Offshoot of Hawgnutz' Poly over BLO thread

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Forum topic by Douglas Bordner posted 06-18-2007 11:19 AM 4158 views 21 times favorited 21 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Douglas Bordner

4023 posts in 4029 days

06-18-2007 11:19 AM

Topic tags/keywords: finishing oil-based finishes water-borne shellac finish sanding rubbing out


Reading along, I guess the distilled wisdom I am seeing here can be summarized as follows:

Oil and water don’t mix.

If you use oil of any sort spread rags out to dry before discarding-MAJOR spontaneous combustion hazard

BLO, BLO/MS, Watco etc. make an easy but not tremendously durable finish, described as “in the wood” because the protection (not much) soaks into the wood as opposed to forming a film finish that builds atop the wood. Often LJs will use oil as a first step to “pop the grain”. Since Linseed Oil is well, oil, it’s best to not apply water based finishes over the oil unless it is thoroughly cured and for best results it should be sealed with dewaxed shellac before applying the water-borne finish. Most of these products are polyurethane varnishes.

Others have suggested that, for the sake of durability you could just top coat with Oil-Based varnish, skipping the sealcoat shellac, as oil+oil is okay. You could really skip the BLO entirely, as the oil in the oil based varnish will pop the grain on it’s own. You can also make your own home-brew Danish oil by mixing a third each Mineral spirits, Boiled Linseed oil and a short-oil varnish like Pratt and Lambert #38 (a high proportion of alkyd resin in oil). This allows the flood on, wet sand in, wipe off ease of just BLO with the film build of brushing varnish. Not as durable as Varnish alone, but easier. The deal with oil based finishes is time. Takes 12 hours (generally-maybe longer) to dry before allowing a next coat.

Shellac, good for sealing and so much more
Unless you become good friends with shellac and use it bunches, I would skip the flakes. Unless you have a gram scale around, like science and enjoy fiddling around I would buy pre-mixed shellac. Two caveats here. You might want to explore the subtle addition of color (great over dark woods) of Garnet shellac. Or you might make musical instruments that require a tougher grade of shellac. You pretty much need to buy the flakes for this. Secondly if you buy shellac in the can, look at the expiration date. Shellac can get old after mixing. Old shellac just never dries. It just sits atop the project you used to love, gumming up the whole process. Try this sometime around Christmas or other gift giving holiday. All the prayer, exhortation or cussing you wish to apply as the drop-dead shipping date to your relatives in Keokuk or Sacramento looms will avail you not (insert Vincent Price mwahahaha horror laughter here).

Why waxed at all. Shellac is, to be frank, bug secretions. Bug nests made of largely shellac are found in the trees in tropical localities like Assam and Thailand. They are harvested and refined. The degree of refinement results in the different hues of shellac, the addition of a heating step yields Button Lac which is polymerized shellac which is tougher (also tougher to mix into liquid shellac with denatured alcohol). Denatured means toxic Methyl alcohol added to Ethyl alcohol so unless drinking Sterno is your thing you will take a pass on even thinking about taking a swig of denatured alcohol. But after mixing, all shellac at first has wax in it. It must be mixed, allowed to settle, and the dewaxed shellac poured off (decanted) the top of the wax layer, and filtered. Dewaxed flakes have been processed this way before being re-dried into flakes.

Some folks like the waxed variety for the antique quality it imparts to the work. Pre-mixed waxed shellac is easy to find, but before the popular re-emergence of its use by woodworkers, it was pretty hard to find fresh premixed, waxed shellac. Always check the expiry! And always (always in all finishing situations) prepare a test board using all the steps you intend to use in your project. You don’t wanna be scraping off sludgy shellac on the day before the last shipping date for Keokuk. Trust me on this one.

My favorite shellac is Zinsser Sealcoat. It’s a dewaxed pale blonde 2 pound cut of shellac in the can. It’s thin enough to soak into the wood a little and is not excessively viscous and sticky. You can use it for a washcoat or build it to a higher film coat. It has a long shelf life. It seems to move through the big box stores fast enough that there is fresh finish with a reasonable shelf life left. If that science class feeling is strong you could even add flakes of a different hue to the Sealcoat. It can also be toned with Wizard Tints, TransTints, M.C. Campbell Microtone etc.

The cool thing about shellac: It drys fast. Pad, brush or spray it on fast. Do not tarry. Do not attempt to rebrush it to level the finish. Slap it on. Let it dry. Level it with 320 grit paper or higher for greater sheen. I make jewelry and other small boxes. I tend to finish the pieces before assembly (at least the interiors). I can do the six board surfaces that make the box in a session. By the time the first padded-on coat is on the last board, I can start the next coat on the first board. I can fine sand to a powder, leveling the finish within an hour. It can be rubbed out to varying degrees of sheen within 24 hours. Shellac is reasonably durable for box interiors. Most folks aren’t going to set their glass of neat scotch inside their jewelry box. Shellac doesn’t leave a lingering odor on the interior of a box (or drawer) as oil base products will. If I finish the insides with shellac when the boards are flat, rub them out to a nice flat three coat finish and put a bit of furniture wax on them (mask off any joinery from the shellac and the wax), I can glue up the box, let it dry and cut the box apart. Any glue squeeze out (including big foamy polyurethane glue) just pops off of the insides of the box. Clean interiors — nice joints.

Now the poly thing
I do use just shellac with a final waxing on some projects.
I do use just oil (the home brew with the Alkyd varnish) on some boxes.

When it has to stand up to kitchen abuse, or Uncle Harry who will put his neat scotch glass down on it,
or it’s for a kid who is beyond the age of putting everything in his mouth and it will see some wear I will use a tough film building finish.
If I am going to use a waterborne Poly I apply an initial sealcoat with dewaxed shellac to seal the wood against the grain-raising caused by the water, and to pop the grain and neutralize the cool tone of some of the water-white poly finishes. I live in Nebraska and work out of my garage. I spray waterborne Poly in the summer. If I lived in Califnornia (or — a radical thought here—sold enough to justify a heated and cooled shop) I would likely spray everything with waterborne Poly (there is WB poly varnish, lacquer, Catalyzed lacquer, etc).

I wipe on thinned Pratt and Lambert #38 Alykd Interior Varnish in the winter, and build many coats. I try and put on as many as I can until my wife becomes annoyed. I rub it out incessantly until my inner German is satisfied. This looks great over cherry, walnut, dark woods.
Once I just skipped it and used MinWax Gloss wipe-on poly (oil based). It looked better than I expected (a little plast-icky). This was for Peppermills that needed to be nuclear explosion proof at the table and the stove, so I made the trade off for slightly artifical looking gloss to achieve the durabilty required. I might have to buy a jug of the satin finish someday.
I generally avoid satin finishes as there are flatteners in the finish which might muddy the grain patterns of the wood I use.

I have rambled on enough. There are great books out there. Great links on the web.
Leading lights in the tell-it-like-it-is finishing world: Jeff Jewitt, Bob Flexner, Michael Dresdner and Teri Masachi.
(Jeff Jewitt’s business)
(source of some great waterborne spray finishes – on-line ordering)
(excellent article about finishes – scientific – no nonsense)
(On-line order – cheap flakes – good selection)
any of the Finish Line articles in FWW with Teri Masachi or Jeff Jewitt.

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over a decade.

21 replies so far

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4126 days

#1 posted 06-18-2007 11:30 AM

you call that rambling?
Sure sounded like “packed full of information” to me!!
Thank you

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

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Douglas Bordner

4023 posts in 4029 days

#2 posted 06-18-2007 11:38 AM

You are always welcome Deb. I just wanted to point out since I edited this while you were reading it, and because it is so important that one always Lay out your oil rags, blotter papers etc. to dry thoroughly before discarding so as to to not burn down the shop, house

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over a decade.

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4126 days

#3 posted 06-18-2007 11:41 AM

good point. I do do that… sometimes taking them outside as well.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Hawgnutz's profile


526 posts in 4042 days

#4 posted 06-18-2007 05:23 PM

GREAT exposition! Like a condensed version of Dresdner’s book on finishing!
I picked up a lot of knowledge from your “rambliungs.” Thanks.
God Bless,

-- Saving barnwood from the scrapyards

View Bill's profile


2579 posts in 4127 days

#5 posted 06-18-2007 05:35 PM

Nice write up Doug. It adds a lot to our knowledge of finishes.

