All of the woodworkers I know like the woodworking part, but most of them dislike the finishing part. They have a great time using their tools to craft something beautiful and useful and then get paralyzed when it is time to wrap it up. They want it to come out perfect, or at least really good, and are sure that they are going to mess it up. Usually, they have tried applying a finish with a brush, or a roller, or a cloth, or all of the above and more, and the results were never great. It is possible to get a good finish with a brush or any of the above, but it isn’t easy and usually comes up short of perfection.
In the quest for a better finish, many woodworkers ask me about spray guns and spraying in general. They are looking for a better finish, a finish that is easier to apply, and a finish that makes their hard work shine. Their reasons for not already owning a spray gun are numerous, but when I am asked if they should purchase a spray gun, my answer is always a loud and excited, “YES!”, followed by, “What in heck are you waiting for?”
On my list of essential woodworking tools, a spray system ranks near the top, only after a table saw, jointer, and planer (and, logically I suppose, after sandpaper). I use a spray gun on nearly every project and for a multitude of reasons, with the main reasons being quality of finish, speed, speed and speed. Quality of finish is self explanatory, but the triple speed thing may need a bit more description.
With a spray gun, the application is fast (speed #1). From spraying stain to applying the last coat of finish, the spray gun can move some material quickly. There is no faster way to get finish from the can to a project, short of just dumping it on. If the gun is working well and the finish is flowing nicely, I can often put down finish as fast as I can move.
The spray gun also allows me to use fast-drying finishes (speed #2) like lacquer or conversion varnishes, which are impossible to apply any other way. With lacquer products, the finish is often hard enough to sand and be recoated in just 15 to 30 minutes, compared to a full day with oil-based polyurethane. Lacquer dries so fast, that I often spray parts just before heading to an install, throw them in the bed of my truck, and they are ready to install by the time I get to the job site. It can’t get much faster than that.
The best part for me, not being the most fastidious of woodworkers, is the time it takes to prep the spray area when using lacquers (speed #3). Besides covering areas from potential overspray, there is no prep required. I usually spray right next to my table saw or anywhere that I have room in the shop and do nothing about the dust. I just blow off the piece I am about to spray and get on with it. The finish dries so fast that dust doesn’t have time to get in it. I literally do nothing before I spray, even if I am standing in a pile of sawdust (the piece I am spraying is on sawhorses and not in the pile of dust, of course). I would never even think of working like this using something like an oil-based polyurethane, which seems to pull in dust from everywhere. (Quick note: I do use the gun to spray slow-drying finishes too, but the spray area needs to be clean and dust free, and I would prefer to skip that here in the speed, speed, speed section.)
Besides the above four advantages, I am often asked additional questions when it comes to spraying, but I must warn you, the answer to all of them is still, “Buy a spray gun!” Here are some of the most common questions:
- Can I spray ________ with it? Yes, YES, yes, yes and YES! You can spray any liquid finish by changing its viscosity and/or your spray tips, if needed. It is no different from a brush – a spray gun is just a vehicle to move finish from the can to the project.
- I don’t have anywhere I can spray inside. Can I spray outside? I think outside is the best. Spraying outside requires no exhaust fans and usually provides ample space to work. Plus, it is just nice to be outdoors. I often move outside to finish large projects, or if I am out of room in the shop and need to spread things out. The best outdoor spot is a garage (with the door open), which has good ventilation, controlled wind, and a shield from the sun – a lot like an actual paint booth.
- What about the fumes when I spray indoors? Yes, there are fumes when spraying solvent finishes, but they can be dealt with quickly and easily. First, spray near a window with a fan in it (instant paint booth). Second, wear a mask while spraying. Third, don’t spray when your wife is home.
- Won’t the overspray get on everything? Sort of. The spray gun will shoot finish beyond the workpiece (overspray), but most of it will land in the form of dust. Fast drying finishes like lacquers dry almost instantly in the air, so only overspray close to the workpiece is wet and sticky. Even the overspray on the floor directly beneath the sawhorses just sweeps up.
- Isn’t a spray gun a pain to clean-up? No. If you stick to solvent-based finishes, like lacquer, that dissolve with lacquer thinner you only need to clean-up when the gun isn’t working right and then only by soaking the parts in lacquer thinner. If I am spraying lacquer, I treat the gun just like a can and leave the finish in it until the next time I spray. If you are using finishes that aren’t soluble after they dry you can’t be so cavalier, but it still isn’t a big deal. Often, it is only a matter of spraying the solvent through the gun until it is clean.
