Most woodworkers that I have met, try to finish their own projects, and while they may do great woodwork their finish often falls short and lets the world know that their project was not finished by a professional woodworker or finisher. The typical look of the less-than-perfect finish is one of obvious and often errant brush strokes. While I think it is possible that some of these finishing jobs are seen as perfectly acceptable by less discerning eyes, I would like to think that the applier of these lackluster finishes knows and sees that they could do better, but are at a loss for how to correct the problem.
My first solution, and always my first recommendation, is to purchase a high-quality spray gun and start spraying your finish. A spray gun is quick, capable of producing a flawless finish and may even make finishing fun. There are lots of reasons why you may not feel comfortable spraying a finish, but there are at least 492 reasons why you should spray your finish–the first 485 being that you need to be a badass to brush a good finish.
Brushing a good finish requires an amazing level of patience, attention to detail and a willingness to not cut corners. It can be done, but often the person that relegates themselves to brushing a finish is usually the same person that struggles to produce a good finish because they aren’t patient, aren’t paying close attention and are trying to do as little work as possible to call the job done. It is a crazy irony of a situation, but it happens all the time.
Now, first let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with brushing a finish. I think it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes required, but it has to be done right just to not look bad, never mind looking great. Luckily, there really are just a few tidbits to keep in mind that are the keys to a beautiful brushed finish.
Apply Thin Coats
You will be tempted, at all stages of finishing and throughout your entire life, to apply a finish that is thick and wet. Often this is under the misguided notion that thicker is better and it will speed things up, but nothing is further from the truth. A thick finish coat is the first and deadliest weapon in the unprofessional finishers arsenal. No matter how well you apply a thick coat of finish, it will somehow, somewhere on your woodworking be less than perfect and scream, “This dude doesn’t know what he is doing!”
Thick finish coats show deeper, more obvious brush strokes because they are just that, deeper. Thicker coats also tend to run and, at very least, sag. And, the last thing, that shouldn’t be underestimated, is that thicker finish coats take much longer to dry, which allows more debris to get in your finish, lengthens the dry time between coats and often leads to blemishes from handling a piece before it is dry. There is, as far as I can tell, nothing to be gained by brushing on a finish in thick coats versus thinner coats.
Applying thinner coats can and should be thought of in two ways. The first is simply the amount of finish moved from your brush to the surface. When applying the finish, put on just enough material to cover the surface and nothing more – do not leave puddles. There should be so little on the surface that it is impossible for the finish to run or sag. The second way to think about thinner coats is in the viscosity or the thickness of the material itself. Thinner material will flow fast, like water and thicker material will flow slow, like syrup. Make sure your finish is not too thick by adding the proper solvent for your finish, like water, mineral spirits, alcohol or lacquer thinner if needed. Many finishes will be fine directly out of the can, but some thicker finishes will benefit from a little thinning. Be sure to read the can for proper thinning options and test your finish on a piece of scrap material first to see how it flows and lays down.
Pay Attention to Your Brush Strokes
No matter how well you apply a finish with a brush, brush strokes will most likely be visible at some point. The good news is that wood has a grain to it that can help hide the brush strokes. The secret is to apply the finish with brush strokes that follow the grain. Don’t go all willy nilly and just slop it on. This is where the patience and attention to detail really come into play and where you have to let your inner badass shine.
Plan out your brush strokes so there aren’t any unintentional stops or starts. Where parts meet make sure to stop and start where they stop and start. On mitered corners, start with the brush at a 45 degree angle so the brush marks only follow the grain of each board.
Lastly, make sure that your brush strokes follow the full length of the work. If a single piece of wood is 30′ long, your brush strokes should be 30′ long in a single uninterrupted and reasonably straight pass. It may sound a bit overboard, but that is what it takes to do this correctly.
Keep a Wet Edge
Working with a brush is not fast. While you are messing around with the application and focusing on your brush strokes, it is possible for some finishes (especially paints) to start to dry while you are applying them, requiring you to step up your game even more. It is important to keep a wet edge while you are working, so each new brush stroke blends with the previous one. If you move too slow and the finish has dried or started to dry, you will basically be applying two coats as opposed to only one. If you are finishing woodwork, this will cause the finish to have an unevenness about it, either because of a difference in the sheen or in the way it fills the wood pores.
When working large open areas, plan out your approach and move quickly. Do what you can to quickly get the finish on the surface and then focus on your brush strokes to finalize things. A small-nap roller can even be used to help speed up delivery to the surface before final brushing. If you have a choice, work in cooler temperatures (always out of the sun) and with reduced airflow to slow down the drying.
