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In my last Bed Build entry (click here to read), I had finished construction and many of you expressed an interest in how I planned to finish the piece. Around the Popular Woodworking office, this finish has become known as my regular finish. My Dad found this process many years ago, as we began building furniture for customers. Although I’ve made a few additions and adjustments along the way, I continue to use same process today , I like a finish that I feel comfortable completing, does a great job (at least in my eyes) and is what I refer to as “no fail.”

The process is aniline dye, with shellac as a sealer and lacquer as my topcoat. As you might expect, I spray with an HVLP (high volume, low pressure) setup. Don’t turn your nose up just yet because you think spray finishing is out of your area. There are a couple systems that are affordable on most any budget. Spray finish is so much easier and quicker that you’ll benefit in the long run. I see an HVLP system as another tool for your shop, a tool that could be as important as your band saw or smoothing plane. However, you can do this work with a brush and some elbow grease.

To prepare the project, sand everything to #180 grit, then wet the surface with a soaking cloth only to sand once again to #180 grit. This step helps to fool the grain into thinking it has already risen so it will not lift up so much in a later step. Also, take the time to knock off any sharp corners with #120-grit sandpaper; it keeps you from sanding through the dye and from knocking off those corners after the finish step is complete.

I use Moser’s aniline dye from (the same product as W. D. Lockwood, click here). Use water-based dyes. The clean up and mixing is so easy, so why worry about alcohol or oil mixes? Mix the dye in the most scientific manner , one ounce per four cups of water or if you’re not into weighted measurements, one coffee scoop per those four cups.

Heat the water until bubbles are beginning to form at the bottom and slowly float toward the surface, then mix the powder and water in an opaque jug (over time, light fades the color, but water-base dyes are the most light resistant). By the way, I use tap water , but if your tap water has minerals and such, I suggest bottled water (or give your tap water a try on scrap). If the color pleases your eye, use it.

Completely flood the piece with the dye. I see guys suggest that you lightly brush on the dye, but that process is prone to variations in color. Leave the dye flooded for five minutes then wipe away the excess. If you don’t have excess to wipe away, you didn’t apply enough mix.

Don’t worry as the piece and dye begins to dry. I included this photo to show you what it looks like because the first time this happened to me I was devastated. I thought I would have to strip the cupboard and start over. The look does come back to life.

After everything dries , a minimum of four hours, but overnight is best , you’ll need to lightly sand the surface. Because of the water-base, the grain is raised and has to be knocked back down. (Remember the earlier-used soaking cloth?) You can use #400-grit silicon-carbide sandpaper or a sanding sponge (which I prefer). To smooth any mouldings, I like a grey non-woven abrasive pad. In the opening paragraph I say this finish is no-fail, but if you were going to have issues, this is the place. If you sand through the dye, you have trouble.

It’s time for sealer. My choice is shellac. Generally, I use blonde shellac as sealer, but if I’m working on cherry or walnut, I have been known to use amber shellac to warm the look some. This bed is built with cherry, so you might expect I used amber. Just to cause you to stop and wonder why: On this piece I used a 50/50 mixture of blonde and amber. Why? I don’t have a reason, I just did. (All rules are made to be bent, if not broken.)

To spray, I use a 1#-cut (one pound of shellac mixed into one gallon of denatured alcohol) or if you’re using a pre-mixed product from a store that comes as a 3#-cut, cut it in half with alcohol. If you plan to brush on shellac, use a 3#-cut.

I applied one coat, waited for the shellac to dry, then sanded smooth with #400-grit sandpaper (you can use a #400-grit sanding sponge). There are technical reasons for sanding between coats, so I did so, then added another coat of shellac.

As you build shellac, you build sheen. I don’t like a high shine on my work , it shows too many flaws , so I add a layer of dull-rubbed effect lacquer after sanding again with #400-grit paper. (You could also rub out the shellac with #0000 steel wool, but don’t attempt this without a few additional layers of finish.) I like a Sherwin-Williams pre-catalyzed lacquer topcoat.

For additional information on this and for my other finishing methods, take a look at Popular Woodworking issue #161 (April 2007). Click here to purchase a copy for $5.99.

– Glen D. Huey

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Showing 6 comments
  • glen

    It’s like looking for Waldo. There is a large piece af machinery, my jointer, directly next to the headboard in the photo. And the reflection toward the right-hand side is my miter saw bench with a huge amount of (s)crap stacked on top.

    Chris, I agree there is a bit of blotchy in my cherry. Over the years I’ve come to expect and live with some blotch. What happens over time is the finish begins to even out and the blotch tends to fade away. Glazing the piece, as you suggested by adding a stain between the layers of shellac, would even out the color, but it was an additional step I decided to pass on.

    By the way, my customer was, and continues to be, thrilled. Knock one item off the "honey-do" list.


  • Bruce Jackson

    Not to mention window frames … I see them, too. As well as the opaque reflection of a tall stationery tool, likely a drill press or band saw. Glenn did this finish, on cherry yet, just right.

  • Steve

    Chris C: I think what you’re interpreting as blotchiness is actually a reflection of the rest of the shop in the finish. If you kind of squint a bit you can see what looks like a bench or some large stationary tool, etc.

  • Gordon Conrad

    Final product is WOW. Wife thinks it is beautiful and when am I going make one. Appreciate the finish info as I have been wondering about the use of lacquer as a topcoat over shellac. I would like an HVLP system for my small home shop, but which is the best economical system? Do I need a 3 or 4 stage, etc?
    Now where is my copy of issue #161 and back to the net for HVLP info.

  • Chuck Bender

    The method is very similar to my "fail safe" method. The only difference is I tend to brush on a coat of 1# cut immediately after the dye dries but before I’ve sanded off the raised grain. By sealing prior the initial sanding I find it raises the grain a bit more but I have less of a chance of sanding through the color. Cherry is naturally blotchy and I’ve never found a method to completely eliminate the color variations. Like hand cut dovetails, a little color variation shows the piece isn’t made in a factory. I tend never to brush 3# cut shellac and I’m not a lacquer person but you can’t argue with Glen’s results.

    The real question is not whether you (Glen) like the finish or any of us but how did your "client" like the finish? I hear she’s a pretty tough judge of quality.

  • Chris C

    Not to be a critic, but in the last photo the finish looks
    very blotchy. I may have used a coat of oil based stain
    of a similar color over the dye(after sealing with shellac)
    to even out the color.

    On the other hand, the bed looks great in place which
    is the bottom line.



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