After I berate someone for not already owning a spray gun and then tell them over and over again to buy one, the next question they ask is usually, “Which one should I buy?” My answer is simple, “Not a cheap one.” I have used several different high-quality, name-brand HVLP spray systems, and all of them did a good job. There are, of course, subtle differences in the way the guns work and some may be better than others, but none of the higher-priced systems will be a bad purchase. I have personally used HVLP systems from Fuji, Apollo and Graco, and all of them give similar results. At the same time, it is worth noting that I have used cheap no-name guns, and they were painful to use. The spray was splotchy and the guns would only put down a wet finish in the very center of the fan pattern compared to the entire width of the fan pattern from a good gun.
When selecting an HVLP gun there are lots of choices, and again, as long as you don’t buy a junk gun they are mostly just different, and not necessarily bad. I currently use an older HVLP system made by Graco. It has a turbine and a small compressor that pressurizes the 2-quart pressure pot for the gun. I use a pressure pot because it holds more finish, so I can refill less often and keep moving. Plus, with the pressure pot system the gun profile is small to fit into tight spots. For most uses and especially for those of you that don’t even own a gun, one without a pressure pot is fine, leaving you only to decide on two items, the type of gun (bottom-feed or gravity-feed) and the air delivery system (air compressor or turbine).
As far as the guns go, I prefer the bottom-feed gun because it holds more finish, and since it is the type of gun I started with, it just feels right. At the same time, I know several people who use gravity-feed guns with no complaints. They like that the gun is a little lighter and fits in smaller spaces, and they don’t mind refilling as often. Between the two there really is no bad choice.
The air delivery system is the other area to focus on when deciding which system to purchase. The guns can either be powered by an air compressor or a turbine, and you get to choose which makes the most sense for you. Again, neither is wrong or bad, just different. First off, do you own a large compressor (5 hp, 50-gallon tank)? If you do, and you don’t need to be portable, you can save some money and just buy a gun. If you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend buying a big compressor just to spray. I would spend the compressor money on a turbine unit because it is very portable. I know I often take my gun with me to the job site or just outside, and I appreciate not having to lug around a giant compressor just to spray.
Here are the key decision points to address when purchasing your new system:
- Do you already own a large compressor and don’t need to be portable? If you already own a large compressor you can save money by only purchasing a compressed air gun. Don’t buy a big compressor just to spray, spend the money on the more portable turbine system.
- Would you like to use your spray gun outside of the shop, maybe at the job site or at your house? Turbine systems are the lightest and most portable. If you need to take your spray gun with you, pick a turbine. If you are only spraying in the shop, either a turbine or compressed air system will work.
- Are your jobs big? Bigger jobs (full kitchens, for example) require more material and may benefit from a system that can hold more finish. If you are spraying very often or are consistently spraying large jobs, think about a system with a pressure pot. Otherwise, stick with a gravity-feed gun or bottom-feed gun. Note that even large jobs can be sprayed without a pressure pot, but will require more refills.
- Do you have extra money? Here’s your chance to spend it. None of the good spray guns are inexpensive. Expect to pay $800-$1,000 or more for a complete turbine system. And, remember, don’t buy a cheap one.
If you have been thinking about buying a spray gun, stop! There is no reason (except for money) to think about it anymore. Start living your woodworking dream and buy one. No one, and I mean no one, has ever been unhappy knowing that they had a good spray gun to use whenever they needed it. You will use it so much more often than you think, and, though a good spray system is expensive, it may make you actually enjoy finishing.
If you have any concerns about using or purchasing a spray gun, let me know below in the comments section. I am certain that I can allay any of your fears and maybe even answer a question or two.
One of the best finishing tips I’ve ever picked up came from an episode of “This Old House”. Norm and Tommy were building some cabinets for a house, and they were spraying a lot of plywood. They showed how they used a razor as a scraper to knock off the nubs between finish coats. It looked simple, so I gave it a go, and I haven’t looked back since.
Let me first start by saying that the razor isn’t perfect. It is flat and straight, so it doesn’t work for profiled edges or rustic, wavy surfaces, but it is great for big, open flat spots. I use it most often on sheets of plywood, but also use it on the flat spots of doors, including the stiles and rails.
