Full Chisel Blog

November 16, 2010

The Importance of Washing your Hands before applying Oil Finishes

Filed under: Finishing,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized,Wood — Stephen Shepherd @ 12:56 pm

First, let me relate a story; someone asked me how to clean grease and grime from their hands without using any petrochemicals?  Simple; vegetable oil [that you cook with and eat] and salt [which you also cook with and eat].  Just pour into your hands some oil which acts as a solvent, and the salt, which cannot dissolve in oil, acts as an abrasive to help scrub out the dirt, grease, grime, stains, varnish, paint, etc.  Then wash your hands with soap and water to remove the organic cleaning compound.

And as a side note, while in Reno teaching the Painting and Graining workshop, I had to wash the sticky varnish from my hands with mineral spirits [petro chemical], as they didn’t have any turpentine, which I use from time to time to clean my hands.  Well the next day both of my hands were swollen and the skin obviously irritated.  I can only attribute it to using paint thinner.

Now to the point.  It is always a good idea to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and hot water to remove any surface dirt.  You can also first clean them using the oil/salt method above followed by washing with soap and water.  And the reason you might ask, or is now obvious, oils are great solvents.  Oils such as linseed/flaxseed oil, poppy seed oil, hemp seed oil and walnut oils are all drying oils and solvents.  These oils lend themselves to being applied by hand and if your hands are dirty, the oil will clean them and deposit the dirt into the wood.  On dark colored woods this isn’t much of a problem, but when oil finishing light colored woods such as maple, birch, poplar, holly, sycamore, deal, basswood, etc., dirty oil will color the wood.

Try the oil and salt [organic cleaning compound] trick, you will be surprised.



  1. Now you tell me.

    I ran into this while varnishing some oak window sills a few weeks ago. A dirty streak showed up on one that came out of nowhere and I couldn’t figure out how it got there. I had just dug the can of varnish out from the bottom of the storage room and cleaned it before opening it. What I didn’t do, though, was clean my hands.

    I’ll know better next time.

    Thanks, Stephen.

    Comment by Mitchell — November 17, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  2. Stephen,

    The common hand sanitizers which are available today will remove sap from your hands. This stuff has become invaluable to me when working with logs as the sap tends to get on everything, especially one’s hands. Since these products can be used without using hand towels, it’s very convenient in the shop. I know it’s not as natural as oil and salt, but it works for me. I use the Germ-X brand, FWIW, but most all of them will remove sap.

    Another great tip for woodworkers is getting the sap off your clothes. A cup of ammonia in a load of clothes will get the sap off. Just add a cup of ammonia with the soap.


    Comment by Alan — November 18, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

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