Finishing recommendations for all-end grain table?

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Forum topic by Pete Tevonian posted 07-07-2010 06:36 PM 7851 views 2 times favorited 10 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 2886 days

07-07-2010 06:36 PM

Topic tags/keywords: end-grain finishing siberian elm table pop

I’m in the process of searching for/testing finishes for a table made out of a giant “cookie”—a 49×39” cross section of Siberian Elm. The entire table top will be end grain, obviously, and the Siberian Elm has some really nice contrasting colors in the rings, as well as some burl, and a fair amount of variation—some “feathery” rings, some tightly packed, some dark knots, some flecking. When I poured on the Pentacryl I am using to preserve the wood, the grain and details just popped where the liquid was thick and flowing, until it was absorbed. For those few seconds it was really spectacular.

Question: How do I preserve and bring out that character and visual depth the grain has? Do I need a thick, glossy finish, simulating the poured liquid to get that result?

Also, I planned on sealing the entire table top, as it is end grain and I’m concerned about it soaking up a lot of oil/finish. Is that likely to reduce the sparkle factor in the final appearance?

Thanks in advance for any guidance or thoughts.


-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

10 replies so far

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4095 days

#1 posted 07-07-2010 07:11 PM

The end-grain acts like a bundle of straws and will absorb liquid rapidly.

I use dewaxed shellac to seal end-grain crosscuts of wood for rustic table tops.
It dries fast and you only need about two thin coats to seal the wood.
A good source of off-the-shelf shellac is Zinsser SealCoat, a two pound cut of dewaxed shellac.
The shellac not only seals but it will enhance the reflectance of the grain variations, aka chatoyancy.

Once the shellac is dry, you can top coat with your favorite oil varnish (poly fortified).

-- 温故知新

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

4907 posts in 3928 days

#2 posted 07-07-2010 08:31 PM

Yep!! The shellac first, then a nice lusterous finish. NO THICK PLASTIC STUFF!!! Let the wood and the workmanship speak.


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Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 2886 days

#3 posted 07-07-2010 08:55 PM

Can/should you oil first before the shellac, to impart a little color or enahnce the grain? Will the oil provide any benefit, visual or otherwise, or will the shellac itself take care of that?

I do have some 3”x6”x1” thick samples from a board from the same tree, and have a variety of finishing tests running, including one that will be a few coats of shellac and then varnish—so it sounds like that will be a good test. Those samples only show a small amount of end grain, though.

The shellac I have, incidentally, is labelled as a “transparent polish”. Is that maredly different from a SealCoat or Bulls Eye Shellac? I admit some ignorance when I purchased it.

Thanks for the comments!

-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

View oluf's profile


260 posts in 3007 days

#4 posted 07-08-2010 12:24 AM

Before you put any finish on, rember the sanding rules. End grain needs to be sanded at least two grits finer than edge grain. Don’t skip any grits and sand out all the marks before you move to the next grit. with proper sanding you don’t need to try to smooth the surface with thick cover up finishes.

-- Nils, So. Central MI. Wood is honest.Take the effort to understand what it has to tell you before you try to change it.

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Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 2886 days

#5 posted 07-08-2010 03:06 AM

Nils, thanks for the reminder. This table will be one slab of end-grain, so I won’t have to worry about matching face-, edge- and end-grain coloration, but your point is still a good one. I’m hoping to do some tests on a piece of scrap end-grain that was cut off of the smaller of pair of these cookies.

In the small scraps I’ve tested so far, I used 120, 180, 240, 320 and 400 to get a very smooth surface. Not sure if I’ll have the patience to use five grits on what amounts to 10 sq ft of end grain (and that will be after plenty of low-angle jack planing)! Then again, I’d hate to ruin a piece due to lack of patience or arm strength. :)

-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

View Kathy's profile


210 posts in 2889 days

#6 posted 07-08-2010 03:42 AM

I hope we get to see a picture when you are done!!