Any finish application, whether brushed or sprayed will benefit from being horizontal. Having your pieces flat on a work surface during finishing allows you to fully see what you are doing, especially with good reflected light and helps the finish to level out while drying. The other obvious benefit is that you should get no runs on a horizontal application unless you are extremely talented. You may find it worthwhile to completely finish your piece before assembly so you can keep all of your parts horizontal.
Choose the Right Brush
There is much to be said about brushes, but for me it comes down to one simple rule. Don’t ever use a cheap brush. Don’t even let them in your shop. If you have a cheap brush in your shop (you know, the one that you were only going to use for applying glue or something else non-technical), you will inevitably end up trying to use it for some sort of real finishing and it will not turn out well. I would argue that it is better to not finish at all than to try to finish with the only brush you could find in the shop which was purchased in a 10-pack at the dollar store. Using a good brush gives you at least a fighting chance. For those of you that want a bit more technical input, remember to use natural bristles only for oil-based finishes and synthetic bristles for either water-based or oil-based finishes. It all comes down to the fact that natural bristles don’t like to be soaked in water and synthetic bristles can be soaked in anything.
There you have it. Five simple little rules, all of which if you completely follow, still only give you about a 50% chance of producing a beautiful brushed finish. The other 50% is dependent entirely on your willingness to not take anything that resembles a shortcut and on you being a badass every step of the way.
Finishing wood has several benefits, with the main one being protection. Finished wood is protected from contaminants and other fluids (especially water) that could ruin the piece. Finishing wood also makes the piece look more beautiful than a raw piece of wood. It adds depth and brings out details that would be completely hidden otherwise. Finishing wood also makes a piece just seem, for lack of a better word, finished, like someone cares, like it is more valuable. A good finish is nice and smooth and begs to be touched. Reaching out and touching a finished piece of wood seems to be an instinctual way to determine the overall quality, like smelling your food before taking a big bite. I can tell you from lots of personal experiences that the first thing customers do when they see a newly finished piece of furniture is to reach out and touch the wood. They are using their eyes to look at it at the same time, but they are doing half of their looking with their hands. With that in mind, I would suggest that you do at least half of your looking with your hands when finishing a piece of wood.
Your hands can tell you so much about a surface that your eyes can’t. First of all, you can feel lots of places that you cannot see, whether it simply be hidden from view from a lack of light or from a lack of access or maybe just that it is in a bad position at the time. A great example of all of these is on chair work. A chair is meant to be seen from all angles and there are usually lots of intersecting surfaces headed in all directions, with many hidden from view.
Your hands can also feel things in plain sight that your eyes might never see. This is especially true for clear finish coats. If you don’t have big, obvious, light-reflecting mistakes in a well-lit shop, they may not show up enough to see – that is until after you deliver it to your customer and they put it right in front of their big bay window, the one that is similar to the bay window you don’t have in your shop.
I use my bare hands continually through the finishing process. Combined with a low, raking light to help highlight imperfections, they create a dragnet that catches anything trying to make its way into the finished pice. And, the best part is that my hands never miss, they feel everything (except color).
Get your hands involved early in the finishing process, even during rough sanding and surface preparation. During this phase your hands will let you know if there are any dents or chips that aren’t obvious enough to see, and they will give you an overall feel for the surface, how smooth it is and if there are any unflat areas that need to be straightened out. It will give you a good idea where you need to spend more time sanding and point out areas of raised grain that you could never see with your eyes alone.
After you have finished sanding, use your hands, while you are blowing off the surfaces with compressed air, to wipe the surfaces clean. Your hands will loosen particles that would otherwise stick and the air can blow them away. In lieu of tack clothes (which I don’t own anyway), I always use this method, just wiping my hand on my pants as I go. While you are cleaning the surface, without noticing it, you will also be looking at the surface with your hands. You will feel anything that wasn’t adequately sanded the first time, and have a chance to take care of it before you are in too deep.
Your hands are also fantastic for work in-between finish coats too. At this point, the surface and color should be in great shape and any issues should be small and almost undetectable, except with your hands. After scraping or sanding the first sealer coat, use your hands to help clean the surface for the following coat, just like you did before applying the first coat of sealer. While you are wiping off the dust (and wiping it on your pants), you will feel any dust nibs or rough patches or even runs while you are working. Your hands will tell you everything you need to know about the quality of your surface and how you are progressing.
I usually apply one or two more coats of finish, each of which requires less work, but every one involving my hands to make sure the surface is ready for the next step. In fact, I use my hands so much that I am pretty sure I could do my work in-between finish coats without even using my eyes (insert your own joke here, I teed it up for you).
The next time you are working on a finish, get your hands more involved. Try to use your hands as much as your eyes to recognize what is going on with the surface, even in places that are hidden from view. You will be amazed at how much you can “see” with your hands.
