I’ve read many books and articles on finishing and there seems to be the pervasive idea that if it’s not difficult and time consuming, then it’s not a “fine finish”. Well, let me tell you, a very fine craftsman quality finish can be easily and quickly achieved.
But the formula is not advertised, it doesn’t come from one can and it doesn’t brush on in one step with a cheap foam brush. This article describes a finishing recipe which will give you a fine, craftsman quality finish.
Many of the finishing products found in home centers make these kinds of claims but produce only lackluster results. The words “easy” “fast” and “cheap”, especially when used together, generally don’t equate with quality and durability.
Don’t ignore: What is finish carpentry? to know more about finish woodworking
Before you read any further, I have a personal note for you: Finishing is both a science and an art. This is one way to produce a fine finish, it is not the only way, or necessarily the “best” way (whatever that is). A number of things I recommend here go against some conventional wisdom.
For example, I sand bare hardwood to 320, some people believe that 220 is plenty. This formula works for me. Experiment and do what works for you. With woodworking and finishing, there is seldom one right way to do anything.
About four years ago, I was in a local south Nottingham, where I saw an extraordinarily fine handcrafted chest of six drawers. It was made of beautiful solid woods such as cherry, and maple, had exposed dove tale joints, all the edges and corners were eased, and the drawers were lined with aromatic cedar. All in all, it was a very finely crafted and expensive piece.
The most striking thing was the finish. It was exceptionally smooth and silky to the touch, almost lubricated. It was also very thin and matt. It had none of the plastic or thick feel associated with poorly applied commercial polyurethane or lacquer finishes. Best of all, it allowed the ‘feel’ of the wood to come through – I loved that finish.
When we purchased our first residence with a garage, I was finally able to set up shop. My first goal was to build an Armoire and figure out how to reproduce that finish. Of course, I had lost the card from the craftsman who had created the piece so I couldn’t just ask. I knew what I wanted to do and set out to discover a process to duplicate that fine finish.
I experimented with everything. The first thing I tried was an oil based polyurethane from our local home center. I sanded the wood with a cheap quarter sheet sander and used a basic ‘varnish’ brush. In other words, the kind of steps recommended on home improvement shows and in do-it-yourself magazines.
The picture on the can of polyurethane was nice and the sample of wood at the home center seemed fine but the results I achieved were terrible. The finish was thick, uneven and felt like plastic wrap. The oil based poly took forever to dry and collected hundreds of tiny dust particles. I tried leveling with it sandpaper, but the poly film was so soft, even after a week of curing, that any sanding went right through it.
Discouraged, but determined, I kept experimenting with different things, Danish oils, shellac, spray lacquer, etc. etc. etc. I brushed, padded, sprayed from a can all in a search for a finish with the following qualities:
♦ Quick drying: I only get to work an hour or so a day during the week and a few hours on the weekends so I wanted something that would dry quickly.
♦ A thin finish: I appreciate finishes that protect the wood, but still manage to let the feel of the wood’s character through. To me, it’s a shame to cover a beautiful piece of wood with a thick, plastic feeling finish.
♦ A matt finish: I’m not too keen on gloss finishes. To me, a gloss finish, especially if it is uneven in any way, makes a piece look cheap. A well done gloss finish on a perfectly flat surface is beautiful, but most gloss finishes are not like this. I dislike the commercial sprayed lacquer finishes found on most modern mass produced furniture.
♦ A tough finish: I have two daughters, 2 and 11. Anything they use needs to be tough. Cold drinks need to be able to sit on table tops without damaging the piece. A top whacked or scuffed with a toy shouldn’t ding or scratch and mom should be able to clean up the piece with a damp sponge.
After two and a half years, I finally figured it out…and let me tell you, the results are stunning. I have several woodworking friends and they were all very impressed with the results. Best of all, this finish meets all my requirements!
This finish is a water based polyurethane over a sealer such as shellac or special purpose sanding sealer. This sounds trivial, but as usual, the devil is in the details. Unlike many other recipes for fine finishes, there is no mystery or magic here. The steps are simple, straightforward and fast. This process can be varied for different woods and for staining. My first experiments have been on unstained cherry and ash.
Not all finishing products are created equal. Some of the stuff sold in home centers is really junk. Believe me, I’ve tried many of them. I followed all the directions, used all kinds of brushes and ended up really frustrated.
Target’s finishes are all water based. Water clean up is really great – soap and warm water are all that’s required. Everything just goes down the drain and cleanup doesn’t require any stinky chemicals. In my experience, these finishes are easier to work with and perform as well or better than their solvent based counterparts.
