Wood Finishing Tips

by David Gillie

This article first appeared in a thread on theWoodNet woodworking forum. It was compiled and reproduced here for easier public consumption. All Text are the property of David Gillie.

I'll probably get crucified and then my remains sliced to ribbons, but here goes anyway...

I've seen plenty of hobbyists who make absolutely beautiful pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and they take their time because they want their granddaughters crib (or whatever the piece is to be perfect). They have a luxury time that professionals don't have.

And then they go and put the finish on and it looks like a "hobby jobby".

Breaks my heart to see this happen (and I see it far too often).

So here are some tips for getting a great looking finish on your well crafted piece of work:

SANDING: Don't sand the raw wood too smooth. It will actually burnish the wood and the stain/varnish won't soak in evenly (not to mention a lot of extra work). Depending on the wood, I've found that sanding the raw wood to 150 or 180 grit is just fine.

STAINING: Avoid this if possible. You are not going to get pine to look like walnut or to get poplar to look like cherry with stain.

However, there are times when you want to use hues to accentuate the natural grain and figure of the wood. Maple is a good example or to make cherry or mahogany look "aged".

The easiest and best ways I've discovered over the years for toning woods are either to use tones of shellacs (however they tend to have a golden/amber tint regardless of which you chose).

The other is to use Watco tinted Danish oils. This is the easiest and most successful that I have found. The reason for this is beacuse it has some varnish in the mix and will give you more time to work it in evenly and the varnish will begin filling the grain. (For very pourus woods like oak, it's a good idea to use BLO first so it doesn't sink into the pourus grain too quickly). This is the best way I've found to avoid "splotchy" stain jobs or "tiger striping" like what happens with oak.

Generally, I'll start with Watco Fruitwood and then add a little walnut to get a deep warm reddish tone, or some golden oak to highlight the amber tones (remember that your topcoat of varnish will also give it a amber tone so be aware to keep this in mind). By applying the mix of Watco on and then wiping off, it's easy to get the desired depth of the color you are trying to acheive. Or even using two coats if you really need to deepen the color.

Now we get to the topcoat....

The knee jerk finish it to go to the Big Box and get a can of Minwax Polyurathane because we think it's a "bulletproof" protective finish. I have a cabinet full of every kind of topcoat there is on the market, I think. Of all of these, polyurthane is the most difficult apply and get a good finish. Even if you do, it looks like a plastic coating and is impossible to repair (without complete stripping) if there is a damaged area.

To cut to the chase, the one I've found to give the best and easiest results is Waterlox. And the best way to apply it and not get streaks/drips/etc is with a good quality foam brush. Depending on the type of wood and the desired finish, I find that it usually takes 2-4 coats of the Waterlox to get my desired finish (this will vary if you have used the Watco underneath and how absorbant the wood is).

DO NOT wipe off or sand in between coats. This will just remove the finish you are trying to build! Apply however many coats, then when you get it to the desired finish, sand with 400 grit and apply the final topcoat.

If you want a satin finish, use satin for the last coat ONLY. Satin varnish has light deadeners in it to make it "satin" multiple coats of this will make your finish look cloudy. For all the undercoats of varnish, use semi-gloss so you will have a nice clear finish. Finally, when you are applying your varnish finish, try to get all coats applied within a few days. Don't allow the finish to "cure" between coats. Only on the next to last coat (that will be sanded) allow it to dry fully (about 24 hrs) before sanding. After you put on your final topcoat, let the piece stand where it is for a few days to allow the finish to harden.

These simple steps will give your well made "hobby" piece the complete "professional" look and will look great for many, many years of service.

Happy finishing.

Now everybody can begin telling me how dead wrong I am.

Return to Power Index

Return to Woodworking

©2007 Cian Perez / www.CianPerez.com