Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner (1994 edition)

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Review by Purrmaster posted 12-07-2012 12:27 PM 3175 views 2 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch
Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner (1994 edition) No-picture-s No-picture-s Click the pictures to enlarge them

Please note: This is for the 1994 edition of the book.

I recently got this book and have now read it cover to cover. This is a fantastic book. I learned more from this book than everything else I’ve read on finishing.

The book covers pretty much all of the finishes you’d be putting on wood. Varnish, shellac, lacquer, oil, etc. The book isn’t so much a how to manual about how to apply the finishes (though there is enough of that). It’s more of a primer on the finishes and how they work. For example, water isn’t actually the solvent in water borne finishes. Glycol ether is. Water is the thinner.

He also has a chapter on pore filling as well as rubbing out finishes. There is also a short section on how to finish different common woods that often present a problem.

One thing I liked about this book is that Flexner takes a scientific, fact based approach to finishing. He debunks many common finishing myths, which is very helpful. For instance: Wax doesn’t protect wood against water and stains. What it does is make the surface more slippery and therefore slightly less prone to physical wear.

If I had to pick one book I’d use as my finishing bible, this is it. It doesn’t answer every and all questions but it comes close. I intend to use this as a baseline reference for finishing from now on.

This review is for the 1994 edition of the book. I’m getting the latest edition from the library and will update this review with any differences I find between the two versions.

Highly recommended.

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11 comments so far

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#1 posted 12-07-2012 12:42 PM

purrmaster, Thanks! I’ll also try to acquire one for my wife for Christmas, as she does finishing pretty well. And if it brings up a question that it doesn’t answer for you, please contact him at Poplar Woodworking Magazine. Megan Fitzpatrick the managing editor will pass the question to him and he;ll reply in detail usually within 48 hours.

-- Russell Pitner Hixson, TN 37343

View wunderaa's profile


240 posts in 1472 days

#2 posted 12-07-2012 03:51 PM


Thanks for the review. I’ll have to check the book out. That sort of approach is right up my alley. I much prefer to understand the “why/how” behind things to better understand what’s going on.


View a1Jim's profile


114790 posts in 2847 days

#3 posted 12-07-2012 04:14 PM

Thank you for your review .Bob’s book has been around for a long time and unfortunately is not up to date.Bob’s been know to miss on some subjects like saying “that cherry and maple will not blotch” Charles Neil is coming out with a new book just before Christmas that will be my choice for up to date information on modern finishes. I view Bob’s book on finishing as a kind a kind of high school class of finishing and Charles Neil’s a collage masters degree.

-- Custom furniture

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2735 posts in 1846 days

#4 posted 12-07-2012 04:37 PM

I’m getting Charles’ book too.

I have flexner’s (the updated one) and I don’t agree with all of his views. For instance, he says that waterborne finishes aren’t very mature or durable, both very false.

-- He who dies with the most tools... dies with the emptiest wallet.

View Ken90712's profile


16578 posts in 2458 days

#5 posted 12-07-2012 05:43 PM

I have his newer addition that I did a review on as well.

One of the BEST woodworking books on finishing out there. Taught me so much and how to solve problems before its to late.
Nice review on this.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

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914 posts in 1363 days

#6 posted 12-07-2012 10:06 PM

In the 1994 edition I don’t recall Flexner saying water based finishes weren’t durable. He didn’t seem to have any preference for water or oil based finishes. I, myself, have generally preferred solvent based stuff.

I believe his choice for the most durable finishes was the cross linking ones. That is, finishes that not only dry but also change chemically by forming molecular bonds. As you can tell, I’m not a chemist.

Feel free to correct me.

I intend to get Mr. Neil’s book as well.

View BigDaddyO's profile


135 posts in 2047 days

#7 posted 12-08-2012 06:33 PM

wow, seeing that book cover is a flash from the past. That was my text book back when I was in college in 96


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Rick M.

6781 posts in 1650 days

#8 posted 12-22-2012 05:54 AM

If every woodworker read this book, 95% of finishing questions would never be asked. I don’t remember any bias against waterborne finishes although I haven’t read it cover to cover in a few years and I don’t remember anyone ever demonstrating any information in the book to be untrue. This is the only book I own on finishing and will probably be the only book on finishing I ever own because I’m not pushing any boundaries and it has covered everything I’ve wanted to know for the last 15+ years.


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914 posts in 1363 days

#9 posted 12-22-2012 07:36 AM

I’ve now read the updated version cover to cover. So I can comment on the comments.

He doesn’t say cherry and maple don’t blotch. In fact he specifically mentions issues with cherry and maple (among others) blotching.

As far as his being hard on water based finishes…. you’re right. I read through that section and he is much more critical of the water based finishes in the 2005 book than the 1994 book. Something which I found surprising considering that I would have thought water based finishes would have improved in the last 11 years.

I got the impression in that chapter that he was disappointed by the water base finishes. They were pretty new and not as widely used in 1994 (I think). I think Flexner had higher hopes of water finishes in 2005.

I’m speculating on a man’s thoughts though, so bear that in mind.

I think the 2005 book is overall better than the 1994 one in the sense there is more information in the 2005 version.

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Rick M.

6781 posts in 1650 days

#10 posted 12-23-2012 03:59 AM

Thanks for the update. If I ever stumbled across a cheap ‘05 copy I’ll buy it for the new info. I typically only use 3 different finishes though: oil/wax, acrylic spray lacquer, & shellac; and I doubt much if anything has changed with those.


View Woodsurgin's profile


32 posts in 1881 days

#11 posted 02-14-2013 11:55 AM

I received a call from Bob Flexner after I put in a comment in FWW’s letter’s to the editor about some finishing problems I had with water borne lacquer. He gave me a lot of advice and left the impression that this man knows what he is talking about. I went out and bought this book and have enjoyed advice that I can trust.

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