Finishing recommendations for a beginner

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Forum topic by dschlic1 posted 421 days ago 831 views 1 time favorited 14 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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159 posts in 594 days

421 days ago

Topic tags/keywords: question oak finishing

I am building a cabinet that will function as an AV Center. Most of the cabinet is Red Oak plywood, and the drawer boxes are Baltic Birch plywood. The fronts of the drawers and some of the stringers are solid Red Oak. I would like some recommendations on finishing. I would like to have a semi-gloss or a satin finish. Also the oak will have to be stained slightly.

I work out of my garage so I do not have a dedicated paint area. Also I do not want to invest in expensive painting equipment for a one time project. I also like in west central Florida so the days are hot and humid.

The first consideration is whether to use oil based stains and finishes or water based. The faster drying time of the water based finishes might help with dust adhesion, put appear to be more difficult to apply.

The second consideration is the method of application. Among them brush, or wipe-on. I do not have a large air compressor so spraying looks to be out of the question.

14 replies so far

View CharlieM1958's profile


15683 posts in 2843 days

#1 posted 421 days ago

Oil based stain and wipe-on poly are pretty hard to mess up. Water-based brush-on poly is pretty easy to apply as well. The deciding factor for me would be the look you want. Oil-based tends to add a warm, yellowish tone, while water-based has a clearer, almost blue-ish tint.

Whatever type stain you decide to use, just practice on scraps first so you will get the hang of how to apply it for the color you want. Sometimes, if I really want a dark version of the color I’m using, I’ll brush it on thickly before wiping away the excess. Other times, if I want something lighter, I wipe it on sparingly with a rag.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View zzzzdoc's profile


506 posts in 1628 days

#2 posted 421 days ago

Tough to mess up wiped-on Waterlox also, plus it looks nice and is pretty durable. But the rubber/plastic feet of a TV on it would react with it. On the other hand, if the TV just stayed there, who cares.

And it works well in West Central Florida ;)

-- Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

View pintodeluxe's profile


3318 posts in 1438 days

#3 posted 421 days ago

I now use gravity feed HVLP spray guns exclusively, but if I were to do a project without spraying I would brush on shellac. You will spend some time sanding between coats, and the final coat will need to waxed with #0000 steel wool.

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

View dschlic1's profile


159 posts in 594 days

#4 posted 421 days ago

Just did my first glue up of a drawer box. Simple four pieces to glue and the Titebond was drying before I finished! I going see if I can get a small amount of each and paint a test block. Any recommendations on brands?

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1418 posts in 986 days

#5 posted 420 days ago

Waterborne poly applied with a soft bristle brush is unbeatable. I like Varathane floor finish.

-- Clint Searl.............We deserve what we tolerate

View redSLED's profile


687 posts in 517 days

#6 posted 420 days ago

My opinions are as follows.

Your AV centre will not be eaten on like a dinner table, so you only need a minimal finish coat (wipe-on), or more than that if you want a 100% even, noticeable sheen everywhere (brush-on 3-4 coats). Put a lot of coats on if you think your drunk red-wine spilling friends are coming over once a week, or if your significant other leaves marks everywhere because of their constant greasy moisturized hands. Kids in the house, and allowed to touch your AV centre?—> 3-4 coats.

There is not really any level of difficulty difference between applying oil or water-based stains or finishes.

CharlieM above already provided the finished colour tone differences truth of oil based finishes vs. water based. However, I find that the vast majority of people cannot actually discern the extremely slight bluish colour tone of cured water based finishes. Make that 99.99999% of everyone if there’s a stain underneath.

For DIY carpentry in a garage, there is no point considering spraying finishes with an air compressor unless long term productivity and MANY projects and profit are your objectives – it’s just more equipment to buy, install, clean, fix, upgrade and take up shop space. Brushing on finishes is simple and underrated, IMO – but doing it well and fast is a skill.

How you prepare your surfaces (sanding) before staining is very key – there is much necessary reading to be done on this topic unless you’re already ‘semi-pro’ at this.

With tighter grains like maple and birch plywood faces, I find water-based stains reveal the grain with very slightly more clarity and definition vs. oil stains – the best being DYE-based stains (you have to mix these yourself). But high-quality penetrating oil stains (not big box store big brand stains) can work pretty much just as well. Oak is hard but has an ‘open grain’ – so both water and oil based stains will work equally fine.

