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View Kookaburra's profile

General finishing advice

by Kookaburra
posted 08-02-2012 04:26 PM

22 replies so far

View Sawkerf's profile


1730 posts in 3064 days

#1 posted 08-02-2012 05:17 PM

In over 30 years of woodworking, I’ve never seen any “guidelines”. Everything I know (or think that I know) has come from trying different things.

You say that you’ve done some NYWS projects and used the finishes they called for. That should give you some sense of what you like and dislike. You could start there.

FWIW, the word “finishing” is often used to describe two separate steps. If you want to change the color of your wood, you do that with a stain. The “finish” is actually the protective coating that goes over the stain. Water based finishes dry clear and don’t change the color of the wood (stained or natural). Oil based finishes and shellacs will usually give the piece a yellowish tint. My “go-to” finish is a water based polyurethane. It’s easy to use, dries quickly, and only needs soap and water for cleanup.

Finishes come in satin (no shine), semi-gloss and gloss (high shine). I tend to go with a finish somewhat shinier than I want the piece to finally have. Finishes dull in a few months and the initial shine goes down.

-- Adversity doesn't build reveals it.

View CueballRosendaul's profile


484 posts in 2136 days

#2 posted 08-02-2012 05:41 PM

I feel your pain and confusion. I used to hate finishing and was terrible at it. I have dozens of sample boards that I sanded and finished the same as I would any actual project. I write on the edge exactly what I did including the last sanding step, how many coats, stain, polyurethane, even dry times or steel wool in between. I didn’t make them all at once, but rather as I was building various projects. Another way to do sample finishes is to finish shop made jigs and fixtures as actual projects doing the same process and writing it on the piece. By now I must have 50 different finish examples.

Recently I bought about 20 different stains in little cans so I could have more variety on hand. My favorite clear finishes, whether over stain or just bare wood, are a gloss spray lacquer by Rustoleum because it looks good and is very fast and easy or a water based poly. Right now I’m still using some poly leftover from refinishing a hardwood floor and realize that its a very hard and durable finish. In addition, you can apply several coats in one day because it dries in less than an hour. The only thing to remember about any water based finish is to raise the grain of the wood before finish with a damp cloth, then hitting gently with a piece of 220. This gets rid of the fuzz that will raise up from the water in the poly. After a couple coats, then I use a green scratch pad or a piece of 000 steel wool to smooth it out and a few more coats of poly. It sprays very well when thinned with water as well.

You mentioned shellac, tung oil, and danish oil, all of which I have used. Tung oil is nice and simple and works well on cherry, poplar, and soft maple, but I haven’t had good luck with it on harder woods. It can also be funny on highly figured woods where it soaks in better on some spots than others. Most of my projects need more protection than just a few coats of oil, and I don’t have the patience for it and the other finishes.

There is a FWW book on finishing you can find on amazon if you search for Taunton Press finishing. I’m sure you could find it at the library as well. My local library has a great selection of such books. At the end of the day though, it’s trial and error, but writing it down so you can duplicate results.

-- Matt CueBall Rosendaul. I don't think I've ever had a cup of coffee that didn't have cat hair or sawdust in it.

View KnickKnack's profile


1088 posts in 3562 days

#3 posted 08-02-2012 05:44 PM

how do I know which finish to use on which project or which wood?
Trial and error. My experience, which isn’t great, is that what works in one place sometimes doesn’t work in another – where possible, on your actual project wood, either on a scrap or a “hidden bit”, try the finishes you’re considering, and then chose.

I like my wood to look as much like the original wood as possible. I like a smooth but not shiny finish.
Me too. And I’ve found that all the “varnish” finishes (in which I’d include Danish) seem to “sit on” the wood, whereas the oil finishes seem to become “part of” the wood. Both visually and tactilely (which my dictionary assures me is a word). I have no experience with shellac so I can’t comment on that. I also find the oils easier to apply, more forgiving, and better for any kind of dusty environment. I notice you don’t have linseed oil in your toolkit – I’d suggest it’s worth a go – I personally like it a lot, and, in my experience, the first coat is best applied hot rather than thinned (same actually with tung).
Final use is, of course, also important – if you’re looking for protection then the oils don’t really give it.

I didn’t see wax on your list. Especially after the oils, the waxing is where you’re going to get the sheen in which you can see your face, but very very soft-focus like watching an old movie reflected in a fogged up mirror.