The beauty of the razor is the simplicity and speed. With one razor blade, I can quickly smooth a surface between coats on a job that would eat up several sheets of sandpaper. The big difference is that the razor doesn’t clog up with finish like sandpaper does, it just scrapes off the high spots. This is especially helpful when I am trying to finish a job in just one day (which is usually the case). As long as the finish is set up enough to handle, I can start scraping with a razor and never have to stop. In the same scenario with sandpaper, it would clog almost immediately causing me to use more sandpaper and not get consistent results. The clogged sandpaper also tends to drop off little boogers of coagulated finish that stick to the surface. That never happens with a razor.
Using the razor is simple. Hold it up nearly vertical to the surface, lean the top into the cut and pull or push the direction you want to go. It works just like a cabinet scraper, only on a smaller scale, and it doesn’t need to be sharpened. When the razor is dull, just grab another one and move on. I often flip the blade around and cut the opposite direction to make the edge last even longer. If it feels like it isn’t cutting, flip it around. If it still isn’t cutting, just grab another one and get back to work.
Quick tips for using a razor:
- Make sure the finish is dry before scraping.
- Make sure runs are super dry before scraping. The finish should scrape off in shallow layers, not rub off in big chunks.
- Always use a new razor. Old razors can have nicks that scratch the finish.
- Use a razor on flat surfaces. Razors do not work on profiled edges.
- Watch the sharp corners. The corners of the razor can easily scratch the finish.
- Use a light pressure to start. Apply more pressure as you get more comfortable.
If you are going to be doing a lot of scraping, I highly recommend wearing gloves or putting tape on the top of the blade to serve as a handle. The blade gets hots and starts to dig into your hand during heavy use, so it is best to make it as comfortable as possible. There are plastic blade holders commonly available as well. They work fine, but they got lost easily. It seems like I can always find the blades (mostly because they came in a jumbo pack), but I can never find the holders.
As I mentioned, the razor is great for flat surfaces, even curved, flat surfaces (what?). Yep, that’s right, the ol’ curved flat surface, like the belly of an arch. The razor will work on a surface like this, as long as it can sit flat. You can still follow the curve by changing the angle of the blade and quickly scrape the surface.
The razor is not a good choice for profiled edges. First off, it often can’t reach where it is needed, and secondly, there is a great risk that one false move might destroy an edge. In this case, sandpaper or a Scotchbrite pad is the poison to pick.
I use the razor between coats of sanding sealer and even topcoats, when necessary. It makes for a speedy job and a quality one at that. The razor takes off only the highest finish, which is usually just dust nibs and other loosely clinging items (like the legs of flying insects). And, with a little extra pressure a razor will dig in deeper to help remove runs and other problems, like finger prints, smudges, etc.
When you use a razor for scraping a finish, watch the edges of the razor and your pressure. The edges of the razor are sharp and can easily leave an errant scratch. Use a light touch, so if you bump the edge into something it won’t plow a line through it. The lighter pressure also ensures that you don’t take off any more than the imperfections. Only apply more pressure after you get the hang of it and when you really need it.
Lastly, make sure to use only new razors. A razor that has even just one ding in it will scratch up the surface, and the scratches won’t show until the next coat is sprayed. Don’t be a cheap skate and try to stretch the blades you have. Buy a pack of 100 and rest easy knowing that you will use all of them, either for scraping or in a knife.
Using a razor on your newly applied finish will seem scary at first. Go slow, use light pressure and be careful. In just a few minutes you will get used to the feel of it. As you work, use your hand to feel the progress along the way, by rubbing the surface to feel for imperfections. Your hand will tell you what you’ve missed and where you need to work a little more. Give it a try, and after just one swipe of the razor, I think you will be hooked.
I am a man. I like to build things and I like to burn things. Heck, I have even been known to build something just to burn it down or blow it up (especially around the Fourth of July).
Fire mesmerizes and bewilders me. I find it amazing that it can come from virtually nowhere, you can’t really touch it even though you can feel it, and it makes things disappear into thin air. Heavy things, really, really heavy things, like a whole stack of wood, can be gone in no time.
