My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond #19: It Isn't Finished Until It's "Finished"

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Blog entry by Sheila Landry (scrollgirl) posted 06-22-2010 12:53 PM 4418 reads 0 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 18: The Road Trip Did Wonders! I Can't Wait to Get Moving! Part 19 of My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond series Part 20: Contests and pricing and movies - Oh My! »

Did you ever see some really beautiful woodworking done only to notice that it wasn’t really ‘finished’? I have been doing woodworking and scroll sawing for a long time and I must admit that finishing is one of my shortcomings. I have been to many shows, too where people have on display the most beautiful, intricate fretwork that must have taken them days to cut, only to have little or no finish on them – or worse yet – a poorly sprayed on finish which has drips and/or dust embedded in it.

Since joining this forum and seeing the level of projects, I really noticed how much I lack finishing skills. I also realize that finishing itself can be an entire career and it scares me to think of the scope of what I need to learn. I am hoping to learn a little at a time, project to project to improve the final appearance of my work.

Almost two years ago, I made a walnut bread basket for the magazine. It was one of the first things that I made that would come in direct contact with food. I have a picture of it below:

From Album for Web Stuff

I liked it because it was slotted together and didn’t need any glue. It was one of my simpler designs, yet it is one of my favorite and one of the few things that I make that I actually keep and use here at my own home. Walnut is one of my favorite woods. I have to limit what I make with it for the magazine though because they say it is difficult to photograph well because it sucks up so much light. Nonetheless, I chose it for this little basket because the design was airy enough that it wouldn’t be a solid mass of dark.

After doing much reading to choose the proper finish, I went with mineral oil. There are other ‘salad bowl’ type finishes that include olive oil and grape seed oil, but some of them turn rancid over a period of time. Living in a small town where finding products is not always easy (and having a deadline to meet) I decided to go with good ole’ mineral oil. It seemed to be one of the purest and safest choices available.

I applied several coats with a soft cloth, allowing the oil to penetrate the wood and absorb. I did this process over several days time. The last couple of coats I applied using 600 grit sandpaper, as it really seemed to work the oil into the pores of the wood and provided a beautiful sheen. There was no smell at all with the mineral oil and the basket looked just beautiful! I was really pleased. Now it is almost two years later, and the basket sits on my counter holding my bananas and kiwi fruit and looks every bit as nice as the day I finished it.

As some of you may have read, I used oil on the little dresser tray that I made about two weeks ago. The wood I used was bird’s eye maple and the grain was beautiful and I didn’t want to botch the finish by spraying it. It is nearly impossible to brush on a finish with fretwork of that type. Most of the poly’s dry too quickly and leave streaks and drips and it is so hard to get into all the fretwork holes. I was able to use a 1/2” paint brush and apply the oil into each hole, taking my time and not worrying about drying fast, and then went on to use the 600 grit again to work the oil into the face of the tray. I then applied a thin coat of paste wax. The results was really beautiful, but after a couple of days it began to lose its luster and look a bit dry. How would it look in several weeks or months, I wondered?

I did some reading and found that many people spray shellac over an oiled surface. When I went on my trip this weekend, I headed to the finishing sections of each appropriate store we visited and I was really disappointed at the lack of supplies they had. I was lucky to find ONE spray can of lacquer in all the places I looked. There were a couple of bottles of tung oil and maybe a danish oil or lemon oil but for the most part, Krylon clear poly. I went with the shellac.

So I am getting this stuff ready to go to my editors and last night I took the companion piece to the tray (the little picture frame with the butterfly, which had the same oil finish on it) and gave it a shot. It really looked nice. I sprayed very lightly and carefully because all I wanted was a thin, protective coat. I did that piece first because if the results were poopie, at least I wouldn’t have ruined the piece that had to be shipped. When I was sure it was dry and was satisfied, I moved onto the tray.

First results was beautiful, until I saw the 2” cat hair in the middle of the tray after it dried. I guess with having three cats, it is inevitable, but I did spray outside and I must have just missed it. I let it dry for an hour or so and gently sanded the middle section of the tray which is the flat part with no fretwork in it (the rim was fine). I resprayed a thin coat and let it dry. This time, there were a few spots on near the edges of the middle where it looks like I missed sanding, that appear to be just ever so slightly bubbled. Not blistered, mind you, but a low level of what could be.