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

View Kookaburra's profile


748 posts in 2220 days

#4 posted 08-02-2012 07:04 PM

Wow. I think I am more confused than I was before! Thank you all for the great tips and warnings.

Sawkerf – thanks for the hint on oil and shellac giving a yellowish tint – could be nice in some cases but good to keep in mind. I am not likely to stain anything unless I have to, so I will be focusing on the finishing stage. Since I am a girl, I don’t like things shiny, so I will stick with satin and semi-gloss and keep in mind that the semi-glass might be a good choice as the piece ages.

CueBall – That is exactly what I need to do – finish a bunch of samples and mark how I finished them. Now wouldn’t that be a great product to sell – small slices of different woods with different finishes on them. I am primarily a glass artist and I have big binders with squares of the various glass products so I can see how they will look after kilning. The binders cost hundreds of dollars each! Why not one in wood? OK, I will start by making my own sample set. Meanwhile, I will look for the finishing book to add to my library. Sounds like one I will want to have on hand for reference.

KnickKnack – good advice, as always. I certainly should have BLO (love that acronym dictionary) in my offerings. How do you heat oil and how hot should it be? Wax – is that your basic floor paste wax or is it special expensive magical wood wax? Wax sounds like it gives just the look I am going for. I like your distinction of on or part of the wood. I like the idea of part of also.

Whew! Off to check Amazon for the book, linseed oil and wax. The cut up some wood and try the finishes I have on hand. This should give me a good start.

-- Kay - Just a girl who loves wood.

View KnickKnack's profile


1088 posts in 3562 days

#5 posted 08-02-2012 07:28 PM

How do you heat oil and how hot should it be?
I discussed my method a while back, before your time, in fact – here. Interesting discussion – I think the consensus was that it didn’t work. Works for me :-)

is that your basic floor paste wax or is it special expensive magical wood wax?
If you knew me you’d know how serious i take me waxin’ when I tell you I paid about 10 euros (10 bux, maybe) for a small pot of wax. But then I had almost no choice other than those aesosol things and that wasn’t what I was after. Horrified I was, but I figured I’d spent all that time, the wood, the wear and tear, the sandpaper etc etc so I shouldn’t scrimp on the bit you actually touch. Internet search found it, at last, I use this… starwax (sorry, could only find it in french). Pot has lasted well though … :-)

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

4929 posts in 3956 days

#6 posted 08-02-2012 07:36 PM

Well, you could do like so many WWers, and slather polycrapithane on everything ya build, or study real finishing. That way you’ll use appropriate finishes for the object.
Now that I have vented for a moment….....Poly has a place. Underfoot and high-use surfaces. I use wiping varnish and shellac a bunch. Like poly, they have their place.
There are no pat answers, but one finish for all objects is limiting.
Just my myopic view.


View upinflames's profile


217 posts in 2158 days

#7 posted 08-02-2012 08:05 PM

Thirty years I have been building fine furniture for my paycheck. There are so many misconceptions about poly that it boggles my mind. I agree there is a finish for what the piece will be used for, ANYTHING that MIGHT have a sweating glass or bottle on, poly, Polyurethane is not an EASY finish, it takes more patience than one might think, never thin poly to apply. If you want a semi-gloss or satin finish with poly, ALWAYS start with high gloss, then the final coat will be semi or satin. Done this way you will not lose your woodgrain and it won’t look like it was “dipped in plastic”. As far as yellowing, yeah, years ago it was pretty noticeable, nowadays, not so much. I use wax also, nice and neat, no patience required, just have to reapply every so often. As for finding the right finish, just depends on what the customer wants, if it’s for my wife, it’s what SHE wants….(keep momma happy).

View Wildwood's profile


2305 posts in 2131 days

#8 posted 08-02-2012 08:17 PM

Wood selection for a project and finish to use go hand in hand. Need to look at how the item will be used, sheen, durability of finish, protection afforded and personal protective equipment (PPE) you need while working with the stuff.
Tung oil takes a long time to do right. Rule of thumb for not much handling two coats, medium handling four to six coats, and lots of handling six to ten coats. Waiting 12 to 24 hours between coats and each coat gets tiresome. Better barrier against wood moisture exchange than linseed oil but not much.

Watco Danish oil, just run of the mill oil varnish.