I know this, of course, because I have burnt a lot of things in my lifetime, including my last shop (a complete accident, by the way). What was amazing about it was the fact that just the day before, I had a shop filled with tools, and the next day I had a shallow pile of charcoal mixed with rusty metal. I remember going there the morning after the fire and looking for anything to salvage and being amazed at how rusty the metal was. It looked like it had set out in the rain for years and it was only hours since the fire department was there.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was just cleaning up the debris and throwing the chunks of rusty steel into the scrap pile. But it didn’t take long for things to click. You see, rusty metal is a very desirable finish in these days of worn, industrial, antique, distressed furniture – a style that I find myself doing on a regular basis. Even if it’s not officially a rusty finish that I am looking for, it is usually something that looks not new in some way. And, I have to tell you that burnt, rusty metal does not look new. It looks very, very old.
All of this was a welcomed revelation because I have spent lots of hours in the past trying to get the “not new” look. I had used paint stripper to remove the protective clear finish from new hardware. I soaked steel directly in salt water and in salt water towels so it would get more air, and hopefully, rust faster. I’ve tried a lot of things on brass too, like ammonia and vinegar. But, I never considered heat until the shop burned down.
Heat makes sense. Heat is what they use to make the metal, so it seems like it could work to “unmake” it a bit. And after I saw the magic that happened to all of the metal in my former shop, I gave it a go. The first batch worked great. I was doing a cabinet with very small hinges, so even if I destroyed them it would only cost me a few dollars. I made a little fire and threw them in. I put the fire out with a lot of water and just let it sit in the water-logged charcoal mix for a day and it looked just like the rusty metal from my shop.
The second attempt was as amusing as it was informative. Now that I had one burning under my belt, I confidently came home, started a fire in the fireplace (it was winter time), and nonchalantly threw them in like I had done it a thousand times. Chris (my lovely wife), of course, questioned my actions and I, of course, acted like she was the idiot this time. Turns out, I was the idiot again. Why do I always have to be the idiot? Mostly, because in this case, I threw what appears to have been aluminum or some other metal that easily melts into the fire. It burned in a beautiful rainbow of colors, which told me that the metal was actually being consumed by the fire. After the fire died down, I dug around and found only the screws. Everything else vanished. I made myself feel better by saying that they were cheap and I didn’t want them anyway.
Because of that, I now make sure that my victims are made of steel or something like steel, something that can take the heat. I would recommend testing one piece before you throw them all in the fire if you aren’t sure about their metal content. Besides that one bit of caution, all you have to do is build a fire and throw your hardware in. Make sure that you act like you have done it before and don’t even bother to take it out of the packaging (it all disappears).
Let the fire burn until all of the wood is charcoal and the metal looks discolored. While everything is still hot, put out the fire with plenty of water, just like the firefighters would do it. At that point, you can immediately dig out the hardware if you don’t need the metal to rust, or you can let it sit in the wet charcoal for a day or two and get rusty. The amount of time will depend on the metal. Better steel, hardened steel with more carbon, will rust quickly.
When the hardware comes out of the fire it looks very different. If you like the look you are done, but for me it looks a little rugged on most pieces. I usually put a thin coat of lacquer on the hardware to make it look more like an old piece, but one that has spent more time indoors than out. Depending on how it looks when it comes out of the fire, it may only take a little bit of cleaning to have the right look.
The beauty of the burning process is that each piece comes out different and looks authentically aged. Compared to “antiqued” hardware from many large hardware makers, which often look like a lackluster attempt at aging, the difference is night and day. And, the best part is I have a reason to burn things. Now, I need to find a reason to blow things up.
If you are looking for a way to work out your frustrations, boy do I have a job for you. It also helps if you are looking for a backache and blisters as a bonus. This job involves the simplest of tools and the weakest of minds. It’s simple. Take some wood and whack away at it. Then whack some more. Then a little more. That’s all there is to it (at least to the first part).
The fun part for me starts after the grunt work is done. That’s when I get to stop complaining about the backache and blisters and let my softer, more artsy side come out. I get to play with my paint brushes and spray gun and try to make my recent work look like it has been there for a long, long time.
I may not enjoy it as much as the finishing, but the work that leads up to the finishing is really just as important. I usually start with White Pine because it is easy to work, takes a nice dent, and if the log isn’t new, it can have a lot of character. From a lumber processing standpoint, I like that it is easy to mill, the boards stay flat, and it is quick to dry. I also use White Pine because I can get long logs and the wood is lightweight, which is good for big beams that need to be installed inside without a crane. In instances where I can use a hollow beam it is especially lightweight.
