Monthly Archives: September 2010

Finishing for Non-Finishers, Part I

Let me say at the outset that I am not a professional finisher.

In fact, if you looked in my shop – or asked my wife – you would reach the conclusion, based on the number of unfinished projects, that I am not even an amateur finisher.  A terrific starter, perhaps.  But not a finisher.

Enough with the play on words.  I digress.  Maybe that’s why I haven’t completed every project I’ve started.

Completing a woodworking project typically involves the application of a finish.  There is no other single operation in woodworking causes so many sleepless nights and creative strings  of cuss words  Well, there is the glue-up, but that is a subject for a different post.

What I plan to write about here are my experiences, and some wisdom I have been fortunate enough to collect from craftsmen a lot brighter than I.  Some are professionals, most are not.  Either way, many people have added something useful to add to this post.  And here let me add  that relevant comments from readers are welcome.

Go Back to School

Idea the First: Take a finishing class from a woodworker who is a professional finisher.  There is no substitute for working with a professional.  I’ve been working with wood in one form or another for a long time, and have ruined more than one with poor finishing techniques or by selecting the wrong finishing products for the piece I was trying to complete.  There are good and bad choices when you apply finishes to furniture.  About eight or ten years ago, I took a class from Teri Masaschi.  An occasional contributor to Fine Woodworking magazine, Teri is a professional wood finisher.  I learned more from that one-week class than from every book I ever read, and from every experiment I ever tried on my own.  There are others who travel and teach: Rollie Johnson is a frequent guest instructor at the Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, Oregon.  His classes are always terrifically enlightening and fun to boot.  While the cost of a one-week class might seem prohibitive, think about the time you put into working on a project.  Add to that the cost of your tools and equipment, and the cost of the lumber.  Averaged out over your woodworking life, the cost of a finishing class is peanuts.  The investment will pay dividends for every project you work on from, that point forward.  Having a good class under your belt will lower your blood pressure dramatically the next time you begin finishing a project.  Really.

Finish before you Start

Idea the Second: We need to be thinking about the finish on a piece when we go to the lumber yard.  Huh?? So early in a project?  The answer is: Oh, yeah, and here’s why.  Let’s say that you plan to build some small side tables or night stands, and you’re thinking about cherry as a nice species to work with.  You’ll need some leg stock, but all of the 8/4 boards in the bin have a fair amount of sapwood.  There’s no way you can get the eight legs you need out of any of the boards, keeping the grain relatively straight,  without some sap being included.  You had planned to use just a clear topcoat, with no dyes or stains to muddy the clean look of the cherry.  What do you do about that sapwood?  Leave it as it is, and call it a design feature?  Buy your lumber elsewhere?  Order the lumber online?  Understanding finishing, and how color works with the species you have chosen would go a long way to solving this problem.

My Project Developed A Rash

How about this problem, which is written about frequently on many woodworking blogs.  Have you ever used pine, or cherry, or any number of other woods, made a very nice piece of furniture, and then have is ruined by blotchiness the instant you applied a finish? There is a fairly straightforward remedy – actually, more than one – for this troublesome outcome.

In the posts that follow, I will try to pass along the knowledge I have been lucky enough to assemble over about thirty years of working with wood, and with finishes.  Along the way, if a reader has questions and I can help with an answer, I will include the question and answer in the appropriate post.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

Categories: Woodworking | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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