Believe me. I get it. You’ve just spent an incalculable amount of time, blood, sweat, and many times tears making a project out of some very beautiful wood. It is now time to “finish” your masterpiece. This is the stressful step where you must force yourself to transform from craftsman to Walter White from Breaking Bad. And this is why for years, so many of my projects remained 90% completed. Hopefully I can help you put an end to the stress and anxiety of finishing your woodworking projects with “An Idiot’s Guide to Wood Finishing”. As a self proclaimed idiot myself, I feel that I have the authority to write such an aptly titled article. I plan to dumb it all down and simplify it as much as possible so woodworkers of all skill levels can hopefully can some knowledge.
Surface Preparation is Key!
First, the piece has to be ready for a respectable finish. By and large, I will sand up to about 220 grit and call it good. But I take the time to thoroughly sand up through the grits and get all swirl marks out as I go. It can be fun to play around with sanding to as high of a grit as you can, upwards of 600, 800, 1000 and so on. I suggest doing this on practice pieces where you can see when you’ve burnished the wood, not made any noticeable difference, or gone too far. You can also play around with a fine water spray and get the grain to “stand up” or “raise” then sand it back down. Playing around with these techniques will prove invaluable as you will get to know and understand the grain in a way that no article could ever tell you. But for the most part, 220 is good enough for most cases. Then with compressed air, I like to remove the heavy dust particles. Next I use a clean cloth damp with thinner to grab and remove the smaller particles that you would otherwise see and curse over as you watch your product cure. Also, a tack cloth works well to remove fine dust right before you go to apply your product. It should go without saying that dust management is paramount in the finishing process. Sometimes it may be necessary to hang plastic, visqueen, or some sort of barrier to keep the dust out.
To Stain, or Not to Stain?
As a personal rule, I aim to avoid staining wood and rather look for reasons to not stain as opposed to looking for excuses to stain. From Alder to Zebrawood, I find beauty in it all. I love to bring out the look and figure of the grain naturally whenever possible. But sometimes the job just calls for color. Again, I love General Finishes and have used just about all of their products. I like their stains a lot, and would recommend them to anyone looking to stain wood. The first thing that I consider when staining is what kind of wood I am working with. A natural wonder such as Walnut, Pau ferro, Cocobolo, or the like? Not happening. If you apply stain to any such exotic or beautifully figured dark wood, hang up the tools and find a new hobby. If it is a particularly hardwood like hard maple, oak, or hickory for example, the stain applies really well directly on the wood. Think of it as spreading an even coat of water onto a granite counter top with a squeegee. You have a lot of control over where and how much stain gets applied. The drawback is that is doesn’t always absorb much stain, leaving it a lighter shade of the desired color. Sometimes you can apply more coats of the stain and achieve a darker shade, but often you find there is a max capacity of color that can be absorbed. This is sometimes for me where the General Finishes Dye stains come in. They typically are far more potent than a Varathane or Minwax product.
Staining Soft Woods
Softer woods often require the application of a stain control product prior to staining which helps them to take the stain without being left with a blotchy, ugly stain application. But whenever I can, I like to avoid the stain and accentuate the natural beauty of the wood. My favorite product that does this is Maloof Oil. Sam Maloof used this on his chairs and I have used it for years. It is magical on just about any species. It really makes the wood pop and come alive. Walnut oil and mineral oil works really well on items that will come in contact with food. Those can easily be finished off or combined with beeswax to assist in sealing and providing a nice sheen.
At SoCal Woodshop we use our own blend of beeswax and walnut oil for the finish on many of our cutting boards, wood cutlery, and other food safe boards called Board Wax which is available in a 4oz tin on our website. We’ve found it adds a beautiful, food safe finish to many of our projects and people seem to really like it. (Shameless plug intended)
Lacquer, Linseed oil, Polycrylic, Polyurethane?
There is a seemingly endless list of finish options. For the most part, I follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Any halfway decent company has at least one person on staff that spent many years in school figuring out the best compounds so that we wouldn’t have to. It’s comical to me to see woodworkers attempt to improve a product by thinning it or adding other stuff to it.
Interior vs Exterior Finishes
Interior finishes are for interior purposes. They harden on the wood to protect them from spills and chemicals. Exterior finishes are typically designed to be more flexible to allow moisture to enter and evaporate out of the wood, but they require sunlight to evaporate. I used to think that exterior products must be better and more durable since they are designed for exterior uses. That is not the case. In fact, many interior use products are really excellent on table tops, floors, and other applications where they stand to be exposed to heavy wear and chemicals.
Water based vs. Oil based
A favorite finish of mine is Arm-R-Seal by General Finishes. It is oil based and really enhances the look of the wood, but is also easy to apply and very durable. Oil based products tend to yellow or amber the wood and take significantly longer to dry and cure, often 12 to 24 hours. Water based products dry very quickly and maintain the original, natural color of the wood. However, there are some water based products that act much like oil based ones in that they dry slowly and amber the wood. For water based applications, I often use a box store product like Minwax polycrylic, wipe on polys, or General Finishes Enduro. It depends on the intended use and sometimes profit margins. If it is a wall hanging piece that will likely be left alone, or if I am on a very tight budget, I’ll go with a box store product. All other times, I’ll opt for a General Finishes product.
Spray, Brush, or Wipe?
Oil based products can be much more tedious to clean off of the fine parts of an HVLP gun. I prefer to spray water based products because they dry faster, making them more prone to show the brush strokes. Also, water based products are far easier to clean. Simple soap and water or thinner will clean the gun easily. Take the time to play around with the spray patterns and volume knobs before using it on your work piece. You will save a tremendous amount of time, and learn a ton all at once.
Wipe On & Brushing
Oils dry and cure slower making them more forgiving to be brushed or wiped on. I don’t like using foam brushes as they tend to break apart mid application, leaving evil little bits of foam on my pieces. I prefer to wipe or brush oil products as they can be more difficult to clean. When brushing, whenever possible, use long, straight, length of the surface strokes in the direction of the grain. Forget the karate kid’s short and brisk strokes. Challenge yourself to be as smooth as you can. With that, buy yourself a nice brush. A $2 brush will leave a $2 finish and about .33 cents worth of brush hairs in your surface.
Meet the Author/Woodworker:
Pete Tagliere is the President of SoCal Woodshop, a collective of woodworkers in Los Angeles, CA with this mission of furthering the craft of carpentry through sharing knowledge, experience, and skills in a friendly, community atmosphere.