For the job that I specifically reference for this post, I used solid wood for the mantelpiece and made up hollow beams to be applied on the bottom side of an already-finished vaulted ceiling. The solid wood looks slightly more authentic because it benefits from deep cracks that occur during drying. After all the pieces are done, the cracks, or lack of them, are the only way to differentiate between the hollow and solid pieces.
The first step in making new wood look old is adding texture to the surface. From tool marks, to bug holes and cracks, old wood has texture. The more texture that you add, the more authentic the piece will look. It is easy to identify a piece that is not legitimately old because it doesn’t have enough texture. We have all seen cabinets that are distressed by adding a couple of bug holes and a few dents and then sent on their merry way. They might have the right overall feel, but no one will believe that they are old. In this case, don’t hold back and don’t get lazy.
For this project the surface was finished with an adze, but I often hand plane or use rough cut lumber with band saw or circular saw marks. After the pieces were worked with my new-to-me antique adze (that I got for $27 on ebay), I sanded the surface until it was smooth overall, but still had pronounced tool marks. Bigger pieces like these are usually viewed from a distance. Don’t be afraid to make obvious tool marks. If using a hand plane, set it deeper and stop at the end of the cut to tear off the chip.
In old pieces of wood like these the corners are usually rounded, dented or busted of. My favorite tool to use for the corners is a drawknife. It quickly removes material and you can change the depth of cut by adjusting the angle of attack. Be sure to pay attention to the grain of the wood. If the drawknife wants to dig in turn around and work from the opposite direction. The same holds true for the adze, especially around knots, where the direction of attack can make the difference between producing a chip and removing a giant chunk.
After the hand tools, I like to hit the surface with a sander to make the surface look slightly worn instead of freshly cut. Sand more where a piece would have been worn from hundreds of years of use. Tabletops are worn where people sit, posts are worn where people grab them, and furniture bases are worn where people kick them. In this case, all of the work was up high except for the mantelpiece, which was the only one that would have any wear from use.
Once the surface is prepped, it is time to start the staining. A truly old piece of wood has many different colors, and if you try to stain a new piece of wood with just one coat of stain, it will look flat. Even subtle differences in the colors can add a lot to the final effect. I like to use several colors of dye stains, on the surface of the wood and added to my finish, to build up to my final color. In this case the final color was fairly dark, so I had a lot of room to work before things got too dark.
The first coat of stain was TransTint Dark Mission Brown mixed with a little water and applied with a brush to the dry wood. I worked the corners along the length of the beams to simulate the sapwood, which is naturally darker in the older pine. The extra effort on the corners also helps camouflage the seam on the hollow beams. The next coat was a very diluted mixture of Honey Amber and Medium Brown TransTint that I quickly sprayed with my hvlp gun to make the new pine color similar to antique pine. This is where the water-based stains shine. The lighter color and darker color bleed into each other and start to blend. If the color is too dark it can be lightened with more water, if it is too light just add more stain.
The next step was to seal the surface with two coats of tinted sanding sealer. For these coats, I added a little Medium Brown TransTint to the sanding sealer. This darkens the color overall, helping me sneak up on the final color. It also seals the surface for the next step.
After the sealer dried, I used a Walnut Minwax gel stain. The gel stain (glazing) over the sealer only slightly darkens the surface, but it will get into, and highlight, the cracks and crevices. This is a good spot to add even more contrast by varying the amount that you leave on the surface.
The gel stain officially takes a day to dry, but I spray lacquer over it almost immediately with no problems. This last coat can be clear if the color looks good already or TransTint can be added to darken it. In my case, all of the coats of lacquer, sealer and topcoats, were lightly tinted.
This entire process takes a little more effort than just applying one coat of stain, but I think the results are more than worthwhile, and now I can’t do it any other way. Once you see how authentic this process looks, especially in person, you won’t want to do it any other way either.
I thought my last posting about finishing troubles was pretty monumental, that it was big and in my past. Hopefully, it was something that I learned from and would never repeat. But, in a bid to never be outdone, I have attempted to outdo myself.
I recently worked on a bar top made from curly cherry. The finishing job was like any other finishing job in my mind – easy peasy lemon squeezy. All I had to do was mix up some lye and water, slather it on the cherry to darken it, sand the surface a bit and finish it with three coats of Krystal. The lye should take about 15 minutes, the sanding about 20 minutes and the three coats of Krystal about two hours. The longest part of the whole thing should have been waiting for the lye/water solution to dry, which was about two hours. But, as all good stories go, I ended up monkeying with it for about three days. My, how time flies when you’re screwing up a good finish.
