Dipping small woodworking items to finish them

When holiday projects are done and the wood chips swept up, it’s time to apply finish. One of the quickest, easiest, and most foolproof ways to finish small items is to dip them in a finish.

Jewelry, hanging ornaments, espresso tampers, toys and other small wood parts present both a challenge and an opportunity. They get blown about by spray finish and can be swamped by brushes that both miss areas and leave drips and runs. However, if they are small enough, you can dip them in wood finishes.

Reach for the Oil

My first choice for dipping is pure boiled linseed oil. Immerse small parts and let them soak overnight in a plastic zip-sealed bag filled with oil. Squeeze out most of the air before sealing the bag so that a minimum amount of oil is needed to completely engulf the parts

Wood will absorb oil deep into its pores, adding richness to the color and impregnating the wood below the surface. Pure oil is 100 percent solids with no solvents to evaporate off. That means whatever amount the wood holds will cure to a solid film once it’s exposed to the air.

Take the parts out of the bag, wipe all the excess off completely, and either hang the part or set it gently onto the rough side of very coarse (24 or 36-grit) sandpaper. Wiping thoroughly will prevent any drips or marks where it hangs or touches the sandpaper, and the large grit particles allow air to circulate so even the bottom cures.

Reach for the Oil

Finished maple burl wood espresso tamper
The "dip" finishing method worked great on this maple burl espresso tamper.

One dip may be enough, but if you prefer, you can re-wet and re-wipe the parts again and again, adding one thin coat per day until you are happy with the results. Once the wood stops absorbing the oil it will start building a thin surface film.

The same technique works for oil varnishes, polyurethanes, and oil-based paints. These don’t need a long soak; simply dip and wipe. Varnish and paint won’t impregnate as deeply, but will create a thin film on the surface. Oil-based coatings will not re-dissolve themselves after drying, so as long as you wait a day between coats, you won’t be inadvertently wiping off the already cured finish.

Once dry, oil is attractive, natural-looking and safe for toys and food items, and will stand up to heat, chemicals and washing. Handle the item often and the sebaceous oil from your skin will add to the patina instead of eroding it. Frequent washing will eventually rub off some of the finish, but you can rejuvenate it the same way you applied it in the first place.

Other Options

Of course, you can always dip into shellac or lacquer, but they are less durable and each coat re-dissolves the previous one, so you end up wiping off everything but the first coat each time. Simply hanging them to dry without wiping off the excess may cause a dried knob of finish to form at the bottom where gravity causes the flowing finish to collect and harden.

Water-based coatings and paints may work a bit better, but many suffer some of the same drawbacks as shellac and lacquer. That’s why I prefer oil-based coatings for dipped finishes.

I suppose you could say boiled linseed oil is this woodworker’s favorite holiday dip.