When you're browsing finishing materials at your hardware store, the different choices are generally grouped together on the shelves for your convenience, e.g. shellac, lacquer, water-based varnish and oil-based varnish. Some of these finishes may also be found in convenient spray cans as well.
You may notice that it's primarily the oil-based varnishes that offer several different choices on the shelf for specific needs and situations, e.g. ordinary varnish, wipe-on varnish, penetrating oil finishes such as Watco Danish Oil, plus usually some version of an oil-based "wood conditioner" for evening out the grain to help avoid splotchy results.
There may be times that you're working away in your shop in the middle of the night and you suddenly realize that you're out of the oil finish that you were planning to use on the project. Perhaps you need wood conditioner first and then a couple of coats of wipe-on varnish, but all you have on hand is a can of ordinary varnish. What to do?
Fortunately, with a container of ordinary varnish plus some mineral spirits from your cabinet along with the following info, your worries are over! You probably already have everything you need on hand. Let me explain.
Oil-based varnish can be thinned with mineral spirits, and it also works as the solvent for wipe-on varnish, penetrating oil (Danish oil) and oil-based wash coat.
Thinning straight varnish 25% with mineral spirits gives you a "wipe-on" varnish. Thinning it 50/50 yields a penetrating oil finish, and thinning it 25/75 creates a very good "wash coat."
This formula has always worked well for me. I would also recommend that only true mineral spirits, not "odorless" mineral spirits be used for this purpose.
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