My thoughts are that I shouldn’t have used the paste wax if I was going to spray on the shellac. I think where I sanded the hair out, it removed enough of the surface to get rid of what wax was there and the edge areas still had some on it, preventing bonding with the wood. Do you think I am right? Other than that, I am really pleased with the results. The fretwork rim is stunning, probably because I didn’t really wax that part much because I didn’t want to get the wax in the crevices. I think what I need to do is re-sand the center piece and give it one more shot. Any nays or yays on this theory are welcome – even after the fact. I am in the process of finishing the three fretwork frames I cut last week in the same way and I want them to look good.

I guess this is getting long (again, sigh!). I will probably continue this discussion in subsequent posts. As I said, I don’t want to be overwhelmed. But for now, maybe if you have an opinion on what your ‘favorite’ finish is you would like to share it with me. Remember I do project-type stuff that isn’t going to get a lot of handling. The items are pretty intricate because of the fretwork in them. I would, however like to find a nice, protective finish that would stand up to everyday ‘gentle’ handling. Do you think that this oil/shellac is OK? I never put anything but the oil on the Walnut basket and it still looks beautiful after 2 years. I imagine I need to hit it with another coat every now and then, but I am under the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality regarding it. Or am I breaking a Cardinal rule of finishing by assuming this?

One last thought, I also had the other oil types in my hand and wanted to try them, but I remembered that tung oil had a horrid odor and I am assuming that danish oil does also. Are they that much different than regular old mineral oil? What is the advantage to using them over it? Is it just that you don’t have to seal it? Any help or thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. I hope you all have a wonderful day! :)

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

8 comments so far

View tyskkvinna's profile


1310 posts in 3010 days

#1 posted 06-22-2010 02:45 PM

I have not yet ventured into the oil realm of finishing – no reason why, except I’m not fond of working with oil.

I’ve had good luck with wax + shellac, especially spray shellac. I stand a little too far away and spray really gently. I’ve found the key is to have done the wax super evenly.

My work gets about the same about of handling as yours… so for the same reason I don’t go nuts on sealing it.

I am, oddly, very fond of simple satin clear krylon. the satin gives it this nice sheen that settles.

I’d love to try some kind of submersion method eventually – but I’m not brave enough.

-- Lis - Michigan - -

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2944 days

#2 posted 06-22-2010 02:53 PM

Boy, Lis! It is nice to know someone with such similar circumstance! I, like you use the satin Krylon most of the time. Same reason – nice sheen without shine, but easy and does the job.

With the shellac, do you wax BEFORE you spray? I guess I wasn’t getting that. I read (I thought) where you do but this little hiccup I had in the finish last night makes me think I misunderstood. I know lots of people spray poly OVER shellac. My thoughts are “why use shellac at all then?” Is it to seal the oil?

I really love the mineral oil because it is no smell and you can really take your time and care finishing it without it being unpleasant or caustic on your skin. (Bonus – your hands and nails are really soft after applying mineral oil finish! Great for me because they are always dry with working with the dust and all and so much hand-washing)

If the tung and danish and other oils don’t have a distinct advantage over the mineral oil, why use the other?

Lots of my fretwork friends ‘dip’ their stuff. I can see why and almost want to give it a try, but like you I am timid about it. :)

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3359 days

#3 posted 06-22-2010 05:23 PM

This was an interesting blog. I’m sure most of us who aren’t very knowledgeable about finishing have a lot of conflicting ideas about what is appropriate. I can understand your wanting to work with a finish that is non-toxic and good smelling. Unfortunately these products often aren’t up to the qualities expected of them.

Oil finishes aren’t durable at all and they have to be frequently renewed.

Waxed objects that are handled a lot get quickly smudged and cloudy and also require rather frequent renewal. anything remotely moist such as fingers and fruit make smudges. I have finished some decorative bowls I’ve turned with wax that have kept their shine for many years, but they aren’t handled much and are just used for display.

Lacquer is a good choice and dries very quickly and can take a lot of handling, but not moisture, heat or abrasion.

Poly is tough, and can within reason take all the aforementioned punishments. on the downside it dries slowly, smells bad and isn’t the easiest to clean up and it isn’t easy to renew. However, water based poly is supposed to dry in 3 or 4 hours (I think) and is equally tough, plus it doesn’t yellow with age as oil based poly does. Also the clean-up is easy. I haven’t tried the water-based yet, but I do like the way the slow drying oil based poly flattens out so well, because it doesn’t dry fast. This gives a nice surface and requires less sanding and rubbing out.