Oil finish pretty easy to repair applying more over time and benefit by re-application. To completely remove have to sand back to bare wood.

Shellac easy to apply and gets a bum rap on durability, no it is not for every surface. There is a small learning curve brushing or spraying, each coat dissolves into previous coats. Thinner-solvent for shellac is denatured alcohol.

Lacquer also dissolves itself into previous coats and solvent/thinner is actually call lacquer thinner. I am trying to move away from brush on and spray can lacquers.

Mineral oil not really a finishing product, I use food grade (laxative) MO around the shop a lot. MO is not a drying oil, so use it only on things going to re-coat often. Stay away from industrial grade mineral oil and bay oil for woodworking projects.

Mineral spirits either a thinner or a solvent depending upon how you use it not really a finishing product. True for naphtha and turpentine.

If looking for easy wipe on finishing product learn about wiping varnish. Simply wipe on light coat allow to dry before applying each new light coat. Two coats of wiping varnish equal one coat of varnish. Wiping varnish should contain 50 to 60% resins and less mineral spirits or naphtha, so check ingredients carefully.

I bought a wipe on poly product that was 75% mineral spirits, which did not work very well for me.

Check your local library for wood finishing books. I have a copy of “Understanding Wood Finishing, “How to select the right finish,” by Bob Flexner. Think he has an updated edition out now. I still go back to it for information when in doubt.

-- Bill

View Jim Jakosh's profile

Jim Jakosh

20476 posts in 3101 days

#9 posted 08-02-2012 09:43 PM

Kay, I hear what you are asking- there are a myriad of finishes out there. I think your preference will come from trying them out on projects or prepared samples if you have the time to do that. From my experience, when I am making furniture, I like to spray clear lacquer or coat with Polyurethane. I especially use poly on doors and window frames. I either wipe it on or use a foam brush. One trick I learned when doing a bunch of doors it to add a cap full of naphtha to a cup of poly. It helps it flow better and sets up quicker so dust has less time to settle. I wet sand with 400 between coats.
When I spray lacquer, I rarely sand between coats because the new coat bites into the previous coat .

I have not tried Boiled Linseed Oil (BLO) on a real project but it seamed to take a long time to dry when I tried it on samples.

I tried tung oil but did not like the finish- too flat for me. You might like the natural look for you products

I use teak oil on outdoor projects like wind chimes and cedar projects.
On turnings I use EEE polish and Shellawax. Often I lacquer after the Shellawax and it works fine.

For food contact products like cutting boards or forks and spoons, I use salad bowl finish or food grade mineral oil.

Mineral spirits is just a solvent like lacquer thinner. I would never be without lacquer thinner for cleaning things up! Great stuff!! ( I hope the GREEN people don’t ever take it off the market).

Shellac is a good sealer under most any finish. You can thin it with denatured alcohol and that also works on Shellawax. I would not use Shellac as a finish on a table because alcohol- like Jack-can dissolve it!!

I don’t know if there is a hard and fast rule. The advertizers would have you think you need specific products for every different thing, but you will get comfortable with some and use them with great success. The thing is to determine if the product is just for show or will have to withstand some certain use or environment.

I use lacquer a lot because it hold up pretty good!

There, you picked my brain for all it’s worth and it is now empty!!........................Have a great day,Jim

-- Jim Jakosh.....Practical Wood Products...........Learn something new every day!! Variety is the Spice of Life!!

View Raymond Thomas's profile

Raymond Thomas

189 posts in 2214 days

#10 posted 08-02-2012 10:39 PM

Kay, please keep in mind when dealing with all of the finishing methods and types, that there is a danger to your health and safety if you should mix some of these together in an enclosed space without good ventilation. Especially, when using BLO – always lay your application rags out flat in an area with a lot of ventilation (outdoors, preferably). BLO saturated rags can self-ignite if left wadded up. I cannot stress the care you should exercise when using BLO – I know I nearly burned down a shed once when I forgot about the contaminated rags; furtunately, I forgot something and walked back into the shed and saw a small fire in the waste can.

-- Raymond, Charlotte, NC -------- Demonstrate the difference!

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1533 posts in 2357 days

#11 posted 08-03-2012 02:04 AM

I’ve summarized my experience and share my considered opinion about the various finishes ion my blog. You may find it useful.

Obtaining a beautiful and durable finish is simple if you keep it simple.