I started with the lye and mixed it with water. My first test piece looked great, so I rolled with it. I wasn’t too worried about this step because it always seems like this phase of the process magically works itself out. As the lye sits on the piece drying, spots that I worried about just seem to fix themselves. Areas that looked too light blended seamlessly with areas that quickly turned dark. The only spots that didn’t darken perfectly were under errant splotches of glue, which I stained with another favorite, TransTint dye stain, this time in reddish-brown.
After I let the lye/water solution dry thoroughly, I sanded the entire top with 320 grit sandpaper. This step too, was no big deal. The lye darkens the wood pretty deeply, so even somewhat aggressive sanding won’t expose any new lighter-colored wood. At this point, I had put in no extra time and things were going smoothly. On to the next step, I said.
It was already time to start spraying, so I mixed up a batch of Krystal conversion varnish and catalyst. I also added a little lacquer thinner to make it flow nicer. My plan was, and always is, to shoot lightly on the first coat. The logic being that the first coat is really just to get the process started and to get the wood fibers locked in place. Normally, after the first coat, I either lightly sand with 400 grit paper or scrape flat surfaces with a razor blade to smooth things out for the next coat. In this case, however, I never got that far. The Krystal never set up. It went on nicely, but I let it sit for four hours and it was still tacky. That stuff is normally sandable in 30 minutes or so. Four hours was crazy, and I knew something was wrong. And, so it started.
I decided to remove the finish with lacquer thinner and start over. It wiped off like it was going to set up on the 12th – the 12th of never. At that point, I decided to take the finish out of the equation and ordered a fresh gallon. New finish never hurts anything.
The next day my new finish arrived, and I mixed up a batch. I shot the second first coat and it went on fine. Then, as I waited and stared at the finish (like all of us do), I noticed a couple of streaks that were bumpy. It looked like there was dust in the finish, but it wasn’t dust, it was more than dust. I couldn’t figure it out.
I waited for the finish to dry (I recommend that you always let the finish dry before you mess with it) then I sanded the bumpy spots. I sprayed the next coat and the bumpy spots were better, but still wanted to get bumpy. I had it narrowed down to two spots that just needed a little more love. I sanded them a bit extra to make sure they were really smooth. I sprayed away and the craziest thing happened. The two spots that I had just smoothed out wrinkled like crazy. They looked like I put stripper on them. I worked with those spots for a couple more tries, but they only got worse. Every time I sprayed, the margins of my repair bubbled up, and it became obvious that I was chasing my tail. Time to start over. Well, time to call the customer, tell him for the second day in a row that his top was not going to be done and start over.
At that point, I had come up with some ideas on the cause of my problems. My best guess was that the lye was messing with the chemical reaction in the Krystal that makes it set up. I haven’t had trouble with other finishes (mostly nitrocellulose lacquer and acrylic-modified lacquer) on top of lye, but this was the first time that I went over it with Krystal. The first first coat didn’t set up, which could be caused by the lye. After I cleaned that coat off, there may have only been a couple of small spots with a lot of lye in them, and those areas were exposed more every time I sanded.
I knew now that I need to make sure that the surface was clean and free of lye. I stripped down the second layers of finish with the help of lacquer thinner and started over, again. I reminded the bar top that I was going to win and that all of this resistance was futile, in hopes that it would stop with the temper tantrums and just behave. To make sure it behaved, I wiped and wiped and wiped some more on the surface with lacquer thinner to get every foreign substance out of my way.
Whatever I did, it finally worked. I sprayed the top with the first coat (for the third time) and it went on great. I shot two more coats and in about two hours delivered the top, late on the third night (I have a special policy of delivering free, late on Friday nights, after the customer has been by the shop two previous evenings in a feeble attempt to pick up their countertop). The customer was very understanding and I think, quite glad to see me. I was glad to see him too and get that thing out of the shop. Sort of….
The following Monday I got a call from the customer. I would normally dread a call so close to delivery because there had to be a problem, but I knew this was different. I was sure he was just calling to say how nice it looked and to thank me for going the extra mile. Not the case.
