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Finishing Your Wood

For more information on Finishes, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

It’s the number one fear for most woodworkers, a little agitated skip from foot to foot as you toss the rag from hand to hand. I understand this. Mostly it’s because it’s an area of work that is indeed the least predictable for a guaranteed outcome and especially if your read up on the subject or ask other woodworkers. Ask ten woodworkers which finish to use and you’l get ten different answers. I think that that is why people in general plumb for any kind of ragged-on oil finish that’s wiped on, left for a few minutes and then wiped off vigorously to minimise runs and gummy puddles of unevenness.

Hand rubbed is often used a bit disingenuously by many if not all makers. They take advantage of the ignorance of their customers as they extolling ‘hand-rubbed’ as the final highly skilled refinement of the project. The artisan usually presents hand rubbed as a method paralleling something like French polishing work because, well, both are indeed applied by the hand rubbing a cloth over the surface. But even here I should point out the difference. The application of oil is simply dipping the clutched rag into oil and applying it to the surface and spreading it out. On the other hand the well-proven method for applying shellac as in French polishing is uniquely different. In this case the cloth is folded in a very specific way to wrap within it a ball of cotton wool. The wool itself is charged with small amounts of shellac repeatedly and squeezed through the cloth by the forefinger and thumb at the fore area and the three fingers behind. This applies ultra thin measures of shellac to the surface being treated and layer after after layer of thinness results in the depth and chatoyancy true French polishing is known for.

Below is a simple pad I use for french polishing that works without cotton wool stuffing that can be dipped rather than internally loaded with shellac.

Notes and drawings from my April-August 2010 woodworking journal:

So in reality, the two areas are as different as chalk and cheese. One, the French polishing, is indeed a finely crafted art form that takes a long time to master in all of its many diverse ways of treating the expansive range of pieces it’s used on. All oils on the other hand require about the same effort as wiping down a cafe table or a kitchen countertop. That being the case, why should you fear it?

A contrast I saw between my living and working in the USA and then Europe were two things in general. In the USA I noticed the massive use of wood stain to change the colour say of one light wood to make it resemble a more expensive dark wood. This seems much less likely and not to be the case in Europe and indeed Britain. I think that that is due more to the influence of Scandinavian makers both in the mass-made realms and then to in the realms of individual designer makers. Another predominant difference is the use of classic mouldings to trim out corners, soften outer edges to surface mounted doors and such. The highly ubiquitous power router with its routerphile following is on the constant lookout for something to use their screaming machine on.

The development of wood finishes as all in one topcoat and stain products are available in different forms by various manufacturers. Polyurethanes are available as wipe-on, brushable or padable types or as a sprayed on finish also. These are the easiest finishes to apply and are easily touched up in the event of damage. The main advantage of these finishes is the open time you have in applying them and then their durability and ease of repair. Looking for finishes can be confusing but all of them can be applied differently and a little experimentation will help you to develop a better understanding of their different properties.

Oil finishes in general can comprise a wide range of substances some of which have zero oil of any kind at all in them. Some waterbased outdoor finishes are sold as oils yet the vehicle for distribution is water and mist of the residue after evaporation is actually plastic. Reading a bit between the lines, if it says water clean up it usually means it’s not oil, at least of the kind we might be associating it with anyway. Boiled linseed oil (BLO) tung oil, Danish oil and so on are usually a combination of different oils with solvents designed to evaporate. They are often described as wipe on finishes which require only a clean soft cloth to apply the finish, though some can be brushed and sprayed on too.

Lacquers come in many forms with some being chemically based throughout and other being completely natural. Shellac is completely natural and comes from the excreted juices of the lac bug. Some lacquers come from tree roots and again are completely natural. Sprayed, rubbed or brushed, these are very versatile but can be tricky to apply in some contexts

On my new bookcase, made from east European redwood pine, I decided on my own concoction using outdoor finishes. Having sanded the finishes to 250 grit I was satisfied that the surface would receive and hold the light colour of the stain-coat (for want of a better name) and also result in only minimal raising of the grain. Indeed it was so minimal I didn’t sand between coats and I got a very nice finish. It is always good to remember that the level of sanding will affect the colour. The coarser the surface the darker it will become. This is because of surface absorption. What I wanted was translucency, sufficient to still see the grain and knots through but enough to temper down the contrast. I also wanted to reduce the colour contrast that often occurs when pine ages.

