Wood Conditioner Confusion

For years thereafter I continued to struggle with this product. If you were to include in your research some of the articles I wrote during this time, you would see that my instructions were to keep the surface wet until dry spots stopped appearing, then apply the stain. I was still working within the parameters the manufacturers had established. (I mean, how could it be that these finishing companies wouldn’t tell us the most effective way to use their product?!)

I would imagine that Dresdner was working within the same parameters. He resolved the dilemma similar to the way I had, by applying the stain immediately (not just “within two hours”). The wood is soaked with thinner, which hasn’t yet evaporated, so very little colorant is able to penetrate and get deep into the wood. Plus, the color is watered down substantially by the thinner. Though not eliminated, blotching is at least significantly reduced using this method.

The problem with this solution (and with mine) is that it doesn’t work on large objects such as furniture or cabinets. Ten minutes or longer will go by before the stain gets applied, so a lot of the thinner will have evaporated and blotching will be worse.

The Solution
Then one day it hit me. I often use lacquer thinned a little more than half with lacquer thinner as a “washcoat” to make blotch-prone woods stain evenly. Because lacquer dries rapidly, I’m always applying the stain over a cured finish. What if I let the wood conditioner, which is just varnish thinned with two parts mineral spirits, cure overnight? I tried this and it worked perfectly, just like lacquer washcoats do. The stain colored evenly.

So I reported this in the Popular Woodworking article that you cite. This procedure is different than what I wrote in my book 12 years ago, and I feel bad about this. The excuse I make to myself when I discover that I got something wrong is that there is too much bad information to be correctable in just one pass. I knew at the time I wrote “Understanding Wood Finishing” that I would almost surely miss something.
I reasoned that doing anything was better than continuing with the existing situation – inaccurate labeling and constant repetition of old myths – and that I or someone else could always come along later and correct what mistakes still existed.

Though what I’m about to say may serve to take me off an imagined pedestal, everyone needs to realize that we who write a lot about wood finishing are “experts” partly because we are willing to stick our necks out on some subject, realizing that we may not be entirely right the first time around. We’re simply researchers, searching for the best methods. We report our results but occasionally further research leads to different conclusions. We’re not necessarily wrong (as the example in this article demonstrates), but we may not have the subject entirely pegged.

We’re All Refinishers
Here’s another bit of inside information that you might find interesting. With one very significant exception, the major wood-finishing authors and teachers have spent a good portion of their (our) lives refinishing furniture. We aren’t exactly finishers; we are refinishers. There’s an important difference.

Finishers usually do the same thing over and over. They master a procedure or “schedule.” Refinishers do something different on every project – if we are good, anyway. Refinishers have to be able to imitate all the “looks” that have ever existed.

But even refinishers have to make a huge transition to be able to teach amateurs. Refinishers use lacquer and other finishes that dry fast. And we spray the finish. Spraying lacquer and applying stains in an efficient manner doesn’t prepare us to teach about oil, varnish, polyurethane, gel stains, etc. We have to learn the quirks of these finishes and how they differ from the sprayed finishes. This can sometimes be a real challenge, as I’ve illustrated here. PW

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