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 In Featured Article, Finishing, Shop Blog, Techniques

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Wood finishing doesn’t have to be complicated or mysterious. That’s not to say that even experienced finishers don’t run into problems from time to time; everybody does. But there are ways to make the outcome a lot more predictable and therefore less frustrating. Here are five ways to get good finishing results with the least amount of trouble.

1. Learn how to do three different types of finishes. Unless you build only one kind of project, you’ll need to know a couple different types of finishes so you can choose the appropriate finish for the project you’re working on. For example, a Shaker-style project will look fine with an easy-to-apply oil finish. But an oil finish would not look right on a more sophisticated project where a film-building finish like polyurethane, shellac, varnish or lacquer would be better suited.

These film-building finishes offer more protection but can have a steeper learning curve to use them successfully. For that reason, you should choose one of them and learn how to use it. It doesn’t matter whether you apply it with a brush or spray it on. Just choose one finish material and stick with it until you have it down.

2.  Learn how to color wood, and which woods take stains or dyes well and which ones don’t. Many woods, even the finest ones, take stain or dye evenly and look better when colored, such as mahogany and walnut. No, you don’t want to bury the beauty of the grain or under a dark layer of stain, but color can often enhance grain and make the wood look warmer and more beautiful. There are many fine woods that don’t take color well at all, including cherry, maple and birch. And for my money, very open-pored plain-sliced red oak looks awful when stained. There are no softwoods that take stain well at all. All these woods blotch when color is applied and look terrible. Coloring wood is probably the most tricky part of finishing and the most artistic. It takes time to learn but is well worth the effort.

3. Know your finish before you start the project. Let the project style and the finish guide in choosing the right wood to use. Will it be stained? Will it be a simple oil finish or a film finish? How much protection does the wood need from moisture or scratches?

4. Make a sample, make a sample, make a sample. Unless you’re ragging on an oil finish, take the time to make a sample board from the same material as you are using in your project. When you make the sample, prepare the wood in the same way as you will for the project. Sand it with the same sandpaper grit progression and end with the same grit for the final sanding. Make notes if you need to. Apply color if your finish calls for it. Stain or dye a section of board, let it dry, then apply your topcoat leaving some of the board with just the stain. When it comes time to finish your project you’ll have a representative sample of each step of the process. And needless to say, if you don’t like the results on your sample, make another sample until get what you’re looking for.

5. Sand between coats. If your goal is smooth finish, learn to sand between coats to remove the small “nibs” that inevitably show up. These may be grain standing up after the first coat is applied, dust that falls into the wet finish or air bubbles that “pop” after the wet finish starts to dry and don’t lay out smooth. You can sand dry finishes with #240-grit stearated, self-lubricating aluminum oxide paper (usually grey colored). Or, wet sand your film finish starting with #400-grit wet/dry sandpaper. You can use water with a few drops of dish detergent for wet sanding. But wet or dry just be careful to not sand through the film, especially if you have stained the work.

We have many articles for free on the finer points of these finishing techniques right here on the Popular Woodworking website. Many are written by noted finishing expert Bob Flexner. We also have several great books by Bob in our online store including “Wood Finishing 101” and “Flexner on Finishing.” You might also watch a full-length video I made on finishing: “The 10 Commandments of Finishing.” It shows you the techniques described above and more.

–Steve Shanesy

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Showing 9 comments
  • woodguyi

    Getting back to blotch problem on the soft woods. When staining pine or other soft woods. I have found that by applying a thinned (50%) coat of hide glue, let dry, sand etc.. Then applying the stain will surprise you. i built a pine “wave” band sawbox by Lois Ventura. Needless to say, the end grain, long grain condition drove me crazy. I contacted a well known finisher who’s name escapes me who suggested the ratio and a sanding regiment. This worked great, it filled the endgrain and allowed me to finish the piece to my satisfaction. Hide glue is pretty forgiving and will take stain, at least oil stain, very well. This old school product is very viable. I can dig up pictures if anyone is interested.
    Usual disclaimers apply…no affiliation, blah blah, don’t sell anything…blah blah.

  • muddy pig

    Steve, I respectfully take issue with your second tip—-coloring wood. You noted that some woods like cherry are hard to stain and that soft woods like pine are virtually impossible since they end up looking blotchy.
    The secret to staining these difficult woods is to seal them first with a wash coat of shellac cut 50/50 with alcohol. Some soft pines may require two coats. After sanding with 220 grit sandpaper, these woods can be beautifully colored with an oil base stain without without highlighting the end grains or leaving the surfaces irregular and blotchy. I should note that staining these sealed wood surfaces is different and more difficult, but provides more latitude than staining bare wood. In the latter case, one merely wets the wood with stain and wipes off the excess with a clean rag.
    With sealed wood, you have to wipe out the streaks and rag marks with the ” wet” staining rag. One major advantage with this technique is that if you don’t like the shade or color, you can simply wipe the wet stain off and start over. Typically after staining sealed wood, the piece should dry several days before applying a top finishing coat such as polyurethane.

  • Dan Farnbach

    Don’t forget to wish Steve a happy retirement, all! He’s got just a few more days on the job. –Dan

  • jenisi

    “If you don’t practice on scrap, you’ll practice on your finished piece”

    Paul Radovanic, cir. 1997

  • mgradwohl

    I’d add one more tip – you need to know what finishes are compatible with others. I’ve seen people ruin projects by using water based stain and a water borne poly, and turning the poly into mud because the water in the poly puts the stain back into solution. This is especially true with brushing and wiping – the rag or the brush will take on the color of the stain in this case and that’s one way to know you’re ruining your stain.

    I’ve seen this problem when people use solvent based stains and films as well. In the case of water based stain and water borne poly, sealing in the stain with dewaxed shellac would yield better results.You can also tint softwoods with less blotching if you seal the wood first with a highly dilute coat of dewaxed shellac.

    If you have finishing questions, feel free to ask on Twitter, use hashtag #woodchat, and join us every Wednesday at 7pm Pacific/10pm Eastern for #woodchat on http://uppercutwoodworks.com/woodchat/chatroom. We’re happy to answer questions and help out anyone.

    -Matt Gradwohl

    Upper Cut Woodworks


  • keithm

    I’d add another — think outside the (Big) Box. Look to specialty stores, old-time paint stores and internet providers for something other than polyurethane and pigmented stains. As to your point #1, there’s nothing worse than using the same finish for widely different projects. And there’s no “best finish” for all projects.

  • John Hutchinson

    Hey Steve,

    Great tips!!! And now I’ve got a question. I purchased a beautiful desk/sideboard from Warren May in Berea, Kentucky about eight years ago. It’s cherry with a clear finish. I love cherry, but no matter how I finish it, it darkens . . . and darkens . . . and, etc. Not so with Warren’s piece. It has the same bright look today that it had when we brought it home.
    Any idea how he pulls that off?


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