Amateur table finishing question

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Forum topic by camps764 posted 12-17-2011 04:27 PM 10006 views 0 times favorited 15 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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867 posts in 2330 days

12-17-2011 04:27 PM

Topic tags/keywords: finishing farmhouse table dining table table finishing reclaimed pine

Really amateur question, any suggestions and input is appreciated.

Recently I built a farmhouse style table for my wife out of reclaimed Pine. The table top is 68” x 38”. My question is…

Do ya’ll typically finish a table top first, before it is attached?

I’m thinking that finishing after the final glue/screw up will mean that the bottom of the table won’t receive much of a finish treatment.

On that note, do you even bother finishing the parts no one will see? I read a few Chris Schwarts blogs where he made comments that he doesn’t sweat the parts no one sees, like the bottom of tables, the back side of casing, etc.

I know it probably doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans either way, but as I’m learning I want to make sure I get myself in the habit of doing things the right way. Also really curious to see what the varying opinions might be.

Thanks in advance everyone!

-- Steve

15 replies so far

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1533 posts in 2331 days

#1 posted 12-17-2011 04:47 PM

I generally finish both sides of a table top without regard to whether it’s the “right” thing to do for whatever reason. Also, regardless of the finish on the top, which is usually solvent lacquer, I’ll finish the underside with either the same lacquer brushed on or water borne poly brushed on. I’ve never had a problem.


-- Clint Searl....Ya can no more do what ya don't know how than ya can git back from where ya ain't been

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2330 days

#2 posted 12-17-2011 05:40 PM

to add to the mix…

I read in another thread this morning that you should finish both sides of a glued up/laminated top (chest, table etc.) to help prevent warping/cracking.


-- Steve

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

4910 posts in 3930 days

#3 posted 12-17-2011 06:15 PM

Finish all sides. Start with the back of the top. Give ya a chance to get a feel for the finish you’re using as well a sealing the top.


View PaddyBoy's profile


4 posts in 3349 days

#4 posted 12-17-2011 06:25 PM

I agree with Bill. I use the bottom to test out the finish for the top. This way both sides are finished and I have worked out any problems beforehand.

View Rick  Dennington's profile

Rick Dennington

5815 posts in 3164 days

#5 posted 12-17-2011 06:36 PM

I always finish the whole project….all parts….all over….I may not put quite as many coats on the parts not seen, but I DO finish it off….If I put 5 coats of a hand-rubbed poly (or whatever), say on the top, legs, stretchers, aprons, etc., then I may only put 2-3 coats on the underside…depends on the project, really…But reguardless….all parts are finished. The project just looks and “feels” unfinished If I don’t….I guess mine is just a mindset, but that’s how I’ve always did it, and still do…...

-- " At my age, happy hour is a crap and a nap".....

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4097 days

#6 posted 12-17-2011 06:37 PM

I’ve commented on this frequent Internet Echo too many times to remember. :)

1. I’ve been woodworking for more than 45 years and I have seldom finished the unseen sides of furniture, with no apparent problems. However, I usually put a wash coat of shellac on the underside of tables and on drawer sides and bottoms.

2. I have a house full of antique and collectible furniture where the unseen sides were never finished. Example: My Oak desk was made in 1895, I still have the original invoice, and the unseen and under parts are not finished. There are no problems.

3. I have old glued up and veneered furniture that was obviously not finished on the under-sides, and there are no problems.

4. I visited an old major furniture factory, now defunct, and got a chance to look at furniture that was made 50 to 100 years. I didn’t find any evidence of significant finishes on the unseen parts.

5. Finishing on all sides is a feel-good judgement call. Do it if you wish.

-- 温故知新

View TCCcabinetmaker's profile


932 posts in 2325 days

#7 posted 12-17-2011 07:54 PM

The only parts I typically do not finish are those where glue is going to go to attach 2 pieces together. Even the backs and bottoms and tops of my cabinets get a sealer coat. Helps keep the humidity out which helps reduce wood movement. Which as a new person to woodworking you will want to study up on as best you can. Though most guys who right articles on the subject don’t really tell you what it is.

Yes typically I finish table tops prior to attaching, being careful to mask off any spot where glue will go between joints finishes kind of keep glue from sticking. But I’d only finish the bottom side before putting it on, as it will be easier to keep from messing up the final visible parts if you finish them after it is all together.

(edit) Hobo, I live in a different part of the country from you, here we get extremely high humidity, as a result the longevity of such pieces is affected. In some areas it’s fine, but others, well with unstable humidity conditions it’s better to be on the safe side.

-- The mark of a good carpenter is not how few mistakes he makes, but rather how well he fixes them.

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2330 days

#8 posted 12-17-2011 08:21 PM

Thanks everyone.

I think I’ll take care of the bottom and sides without the attaching the top, put the top on, and then finish the rest.

I think it is an awesome idea to use the bottom as a test area.

-- Steve

View Don W's profile

Don W

18686 posts in 2537 days

#9 posted 12-17-2011 08:26 PM

When I build a table it usually doesn’t get finished until its done. I will usually give the part unseen a single coat, because unseen on a table isn’t usually completely unseen.

