Popping the Grain on Black Walnut

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Forum topic by SouthpawCA posted 01-12-2010 01:38 AM 10340 views 4 times favorited 5 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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270 posts in 3202 days

01-12-2010 01:38 AM

Topic tags/keywords: black walnut popping the grain blo shellac

I’ve read a lot about popping the grain, but most of the articles were using birdseye, curly, or some other maple. I also bought a book on finishing where they attempted to address just how to do it, but didn’t go all the way. Most articles were also concerned about protecting the surface with polyurethane etc. I wanted to pop the grain on a number of pieces of black walnut that are totally decorative raised panel inlay. What I’m building is a fireplace surround that will eventually hold the new TV. The new mantle will be built of red oak with the inlay in a mission/craftsman style. I’m hoping the only wear it gets is from people touching the wood to see how smooth it is.

I initially followed the example in the book and other places where it told me to put a minimum of 3 coats of oil (BLO) – more is better. After 3 coats I noticed the grain was no longer really popping, the wood was just getting darker which really wasn’t the look I was going for. I let the pieces sit for awhile to work on other parts of the project. I also took a class in finishing put on by our local woodworkers club.

At the class, which was really about French Polish, I saw the look I sorta wanted on a practice piece. The piece was sanded to 220 and the pores were filled with plaster of paris (P of P). After the P of P dried over night (actually the next week) it was again sanded to 220 and the first coat of BLO was brushed onto the piece making sure the end grain and other areas that soaked it in had plenty of BLO and keeping an eye on it where additional BLO should be added because of the soaking in factor. The white of the P of P was gone. After about an hour the piece was lightly sanded, but not enough to really remove the BLO from the grain, but to create a slurry again filling the grain. Then another coat of BLO was brushed on and the piece was set aside to dry for about a week.

After sanding the walnut with the 2 coats of now hard BLO with 320/400 grit the piece was uber smooth. He then proceeded to brush on 3 coats of blonde shellac letting each coat dry which only took a few minutes between coats. He then let that dry overnight, but here is where I stopped with my pieces.

To go with the mission look I wanted to see the pores of the walnut but not really feel them. The most important part was I wanted to pop the grain. I did the 2 coats of BLO sanding the last coat into a slurry and then left to dry for about 5 days. The slurry sorta filled the pores but not completely like the P of P. When dry, I sanded lightly to 220 started brushing on the blonde shellac. The first coat of shellac started to really show the grain, the 2nd even more. I put 4 coats of shellac on because I was having so much fun. HOWEVER, after being allowed to dry overnight, my wife though it looked way too much like a finished glossy tabletop (and I hadn’t even done the actual french polish thing with the rag yet!). So, I had to knock down the shine a bit. I started rubbing with 1500 grit woodturners abrasive. I went thru each of those grits to 12000 and achieved the finish I was looking for and the wife is happy. The grain on the walnut really pops and the face of each of the raised panels is uber smooth. I’ll be posting pictures sometime soon. I probably didn’t really have to do all that hand rubbing, but it was interesting to see the gloss be totally knocked down and then slowly bring it back up with each of the woodturners grits until I was satisfied with the gloss that I wanted, not some company’s generalization of what a finish should be.

-- Don

5 replies so far

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 3791 days

#1 posted 01-12-2010 04:42 AM

Don, this sounds like an interesting finishing routine. Using plaster of paris as a pore filler is a new one on me so thanks for the info. You put a lot of work into the finish and I am sure it was well worth the effort. I am a firm believer that the finish should take as long as the build itself.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View okwoodshop's profile


448 posts in 3144 days

#2 posted 01-12-2010 06:53 AM

Pictures, PLEASE.

View SouthpawCA's profile


270 posts in 3202 days

#3 posted 01-14-2010 03:22 AM

I created a blog for my fireplace wall … this was the first entry. Take a look.

-- Don

View Rj's profile


1047 posts in 3600 days

#4 posted 01-14-2010 03:38 AM

Southpaw Thank you for posting this !awhile back I posted a question for filling grain on Walnut Etc I was wondering about the method of using P.O.P. but was afraid the white would show up in the grain . After reading your blog I’m going to try it along with the other methods you mentioned.

Thanks Again

-- Rj's Woodworks,San Jose & Weed Ca,

View hokieman's profile


184 posts in 3723 days

#5 posted 01-15-2010 07:00 AM

I have used the Plaster of Paris before but it can be messy. Real messy. I would advise that when you hit the filled walnut with BLO, use two coats and let it soak in. I had some that looked good at first but with age the filling started to turn a little white. Actually, the best way to fill it is the way Southpaw explains. I have done this before. I use danish oil and about 600 grit wet and dry sandpaper. Lay down the danish oil, sand with the 600 grit and form a slurry, then wipe it down with a clean rag. You can sand in any direcction with a fine sandpaper like 600 grit. The surface is super smooth. I have gotten by with one such application. The I let it dry real good and then wipe on some arm r seal finish from General. It looks great. I would say that it may sound like the slurry sanding method is tedious and diffiicult but just try sanding plaster of paris off your project!

There is another method that was explained in a FWW article where the P.O.P. method is also explained. The other method is laying down a generous layer of BLO and the sprinkle 4F pumice on the project. (If you have access to FWW online, just seach for “filling grain” and you’ll get the article Makiing Your Own Grain Filler) Use a clean rag and work the pumice in the grain by working it in cross grain. I have to say, I have tried some scrap pieces like that but I didn’t think the grain filled as well. Still felt rough to me. Maybe another application would have done the trick.

If I had to rate all three methods, I would opt for the Southpaw method, then the P.O.P method and pumice last.

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