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When the topic is finishing, Popular Woodworking magazine turns to Bob Flexner for answers. We believe he is the foremost expert when it comes to anything from alkyd-based varnish to using Xylene as a solvent and thinner. We might be biased because he writes our “Flexner on Finishing” columns found in nearly every issue for the past decade, but the fact that Bob writes for many other publications reaffirms our belief.

Bob also teaches classes throughout the country. A few weeks back he was at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking to teach a two-day seminar on finishing. Then, while so close to Cincinnati, Bob accepted an invitation to present a similar class to the Cincinnati Woodworking Club and that seminar was hosted at the Popular Woodworking office and shop. Luckily, I was on hand for the Sunday session and I quickly decided that I wish I’d been available for Saturday’s portion as well.

If I had attended both days, I expect I would have had the same look that many of the participants had when they left late in the afternoon on the second day. Due to his vast knowledge on finishing and his willingness to pass information on to others, he shares so much in his seminars that there’s a lot of stuff to digest.

Facts such as how to properly clean a brush. Simple right? I thought I knew what to do, too. But, Bob quickly had me understanding I didn’t know the secret. He had a few brushes that he passed around that, after many cleanings, were as soft and usable as they were when purchased quite a few years back. The secret, according to Bob, is to complete the cleanup with soap and water and repeat until you get a good suds. That’s the final step no matter what finish was applied with your brush. I have to admit, I’ve never washed my brush with soap and water. And, I cannot tell you the times I’ve returned to a brush weeks later and had to bend and twist the bristles to be able to use the brush a second time.

Another tidbit I scooped up about brush cleaning dealt with shellac. As you may know, I’m a fan of shellac. I like the quick drying time of shellac as well as the replication of what I consider a period-type finish. And while I spray most of my finishes, I do occasionally dip some bristles into shellac. For me, cleaning shellac from my brush was a matter of dredging the brush through a number of cups of fresh alcohol until I felt the shellac was removed. If you think about that process, I was (as Bob pointed out) simply thinning the shellac with each rinsing, hopefully reaching a point when the shellac was gone. I wouldn’t know if I needed to twist the bristles or not until the brush dried.

Bob’s solution is to wash the shellac brush with a 50/50 mixture of household ammonia and water. Ammonia breaks down the shellac. Then finish with soap and water (look for suds). There’s an idea I had never heard before, but I will undoubtedly try the next time I need to clean shellac from my brush.

These are but a few of the tips picked up during the seminar. Bob also spent time explaining French polish. I filmed a majority of his presentation on French polish and I hope to add that to our video pages in the next few weeks. If you have any interest in French polish, don’t miss it.

And if you have an opportunity to catch one of Bob’s seminars, I highly suggest you do so. Go prepared to process a huge amount of finishing information, take great notes and stay sharp because I know you’ll gather in some tidbit that improves your finishing abilities. I sure did.

And if you cannot locate his seminar somewhere close to you, his book, “Understanding Wood Finishing” (Peachtree Woodworking) covers many of the topics and is invaluable as you begin finishing pieces with something more than wipe-on oil.

Got any tips to share or questions about finishing, post you comments or concerns and we’ll see if others can benefit from your shared knowledge or help get you answers. Or, I’ll thumb through Bob’s book , I’ll bet he has the topic covered within the pages.

,Glen D. Huey

p.s. We also have a lot of Bob’s Popular Woodworking articles available for free on our site’s Finishing Page.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Bruce Sinton

    I got the first edition of his book. It was very good , I learned a lot.
    Then I got the second edition. It is even better.
    The quality of the illustrations had gone up to top class,and the paper quality much improved.
    I will keep it on hand until I give up woodworking.

  • Rob Porcaro

    I would have loved to attend this class. I think Bob Flexner’s writings on wood finishing are not only the best on that topic, as well as the best woodworking articles of any kind, but some of the best explanatory writing I’ve read on ANY topic. No question, he is the MAN.

  • njbob

    I read about cleaning shellac brushes on the can. Ammonia

  • Keith Mealy

    I was fortunate enough to attend this session. I was probably the first to sign up as I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. What a great seminar! If you ever get a chance to see or hear Bob, don’t pass it up!


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