-- curious woodworker

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Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 2886 days

#7 posted 07-08-2010 04:22 AM

Kathy—will do. I haven’t yet, but I’m looking forward to using the Blog features on Lumberjocks to start recording some of the process. This wood, type of project, preserving process, preparation needs and finishing are all new to me. I’ve already failed to adequately photograph the raw slabs, but at least I get get them in the soaked-with-preservative-and-drying stage onward.

-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

View vicrider's profile


179 posts in 2866 days

#8 posted 07-08-2010 07:44 AM

Hey Pete,

I don’t know if you wanted this kind of recommendation but here goes. I love high gloss finishes. I think semi-gloss, satin, and matte finishes obscure some of the beauty in a highly figured wood. Remarkable grain is enhanced by a remarkable finish.

I agree with the other posters that you should start with 2 seal coats of shellac. It dries fast and leaves a surface that other finishes adhere to. It is not affected by the thinners in most finishes. I think it is too tender for building a finish or top-coating, though.

I have recently discovered a product called Crystalac Grain Filler (Rockler, Amazon). It is water based, easy to apply, dries clear and will fill open grain woods like Oak, Walnut, and Koa in 2 or 3 coats. It is the consistency of loose toothpaste and costs about $25/qt. But a quart will last a loooooong time. IMHO, it is hands down the best grain filler I have ever used. It is not granular, doesn’t require thinning, doesn’t need volatile chemical reducers, doesn’t require stain or color to match the wood, and is, all in all, really easy to use.

I apply it generously with a small pad, then gently swipe off the excess (at 45 deg’s to the grain) with an old credit card. Sand it flush between coats; 220 or 320 grit. It sands easily when thoroughly dry (that is the real secret). Use a dust mask as it contains silica which is NOT good for your lungs. It requires 24 hours to dry each coat. I have a test piece of Walnut that you can shave in after using 2 coats of this filler and following up with gloss poly.

For a really remarkable see-yourself-in-it finish, I usually wait a week after the last coat (3 in all) of gloss poly. Wet sand gently with 1200 grit, wipe off the residue, then rub out the finish with rubbing compound followed by 3M Finesse-It. I get these products at the auto body supply store. Over the years I have tried just about every method known for getting a gloss finish. Most people won’t go there cause it’s a lot of work. I have found that this process leads to a great surface that everyone wants to touch, looks terrific, and is strong enough to take daily use. Tell your customer to wait at least six weeks before applying any wax. Wax seals in un-evaporated thinners which can lead to adhesion and clarity issues later. Over time, even minor scratches and mars can be buffed out without too much effort.

If this is not a process you are interested in, sorry for the long winded reply…..

Have a great day and lots of fun with your project.

-- vicrider

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Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 2886 days

#9 posted 07-08-2010 08:49 AM

vicrider, thanks for the detailed info! I have not heard of Crystalac, but will look into it. I do think a real grain filler will be useful for the Siberian Elm—it seems to have a feathery texture at times. Sanding the end grain samples I have so far as produced very smooth results on the rings, but open pores in between. I think a filler is going to be required.

Re: gloss vs. semi- or matte, I’m going to have to make a tough choice. This table is for my own use, so it’s going to be up to me (and my wife). I think you’re right about the high gloss—it will show off the figure and character better. But I also like the more understated elegance of a satin finish. This may be a piece where I need to go gloss, though, because the rings are the stars of this show.

Thanks again.

-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

View Todd Thomas 's profile

Todd Thomas

4969 posts in 3416 days

#10 posted 07-08-2010 11:33 AM

ok here goes it. I would use the WaterLox products….....I use it on end grain pine flooring and man I tell you it looks great, beads water/liquid…people love it… can get it in satin, original (semi gloss or gloss. I usually put 4-5 coats of the original, semi gloss then a final coat of satin for my floors…the look great, if I do say so myself LOL…...the semi looks very nice….thats on end grain yellow pine, your may not take as many coats, no sanding in between except for the last coat just to get any dust out….......

-- Todd, Oak Ridge, TN, Hello my name is Todd and I'm a Toolholic, I bought my last tool 10 days, no 4 days, oh heck I bought a tool on the way here! †

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