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.
When customers stop by to peruse the lumber and slabs I have for sale, they inevitably end up near the back of my shop, where I do my woodworking. They like to see what I am up to and discuss woodworking in general. Lately, I have been making a lot of live-edge tops, so I usually have at least one being glued up, and I can guarantee you that the first question is going to be, “What do you use to join those two pieces of wood together?” They are expecting a dramatic answer full of technical jargon, like tongue and groove or sliding dovetail or dominos or even biscuits, but I always disappoint them and just say, “glue”. I like to say it in a sort of caveman fashion for dramatic effect and a bit of humor, but then I quickly jump in and fill the awkward silence with a more detailed explanation, especially since I can tell that just blurting out the word “glue” isn’t going to be enough.
I use Titebond original wood glue with the red cap. There is Titebond II and III for more water-resistency, but I usually stick to the original unless it is a project that is prone to getting very wet. I like that the original cleans up easily with water and that even dried glue can be soaked and removed from brushes and clothing. I don’t prefer Titebond for any special reason, except that it is widely used and widely available. I would just as confidently use other name-brand wood glues and expect similar results.
The glues available today are strong, super strong, stronger than the wood itself. To prove this, I always save the end cuts from my glue-ups, so I can break them later for demonstration purposes for customers and inspection purposes for myself. If the glue is fully dry (results are not guaranteed if the glue is still wet), the glued-up scraps will always break somewhere in the wood. Even if it does happen to spilt close to the glue line, there is always plenty of wood stuck to the glue to make anyone doubting the strength of the joint to become a believer.
In comparison, I have worked with plenty of reclaimed wood, especially old oak church pews, that have a tendency to split along the glue joints. When closely inspected, it is clear that the old glue had become dry and brittle, and though it stuck to both surfaces, the glue itself broke down, like old plastic that has been outside too long. Most likely, the older glues, while strong at the time, weren’t formulated correctly to stay flexible over time. Current glues are formulated to hold strong and not break down during regular indoor use. Note that I wrote “indoor” use – for outdoor use, all bets are off. From extreme wood movement to glue breakdown, there is simply too much wear and tear outdoors for the glue to hold a jointed edge together on its own without any eventual failures.
So, we know that the glue is strong and is more than capable of holding a joint together, but just how strong is it? There is probably some value on some fancy scale to tell you exactly how strong the joint is, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you know that it is stronger than the wood. At that point, to know the strength for sure, you would need to know the strength not only of the wood you are working with, but the weakest point in any given spot in a board, which you just can’t know, so I say stop worrying about it. Just know that it is more than strong enough to do the job.
Now, for the glue to work correctly, your machining and joints need to be reasonably good. I say, “reasonably” good because I think there is a lot of wiggle room here. Obviously, if everything is perfectly square and straight, there is no question about your joint integrity. You can simply coat the joint with glue, apply just enough pressure to pull everything together, and you will end up with a strong, wonderfully impressive joint. But, what if your jointed edges are square but the boards are long and have a bit of a bow and they will require a bit of extra clamp pressure to pull them together, is that gonna work? Heck yeah! Did I mention the glue is strong? A little extra clamp pressure is fine.
What about a lot of clamp pressure? Now this is where the “reasonably” good part comes into play. I say if you are doing a glue-up and you feel like you have applied so much pressure to pull things together that it just feels wrong, then you should probably work on the joint some more. But, here’s the kicker. I can tell you that I have been involved in more glue-ups than I should admit to that have required an inordinate amount of clamp pressure, and to this day (knock on wood), I have never had a joint fail. Maybe I have just been lucky, since I have done tons of glue-ups, but I use this as a real world testament to the strength of the current glues.
The problem with needing a lot of clamp pressure to pull joints together is two-fold. The first issue is that there are built-in forces that are always trying open the joint with the same amount of pressure it took to close up the joint, which can be significant. The other issue, and the one that is commonly more worrisome, is that more clamp pressure means less glue in the joint. The concern being that if all of the glue is squeezed out then obviously there is nothing to hold the wood together. As far as I can tell, especially since I have not had a failure yet, is that this isn’t easily accomplished. I am not saying it isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy. Many woods have open pores that will hold glue no matter how much pressure you give them (think oak and walnut), and if you are fighting at all to pull a joint together, that means that somewhere along the line things are loose enough to hold some glue. Sure, it might completely squeeze out in one spot and make the joint a bit weaker, but in other spots the glue will hold like it is supposed to and keep things from coming apart.
With all of this cavalier talk about crappy joints with extra clamp pressure, you still have to show some restraint. There are going to be times when you can’t rely on just the glue, no matter how strong it is, to hold everything together and you will need to rework your joints for a better fit. A couple of instances come to mind. Some woods have very tight grain that is smooth and won’t hold much glue (think hard maple), so it is possible to end up with a joint that has almost no glue in it. The second instance where more jointing work will be required is if the boards are tight in the middle and loose on the ends. The ends are where a top will want to naturally split, so trying to use extra pressure in this case, is inviting an issue down the road. I feel a million times more confident closing up a gap in the middle of a glue-up than I do the ends, knowing that the entire joint is holding things together, not just the glue on the ends.
One last category that requires a little extra attention is exotic wood. Some have oils in them that just won’t glue properly. They need to be cleaned with lacquer thinner before gluing to provide a good surface and they are often extra hard, so they don’t absorb much glue. I have had problems with bloodwood in the past, which fell apart during my initial tests because I had not cleaned the wood enough. To be safe, I cleaned the wood even more and roughed up the surface a bit with sandpaper to give the glue something to grab. Before the sanding, the edges were just too hard and too smooth. Since then, the extra hard and oily exotics scare me, so I would never force a glue joint with them. I trust the current glues a lot, but there are limits.
Assuming that you have decent joints and wood that will accept glue, all you have to do is make sure that both surfaces are coated with wood glue and clamp them together until the seam is tight. That is really all there is to it and all that is done at almost every professional shop I can think of. You don’t need any special tricks at all, just “glue,” I remind you in my caveman voice.
In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.
In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding. It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.
Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.
As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.
I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.
Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.
Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.
Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.
It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.
First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.
The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.
Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.
As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.
My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.
Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.
After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.
After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.
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.
I was working in the shop last week doing some adze work on a couple of hollow beams and remembered back to my frustrating first days using an adze. I recalled a couple of tips that I wanted to share in this latest Quick Tip video:
For an extended description of the hollow beam making process and more adze fun click here to read How to Turn New Wood Into Antique Beams.