I don’t like the orange or redness that exposure to light ultimately results. I also like the way my choice evened out the overall appearance to produce a controlled outcome. I padded on one coat but I could have done two. The pad was the best method as this gave an ultra thin and even coat with zero texture. I applied two more coats of clear finish and no grain was raised at all. Very unusual. You might need to experiment as there are no guarantees, even within the same species. Bookcases take the least wear of all furniture pieces I think. Whereas the base coat of light colour is in fact a layer of coating, and the subsequent two coats of clear too, a third coat brushed on would give ultimate protection should you use this on other furniture like tables, chairs and so on.

Conclusion. If in doubt as to your skill and speed, a wipe on poly or Danish oil, boiled linseed oil and such are all ultra easy to apply. Shellac applied using a French polishing technique is not for the faint hearted and definitely requires a working knowledge of the medium, technique and so on. Start to learn on practice boards and see how you feel. Shellac is indeed brushable but your brushing technique will not be the same as applying emulsion paint to walls. It requires more method and good brushing technique as well as speed and accuracy, sensitivity and such. A sprayed shellac finish can come very close to a hand applied French polishing if you are experienced using an HVLP spray rig. I like to use this myself. I also spray on waterbourne clear coats using an HVLP sprayer and with care it will result in pleasantly smooth and acceptable finish.

At the end of the day I do like the look of a carefully applied brush finish where the hint of brush strokes kiss the surface with evenly parallel lines lengthways along the whole. It looks neat in the two senses of the word; cool and ordered!

21 Comments

  1. ROBERT FLOWERS on 5 November 2019 at 5:07 pm

    I have a few question is a ball of cotton wool the same as a cotton balls in the USA? if not where do you get them? And would you do a video on French polishing?
    I’ve learned a lot from you over the years, but finishing is not my strong suit. I thank watching you go thru the steps of French polishing would be a help to those who struggle with putting a finish on.
    Thank you for showing us the way to better woodworking.

    • Paul Sellers on 5 November 2019 at 7:11 pm

      It’s the same. Maybe I will consider a French polishing vid too.

      • Michael Donaldson on 5 November 2019 at 8:55 pm

        I would be interested in a French polishing video as well, I am a woodworking novice and have not heard of this method until this post.

      • Donald L Kreher on 6 November 2019 at 1:44 am

        I two would like a french polishing video and also more instruction in shellac brush technique.

      • Donald L Kreher on 6 November 2019 at 1:44 am

        I two would like a french polishing video and also more instruction in shellac brush technique.

      • Marc-Andre Petit on 6 November 2019 at 1:49 am

        That would be greatly appreciated, seeing experienced craftman doing a french polishing is pure joy for the eye!

      • Joe on 6 November 2019 at 2:21 pm

        Thanks Paul. Would love to see a French polishing video. My go to finish of choice is shellac. Would love to learn how to French polish.

    • Ted Phillips on 7 November 2019 at 10:53 pm

      I always used the cotton batting sold to the printing/lithography community. It is 100% cotton and comes in convenient squares and rolls. They are made by a company called Webril and are available through our favorite online retailer.

  2. Allan on 5 November 2019 at 10:49 pm

    I would love a video on French polishing, I often find the people explaining the process make it near incomprehensible. I don’t know if it is because that is indeed the case or if it some sort of ego trip. I have been following Woodworking Masterclasses for just over three years, a lot of the processes that used to confound me in joinery are now second nature – look what happens when you find a great teacher without underlying agendas.
    Manny Thanks

  3. Julian on 5 November 2019 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks Paul, there are some real nuggets in here. Finishing is definitely one area that is often skipped over with regards to wood working projects.

    I’d really appreciate some sort of matrix/Spreadsheet that would help me choose the type of finish I should use, if you could find time if you could find time.
    Many thanks

  4. John Ferrier on 6 November 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Shellac is my choice, but I break the rules with thick, but even coats, cured over night or longer, dry and hard is the key. Starting with flat surfaces, and using sanding blocks, and frequent paper changes, to keep things flat when knocking off the major lumps ( a few ripples will remain) between coats. I abraid the shine with steel wool or scotchbrite before the next coat, and usually have a fully flat build up after the third or forth application-now ready for a bit of wax. If you don’t stain, you can’t sand through it!
    Thank you Paul for sharing you gift with us.

  5. Klaus on 6 November 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Hi Paul thanks for your videos and blogs. Much appreciated. Just a quick comment about HVLP sprayer.

    I have been interested in HVLP spray rigs but due to the price for a decent rig, space constraints and intricacy in using them have not been able to justify purchasing one. Recently I was at my local Lee Valley store and the sales clerk told me about a simple sprayer he had tried that gave him good results. It’s called the critter and was not that expensive ($50 or so bucks) and so I bought it and tried it out. I am pretty happy with it. It is basically a siphon gun attached to a mason jar. It is pretty basic, super simple to clean and gave good results. The mason jars are a common size such that I cleaned out a couple old jam jars to hold finish. I don’t comment very often but was hoping this might help someone else.

