiting patiently for the finish to dry thoroughly between each before seeing if additional coats are required. Let the finish dry at least overnight before subjecting it to use. It should look flawless and inspire you to try your hand at finishing even more complex pieces. Now, that was simple, wasn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Other articles to explore
Username: Password: