Finishing basics

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Forum topic by saltcod posted 05-11-2015 09:43 PM 910 views 0 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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69 posts in 570 days

05-11-2015 09:43 PM

Topic tags/keywords: finishing plywood

[ This is a crosspost from Canadian Woodworking forum ]

Hey all!

I’m just getting started with woodworking and am having a real hard time trying to find some good info about finishing. There’s no shortage of info out there, but it all seems contradictory and all over the map.

The details:

I’d say 90% of my projects will be birch or maple plywood, some with iron on edging, some with solid edging. In my googling, I’ve seen everything:

— gel stains (whatever they are)
— shellac first, then gel stains
— various wipe on poly
— mixing “wax” and poly (not sure about this at all to be honest)
— just using tung or danish oil
— etc

It seems like there’s just endless variation out there on what to use.

Anyone know of any good resources — youtube videos or sites that do a good job of describing finish techniques and products to beginners?

Alternatively, any of you have recommendations for how to best get started finishing mostly plywood projects?



17 replies so far

View nailbanger2's profile


1041 posts in 2561 days

#1 posted 05-11-2015 10:09 PM

For finishing info, always best to start with Charles Neill (because you’ll probably end up there anyhow). He is a member of this forum, but Google knows him too.

-- Wish I were Norm's Nephew

View pjones46's profile


986 posts in 2060 days

#2 posted 05-12-2015 02:31 AM

Get yourself the book Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner. About $23 on Amazon. He is one of most well known and premier wood finishers in the country. Also, Kevin Southwick who is a major contributor in American Woodworker which is now Popular Woodworking, and is highly know for his preservation work at many top museums.

Both have been in the field for over 50 years and if they do not know it, no one does.

-- Respectfully, Paul

View Rick M.'s profile

Rick M.

7678 posts in 1797 days

#3 posted 05-12-2015 07:27 AM

Get yourself the book Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner.

+1 – Get this book. It will answer questions you didn’t know to ask.


View Yonak's profile


979 posts in 938 days

#4 posted 05-12-2015 02:02 PM

Terry, after 10,000 years of woodworking and as these questions about the best way to finish wood remain unanswered, it’s clear there is no single best finish or best way to finish. It all depends on so many factors.

If you want to make a big splash in woodworking, learn all you can about it. Finishing experts are a very valuable resource. If you learn to answer all the questions you’ve asked and have the ability to convey your knowledge to beginners and tradesmen alike, you’ll be long sought after for your expertise and your advise.

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2263 posts in 1787 days

#5 posted 05-12-2015 02:12 PM

+1 to what others have said about reading up on this. I’ve had decent results on maple/birch plywood applying a washcoat of thinned shellac, followed by aniline dyes. Both wiped on. Then topcoated with the clearcoat of choice. The shellac washcoat helps reduce the blotching.

Sorry for the lousy pictures, but this was built with BORG 1/2” birch ply, iron-on edging, and finished using the process above.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View saltcod's profile


69 posts in 570 days

#6 posted 05-12-2015 02:16 PM

Yonak & others — thank you! I never really thought about it that way. I guess I’m always looking for the canonical resource for things, but I think the only true canonical resource is yourself after years of experience.

Thanks for all the great advice!

View Earlextech's profile


1157 posts in 2108 days

#7 posted 05-12-2015 02:52 PM

Get Flexner’s book!

-- Sam Hamory - The project is never finished until its "Finished"!

View Yonak's profile


979 posts in 938 days

#8 posted 05-12-2015 06:01 PM

Terry, after considering my previous answer I regret I was so abrupt. You were looking for a simple answer to get you started, I believe. I’m happy to share my go-to finish for most of my woodworking.

Disclaimer : Understand that I am far from a finishing expert. In fact, I love working wood but I consider the finish an unavoidable bother (I feel the same about sanding). Polyurethane. For most of the things I make, meant for indoor use, I use polyurethane. It’s easy, self leveling and comparatively tough.

Normally I use two or three coats (usually 3), sanding (or steel wool .. Unlike many people, my 000 and 0000 remain in the cupboard collecting dust), only to eliminate the bumps, between coats. If what I’m making is cabinetry or something that is normally not meant to be handled, I leave it at that. For a more touchable finish I rub the surface with 0 or 00 steel wool and wax.

I expect that my method will be targeted for my negligence for not pursuing a lustrous surface at the expense of time and elbow grease. I understand their position but, frankly, I’m not getting any younger and I have more ideas and projects in mind than I have time and I’m willing to sacrifice an heirloom finish for more output.

Of course, I’m always on the lookout for better, easier, or more splendid finishes so, if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them, as well.