    While I am at it there is one other product I am very happy with and might make life a little easier for someone else. I use shellac quite a bit (thanks again Paul for showing me the beauty and simplicity of this finish) along with few other brushable finishes. My problem has always been finding a container to hold it while I use it. Mason jars are great but the mouth is a little small and larger containers are awkward (I am clumsy and bump into things). While at the store a while ago picking up something for my wife, I found at least to my eyes the perfect container. A large soup mug. Ceramic, some heft to it so I don’t knock it over, a handle, large opening and a vacuum sealed top. Having a handle and sealable top are great. And to top it off it is dish washer safe. Who can ask for anything more.

  6. EDWARD CAFFEY on 6 November 2019 at 4:14 pm

    Thank you for offering to post on how to apply French Polish finish.

  7. Ed on 6 November 2019 at 7:36 pm

    I learned from an excellent finisher, someone who spent part of his career exclusively on finishing. The most important thing to learn about finishing is that you can tune and adjust a finish as well as correct mistakes, just like you tune, adjust, and correct joinery. In fact, just like joinery, you must expect to correct and adjust. You don’t get a finish right out of a can or cans.

    I look forward to trying Paul’s rubber. Someone showed me the benefits of using linen for the outer cloth and a piece of lamb / sheep wool for the inner ball. I used an old bit of linen from the dining room and a hunk of old hiking sock. What a huge difference! That’s not to say it is mandatory, but I definitely prefer those materials. The linen seems to move better over the surface. The wool doesn’t crush as much as cotton, helping the rubber keep its shape, and the wool seems to release the shellac better rather than just soaking it up.

    With regard to mouldings, I’ll respect your choices if you respect mine. In many places, I like mouldings for aesthetic reasons. I sometimes wonder if this is a cultural difference since many of the relevant forms and styles, for me, are just forms and styles, and are not associated with negative connotations of class, elitism, ostentatiousness, and “below stairs.” Many moulded styles (and turnings!) are just too, too much.

    I just finished some mouldings. No screaming routers, just hand planes. A previous piece, a Queen Anne blanket chest, used a router for the mouldings. Not as satisfying, but if I must, I shall, just like you and some other tools.

    • Ed on 6 November 2019 at 7:43 pm

      …actually, I’ll respect your choices in any case.

    • Paul Sellers on 6 November 2019 at 8:10 pm

      When we were in a hotel in Washington DC and about to deliver the White House pieces to the Cabinet Room of the West Wing in an hour’s time I decided they needed extra coats of finish. They were French Polished up until then. We wrapped pads of towelling inside a soft domestic hand towel and applied several more coats of shellac in a matter of minutes and there was nothing traditional about the application in any way, but the finish was stunning.

    • Paul Frederick on 11 November 2019 at 4:29 pm

      My power routers do not scream. They sing like angels.

  8. Paul Frederick on 11 November 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Finishing can be a black art in the details. But overall it is just applied common sense. You build up a finish in stages to achieve the result you desire. Condition, tint, seal and gloss.

  9. Martin Streat on 11 November 2019 at 4:56 pm

    Hi Paul,
    I follow a great lad from Harrogate. Called “The English Polisher” his dad is a, now retired, and polisher and son Rob is a talented professional. 6 years ago he started videoing his skills. If you follow the path you will learn how to French Polish properly. Love it. I buy old Pembroke tables in auctions and bring them back to life. He now makes his money dealing old curiosity furniture. He has a very good eye.

  10. Dan Miller on 12 November 2019 at 1:15 am

    The best book on finishing is “Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation as well as mis-labeling when it comes to finishing and finshes. Bob does a great job in taming the confusion.

  11. Robert Estes on 12 November 2019 at 9:25 am

    In the olden days, (late fifties} my woodshop teacher had his system down pat. A coat of stain if wanted, An application of grain filler or two, a brushed on coat of sanding sealer followed by a light sanding then brushed or sprayed on coats of laquer. It worked well seventy years ago and it still does. You can buy laquer in spray cans for small projects. I use gloss but many times I rub it out with 4/0 steel wool then if I’m in the mood I rub it out further with rotten stone followed by a coat of paste wax. I live in Alaska and am unable to buy oil based grain filler and they won’t ship it up. (flamable) so I ordered some powdered filler that you mix with water, I think I will be able to live with that.

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