3 Simple Finishes

January 30, 2012 Comments Off on 3 Simple Finishes

During any given woodworking project, there are (at least) two things that scare a woodworker. One is glue up, and the other is applying a finish.  In the black and white days I suppose finishing was much less confusing as there were fewer options. Walk into a hardware store today and you are left staring in disbelief at all the cans in the finishing aisle (it says a lot that it actually needs an entire aisle). Last week I attended a short lecture by Gary Rogowski at the Northwest Woodworking Studio that he optimistically titled “3 Simple Finishes”. He has experimented with a lot of finishes over the years, but he has settled on three types that he uses for almost everything – oil, varnish, and shellac.

Gary talked about each, and how the piece and its intended use dictate which he chooses. In a very short summative form, here are his choices:

  • Oil finish for any piece that won’t see a lot of abuse, such as nightstands or small benches. Oil gives less protection than varnish or shellac but it’s easy to touch up and reapply. If he’s looking for a matte finish, he chooses oil. He also puts it on stools and chairs.  A matte finish won’t showcase every scuff mark like a gloss finish will (like from your shoes that you rest on the bottom rungs of a stool). Although he admitted at this point he usually reserves oil only to impart a color change in the wood as a first coat. Varnish or oil would then follow.
  • Varnish goes on table tops for extra protection. Typically with a table he will only varnish the top, and the legs and base finished in shellac (a better match to the glossiness of varnish than oil).  Varnish can be a pain to apply, so he tries to keep it to just the areas of a piece that need it.
  • Shellac, what he calls the miracle finish, he uses just about everywhere. It gives more protection than oil, but a little less than varnish. That makes it ideal for most furniture. He also uses it exclusively for the insides of boxes and drawers (oil should not be used in these areas).

He discussed other types of finishes, of course, and why he has all but eliminated them from his repertoire. Gary values his health too much to use lacquer, and he finds water-based finishes just plain ugly. Wax, while it probably isn’t technically a finish, adds almost no protection and attracts dust. He went through the steps of preparing a surface for finish, as well as some application techniques. He also gave a few tips on restoring an oil finish.

Gary encourages experimentation with finishes (though cautioned mixing the contents of different manufactures), but his biggest take home message was this: keep track of what finish you use for each and every project. Use a journal and write down exactly what you used, and how you applied it. And even better, keep sample boards of different species of wood to give you an idea of what works, and what doesn’t. He brought out his journal dedicated only to finishes that he has kept for years. It is packed with successes, and just as importantly, failures. When he is ready to finish a project he always tests the finish on scrap cutoffs and consults his journal and sample boards. Applying a finish is already stressful, and the more unknowns you can remove from the situation, the better.

If you are a professional woodworker, you have to make some hard decisions in choosing a finish. Most of the time you have no control over the environment your piece is going. The average person has no desire to reapply or touch up a finish every few years; most of us have grown up in a world of tough film finishes that may outlive us.  But as a hobbyist woodworker, I have more choices. The things I build are for our home, save for the occasional very small item I might make as a gift. I know that I’m not going to abuse my furniture. And if the finish wears a little over time, I can repair it. Why do I need to fashion a spray booth and don protective gear so I can apply toxic lacquer? And why do I need four coats of polyurethane over everything so as to completely turn the feel of the wood into smooth plastic. I used to buy some of that stuff, but now I hardly glance at the finish aisle when I go to the hardware store. Personally, I’ve had success with tung oil thinned with citrus solvent. It’s easy to apply and looks good. And it’s easily reapplied if needed. In the past I had used the Zinsser shellac in the can, but I now have some shellac flakes and 190 proof alcohol to make my own.  An oil/varnish blend of tung oil, spar varnish, and citrus solvent adds a little more protection and is easier to apply than straight varnish. I’ll continue to experiment, but at least in the near term, I’m going to keep it as simple as I can.

More:

Bob Flexner’s Understanding Wood Finishing is a terrific resource. It’s the first book I turn to when I’m looking for information on a given finish. His book is filled with opinions, many of which I could do without. Still, it’s a must have if you are going to finish with anything other than wax (which he thinks is worthless, by the way). 

Stephen Shepherd’s  Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint – Traditional 19th Century Woodwork Finishes is a fascinating read. While almost everyone else has moved on from linseed oil, Shepherd is an unabashed champion of its use. If nothing else, it’s nice to have a book on finishing where half the photos or illustrations don’t show someone wearing a half mask respirator.

Jeff Zens, a professional woodworker in Salem, OR, has a nice series of blog articles on finishing starting here.

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