View OSU55's profile


1039 posts in 1407 days

#9 posted 05-12-2015 08:07 PM

I was in your situation several years ago and came to the same conclusion – lots of conflicting information out there. Two things got me to a much higher level with finishing – 1) education, 2) testing & practicing. The educational sources were Flexner’s book previously mentioned and Jeff Jewett’s book “Great Wood Finishes”. Both are highly accomplished, cover about the same ground, but have some different opinions on things, which just shows there are many ways to skin this cat successfully. I then spent many hours testing various preparation techniques, stains/ dyes, blotch control, toners, topcoats, glazing, application methods, etc. – essentially conducting my own finishing class with these guys as the instructors. Wood finishing can be very simple or more akin to a multi level show car finish that really makes the project standout – it’s your choice. The latter can be complicated due to the number of steps, but it is not difficult. It depends on what you want, and to some degree what you can afford (getting set up properly for spray finishing can be a bit expensive).

IMO half the project is the finish, and the finish type and process should be made during the design phase of the piece so that the design and build of the project considers what needs to be done for the finish process at various steps of the whole process. Sometimes a design will change to make the finishing process easier. The finish should not be an afterthought. Folks spend thousands of $’s on equipment and 1000’s of hours learning various woodworking skills and building projects, but then talk themselves into being satisfied with the most basic finishing methods.

View RBWoodworker's profile


432 posts in 2769 days

#10 posted 05-12-2015 08:25 PM

Heh..I’ll tell ya..if you want to get an overly complicated, sophisticated worded book..sure..flexners.. but if you want a book that’s easy to understand and if your not sure, the ability to even e mail him or PM him here on LJ’s or even call the author, then get Charles Neil book.. it covers pretty much everything you’d ever need to know and it’s written where it makes sense and easy to understand.. I would not look past Charles book because flexners book has been out there a little longer.. trust will thank me later when your feeling that blotch free, perfect, buttery feeling piece..

-- Randall Child

View Justin57's profile


38 posts in 2654 days

#11 posted 05-12-2015 10:03 PM

+1 to Charles Neil’s book. No doubt there are a handful out there that are as good in craftsmanship, but you simply will not find ANYONE out there that can finish as well as Charles. Yes, others may be good, but Charles is the best at finishing and also helping people out of jams they put themselves into.

-- North Carolina Woodworker

View Trapshter's profile


64 posts in 1811 days

#12 posted 05-13-2015 01:56 AM

Charles book is a easy to follow and understand. For me I found his DVD Finishing A to Z really amazing. I sat there watching with a note book taking notes. The information in his book and DVD are just priceless. My money is with Charles. Just my 2 cents.

-- Smile and wave boys just smile and wave

View saltcod's profile


69 posts in 570 days

#13 posted 05-14-2015 12:03 AM

Well well well! I’m only now realizing what a naive question I’ve asked!

I went to the hardware store the other night and bought 6-7 different kinds of finish products: three stains, three gel stains, Danish Oil, a wood conditioner to go under it all, and a satin polyurethane to go under it all.

It cost me about $100 but it’s already been well worth it. The combinations are almost endless and it’s been extremely interesting to see what’s working and what isn’t. Some observations so far:

— the gels are incredible, except when they aren’t. On the second piece of plywood, it was too “much”. It made the wood cloudy and seem blotchy.

— Danish oil is incredible, except when it goes on almost clear. On the second piece, I think the Danish Oil is my favourite, but on the first it took about 5 coats to even register colour at all.

— Wood conditioner is awesome — sometimes! Again, on the second piece of plywood, I sometimes prefer the bare wood to the conditioned squares.

— Polyurethane adds colour — maybe it shouldn’t or maybe the stain wasn’t quite dry, but when I brushed on the satin poly, it definitely moved some colour around.

Here’s two screens of where I am with things so far:

Like I said, the first one is just gross all around, but in the second one almost all are really nice.

Anyway, all this is to say that there’s no substitute for experimenting! Really fun!

Thanks for all the fantastic advice so far.

ps: After ALL this, the main contender for the final finish is just plain poly with no stain or oil of any kind. I rubbed some poly on a square after I took the second photo and I think it might look best of all. Crazy!

View saltcod's profile


69 posts in 570 days

#14 posted 05-14-2015 12:35 AM

pps: It might also help if I describe exactly what I’m looking for. That would be right here:

Medium tone, and flat flat flat. That’s precisely the look I’m shooting for. Tips welcome!

View oldnovice's profile


5642 posts in 2785 days

#15 posted 05-14-2015 06:36 AM

Another very good resource is Charles Neil Woodworking and his videos are available on YouTube!

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

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