You may wonder about the quality of water based products. I’ve had bad experiences with them have many others. For several years, water based products just didn’t measure up to their oil based brethren. In my experience, this is still true for many of the home center finishes.
The polyurethane is particularly nice and is key to this process. It is advertised to be ultra clear and never to yellow. For me its two most important characteristics are:
It dries very fast: For thin coats on a warm day, it can be sanded and re-coated in as little as twenty or thirty minutes.
It cures very hard: This isn’t cheap poly from the home center. This is a high quality product designed for commercial use on yachts, fine homes and furniture. Two thin coats easily hold up to cold ice tea glass and crayons.
Note that this technique works well with the Target Varnish and Lacquer finishes as well. I generally like to use polyurethane for its durability. It stands up to life with a two year old and a twelve year old quite well.
The second important component is the brush. I’ve tried all kinds of different types of brushes, foam, synthetic varnish brushes, sable, and badger hair. They all have problems and require lots of what some people call ‘technique’ and I simply call patience.
For example, I never understood why foam brushes are recommended for polyurethane. In my experience foam brushes just leave zillions of little bubbles in the fresh poly that lead to tiny little craters when dried.
I can refer the brand of brush they call “Sable Lite”. This is a synthetic brush, no cute little sable critters where harmed for their manufacture. The fibers are made from a synthetic a material called “Taklon” which is most often used in artist brushes. To my knowledge, Target sells the only finishing brushes made with Taklon. They come in three sizes, one, two and three inches.
Let me tell you, these brushes are simply GREAT. The Taklon fibers are very fine and come to a delicately tapered point. Unlike many other brushes which are designed to deposit huge quantities of material on a large area (e.g. the cheap brushes from a home center) the Sable Lite brushes allow very fine control of the finish. This is because they do not have an open core which holds gallons of finish. Imagine an artist’s brush, just bigger.
In short, these brushes will glide on a glass smooth thin layer of finish with no bubbles or brush marks. These brushes are easy to control, easy to clean and sturdy. What I like best about these brushes is that they don’t require a mysterious technique that can only be learned from years of experience. They do require you to be slow and smooth, but you can figure that out in a few minutes.
The Long and the Short of it
As I said earlier, this is a simple finish; All of these steps are intended to be complimentary. The earlier steps provide a foundation for the next steps. Here is a summary of the recipe and the details follow in subsequent sections:
Step 1: Machine the wood flat and smooth to begin with – plane it, joint it, glue it up.
Step 2: Sand to 320 on hardwoods, 220 on pine and other softwoods – go easy, don’t be too aggressive, use a good random orbital sander. If it is variable speed, slow it down to ½ at 220 and use the lowest speed on 320.
Step 3: Raise the grain and knock it down again. I like to use thin quarter pound cut shellac. The alcohol will raise the grain. I prefer alcohol over water as alcohol dries faster. Knock the grain back down with 320 grit and the random orbital set at its lowest speed. Let it dry. Do this one more time. If you are staining, you may want to use plain alcohol (without any shellac) as even ¼lb cut shellac will partially seal the wood.
Step 4: Brush on a thin coat of one pound cut of orange shellac. Let it dry, sand again lightly with 320 grit using the random orbital on its lowest speed. This coat of shellac acts as a sanding sealer. This seals the pores of the wood and lets the surface be sanded very flat. If you don’t want to use orange shellac, you can use de-waxed shellac or a special purpose sanding sealer (Target Coatings makes a fine sanding sealer).
Step 5: Brush on a second thin coat of one pound cut orange shellac. Let it dry. Hand sand lightly with 320. I really like the richness of color that the shellac adds to the finish. On woods like cherry and ash the orange shellac adds a rich, warm iridescent quality to the wood. Repeat this step to taste.
Step 6: Brush on a thin coat of polyurethane. Let it dry. Knock down any dust bumps with a green 3M pad. Smooth the surface with #1 then #000 steel wool. Use a tack rag to get all the dust and steel wool bits off the surface. Repeat this step two or three times.
Step 7: Using 1500 or 2000 grit “black” sand paper and a flat sanding block, gently wet sand the polyurethane.
That’s it. The resulting finish is very thin, smooth and durable. The next few sections provide the details for each step.
Step 1: Initial Dimensioning of the wood
This article isn’t about joinery and assembly, but these project steps lay the foundation for a good finish. I like nice flat smooth boards. This makes the finish, especially on tops, appear consistent and even, particularly when viewed from low angles.
I usually plane my boards first. I have a Dewalt DW733 twelve inch planer that machines boards to a very smooth flat machine surface. I plane both sides. The nice thing about the planer is that it makes the board’s machine smooth and exactly the same thickness. This is essential if you are gluing up boards to make a top or panel.