I will finish spots prior to assembly, if finishing them after is going to be difficult. For example in my last project, I oiled the cubbys before putting the top on just because it was easier. The bottom of the top inside the cubbys is only finished as far back as you can see (or as far as I could conveniently reach)

Finishing will SOMETIMES help prevent wood from warping, but that’’s assuming its going to warp which means its not completely dry or will be absorbing moisture. It will also slow the absorption of water, which means the finish will help prevent warping if there was a short blast of moister for some reason. With one side finished and the other not, moister is absorbed at different rates, and drys at different rates, which is what causes warping and cracking. Thats why you paint the ends of lumber as it dries. End grain dries faster.

If furniture is going to be used in a reasonably dry house, and is dry to start with, the finish, or lack of’, will have no affect on it.

I hope that makes sense.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4097 days

#10 posted 12-17-2011 08:28 PM

I’ve lived around the world. My desk has visited several continents, more than six States in the USA from Deep South to the Northwest. Few finishes stop moisture invasion or prevent wood movement. Anticipating wood movement through good design practices is a must.

My family owned furniture factories in North Carolina and Washington State, and shipped their products worldwide. Their practice was to apply little, if any, finish to the bottoms of tables, insides of drawers, etc.

I’ve witnessed and studied furniture making in the USA, Africa (Kenya) and Europe (Germany). My experiences are limited to what I have seen and learned. Where I live today doesn’t have much bearings on my observations.

The Internet Echo that all sides must be equally finished is a feel-good decision.

Bro. Tenzin

-- 温故知新

View pintodeluxe's profile


5626 posts in 2783 days

#11 posted 12-18-2011 12:33 AM

Finish both sides to prevent warping. Finish top and base separately to make transport into house easier. Attach top with figure 8 table attachment hardware, or at least elongate your screw holes to allow expasion/contraction of the top.

-- Willie, Washington "If You Choose Not To Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice" - Rush

View keeponpluggin's profile


1 post in 2266 days

#12 posted 02-11-2012 02:44 PM

for some reason this isn’t working for me…....I made a table top out of pine (50” x36”) out of 2×10’s . Glued ,screwed , and clamped the sides together , let stand for 30 hrs , sanded and stained top , then applied 4 coats of polyurethane. On the bottom I screwed and glued 2 – 2×2 braces perpendicular to the seams of the glued joints. I did NOT apply any finish at all to the bottom. After 2 months inside the kitchen , the table now looks like a bowl….....the braces on the bottom have separated from the top with the glue joints breaking , pulling the screws right out ! Any Ideas ??

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2330 days

#13 posted 02-11-2012 02:51 PM

It depends on where you are located and the humidity levels inside your home. I’m no expert at all, but I think part of the problem may actually be the braces that are on the bottom of the table. I think, no matter what you do, wood is going to be wood and expand and contract. The braces on the bottom tried their best to keep the table in place, but the wood moved anyway. All of the opposing force may have pulled the glue joints apart, ripped the screws out, and along the way cause a lot of cupping.

The pine table that I was referencing in this post has since been completed – see my projects. It has held up pretty well, although it has experienced some shrinking due to the heater being run and the low humidity in the house here in Omaha Nebraska.

I’m sure other jocks can chime in, but I think in the future you should skip the braces on the bottom if you are going to do a glue up on your table top. Or, if you go with the braces, add a little wiggle room in the screw holes so that the table can expand and contract naturally.

-- Steve

View bondogaposis's profile


4690 posts in 2321 days

#14 posted 02-11-2012 02:52 PM

I like to seal and give the bottom a coat or two of finish, but that is it. It gets no where near the attention that the top gets. I do not sand it or finish it beyond a rudimentary level. I do not subscribe to the Shaker philosophy that God can see the underside so it must be finished to the same degree as the top. I just don’t have that much time.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Don W's profile

Don W

18686 posts in 2537 days

#15 posted 02-11-2012 03:12 PM

it doesn’t matter how much finish goes on if the wood is a different moister content than the place it will sit. Its the reason a hardwood flooring should sit inside the house for a while. Even thought the stuff is kiln dried and finished.

A 2 inch thick piece of pine can take up to 2 years to dry. Reclaimed lumber is always seasoned, but not always dry. The bottom line, your pine had a much higher moister content when you brought it in than the air you have in your house.

So first, never ever glue and screw a lateral support to a glued up panel. You can screw it, but elongate the screw holes so the panel can move. You can’t stop the wood from moving, so its either going to cup, or split unless you let it move.

Second, dry your wood, and build to movement. Its a concept woodworkers have been struggling with for centuries. How to make wood so its a solid piece, and still move with moister changes.

The reason it cupped up, is the air moves more freely on top of your table than underneath it. Moving air draws moister out. The top dried quicker than the bottom.

I built my daughters table, out of pine as well. I was unsure if it was dry. I made the top so either side could be up. I told her to flip it every 2 weeks for the first couple of months. After that I fastened it. Its not the ideal way, but it worked.

Depending on how bad yours is warped, its possible to bring it back. Try sticking a heat source underneath it. Wipe a damp cloth over the top once in a while (damp, NOT wet). OR On a bright sunny day, throw it on the damp ground (grass works best) so the bow is up. The moister will get sucked up on the dry side and the sun will dry the other. (won’t work well this time of year if you live where i do). I’ve tried this, it works about 20% of the time. Again, a huge gamble. Or, The other option, recut, dry and re-make the top.

Next point, no matter how hard you try, sometimes the wood will cup, despite all efforts to prevent it. That’s just life. The idea is to eliminate as many reason as you possibly can.

As I stated above, if the moister content is close, finish may slow the escape enough to prevent warping, key word is “may”. The moister content also has to be fairly stable.

Hope that helps.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

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