In End Grain

We may receive a commission when you use our affiliate links. However, this does not impact our recommendations.

A stay-the-course attitude turns phobia into appreciation.

I don’t know many woodworkers who enjoy finishing. We will gladly spend an eternity devising a jig to help with an operation that we’ll perform only once. Time stands still when we’re at the lumber mill looking for that elusive, perfect board for a project so far down on the “to do” list that it may never be built. And I’m sure I’m not the only woodworker who endlessly tweaks a new design, agonizing (my wife says obsessing) over every insignificant detail. At the mention of finishing, however, our eyes glaze over and we go to that happy place in our minds where solvents don’t exist and a magnificent French polish magically appears on our furniture.

I’ve felt exactly this way about finishing and I don’t know why. I don’t have any nightmarish finishing experiences in my past. In fact, most of my finishing has been successful if not professional quality, so it isn’t negative reinforcement causing my lack of enthusiasm. And yet, there it is – a nearly unshakable, negative attitude toward a vitally important part of a hobby about which I am passionate.

I recently completed a Stickley-inspired kitchen table. I spent an eternity devising ways to cut the joinery for the top and to create the tile inlay. My friend, Jim, and I drove two hours, each way, to Frank Miller Lumber then spent a couple more hours searching through pallets of quartersawn white oak.

Another friend, Tom, looked at numerous versions of this design, patiently offering his critique of each.

Construction on the table proceeded quickly and without incident. I enjoyed every hour spent in the shop jointing, planing and cutting joinery. Even the glue-up went smoothly and with a minimum of perspiration.

The finish for this piece involved several steps: Apply a dye followed by a sealer, then a glaze and finally the top coat. Although this is a little more involved than the oil finishes I often use, I steeled myself to proceed.

The dye went on easily enough. The sealer coat was no problem. At this intermediate stage, the finish didn’t look particularly good. It was a little scary, in fact. Several weeks of hard work was obscured by a layer of hideous maroon.

My wife sees recipes as suggestions. She’ll substitute liberally, or even omit an ingredient if we don’t have it. I stick to recipes as if they are the law. That is just what I did in this case. And a funny thing happened.

The gel-stain-glaze step transformed the table. In a matter of minutes it went from ugly maroon to a beautiful Arts & Crafts finish. Several coats of wiping varnish later, I had a new place for my family to gather each evening.

This table is not one of the more challenging pieces I’ve made, but it is one of my favorites – the finish is a big part of the reason. The mahogany and cherry that I typically use are beautiful without the benefit of complex finishes, but white oak, even nicely figured quartersawn white oak, needs a little more help. And this particular recipe is fantastic.

So, with this kitchen table as the impetus, I’m turning over a new leaf with respect to finishing. I may never love it. It will likely never be my favorite part of woodworking. But I’ve gained a new appreciation for it now that I’ve realized what it does. Finishing turns the results of our hard work into beautiful, functional works of art. It seems that any woodworker should enjoy that.  

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine

Product Recommendations

Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search