I also glue up boards right after I plane and joint them – before they have had time to change shape due to changes in humidity. I’m also a firm believer is biscuit joinery – I use biscuits every 8 to 10 inches or so on all my edge glue ups.
I use my jointer to square the edges that go with the grain. I cut the raw stock about an inch longer (1/2 inch on each end) than the required finished length so I can trim off any tear out from the jointer.
To get the end grain ends of the board nice and smooth, I cross cut them using an 80 tooth carbide thin kerf Freud blade in my table saw. It leaves the end grain perfectly smooth with absolutely no tear out (on all kinds of woods).
This blade slices the wood such that the end grain very open, so if you are staining, you may want to pay special attention to sealing the end grain with thin shellac or another sealer so the exposed end grain doesn’t look different from the rest of the piece.
Here is some unconventional wisdom for you – I use this blade for everything: cross cutting, ripping, plywood, melamine, hard exotic woods, etc. etc. The blade costs $45 at a home center and leaves a glass smooth surface on everything. I achieved these results even on my old Jet 10” contractors saw, which I no longer have (I have a Powermatic 66 now).
I also have a table saw sled that I use for cross cuts. Its absolutely perfect set to 90 degrees and is much more accurate than even a good table saw miter gauge such as an Accumitre. I’ve also carefully set the blade so it is perfectly parallel to the table’s miter gauge slots.
Most saws, even the good ones, do not have accurate verticle blade angle gauges. I always carefully check to make sure that the blade is 90 degrees to the table. There is nothing more frustrating for a joint to be sloppy because the table saw blade was of a fraction of a degree.
Step 2: Sanding the wood
There are lots of different opinions about sanding. Some people start with 100 grit and work their way up to 220 in small steps. I have found that starting at 80 or 120 is usually ok. I start at 80 if there is some leveling to do or bad saw marks to remove In general, starting at 120 works fine with boards just out of the planer.
The Sable Lite brushes allow the poly to go on glass smooth and very thin. By this step, the surface is completely leveled and smooth and the poly will just glide on, even around the edges and corners.
This step is very simple and consists of the following:
♦ Make sure there are no dust or steel wool bits on the piece. Use air and a tack cloth, to remove bits and dust
♦ Brush on a thin coat of poly with a Sable Lite brush. Using this brush is very intuitive and involves nothing mysterious. One thing to remember is that these brushes are not intended to be loaded up with finish. Don’t put too much poly on the brush. Glide the poly on smoothly and evenly. This is quite simple to do. You shouldn’t have any problem using these excellent brushes.
♦ Let this coat dry.
♦ Just as with the shellac glaze coat, using the orbital sander here is overkill. Just lightly rub with a 3M pad, then with #000 steel wool (or wet sand with 400 grit wet dry as above).
♦ As in the previous steps, remove dust and steel wool bits.
♦ Apply another thin coat of poly just as above.
♦ Let this coat dry.
♦ De-nib this last coat just as above.
♦ Added one or two more coats if desired – two or three coats is generally plenty.
You could stop here and end up with a very nice finish. However, there is one more step that takes the work to the next level. Best of all, it’s simple and easy.
Step 7: Wet Sanding
The last step is simply wet sanding the piece with 1500 grit automotive sandpaper. I use the same nice flat sanding block I used previously. You only need to sand a little bit. Go back and forth with the grain gently and evenly. Make five to seven passes and that’s it.
The key here is using water as a lubricant. You don’t have to drench the surface, just sprinkle some water evenly over the piece and sand lightly and evenly. I have a trigger operated spray bottle. You can add a little Murphy’s Oil Soap if you’d like, this will help lubricate the sandpaper. I don’t use any soapy lubricants as I find them somewhat difficult to remove – plain water works fine for me.
I’m a little unconventional here as well – many people would suggest starting with 400 or 600 grit paper and moving up to 1500. In my experience, if the surface smooth you can jump right to 1500. As with the other steps, some experimentation is the order of the day.
After sanding, use a clean cotton towel to dry the piece. You should feel an incredibly smooth and silky surface that is very ‘close’ to the wood. It shouldn’t feel plastic or tacky at all. Best of all, you are done and have a beautiful, durable, craftsman quality finish.
The finish should be very smooth and defect free to the eye with an even matt finish.
This is a simple finish to apply. A moderately sized table top, one that might sit four people, can be finished in a weekend The orange shellac adds a beautiful luster and warmth to the wood that is difficult to obtain any other way. This is also a durable finish, the poly protects both the wood and the shellac allowing your beautiful work to also be a functional and robust in a family setting.