-- Clint Searl....Ya can no more do what ya don't know how than ya can git back from where ya ain't been

View Kookaburra's profile


748 posts in 2220 days

#12 posted 08-03-2012 04:30 AM

Oh, my head is spinning!

I found the Tauton book – not sure if it is out of publication or simply hard to find, but Amazon does not carry it (even though they link to other sellers). I found some finishing wax – a beeswax and carnauba combination. T’was expensive though. I have to stop at my local big box for the BLO; I want to at least try it on a a couple pieces of wood, but I won’t be buying a gallon right now.

I have plenty of protective gear from working with glass – and I know enough to use it. Nothing better for the lungs than the dust from a glass saw! And nothing better for the eyes than a tiny chip thrown up by a slurry grinder. No thank you – the tiny cuts all over my hands are enough to warn me. And I do work with chemicals sometimes, so I even have a full respirator if necessary.

Dustmagnet – I have never used poly – and after reading these, I probably won’t until I am more confident! I am more than willing to put the time and care into getting a nice finish – and I know that will vary based on wood and the piece I am making. None of the ones I am currently working on will be hard use – no table tops or chairs or anything outdoor. But there will be some pieces some day.

Wildwood – thanks for the info on some of those specific materials – that will come in handy.

Jim- I don’t know why, but I had it in the back of my mind that shellac is always a good start. That was probably for its use as a sealer – maybe that’s why I might remember it. Are there finishes I should not apply over shellac?

TorqNut – that is a good warning and something I had heard rumors about. I still do not understand it from a scientific standpoint, but that is moot if my house burns down! So I will seal any rags with BLO in airtight bags or bins.

Clint – I’ll check out your blog while I am supposed to be working tomorrow ;-) I am sure I will push out even more office related stuff from my brain!

So Saturday, I plan to cut up some pieces of scrap wood of a couple types and try different finishes – maybe even give KnickKnack’s super double-walled, soda-bottle, sunny-day heater a go. I’ll post the results on my blog – and you can all check in and tell me the ghastly mistakes I made, so I can give it another try and learn even more next weekend. Sadly I will be out of town for work next week, so all I will be able to do is read – and that finishing book will not be here by then!

I am thinking of taking my rough formed porcupine, my spoke shave, a couple of rasps and chisels and a handful of sandpaper with me. Think the hotel might boot me out if I scatter the floor of my room with sawdust?

Thank you all for taking the time to advise! I really appreciate it.

-- Kay - Just a girl who loves wood.

View Loren's profile


10381 posts in 3644 days

#13 posted 08-03-2012 06:13 AM

I usually “pad” on shellac with a folded piece of t-shirt material.
I usually don’t do the whole french polish process because
it isn’t needed to get very, very nice results with shellac.

Instead, I pad it on and sand lightly between coats with
stearated paper. I let the final coat cure, then rub it out
and top-coat with wax. The finish builds quick and is not
messy or tedious.

For smaller pieces I grab the folded pad with a medicl
hemostat so I don’t have to get it on my fingers or mess
with a glove, which can get sticky and hard to use as the
shellac dries on it. Also my nails are grown out on my right
hand for playing guitar and they poke holes in the glove
so if your nails are short you may get better performance
from a glove and holding the pad in your hand certainly
gives a better feel.

View hairy's profile


2701 posts in 3528 days

#14 posted 08-03-2012 12:27 PM

Here’s some good advice on finish.

He owns my favorite woodworking store, I shop there often.

-- My reality check bounced...

View AJLastra's profile


87 posts in 2224 days

#15 posted 08-03-2012 01:34 PM


Lots of great advice in these replies. One of the things I would strongly suggest to you, in order to understand finishes and finishing, is to get your hands on the advice of the best finishers out there. these guys have published loads of stuff….........much of it is FREE on their websites, particularly Jeff Jewitt. As was mentioned earlier in this thread, you need to consider what the project is going to be used for and what it will have to deal with when someone is using ti when you try to decide what to finish it with. There is a huge world of options out there. Cherry, for example, needs no finish. but if you want it to look like “aged” cherry, you can use household lye. Or simply leave it out in the sun for a few hours each day for a week which is what “old timers” did. Cherry “sunburns”. You MUST know that the shellac you buy from Zinseer…Bullseye…is NOT dewaxed. that makes a difference with what topcoats you apply. I would suggest you get a hold of two superb videos put out by Jewitt….......Hand Applied Finishes-coloring Wood and Hand Applied Finishes-Topcoats. Everything you want to know about the basics of staining and coloring and top coating with shellac, lacquer, polyurethane and varnish is included. There is sooooooooooooooo much more to this craft…..........and it IS a craft…............than asking what you can do with a handful of products that you have on hand. If you want the finish to last and preotect the piece, then you have to ask important questions before you start to apply and stain or topcoat. Where is the project going to be placed? Kitchen? Bathroom? Living room? Is it humid or dry? Will someone place sweating glasses or hot coffee cups on it? Will it come into contact with food? Will young children get a hold of it? Will it be subjected to scratches like a tabletop might? All of these things dictate what to do with the piece.

