Calling assembly experts. Stain, finish or assemble first?

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Forum topic by Justin D. posted 03-25-2008 12:32 AM 30585 views 0 times favorited 10 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Justin D.

26 posts in 3714 days

03-25-2008 12:32 AM

Topic tags/keywords: assembly stain finish question

No need to be an expert. I’m looking for some experience with the various ways to go about assembly of a furniture project. I have a coffee table and three end tables in the sanding stage right now. They are mission style, so a good number of small spindles that are 5/8” square and different lengths.

My question is in the past (my first few projects) I assembled the project, then stained and then finished.

Of the options I’m considering what has been your experience and recommendation?

1) assemble/glue up and then stain and finish
2) stain first, then glue up the assembly and finish after assembly
3) stain and fninish and then glue up the assembly last

This is red oak and I will be attempting my first Waterlox finish. Since Waterlox will be hand rubbed, I’m thinking finishing after assembly will be very difficult.

Thoughts…ideas…questions. Thanks all, Justin

10 replies so far

View OttawaP's profile


89 posts in 3723 days

#1 posted 03-25-2008 12:46 AM

i prefinish a lot of my projects. It’s much easier and better results in most cases. Sometimes I’ll leave final coat until after assembly.

-- Paul

View DaveH's profile


400 posts in 3775 days

#2 posted 03-25-2008 12:48 AM

I don’t think it matters much as long as you protect the glue joints when finishing. The glue joints will be quite a bit weaker if you allow stain or Waterlox to get into the joints before assembly.

-- DaveH - Boise, Idaho - “How hard can it be? It's only wood!”

View Mark E.'s profile

Mark E.

387 posts in 3739 days

#3 posted 03-25-2008 12:49 AM

Here’s my answer… It depends.

I have worked both ways. Most projects I finish after assembly. But there are some pieces that can (and should) be finished before they are glued together, the panels in a raised panel, for instance. Solid wood will expand or contract from season to season and could expose an unfinished area when it shrinks up. If you are planning to finish before assembly, just be sure to mask off any areas that will be glued.

-- Mark

View tenontim's profile


2131 posts in 3741 days

#4 posted 03-25-2008 01:18 AM

I do a lot of fumed finishes and I like to have the piece completely assembled and the final sanding done prior to fuming. Then the finish is applied after the piece “gases off”. Sometimes, depending on the project, on other finishing techniques, there are sub assemblies of the project that can be finished then assembled with the rest of the piece, without affecting quality of construction. If I have a piece with a lot of spindles, I won’t even glue them in place. The joint needs to be tight and I use cut offs of screen door spline (or you can use space balls) to keep them from rattling. These pieces could be finished first, then assembled. I exclusively use a hand rubbed finish, so it’s rather easy to slop the finish on, then wipe it all off.

View juniorjock's profile


1930 posts in 3762 days

#5 posted 03-25-2008 01:59 AM

I agree with all the replies… so, I think it means whatever works best for you. I’ve done it both ways. To me, it seems like projects look better if it’s possible to finish them before assembly. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the glue so much.

View Dooley's profile


85 posts in 3719 days

#6 posted 03-25-2008 02:17 AM

Great advice from everyone. Protect those glue joints and pre-finish for the best results, is my two cents.

-- Dooley

View Justin D.'s profile

Justin D.

26 posts in 3714 days

#7 posted 03-25-2008 02:58 AM

Group, you’ve been a great help to my contemplation here. Based on the feedback, I’m leaning toward stain first, then assmeble and finish after that. I’ve seen a couple tricks with blue tape on tenons and filling the mortise with steel wool. I’m also interested in the feedback from tenontim on not gluing the spindles. I’ll try that.

With wipe on waterlox, is coverage pretty simple in tight spaces after assembly?

View teenagewoodworker's profile


2727 posts in 3765 days

#8 posted 03-25-2008 03:33 AM

i also say it depends. if you have a panel then finish that before you put it in. if there are a lot of joints where it is 90 degrees and there are corners that you might not be able to finish after then finish it before.

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 3985 days

#9 posted 03-25-2008 03:47 AM

If you are going it have two different finishes side by side then finish those parts first. That will keep the finishes from bleeding into each other.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View jcees's profile


1058 posts in 3795 days

#10 posted 03-26-2008 05:54 AM

Yeah, what they said. It depends on the piece. Different projects involve specific finishes and finishing schedules. There is no one-size-fits-all finish. Contrary to what a certain TV wood guru thinks, tung oil is not the finish to beat all finishes. Tung oil is an easy out but not a best option in all cases and neither is a single approach or answer to the assemble first/finish first equation. Slapping tung oil on everything isn’t so much a simple solution as it is a mindless one.

Sometimes you might want to finish raised panels and their frames separately but many times that is not practical. There are distinct advantages and problems with any approach, in the end you’ll have to compromise for the sake of getting the project completed.

Now having said all that, I think that if a given project involves a multitude of individual assemblies or smallish parts, then there’s a necessity to do some finishing before assembly as it would be most difficult or even impossible to finish afterwards. Again, the situation and project dictates the terms. Good luck.


-- When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. -- John Muir

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