You can apply water-based finishes on dried oil stained surfaces, and vise-versa, generally.

And do your stain and finish samples first – sometimes they will reject your initial assumptions.

Good luck. Look forward to your posted finished AV centre pictures!

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View firefighterontheside's profile


3750 posts in 481 days

#7 posted 420 days ago

I vote oil based stain and brushed on water based poly. I like to use foam brushes.

-- Bill M. I love my job as a firefighter, but nothing gives me the satisfaction of running my hand over a project that I have built and just finished sanding.

View redSLED's profile


687 posts in 517 days

#8 posted 420 days ago

^ Big thumbs up on using foam brushes for clear coating. For carved/curved pieces and turned legs, bristle brush overrules foam brush.

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View bondogaposis's profile


2478 posts in 976 days

#9 posted 419 days ago

I’d use General Finishes, SeaL A Cell and Arm R Seal. Wipe on couple of coats and you are done.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View BilltheDiver's profile


228 posts in 1510 days

#10 posted 419 days ago

My favorite finish on red oak is the classic amber shellac. Dries in minutes and you can apply furniture wax with 0000 steel wool to give it a totally smooth and lustrous finish without being too glossy. It’s also very easy to apply.

-- "Measure twice, cut once, count fingers"

View BLarge's profile


115 posts in 1086 days

#11 posted 419 days ago

If the project is going to be on the darker side, I would suggest oil based stain and wipe on poly…. and as beginner, you almost can’t mess it up!!! LOL… a few thought. Oil based stains, just remember to wipe off and on oak if you are not filling the grain, watch for bleeding (stain oozing out after you have wiped, and during the drying process)- you can buy wipe on poly, or mix your own with varnish and a thinner- same thing, just remember to wipe on and off until you have the build you want.

Here the issue with water based stuff- watrr based stain and dye dry faster, especially dye (which I almostuse exclusively) so you have to wipe them off faster or they dry in streaks and clumps (it looks like crap)... its easy to clean and IMHO safer that oil, but you have to diligent. For Water Based Poly, like other have mentioned, it washes out darker woods… meaning it gives a slight haze to them that makes them look almost laminent… also, WB poly scratched and it less durable that Oil Based.. if you think this project is going to get bumped and banged, oil may be the way to go. What I LIKE about WB poly is it dries quickly so you can applly more coats in a quicker amount of time- cleanup is also a snap, soap and water baby!

  • also if you use a WB dye on a project and intend to use a WB poly, is will reactivate and smear the dye (you will see it on your brush)- so you will have seal it with bleached dewaxed shellac first. your other option is alchohol based dye, with I don’t think will be smeared by WB poly

I’d experiment- think of yourself as project finshing scientist… have fun with, expect to mess up a little, and remember you will look back on your first project in a few years and be amazed at how much you have learned since then

View Rick M.'s profile

Rick M.

3860 posts in 1005 days

#12 posted 417 days ago

Rattle can acrylic lacquer.

-- |Statistics show that 100% of people bitten by a snake were close to it.|

View oldnovice's profile


3684 posts in 1992 days

#13 posted 416 days ago

I used to use the GF finishes but some of my favorites were not allowed in California so I use a lot of Minwax wipe on poly (which I have found to be very durable and good looking), Tung oil (Fornby’s was the best IMO), Deft spray lacquer (better than Rust-Oleum), and a variety of Waco oil finishes. All of these have served me well!

In general:
For knick-knacks and smaller items; lacquer, Tung oil
Furniture or other large pieces; wipe on poly, Watco Danish oil

I have tried the Minwax stain/poly combo but do not like it one bit.

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View Bampei's profile


40 posts in 1968 days

#14 posted 416 days ago

While not the cheapest solution, you might want to check out Festool’s Surfix system. Easy, lasting, and beautiful.
No muss, No fuss, No fumes, and no heavy smell. Complete system.

Here’s a video review by Peter Parfitt that shows the whole system and its uses. Worth watching!

-- I dream of a better world, one where chickens can cross roads without having their motives questioned.

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