-- Bill, Turlock California,

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 4265 days

#6 posted 06-18-2007 06:01 PM

Fine woodworking has a PDF about Poly wipe ons, so I used the Minwax satin wipe on, on my table. I liked it a lot, & was highly satisfied with the outcome.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View Douglas Bordner's profile

Douglas Bordner

4023 posts in 4029 days

#7 posted 06-18-2007 09:00 PM

After the passage of the fever accompanying the initial writing of this piece, I realize that without Frank’s comments about preparation only half the lesson is imparted to those newer woodworkers who are investigating this topic. If you wandered into to this entry first, make sure and go back to read this…

Of particular interest to new WWers, and somethiing that seems counter-intuitive to the un-initiated is the fact that you can actually sand the finishes you apply to level them, and after curing, to rub them out with progressively finer grits of sandpaper, non-woven abrasive pads etc. to adjust the sheen of the piece. This is the “finish the finish” piece that I was unaware of as I started back into this hobby. Nothing beats the silky feel of a hard-cured film finish rubbed out to perfection, then followed with a coat of fine furniture wax (not Pledge™…real wax). DO NOT rush this step. Give it a minimum of 72 hours, a week is better (shellac you can cheat to 24 hours if you are on a deadline). Let the finish cure before rubbing out.

My secret, and I feel a fairly revolutionary time-saver is the use of Abralon pads made by Mirka Abrasives for rub out. Traditional methods would be to wet the piece with paraffin oil, and then rub the piece with powdered pumice and rottenstone and a felt block. Can you say, messy. The abralon pads are cushioned 6” pads with grits up to P4000. You can dry rub out all the way to full gloss with your random orbital sander. Just be careful around the edges of your piece lest you burn through the finish.

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over a decade.

View Bob Babcock's profile

Bob Babcock

1804 posts in 4052 days

#8 posted 06-18-2007 10:15 PM

Uh Oh….my head just went into overload.

Great load of info… for the processing. I’ve started with the Watco on my chair. I’m planning another coat then a shellac. The arms I plan to poly since they may get that neat scotch.

-- Bob, Carver Massachusetts, Sawdust Maker

View oscorner's profile


4563 posts in 4276 days

#9 posted 06-19-2007 04:56 AM

So much to learn…so little time!

-- Jesus is Lord!

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 4002 days

#10 posted 06-19-2007 05:01 AM

Thanks for the info!

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Karson's profile


35111 posts in 4366 days

#11 posted 06-19-2007 05:14 AM

Doug – Great information. I’ve used Zinsser sand-coat a lot since I took a Jeff Jewitt class on Finishing. i like to use it for spraying and then do a French polish on top. So I use spraying to make the bodying up and then get the final finish by The polishing.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View gizmodyne's profile (online now)


1776 posts in 4055 days

#12 posted 06-19-2007 04:10 PM

Douglas…. Great post… Time for video?

-- -John "Do I have to keep typing a smiley? Just assume it's a joke."

View David's profile


1969 posts in 4104 days

#13 posted 06-19-2007 05:07 PM

Doug -

This is a real treasure of information. One of those posts that will need to be read a couple of times to get all th nuggets of info! Thanks so much for putting this finishing primer together! I agree with John – video?!


View Douglas Bordner's profile

Douglas Bordner

4023 posts in 4029 days

#14 posted 06-19-2007 05:30 PM

The best I could do at this time is slides as the only video I have is an ancient 8mm tape job with S-Video out. Perhaps at this juncture we might have to stick to The Bordner Radio Zephyr Theatre of the Mind — In this week’s episode, Spid-ato Man is caught in the machinations of Fisheye, and his evil teenage sidekick Dust Nib

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over a decade.

View Douglas Bordner's profile

Douglas Bordner

4023 posts in 4029 days

#15 posted 06-19-2007 05:42 PM

and the following limerick, which I have heard attributed to Woodrow Wilson comes to mind

“As a beauty, I’m not a great star.
There are others much fairer, by far. But my face, I don’t mind it, Because I’m behind it:
It’s the folks in the front that I jar.”

-- "Bordnerizing" perfectly good lumber for over a decade.

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