Furniture Finishing

Today’s post is a great article that I found in Popular Woodworking.  Enjoy!

Furniture 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 of your project finishing a lot more predictable and therefore less frustrating. Here’s 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-forming finish like polyurethane, shellac, varnish or lacquer would be better suited.

These film-forming 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 like stains or dyes and which ones don’t. Many woods, even the finest ones, take stain or dye evenly and look better when colored, like 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, like cherry, maple and birch. And for my money, very open-pored plain-sliced red oak looks awful when stained. Of course 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 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 your 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 ending 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 top coat 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 of 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” the inevitably show up. These may be grain standing up after the first coat is applied, or 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 web site. Many are written by noted finishing expert Bob Flexner. We also have several great books by Bob in our online store like “Wood Finishing 101,” or “Flexner on Finishing.” You might also select a full length video I made on finishing called “The 10 Commandments of Finishing.” It shows you the techniques described above and more.
–Steve Shanesy

I hope you found this article helpful.  If you would like some hands-on help on finishing furniture make sure to check our our upcoming classes on Furniture Repair & Refinishing at:

Until Next Time – Dan @ Wood Menders

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