I get a fair amount of finishing questions. Recently, most questions that come my way ask how to finish a project that has inlay without heavily affecting the contrast between the project wood and the inlay. And readers want to know how to do that while achieving a nice-looking finish on the project. To me that’s a finish that has plenty of depth, and that’s key to a great finish. While this applies to many of the projects I’ve recently built, the most recent e-mail asked about the Carolina Cellarette from the February 2013 issue (#202). (The entire finish process is explained – along with step-by-step building instructions – in a DVD or you can download the video from shopwoodworking.com if you want to get started this weekend.)
The short answer is that I do not stain or dye any of my projects that include inlay. There are, however, a few things that I do to help my finish be all that it can be. Those key things are choosing the right wood (not as easy as you may think), what finish products to use and how much of those products to use.
When it comes to wood selection, your decision has to be more than simply mahogany, walnut or cherry. You have to look at the grain of the wood, and more importantly, the color of the wood. My cellarette wood is walnut, which requires even more careful consideration. My steadfast rule is do not use walnut that has been steamed in the kiln.
Steaming walnut forces color throughout the wood so more looks more purple than brown – mills are trying to mask sapwood to make more of the tree usable. What they are doing, however, is turning the rich-colored heartwood into bland-looking and dull lumber.
With steamed wood no longer on the table, turn your attention to color. While at your supplier, take a look at as many boards as you can. Choose boards that are as deep in color as you can find and try to keep the color consistent as you pick – this is true for any species. (Many professional woodworkers buy lumber in matched sets or as sawn logs to get color and grain consistency.) Finally, as you begin your project, select the best grain and color for the focal point of the project. (I chose a gnarly grained panel for the front of my cellarette.)
When selecting your inlay woods, look for light, clear and straight-grained woods if you can. Maple and holly look great when placed against walnut and mahogany.
You choose deep-colored wood for your project so you don’t need to stain or dye when you reach the finishing stage. You cannot, of course, simply apply oil as your finish and expect great results. It takes more of an effort. On the cellarette, as I do on most of my projects, a coat of boiled linseed oil (BLO) starts the process. BLO soaks into the wood pores where it reflects light – that’s the secret to building depth in your finish. From there, it’s all about topcoats. On walnut I like shellac. I use shellac not only because it builds quickly, but also because I can – working with various colors of shellac – warm the overall appearance.
I begin with a layer of clear shellac, then add a heavy-bodied glaze to “age” the piece. A second layer of clear shellac completes the initial finish and continues to build depth. Notice that I did not use any wood fillers. I think fillers simply muddy the look. I prefer to build a smooth surface with multiple coats of shellac. To warm the wood, I use a couple of coats of amber or orange shellac before switching back to clear. (Too many coats of amber or orange causes the inlay to become too yellow.)
I’m not fond of a high shine on my projects, so my choice are to rub out the shellac, or spray a last coat of dull-rubbed effect lacquer. And rubbing out shellac is not my idea of fun. (If you don’t spray, use a wipe-on finish with a satin sheen.) With a build sufficient for a smooth surface – usually around six coats of shellac – I move on to my satin or dull topcoat.
No one wants to dye his or her inlay, and I find this method to my liking. Other woodworkers use other methods. Some painstakingly coat the inlay (string, banding or paterae) with shellac to block the stain or dye from reaching the inlay. I have, on occasion, worked this way, but only on a small amount of inlay. I’ve not had great success. My method works for me, and I think it will work for you, too. Pick up a copy of the DVD “Building a Carolina Cellarette” (click here), or to download the video, click here.