Fisheye In My Finish Again (and again, and again)!

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.

This is a close-up view of fisheye from a more recent project and sure to be the subject of a future posting (if not the next one).

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.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

11 responses to “Fisheye In My Finish Again (and again, and again)!”

  1. Wes says :

    “Fisheye killer?” Never heard of it.
    That would have taken me four or five times, but I would have given up before that.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Fisheye killer. Just add a drop or two. It changes the surface tension of the finish to better match what you are spraying. Silicone is a common/main ingredient. I would like to think that there is a brand without silicone in it, but the manufacturers don’t detail the ingredients.

  2. Timothy Plawski says :

    Hey Scott.  I have a question regarding scroll saws.  Do you have any recommendation of a good scroll saw for a home wood worker?  Thanks.  Tim Plawski

    ________________________________

    • wunderwoods says :

      Tim,
      I use a scroll saw when necessary, but I am usually very utilitarian about it. I have never considered myself a scroll sawyer and use it only as much as forced too for a specific job. I have had no problems with name brand saws like Delta and Dewalt, but those are the only two that I have used. With that said, I do have two thoughts:
      1) No matter which saw you use, make sure to always have a sharp blade. I have found the scroll saw to remind me of a tiny band saw in performance and nothing makes things better or worse than the sharpness of the blade.
      2) I sold an “RBI Hawk” once for a friend, and people were falling all over themselves to get that thing. Everyone acted like it was a fancy sports car that they had only seen in movies. It didn’t look that special to me, but I never used it and can’t comment on how well it worked.

  3. Jeremy T. says :

    I cut my chops refinishing older pieces, and the first time you get fisheyes it’s nothing short of “what the ….” and you feel like you’re beating your head against a wall trying to resolve.

    I have found that wax tends to be less problematic than silicone. A lot of the spray on furniture ‘waxes’ used over tha last 20+ years contained less wax and more silicone for the shine.
    Wax is relatively easy to clean off with solvents, but silicone resists removal by many solvents. Also when you sand, even though you are removing finish, the slicone tends to be smeared around while you sand.

    One caution I hope they gave you when they sold you fisheye remover was to be extra diligent about cleaning your spray equipment AFTER using fisheye remover. Fisheye remover is a silicone additive. (Go figure, use silicone to counter silicone.) You have now put silicone into your spray gun and can contaminate future finishes. I know more than a few professional painters that have a seperate gun reserved for this purpose.

    • wunderwoods says :

      I was not made aware of the silicone that I was adding to the gun and to be diligent about cleaning it. I followed the directions and had no problems with fisheye or silicone in my gun later. It makes sense that the fisheye preventer may remain in the gun after the intended use and could cause a problem. I guess I was lucky or that was the one day a year that I happened to really clean out my gun. It is all a surface tension thing and the fisheye preventer serves to make the surface tension of your finish closer to that of the waxey/siliconey surface. It stands to reason that if you don’t clean your gun thoroughly after using the preventer that your problem will now just be reversed and your finish will be slippery instead of the surface you are spraying. No matter what, after an incident like this, it is best to start with everything new and clean.

  4. Jim Rowe says :

    I am refinishing a walnut table. I found out the hard way about fisheyes My first time refinishing the table I strippd it, sanded it, restained and put my first coat of laquer on it. After about five minutes I started to see little holes form in my finish, not good. Stripped the table again, sanded again, stained again. Sprayed laquer and it happened again, however not as bad. Thank goodness the table is an inch and half thick…maybe a little less after all the sanding. I stripped again and sanded again I have now stained again. Should I use a vinyl sealer and then add a fishneye preventer to my laquer. I am hoping that three is a charm.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Jim,

      I think the naptha is the trick. Wiping with the naptha should help clean up the wax. Test in an inconspicuous area now that you have the stain on to make sure the naptha cleaning won’t mess up your stain. Of course, it may not be wax, but instead, silicone. The fisheye preventer will help with that, but be sure to follow the directions and clean your gun after you spray like Jeremy T. recommended. The vinyl sealer shouldn’t make a difference because it will fisheye like the lacquer. Another option is a seal coat of shellac. Shellac is a great finish that works with most everything and makes a good primer for most everything. If you are worried and are thinking about a sealer of some kind, use shellac cut very thin with denatured alcohol to do the job. One side note: if you are using an oil-based stain, it may not flow smoothly on the surface which indicates that your finish will most likely fisheye. The stain will not apply evenly and be repelled from some areas. If this happens, stop staining and start cleaning/sealing/fisheye preventing.

  5. Marqueta Wehunt says :

    If I ever have trouble I will know what to look for ! Thanks !

  6. Tom Lutman says :

    I, too, just got “introduced” to fisheye – and on a table that I have refinished before – albeit 10 years ago. I am guessing that the main difference this time is I tried to use an epoxy resin finish, which is what fisheyed.

    Question – I applied a thin coat on the second attempt to refinish and got the fisheye again. I assume I need to strip it all back down to bare wood, right? Then, wipe down with the naptha, restain and then apply the fisheye preventer to the epoxy?

    Wish I had seen your blog before starting this project 🙂

    • wunderwoods says :

      Tom,

      I think you should remove anything that fisheyed on you, which sounds like you might be starting over. If the fisheye isn’t too bad, meaning it isn’t compromising the adhesion of the overall finish, I would try sanding the finish with 320 to flatten out the fisheyes and then clean the surface with naphtha, then lacquer thinner and then recoat. It may work depending on how much residue is actually on the surface. Know when you are doing this that there is a good chance that you will be starting over completely, but it won’t take to long to try it.

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