You can create beautiful finishes without a lot of equipment, but there are a few things you should always have on hand. Here are a few things you should keep around for finishing that are helpful for other purposes too.
Rags are great to have around the shop for many reasons, but they’re especially useful for finishing. Don’t use old socks or t-shirts; they’ll leave lint behind. Get some lint-free rags at the hardware store or woodworking supply shop.
Keep a can of mineral spirits around for thinning oils and varnishes, and for cleaning brushes after applying finish. If you’re going to do anything with shellac, you’ll need also need denatured alcohol. It’s the appropriate solvent for shellac finishes, including French polish. To brush or spray nitrocellulose lacquers, get yourself some lacquer thinner. You can use it for a lot of other things, like cleaning contact cement off of laminate or removing pen marks from melamine.
Steel Wool and/or Wet-or-Dry Sandpaper
To get a satin luster from polyurethane or another varnish, do a final sanding with 0000 steel wool or wet-or-dry sandpaper. Add some dish soap to a bucket of water and put a few drops on the workpiece. Then lightly sand the finish. The soapy water lubricates the steel wool and allows it to make super-fine scratches in the finish. You’ll end up with a smooth surface and a delicate sheen that’s perfect for almost any kind of project.
Finishes that get applied in several applications require sanding between coats. #220-grit sandpaper is perfect for this operation. It’s not too aggressive, but it’ll get the job done quickly. Use a light touch to take down the nibs in each coat before applying the next.
One of the most frustrating parts of finishing is keeping dust, strands of hair and other crud from getting into your finish before it dries. Get that junk off of your surface before applying finish with a tack cloth. It’s a sticky piece of cloth you wipe on your work piece, and the unwanted specks cling to it. Whether your finish is oil, varnish or paint, a tack cloth will help you get clean results.
Ready to learn more about finishing? Take a look at Finishing Basics, an online class from Popular Woodworking University. You’ll explore oil finishes and varnishes with former Popular Woodworking editor Steve Shanesy. Ask all your finishing questions in the course discussions, and get the answers you need to create better work.