Waterlox vs. Watco Wood Finish

Upon completing your latest woodworking project, whether it be a coffee table, a countertop, a chair, or a desk, the next step is to choose the wood finish perfect for your project. The best wood finish works well with the grain of the wood, and it preserves the wood and keeps it in top shape for years to come. The wood finish should be waterproof like Waterlox products if the new project is near water. If the project is a new countertop, you want something safe for food.

Waterlox and Watco are two brands that became popular in the late 1970s upon numerous mentions in Fine Woodworking magazine. They became a common household name after people started using them. Fine Woodworking and similar magazines described Waterlox as tung oil and Watco as thinned varnish.

Watco is a mix of varnish, drying oil, and a lot of thinners. The oil part of the mix keeps the finish from drying hard, so Watco is not a very protective finish. With Watco, you have to wipe off excess finish after applying each coat, or the finish will remain sticky. Waterlox has been thinned with mineral spirit, making it a wiping varnish. Although it is thin, the Waterlox finish dries hard. Waterlox is made by cooking tung oil and phenolic resin, making it a darker color than most other varnishes, which are made of modified soybean oil and alkyd resin.

Waterlox vs Watco

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 WaterloxWatco
ResinWaterlox products use phenolic resin, which many varnishes do not use because it is a lot pricier than other kinds of resin. Phenolic resin is faster than most other resins to harden, and it produces a harder finish and higher gloss than other resins.On the other hand, Watco products such as Watco Danish Oil use alkyd resin which is less expensive than phenolic resin. Alkyd resin does not harden as quickly as phenolic resin; neither does it harden as much as the latter.
PriceWaterlox products are more expensive than Watco products, primarily because of the elements used to make Waterlox products. For example, Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish uses phenolic resin, which is pricier than other kinds of resin, such as alkyd resin. Waterlox is somewhat pricey, but it is worth it because it provides a durable, lustrous, and easily repairable finish.Watco products are generally cheaper than Waterlox products. For example, Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish price ranges anywhere from $48 to $75 per quart, while Watco Danish Oil costs anywhere from $23 to $66.55 per quart. Watco uses linseed oil for some of its products. Although linseed oil will provide you with a lustrous, repairable finish, it will not be as durable or water-resistant as tung oil cooked with phenolic resin (this is how Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish is made). This use of linseed oil is part of why Watco products, including Watco Danish Oil, are less expensive than Waterlox’s products.

Differences Between Waterlox and Watco

The significant differences between Waterlox and Watco lie in the resins and oils in the products. Anyone who applies both Waterlox and Watco on a slab to test them would notice this difference: Waterlox hardens faster than Watco, and ithas a higher sheen/gloss, which you can rub down to reduce the shine.

Number of Coats Applied

The number of coats you use to finish the wood could make or break the entire project. You do not want to use too many coats because your table, desk, chair, etc., could take the longest time to harden or, worst-case scenario, remain permanently soft. When you use Waterlox (for example, Waterlox’s Original Sealer/Finish), you can use four coats for most woods, but softer woods like pine and walnut will require that you apply four coats. Do not forget to keep the applicator (brush, pad, cloth, etc.) in mineral spirits or some other paint thinner to prevent crusts from forming on the applicator.

If you use Watco Danish Oil, 2-3 coats should be enough, and if applied correctly, the applied coats will not build a film. You may apply a bit more oil on wood ends or rough-hewn pieces as these parts have more open pores, and these pores absorb more oil.

Drying Time

Waterlox and Watco have different drying times, primarily because of the various ingredients that they are made of. Waterlox recommends a minimum drying time of at least 24 hours between coats. But this recommended time depends entirely on humidity, temperature, and air circulation, and that is why it is highly recommended to finish wood in properly ventilated spaces. While complete drying between coats of Waterlox’s Original Sealer/Finish takes at least 24 hours, a complete cure will take anywhere between a month to 3 months.

On the other hand, if you finish a surface with Watco’s Danish Oil, the surface will be ready for use in 8-10 hours. If, however, you plan to apply a topcoat like Varathane Professional Clear Finish or polyurethane, you should allow Watco’s Danish Oil to dry for 72 hours before applying.

Similarities Between Waterlox and Watco

Sand Between Coats

Neither Waterlox nor Watco require that you sand between coats, i.e., sand the wood after applying coat(s) of finish. However, Waterlox recommends that sanding might be a solution if you want a smoother finish, i.e., if there is dust on the coat or the coat feels rough, a light sanding may smoothen it out. Waterlox recommends that you have enough gloss over the wood’s surface if you must sand it (so that you sand the Waterlox film layer rather than the wood underneath). It would be best to sand it immediately before or after applying the final coat.

You do not need to sand after applying Watco Danish Oil, but a “wet” sanding is the way to go if you decide to. A “wet” sanding creates a smoother surface between coats; “wet” sanding uses fine sandpaper that uses water as a lubricant and keeps the surface smooth.

Conclusion

Waterlox and Watco are good wood finishes, and experienced woodworkers and casual/novice DIYers can use them both. If you want to choose which is best for you, consider where you want to apply the finish (i.e., the surface, places with proximity to water, etc.), your budget, etc.

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