Two days earlier, on Saturday night, they had a Halloween party, which was the reason for the push to get the top done. Apparently, someone put a glow necklace on the top which proceeded to leak. The toxic chemical melted through the finish and even lightened up the lye. On top of that, along with a new bar top came new barstools with backrests and swivel seats, which swiveled nicely into the front of the bar, scraping off the finish. Back to the shop it came.
After playing with the finish it was obvious that I had adhesion issues, the finish just scraped off with my fingernail (not good for a bar top). After a break from the top, I sanded the whole thing down again, reapplied the lye, wiped it a lot with clean water and proceeded to reapply the Krystal finish. Most of it worked well, except for the front of the bar rail. It had the tiniest area of tiny bubbles that just didn’t lay down. Being a picker, I had to pick and it flaked off easily again, but only on the front. I had to work harder to get the finish off of the side rails. Below is a video of how easy the finish flaked off. Again, not good for a bar top.
S0, obviously I have a problem, one that I have never had before. The lye has worked fine for me in the past using regular lacquer. The difference this time is that I am using Krystal, which is a two part finish (conversion varnish). My best guess is that the lye is messing with the chemical reaction because my test pieces, which had no lye on them, stuck like crazy. To combat the problem, I first sprayed a sanding sealer and then put the Krystal on top. The plan is that the sanding sealer will provide a protective barrier between the lye and the Krystal. So far, so good. Hopefully, there are no new updates. They can only be bad.
I like to finish projects. It has taken me awhile to admit it, but I do. I am not scared away by sanding, and I can handle the torment of airborne dust and the occasional trespassing fly. It allows the artistic side of me to come out, and I appreciate how the finish can make my woodworking look better than I imagined.
At the same time, I am beginning to despise working on projects that are already finished, especially repairs, because they can’t come out better than I imagined. All that can happen is that new work doesn’t match the old work, or that I have to refinish the entire piece, or worse yet, I have to refinish the entire piece three times. “Three times?” you ask (maybe even out loud and with a wacky look on your face). Yep, three times. This is a whopper of a fish story – fish(eye) that is.
Last year, I did a job that included taking an antique piece of furniture and making it work as a bathroom vanity. It was a very nice piece, purchased specifically for the space and didn’t require much woodworking. The only request from the customer was to shorten the depth of the upper drawers to allow for the plumbing and to spray the top with a waterproof finish suitable for a bathroom.
Easy enough, I thought. In this situation, I like to spray a product from M.L. Campbell, called Krystal, which is a two-part conversion varnish that is resistant to everything once the chemical reaction is done. And, it has a high solids-content, which means it builds to a thick film quickly. It also has the added benefit of working just like the lacquer that I normally spray and thins with lacquer thinner. The job was going to be especially easy because the piece of furniture didn’t need any repairs or touch-ups that required staining to match the existing color.
I wasn’t sure what the original finish was on the piece, so I did my due diligence and tested the new finish on an inconspicuous spot on the back of the piece. I wanted to make sure that my finish was compatible with the old and that nothing crazy was going to happen. I sprayed over the old finish and it laid down nicely and adhered great. No problemo.
I moved on to actual spraying and shot a coat on the top. It went on like butta’, shiny and smooth. I was going to be done in no time, but… then I looked closer, and I saw some spots, then some more and some more. It was like the oceans parting. The stuff I just sprayed that sticks to everything like glue was jumping off of the surface (not literally) and leaving areas of original finish surrounded by areas of new finish. I didn’t actually hear it, but I expected to hear the Snap, Crackle, and Pop of Rice Krispies. It was demoralizing and memorizing at the same time. I hadn’t ever run into anything like it, but then again, I mostly work on new wood, not old wood.
It was quickly obvious that there was something on the furniture that was repelling the new finish. The good news was that I didn’t need to worry anymore about wrecking the finish, it was already done. Lucky for me, the top could have used a little sanding and it was made of 1-1/4″ thick solid mahogany, so I didn’t need to worry about sanding through the veneer. I decided I was going to show this thing who was boss and jumped on it with my sander. In about an hour I had the whole top sanded to fresh wood, stained it with my favorite dye stains and was ready for a brand-new finish. In no time, I would build up three coats and be all done.
I sprayed the newly-stained, freshly-sanded top with my same favorite conversion varnish and it went on like butta’ again. Then guess what happened? The same thing. Not only the same thing, but the exact same thing. It was no less pronounced than the first time. Now, I was stumped. The first attempt was my fault. I should have cleaned the surface better or been more aggressive in my preparation. But on the second attempt I couldn’t have been more aggressive. There was nothing left but raw wood. I sanded past the old finish, past the old stain, and even deep enough that no original pores were left. It was new wood. Obviously, there was a problem with the finish.