Danish oil which isn’t just oil is a combination of poly, oil and mineral spirits usually in proportions of about 1/3 of each. You can make it yourself and save a bundle. I like Danish oil a lot depending on the project. It does smell a lot though much like poly until dry.

I can’t get shellac locally, but It is known as a great sealer.

I think any hard finish like lacquer or poly should be lightly sanded between coats and I also like to use a little car rubbing compound to polish the finish after the last coat. It really makes a big difference in how it feels to the hand and also how smooth and beautiful it looks.

Personally I don’t like the finishing part of woodworking. Usually it takes almost or sometimes even more time for the finishing than the build. it’s messy and smelly and you need a clean place to do it. All that said, it is very very important to the project in terms of appearance and use. I know I haven’t got the right attitude here. I am still trying to learn to love it.

I’m not sure any of the above is very helpful, but it works for me. I suspect there are many more like me. Enrolling in a good finishing course is probably the best idea for anyone seriously into woodworking. I have never done this because they have don’t offer such courses here for hobbyists.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 3061 days

#4 posted 06-22-2010 05:25 PM

I find oil is easy to apply and buff up but I tend to use it on darker woods only. I find oil tends to yellow lighter woods.

My main favourite though is sanding sealer (spirit based so as not to raise the grain), a quick rub down with 600 grit (the sealer not me) and finally wax polish. Wax doesn’t yellow a lighter wood and I find it keps the colours truer (if that is a technical term at all). It’ll also keep the contrast between light and dark woods sharp, important in the sort of pattern work I mainly do.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2944 days

#5 posted 06-22-2010 07:35 PM

Really good points, Mike and Martyn. I realize that it is a huge Pandora’s box I am opening. Is sanding sealer a separate product, Martyn? I have never seen any around here.

I did notice on the Maple tray, that the oil caused it to darken a bit. So much so, it almost has the color of cherry. It is pretty, though, but it just isn’t the light color you would expect from maple.

Mike, the reason that I really don’t like the finishing process is because of the smell. I just can’t wait to be done with it most of the time and as a result, I rush through it. I have seen water-based poly, but never in a spray format. I know you can spray some of them through compressors, but I hear that they clog things up because they dry so quickly. I have liked a line of products called SamaN stains, which are environmentally safe and do a great job. They come in a lot of colors and are mixable too. They have some new outdoor varnishes which are more durable than the interior grade ones they started with, but again, only in jars for brush-on application.

I am glad most people like the lacquer as it seems pretty easy to use (from my LIMITED experience). With most of my items being decorative not functional it may be the best choice over the mineral oil. I looked at my walnut basket again on the counter after reading your post and it still looks good. I am sure if I hit it with another coat it would look better, but considering it is out there on the counter in use every day, it is pretty acceptable.

I really appreciate the information from both of you and I am going to hunt for that sanding sealer to try out. It will be good to give people options.

Thanks so much, Sheila

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 3061 days

#6 posted 06-22-2010 07:54 PM

Sanding sealer. Well I know it as the product most turners in the UK apply first to their finished work, before wax. Hope this gives you a clue as I’m not sure what its called in the US. Properties: you wipe it on thinly and it dries in minutes if not seconds. Its intended to seal the wood grain and not as a finish in and of itself.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

View tyskkvinna's profile


1310 posts in 3010 days

#7 posted 06-23-2010 02:19 PM

I wax, then wait a few hours (days if I can manage) and then shellac over it. I’m not sure if it is the wax I am using or what, but after a little while it appears to totally penetrate and the look of it being a standalone finish is gone.

I’ve been informed (by many here and elsewhere) that shellac is not ideal as a “final finish” on things that get handled a lot or weathered.. because it will wear down faster than other finishes. This isn’t a concern to me, because my stuff isn’t handled much.

You should be able to find sanding sealer – I have some from Minwax, got it at Home Depot…. have not tried it yet! But it’s called just that.

-- Lis - Michigan - -

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2944 days

#8 posted 06-23-2010 02:34 PM

Thanks so much to both of you! It is good to know that it exists in N. America! (Then again, Meteghan and Nova Scotia in general is another story) Darn and I was just in Home Depot this weekend! But I will try when I go to Yarmouth. There is a Home Hardware and Kent there and if all else fails, I can try Wally World. I am like you, Lis. Things aren’t handled much. So hopefully this will be cool.

I appreciate the help. :)

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

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