Tung oil

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Tung oil
IUPAC name
tung oil
Other names
china wood oil; lumbang oil; tung oil paraformaldehyd; tungmeal; tungoel
EC Number 232-272-3
Density 0.937 g/ml at 25°C
1.52 (20°C)
Flash point >110°C
Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
Infobox references

Tung oil or China wood oil is a drying oil obtained by pressing the seed from the nut of the tung tree (Vernicia fordii). As a drying oil, tung oil hardens (dries) upon exposure to air. The resulting coating is transparent and plastic-like; a property which is exploited in most of its applications such as wood finishing, as well as in the composition of oil paints and printing inks. Related drying oils include linseed, safflower, poppy, and soybean.[1] The oil and its use are believed to have originated in ancient China and appear in the writings of Confucius from about 400 B.C. Raw Tung oil tends to dry to a fine wrinkled finish; the US name for this is gas checking: this property was used to make wrinkle finishes, usually by adding excess cobalt drier. To stop this, the oil is heated to gas-proof it, and most oils used for coating are gas-proofed.

The name is often used by paint and varnish manufacturers as a generic name for any wood finishing product that contains the real tung oil and/or provides a finish that resembles that obtained with it.[2]


The tung oil tree originates in southern China and was cultivated there for tung oil, but the date of cultivation remains unknown.[3] During the Song Dynasty, tung oil was used for waterproofing on ships.[4] Tung oil is etymologically derived from the Chinese tongyou.[5]


The major fatty acids in tung oil and their concentration are listed in the table.

Major fatty acid composition of tung oil[6]
alpha-eleostearic acid 82.0%
linoleic acid 8.5%
palmitic acid 5.5%
oleic acid 4.0%

The primary constituent is an aliphatic carboxylic acid with a chain of 18 linked carbon atoms or methylene units containing three conjugated double bonds. They are especially sensitive to autoxidation which encourages cross linking of neighbouring chains and hence hardening of the base resin.


Wood finishing[edit]

Showing the golden effect of polymerized tung oil versus bare wood.

When applied in many fine coats over wood, tung oil slowly cures to a satin "wetted wood" look with slight golden tint. The oil is often diluted with hydrocarbon thinner so that the viscosity is very low and enables the oil to penetrate the finest grain woods. One commercial grade is known as Danish oil. Tung oil resists liquid water better than any other pure oil finish, though it still provides little protection against water vapour exchange or scratches. Tung oil does not darken noticeably with age and is claimed to be less susceptible to mould than linseed oil.[7]

Tung oil has become popular as an environmentally friendly wood finish, but it should be noted that many products labelled as "tung oil finishes" are deceptively labelled: polymerized oils, wiping varnishes, and oil/varnish blends have all been known to be sold as tung oil finishes (sometimes containing no tung oil at all), and all the above contain solvents and/or chemical driers.[8] Product packaging will usually clearly state if it is pure tung oil.

Heating tung oil to about 500 °F (260 °C)[9] in an oxygen-free environment will substantially increase the viscosity and film-forming quality of the product. Most polymerized tung oils are sold mixed with mineral spirits to make them easier to work with.[citation needed] Limonene and D-limonene are less toxic alternatives for the mineral spirits.[citation needed]

Oil-paper umbrella[edit]

Main article: Oil-paper umbrella

The Oil-paper umbrella is the traditional umbrella used in China, Japan and other countries in the sinosphere, and was brought to western countries through the Silk Road. Tung oil is the "oil" mentioned in the oil-paper umbrella,[citation needed] which is used to protect the paper from getting wet, and to make the umbrella waterproof.

Other uses[edit]

As the penetrating power of tung oil is excellent and it will adhere to porous minerals, it is often used by stonemasons on granite or marble installed in kitchens, bathrooms, and other staining fluid environments.[10] Applied at a 1:1 to 1:5 ratio (oil to naphtha or limonene), it gives a finish like that of wet stone. Often several thin layers are applied at the high solvent-to-oil ratio, in order to build up the durability and permanence of the coating.


The traditional technique for applying pure tung oil is to dilute the oil 1:1 with solvent, then apply a succession of very thin films with a soft non-fuzzy cloth such as tee-shirt cotton. Diluents range from traditional spirits of turpentine to any of the new citrus-based thinners to naphtha. The choice of thinner should be guided by how fast the coating needs to set. Naphtha works well in spray-on applications in well ventilated studios. Primary coats may be laid down at a 1:1 oil-to-thinner ratio, and successive layers, if not absorbed into the wood, at higher solvent to oil concentrations. This technique brings out the deepest color of the wood while maintaining a matte finish.

Tung oil finishes that start with polymerized oils or tung oil preparations are best applied in the fat over lean principle: thinned pure oil is applied to deeply penetrate the surface, to fill pores. Straight oil is then applied moderately to adhere to the surface and provide a good base for the thick gloss layers. The polymerized oil is then applied thickly as a single layer, allowed to fully dry, is buffed smooth with very fine sandpaper, then 00 steel wool. The surface is wiped clean with a moistened rag, then allowed to dry. A final coat is applied fairly thickly (the oil will smooth itself into a glass-like coating) and allowed to dry for two to three days. Rags soaked with Tung oil can spontaneously combust ( burst into flame ).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ulrich Poth, "Drying Oils and Related Products" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2002. doi:10.1002/14356007.a09_055
  2. ^ Tung Oil, WoodworkDetails.com
  3. ^ David N. Keightley (1983). The Origins of Chinese Civilization. University of California Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-520-04229-2. 
  4. ^ Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, James B. Palais (2006). East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-13384-4. p. 133.
  5. ^ "Tung oil". Merriam Webster. Retrieved 5 October 2012. 
  6. ^ Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "Minor oil crops - Individual monographs". Retrieved 2007-10-15. 
  7. ^ Flexner, Bob (1993). Understanding Wood Finishing. Pan Macmillan. p. 77. ISBN 0875965660. 
  8. ^ Flexner, pp. 71,79
  9. ^ "Process for stabilizing and refining tung oil and product thereof". US Patent 2867639. 
  10. ^ "How to Make and Apply Your Own Marble Sealer". 

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Tung oil at Wikimedia Commons