View Kookaburra's profile


748 posts in 2220 days

#16 posted 08-03-2012 03:30 PM

Ah yes, there is no shortage of finishing information. So much, in fact, that is is impossible to digest it all or even sort it out. The avalance of opinions and techniques makes it impossible to make sense of it. There are conflicting views on each and every potential finish (even seen at a manageable level in this post) – it would be impossible to reconcile all the websites, book and experts. And I have no way to know who is right or not.

I have some good advice and starting points here. I can use the Tauton book as my respected expert on the characteristics of each finish – and ask for advice on specific issues from you guys. I got some good hints here to give me the confidence to try a few things – so that’s what I am going to do!

Pretty soon I will be one of those experts with lots of opinions and favorites of my own :)

-- Kay - Just a girl who loves wood.

View AJLastra's profile


87 posts in 2224 days

#17 posted 08-03-2012 03:50 PM

you’ll find that even with the finishing eperts like Mike Dresdner, Jeff Jewitt, Bob Flexner, and others, they have their favorite finishes for various woods and they can and do sometimes disagree with each other about what to do when. But you’ll also find that there are some universal truths about finishing and those will reveal themselves as you do your research. I’ve been working wood for over 20 years and make reproduction furniture for a gallery that REQUIRES period specific finishes… that means using sandpaper for dead flat surfaces isn’t acceptable because 18th century furniture makers didnt use sandpaper. The surfaces were made smooth with smooth planes and scrapers. One thing you will find is that regardless of what finish you choose, it wont hide poor finish prep….............which means that if you want a high quality look, you have to spend the time prepapring the surface to be finished and there is no easy way to do that. whether you use sandpaper or hand tools, it takes time and patience. Even if you go the Norm Abram route and slather polyurethane over everything, you still need a well prepared surface. Good luck with your work! Enjoy the craft of finishing and dont hesitate to ask questions as you go.

View a1Jim's profile


117090 posts in 3573 days

#18 posted 08-03-2012 03:54 PM

asking about what kind Finish to use is like asking what kind of car to drive or where to buy a home or what cloths to wear, everyone has their own experience with different products on different woods under different conditions, it’s really a crap shoot. I’ve bought a number or books on the subject but the most comprehensive approach on finishing I’ve seen is a set of DVDs put out by Charles Neil called “Finishing A to Z – Beyond the Books”
This set cost a more than a single DVD or a book but can save you a lot of money buying 37 cans of finish to see what works,this set covers all of the if,whys, and hows of finishing and is well worth the investment. If you doubt Charles expertise just look at his work,the proof is in the pudding.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View KnickKnack's profile


1088 posts in 3562 days

#19 posted 08-03-2012 04:02 PM

…you have to spend the time preparing the surface to be finished and there is no easy way to do that…

Speaking of which, there was an interesting discussion a few years back about the level of sanding required to get to a good finish.

-- "Do not speak – unless it improves on silence." --- "Following the rules and protecting the regulations is binding oneself without rope."

View a1Jim's profile


117090 posts in 3573 days

#20 posted 08-03-2012 07:39 PM

Sorry senior moment :))

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View bondogaposis's profile


4725 posts in 2347 days

#21 posted 08-03-2012 08:24 PM

I like to keep it simple and mostly use General Finishes Seal-a-cell and Arm-r-seal. They are great products and wipe on for easy application.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View BenI's profile


332 posts in 2174 days

#22 posted 08-03-2012 09:31 PM

While this doesn’t cover absolutely every detail, I found it quite helpful, and I’d bet there’s more videos regarding finishes on their youtube channel/site.

From The Wood Whisperer channel..

-- Ben from IL

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