I have been cutting a lot of slabs lately and building a lot of tops. This is the first one that I have finished out of a big double-crotch Siberian elm that I milled in the spring. The top is 36″ at the narrowest and 58″ at the widest. The slab was milled 3″ thick and was flattened and finished with a hand-planed surface at 2″ thick.
For those of you that haven’t heard yet, Siberian elm is one of my favorites. The wood needs nothing added to it to make it beautiful – just a clear top coat (actually four coats of Klearvar) is all it takes. The wood for this top is a delicious medium brown with tons of visual interest, especially where the main trunk splits into three branches.
The wood slab and the steel base (built by Commercial Fabrication) are going to serve as a 42″ bar-height community table in my customers newly remodeled basement.
I often get asked, “What can I put on wood that will protect it outside?” My follow-up question is, “Do you want a finish that builds up to a film or just something that soaks in, like an oil?” If the answer is a film finish, I recommend Cetol Door & Window, from the Sikkens Proluxe line of wood finishes. It holds up better than any other outdoor finish that I have used, and every painter that I know and trust uses it too. I have found Cetol to last almost twice as long as the next class of film finishes.
In my teenage years, I tried regular ol’ Minwax polyurethane on the wood bed of my restored ’63 Chevy pickup truck, and I couldn’t believe how fast it started to peel. One St. Louis summer of constant heat and sun made it look like it had a bad sunburn with lots of dead skin.
After that, I moved on to other products like spar urethanes (Minwax also makes one of those, called Helmsman’s). Yes, it lasted longer, but not LONG. It started to look bad after a little more than a year. It didn’t totally fail all at once, but enough areas were falling apart that it didn’t really matter – it just looked bad.
In defense of these two products, the bed of a pickup truck is a tough environment. It gets direct sun, extra heat with no breeze, and the surface is horizontal, so water has a much better chance of nosing its way under the finish. It really gets no more demanding than this for a wood finish.
With yearly maintenance, the spar urethane could be kept looking reasonably good, but eventually the maintenance gave way to submission and the weather won. The boards still looked alright (nothing rotted through), but there were always spots where the finish failed and the beautiful clear-coated lumber had cracked finish and gray spots of raw wood.
It wasn’t until much later that I was introduced to the Sikkens brand name from a friend in the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. He had great things to say about their products, and then I started noticing them being used by different painters on different jobs around town – and consistently. Nobody was using anything else, at least not anyone that I trusted, so I started using them.
Originally, Cetol only came in various forms with added stain. Some of the colors were pretty light, but none were clear. I believe the color is added to help with UV protection, but it does nothing to help color matching or achieving a clear finish. Now, with the name change to Proluxe, a colorless version is available, and it is the one that I use.
The can says that Cetol should be applied with a brush and not rolled or sprayed. I haven’t rolled it, but I have brushed and sprayed it, and both worked fine. Spraying is more difficult, and probably not recommended by the company, because the Cetol has a long working time and tends to sag if applied too liberally. That same working time is great for brushing and allows large areas to be worked and reworked to blend brush strokes. If you do try to spray it, start with a light application and allow it to settle for a second so you can get a feel for how it is going to sit down. Keeping a wet edge isn’t critical because it doesn’t even start to get tacky for a long time and the following passes will easily blend together. If you do spray the Cetol be vigilant about finding areas that start to sag or run and simply blend them in with a brush.
Cetol, like many other finishes, takes three coats to build a good protective barrier. A fourth coat will add a bit of extra protection, but isn’t required. I would opt to skip the fourth coat on the initial application and put that energy to a maintenance coat later down the road.
Regular maintenance is critical to keep the finish from failing. Keep an eye out for areas that start to crack and get another coat on as soon as they appear. If you wait too long it will be necessary to completely strip the finish and start over.
Cetol should last for several years without maintenance on vertical surfaces and even more if they are protected from the sun. Horizontal surfaces in the sun will probably last a maximum of two years before they require attention. Both of these time-span numbers are not great, but they are at least twice as long as the spar urethanes. If you jump around the internet and read about other choices or recommendations from other woodworkers, you won’t find anything that lasts longer.
Unfortunately, three years is really the maximum for an outdoor clear finish with sun exposure. Of course, if you know of a finish that lasts longer please let all of us know about it. But, do watch out because the world will beat a path to your (long-lasting, clear-coated wood) door.
A few years ago I cut a huge American Elm log into slabs and quickly sold all of them except one piece that ended up being short after hitting a few nails. The nails dulled the sawmill too much to finish the cut, so I just cut the slab off at about five feet long and salvaged what I could. All of the other slabs where long enough to make large tables while this one struggled to find a home, until I got a request for a kitchen peninsula top.
I flattened the slab on the Lucas mill and sanded it by hand since it was too wide to fit through the wide belt sander. It wasn’t until I sprayed the first coat of finish on it that I realized how nice it was and was reminded why I like American elm so much.
