I freely admit that I'm no expert at finishing. My pre-Einsel experience consists of refinishing an oak dresser in high school and later building a cherry night stand in college. Neither of those jobs comes anywhere close to the scope the finishing job currently ahead of us. There was only one thing I knew from the start - that I didn't want anything too glossy.
Somewhere in my research I learned about tung oil, and I liked what I read. A warm hand-rubbed matte finish that does better than surface finishes at hiding scratches and dings, and that can be refreshed by simply applying another coat of oil (no sanding required). The downsides I read of included a more involved application process with a long drying time between coats. Still, I was intrigued enough to order an 8 oz. bottle from the Real Milk Paint Company. I applied a few coats to the back of a small scrap of walnut trim and liked what I saw. In December I went ahead and ordered 3 gallons of the 100% Pure Tung Oil.
And all through the long winter we sanded woodwork. As we went, my mom took the time to remove long pieces of trim from each window so we could do a better job sanding them clean. Sometime in February I did a trial run using tung oil on one of these trim pieces from a bedroom. And I thought it looked rather dark. Charles' response when he saw it was, "Didn't we just spend two months working so that the wood wouldn't be that color?" Although I didn't want to admit it, I agreed with him.
The Einsel House has walnut woodwork throughout, but there are various shades of walnut in the different rooms. The lightest wood was clearly saved for the living room (where the trim for my initial tung oil trial was taken from). The darkest wood was used in the bedrooms upstairs. While a tung oil finish would look lovely in the living room, we decided it was simply too dark for the trim in most of the rest of the house.
So I went back to the internet and began researching other options. And when it comes to finishing wood there are a lot of options. I admit it was rather overwhelming.
Shellac was the first option I considered. It would be historically accurate and there seems to be an almost uniform agreement on all the woodworking forums that I visited that shellac does a beautiful job of bringing out the depth and color of walnut. Somewhere I read a post in which walnut and shellac were declared "a match made in heaven". And like tung oil, damange to a shellac finish is apparently easy to repair. However, shellac is naturally glossy, and getting the matte finish I prefer would require the added steps of buffing and waxing the final layer of shellac. I also came across frequent warnings that shellac does not hold up as well as other finishes. It's natural nemisis is denatured alcohol, and it is prone to white marks when exposed to water. Given that we have two young children, and given that we have windowsills over a foot deep (which I know will be tempting to use to place drinks or plants on), I want a finish that isn't known for being easier than others to mar.
One day at work as I was contemplating the tung oil v. shellac v. something else debate, I noticed that the woodwork in the office had a nice flat finish on it. The building that houses the law firm I work for was built in the early 1900's by the local Eagles club and restored in the early 1990's. The next time the owner stopped by I asked what finish he and his dad used on the woodwork. "Satin urethane," he replied with hardly a pause, "two coats, and steel wool it between them." But at the local hardware store I could not find anything labeled "satin urethane". (Admittedly, having a preschooler and kindergardner with just-out-of-school rambunctiousness in the aisle with me didn't help.)
A couple days later my mom brought to the EH a few cans of various finish options from the shop where she works. One was Minwax Helmsman Spar Urethane Clear Satin. It took me a minute to realize that this was perhaps the "satin urethane" I had been unsuccessfully looking for. From what I could find with Google's help, this spar urethane would be a very durable finish. It can hold up to water, doesn't discolor with sunlight, and was even designed for use on wooden boats. So I tried the urethane on our test piece of walnut. It was much lighter than the tung oil and the satin finish was still flat enough to please me, but something was lacking. Next to the tung oil, the urethane just looked sort of dull. It covered the wood with a nice flat finish that didn't darken, but it didn't do anything to highlight the color or grain of the walnut. It was okay, but it just didn't have any "pop".
We kept experimenting, using various stains under the urethane, but nothing really stood out. Eventually we had five boards we had various test finishes on. As usual, I don't have any great pictures, but the one at left will give you some idea.
Then I found this article. Way down in the last paragraph was the part that particularly caught my attention. It mentioned that Zinsser Sealcoat (which is a dewaxed shellac) can be used under a satin topcoat. A little more time with Google and I found several other references to using Sealcoat under another finish. Every reference I found spoke quite highly of this finishing process.
So I went back to my trim pieces of walnut and this time I applied a coat of Zinsser Sealcoat and then over it a coat of the Helmsman spar urethane. The sealcoat's difference was subtle, but there. It evened out the red tone in the walnut and it added some depth to the grain. In short, it gave the walnut some "pop" before it was covered with the protective urethane. I presented that walnut trim piece to several Einsel House visitors, and (without knowing what they were looking at) the sealcoat under urethane section was the unanimous favorite. In the picture above the sealcoat under urethane is at the bottom left.
So - that's what we're using to finish most of the wood we sanded at the Einsel House. Zinsser Sealcoat under 2 coats of satin urethane. I hope time will show it is the right choice.
Below is a (blurry) picture of me applying Sealcoat to the stairs:
I was quite surprised by how nervous I felt while putting on that initial coat. The decision wasn't made lightly, but in the back of my head I kept thinking, "All that work, and you could mess it up real quick now." But uncontrollable excitement kept bubbling up above that anxiety, because dang if those steps don't look amazing. : )
Before closing this post I have to add that spar urethane is not recommended for use on floors. In its place on both the floors and stairs at the EH we are using a product called Zip Guard, also in a satin finish.
With that, here's one last picture for today. It's yours truly sanding the first coat of finish on the dining room floor. (It's still waiting for its second coat as I write.)