We all love home centers for the good stuff they carry and for their low prices. But home centers cater to the lowest common denominator consumer — that is, they carry only the stuff that has a big market.
The result is that many of the finishing products used on furniture and cabinets, products you read about in woodworking magazines or hear about in woodworking classes, are rarely found in these stores. Examples include very fine-grit sandpapers, dyes, glazes, paste wood fillers, spray lacquers and high-performance finishes such as catalyzed lacquer.
So how do you proceed if you have to do your finishing entirely from the products available at home centers?
It’s not all that difficult, really. You’re just limited in some of the decorative effects you can achieve – decorative effects you’re probably not interested in anyway because you’re using the natural color and figure of the wood for your decoration.
With the limited choice of finishing products at home centers, you can still get all the following:
• Protection and durability ranging from minimal to the best possible
• A sheen ranging from gloss to dead flat
• Finishes ranging from amber to colorless
• A near-flawless finish resembling sprayed lacquer
• Elimination of blotching from stains
• A glaze substitute
• A pore-filling option
• The ability to block off problems in the wood.
Before proceeding with how to accomplish these objectives, I want to explain how companies producing and marketing finishing materials sell their products (how all companies probably sell their products, for that matter).
Finish companies target specific markets. Within any given category – oil stain, varnish, water-based finish, etc. – all companies’ products are very similar, if not identical. But because stores and catalogs carry different brands, and because the marketing can sometimes make you believe some brands are somehow better than others, you may think you’re getting inferior products at low-end, mass-consumer home centers when you’re not.
For example, a big brand name in home centers is Minwax, while General Finishes and Behlen dominate in woodworking stores and catalogs, and Old Masters is popular in independent paint stores. There are also stores that feature Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, Pratt & Lambert, Varathane and many other brands.
In addition, some companies target just contractors, others target cabinet and furniture makers, and still others (an entirely different group of companies) target refinishers.
Within any finish category – oil stain, glaze, varnish, lacquer, etc. – all these companies make essentially the same thing. They all have access to the same raw materials, and the instructions for putting these raw materials together are available to everyone, even to you and me if we want them.
So there’s nothing at all inferior about the finishing products available at home centers. There’s only a limitation of what’s available. From these limited choices, however, you have many possibilities for achieving the results you want.
Protection and Durability
You have control of the amount of protection and durability you get simply by how much you build your finish and by your choice of finish.
Protection means resistance to moisture penetration into the wood – in liquid or vapor (humidity) form. All finishes provide better resistance the thicker they are, so the finishes that harden well and can be built up on the wood are capable of much better protection than finishes such as boiled linseed oil, 100-percent tung oil and blends of one of these oils and varnish, that don’t harden.
Among the finishes that harden, oil-based polyurethane varnish provides the best resistance to moisture penetration and also the best durability – that is, the best resistance to being damaged by scratches, heat, solvents, acids and alkalies. Polyurethane is almost as protective and durable as the best of the high-performance finishes used in industry.
Following polyurethane in declining order are alkyd (regular) varnish, polyurethane water-based finish, acrylic water-based finish, lacquer and shellac.
But even fresh shellac is considerably more protective and durable than the finishes that don’t harden, as long as you apply several coats. Because shellac loses a lot of hardness and water resistance as it ages in the can, it’s best to use it within a year of manufacture. The date of manufacture is stamped on the bottom of the can.
The color you get on the wood is partially contributed by the finish. Finishes differ in how much yellowing or “oranging” they add.
Amber shellac adds the most orange color. You can use this finish on pine, for example, to create the knotty-pine look popular in the 1950s, or recreate the warmth common on oak trim and paneling original to early 20th-century houses.
Boiled linseed oil and 100-percent tung oil have a slight yellow color to begin with, and then they yellow, or rather orange, significantly as they age. You can use either of these finishes under any other finish to achieve this oranging as long as you let the oil cure well first. A week or two in a warm room should be adequate.
Oil-based varnishes, lacquer and clear shellac also have a slight yellow tint, which may darken a little with age. But the finish most significant for color is water-based, both polyurethane and acrylic. These finishes aren’t, and don’t, yellow at all. They are “water clear.”
So you would choose a water-based finish for light woods such as maple or ash, or for white pickled woods, if you don’t want them to have a yellow tint. You would probably choose one of the other finishes for darker woods because water-based finishes usually make these woods appear “washed out” unless you apply a stain underneath.