The stuff I was spraying does have a shelf life, though I couldn’t tell you what it is. Also, I have to mix two parts together, so I could have done that part wrong. Or, maybe something else was in there that was throwing off the chemistry. I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to take any chances, so I left for the night to rest, regroup and resupply.
The next day I resupplied at Compi distributors (the best company I have ever worked with in any industry and worthy of their own blog posting) and got to talking about my issues. They have always been helpful and knowledgeable and suggested that the surface probably had wax on it. Duh!, I thought. Of course it had wax on it. I figured that part out. It was old, somebody waxed it, I was lazy, I did nothing about it, and now here I am. But, I did do something about it the second time. I sanded the whole thing down to raw wood. I can’t be any more proactive or retroactive or whatever you want to call it than that. But, James, the finishing expert at Compi, politely said to me that the wax was probably still there, down in the wood, where I couldn’t get to it – even with sanding. He said that he had seen this before and to treat it like wood with wax on it, and he also gave me a little dropper bottle of fisheye killer to add to my finish.
When I got to the job site that day, I first cleaned the top with naptha (which cuts wax) then with lacquer thinner (which may not have done anything, but made me feel better) and then added the fisheye killer to a fresh batch of my same favorite finish.
I sprayed the top and it went on like butta’ again. I stepped back and waited. Nothing. Nothing happened. My finish went on smooth and looked like any other finish I had ever sprayed. I am pretty sure that James was right and the wax was still there and it was cleaned up with the naptha. However, I did start with all new supplies, a clean gun and fisheye killer too, so I am not positive what fixed it, but it was fixed – finally. Now, whenever I work on an antique piece, I always treat it like it has wax on it and clean it with naptha first.
Some woods stain great – some don’t. Oak, walnut and elm come to mind as the great ones. They stain easily and consistently, with no blotches or uneven color. On the other end of the scale are woods like maple and cherry, which are also consistent – consistently frustrating. Hard maple is the worst of the worst, with some of it taking almost no stain (I compare it to trying to stain a piece of glass) and other areas, like end grain, sucking up all the stain in the can. Anywhere that the grain simply changes directions is a spot for blotches to show up.
Right up there with maple is cherry. Although you can get some cherry boards to stain perfectly, many will look like a first-grader did it (and not the one first-grader that pays attention in class). The other problem with cherry is that it is usually expected to be at least medium-dark, which means the wood has to be darkened up somehow. I have a few recommendations for hard-to-stain woods, but for cherry, I have a trick. If you know it, don’t say anything yet.
I don’t remember where I first heard of it, but I was told that lye darkens cherry. That’s right, lye, like the soap or Drano. I didn’t know anything about lye, so I did a little research. And, after using it many times, I can tell you that a little research is all I needed. It is amazingly simple and produces awesome results.
If I want a nice medium to dark cherry and don’t need to match a specific color, I will use lye before anything else. Lye is great because it does in seconds what would happen naturally in a very long time. It chemically changes the color of the wood, allowing all of the figure to show through without blotches. The new color created by the lye also goes below the surface to provide a measure of safety when sanding between coats of finish.
I use Red Devil lye (drain opener), which has apparently been discontinued. Lowe’s carries a crystal drain opener that is 100% sodium hydroxide (the active ingredient) or lye. I, however, have never used this product, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness.
To use the lye, simply mix with water. I use about two tablespoons to 16 oz. of water as a starting point. Test on a sample cherry board to see how dark it comes out – the change will be almost immediate. Add more lye to darken the color or more water to lighten it. To apply, use a nylon brush (natural hair brushes will melt away) to saturate the surface of the wood, keeping a wet edge and let it dry. That’s it.
Handle the lye mixture with caution and follow the safety instructions on the label. Specifically, wear rubber gloves and safety glasses, and make sure you have adequate ventilation.
Treat the wood as if you were using a water-based stain, by raising the grain before applying the lye. After the lye is dry, the wood can be finished and requires no treatment to neutralize the lye. I like to apply an oil finish before the topcoats to make the surface shimmer and really show off the magic of the lye.
No matter how you finish the piece, I think you’ll be amazed at how easily and quickly you can have a piece made from new 100-year-old cherry!