The slab had a great shape with a beautiful crack down the middle and the edges had tons of character too with ridges and bumps down the entire length. But, what really made it stand out and grab your attention was the figure of the wood and its chatoyance, or the way the light bounces off of the surface. The finish has great depth and changes in brightness as you walk around the piece. It reminds me of satin sheets with ridges that reflect ribbons of light. It is really something that you need to see in person.
Here are some before and after photos of the slab.
If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.
First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.
Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:
To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:
1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.
2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.
3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface: While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.
4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.
5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).
Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.
Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:
Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.
- Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
- Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
- Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.
One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.
I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.
Sometimes in life you need a tool that you don’t own, don’t have handy or don’t have any idea where it is. I have this problem a lot and it is usually closely related to the fact that I don’t put my tools back as I use them. I subscribe to the “leave it close to where it is most likely to be used next” method of organization, which somehow, always leaves a tool a long way from where it is actually needed next.
I had this same problem when setting up to spray a two-part conversion varnish finish. I had all of my supplies, but no empty cottage cheese containers to work out my ratios. You don’t have to use cottage cheese containers, but I always had some handy and had used them consistently after I figured out how high the finish should be in the container and how much catalyst to add. The mixture is actually pretty simple–one batch of finish, plus 10% catalyst.
One thing I never liked about my cottage cheese container system was that I had worked out how much I needed for a full pot on my spray gun, but beyond that it wasn’t easily adjustable. If I only needed a little finish, I didn’t have a system for figuring that out. A scale would have worked great, or even measuring cups would have been nice. Heck, anything related in any way to weights and measures would have helped. But I am never that prepared.
So, there I was, looking around the shop for empty containers and finding none, but I had a revelation. One of the containers I did find had some old finish in it, and I could see the level of the finish inside the container by looking through the white plastic, and I realized that I was just inches away from having a measuring cup, except my cup didn’t have any measurements on it. No good – right? Actually, not so bad. I could make up my own measuring system (inspired by Bill Cosby and his story about Noah, I call them cubits) and mark them on the side, if I could just find an empty container.
Then the wandering begins, looking around the shop for something that might work. Then the digging begins, as I move everything in my finishing area to try and uncover an empty container. Then the cussing begins as I still find nothing to mix the finish in before I put it in my spray cup. Then… Wait! Hold on a minute! My spray cup. That is the one and only, now very clean and very empty container in the shop, just waiting to have something put in it.
Now, I am really on to something, but I can’t see through the aluminum cup to mark my cubits on the outside. If only the cup was clear. I needed a way to see how much was in the cup without being able to see through the cup. I needed some sort of stick, something that you dip in fluids (I don’t know what I would call that thing). And, you know what would be even more awesome? If whatever I used could always be found and be something that I would never have to worry about putting away. Yes, an actual stick of wood as a dipstick. Genius.
But wait, it gets even better. Since the stick didn’t have any measurements on it, I could make my own and make a different one for each batch. I could make any adjustments I needed . All I had to do was transfer my cubit measuring system to the stick, and I was in business.
I labored a bit over my cubits and how long they would be. They couldn’t be an inch because that name was already taken. Same with a half an inch and a quarter of an inch. Any measuring system I was going to use was based on an inch and that’s just not how cubits work. Everyone knows that no one knows how big a cubit really is, so it couldn’t be based on anything that already exists. The good news for the cubits of the world is that I still can’t tell you how long they are, but luckily it doesn’t matter.
The first step was to fill up my cup with finish. With the new fancy cubit ratio measuring system it didn’t matter how much I used, just as long as it was enough to do the job. Then I walked less than two feet and grabbed the nearest, short scrap of clean wood and dipped it in the finish. The highest point on the stick to get wet was now the new cubit.
I marked the high point (cubit) on the stick with a pencil and then marked a second point 10% higher to indicate how much catalyst to add. There are two ways to figure where the 10% mark goes. The most accurate way is just to measure the length of your cubit, say 5 inches and multiply by .10, which equals .5 or 1/2″. I like this method because it’s accurate and uses just a tape measure and simple math, but it isn’t as simple as it could be. My new and improved method (though admittedly slightly less accurate) is to, by eye, divide my cubit in half, then in half again, and then in half again. At that point I have a mark that is about 12.5% of the full cubit. Then again by eye I deduct a few percentage points so I am in the 10% range, and then transfer that mark to the top side of the cubit line. It takes no tape measure and no math.
Here’s a quick rundown of the process:
The new and improved, super-simplified, cubit measuring system works for any fluid mixing in a straight-sided container and is accurate (as long as you aren’t blind). It is simple simon and knocks the whole process down to a stick and a pencil. And, if I can’t find those two things buried in the shop somewhere, then I am really in trouble.