Finish Carpentry: A Beginning

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Sheesh.  That title seems like I will be embarking on an 11 part saga about finish carpentry.  I will spare you the other 10 installments, and just focus on what I think is important.  For most DIYers–the finish carpentry seems like the “fun” part of construction.  You’d be mostly right.  As far as building a house from the ground up–the real fun starts when the house is enclosed, the furnace or A/C is working–and you’re inside putting on trim, and finishing out the house.  Yes, most carpenters love these positions.  Finish carpentry means no more heavy lifting, lugging framing nailers and hoses through snow, mud, rain, surface-of-the-Sun temperatures, or Antarctic expedition level clothing just to stay alive.

What is also true of finish carpentry is smaller tolerances for error, a gift of patience, and a “bag of tricks”.  A good knowledge of your tools and materials helps a lot as well.  Now that I’ve gotten started with this article–I am again leaning toward a saga…but we’re going to cover some of the basics here.  You can be sure Evil Overlord and Diabolical Editor Marc will be on my case about following this up–so expect more DIYer finish carpentry articles in the future. In another of my extremely well-written, funny, and informative articles I talked about how to look over wood quickly and efficiently–and what to avoid.  We could almost call that Part I of my finish carpentry saga–but it doesn’t do you a lot of good if you’re not really sure about what kind of wood you’re going to use, how easy/hard it is to work with, or even some basic terminology.  Knowledge is power to your power tools.  (Sometimes I hate myself for making up $%!* like that).

In general–finish work will fall into two categories: paint grade, or finish grade carpentry.  There are distinct differences in the two, and your individual project, decor, or stuff you have in your house will certainly help determine the route you choose.  If you’re dead set on using 200 year old antique oak trim you’ve meticulously salvaged from Aunt Bertha’s old homestead, but your carpentry skills aren’t really up to snuff–start small.  Like a small picture frame to get a feel for tools, techniques and your material.  It’s also never a bad idea to build what is called a mock-up of your “look”.

Paint Grade: Is usually finished with softwoods.  (More on that later).  If you’re just getting started on your first finish carpentry project–you can do worse to start with the idea you will be going with a paint grade finish.  Because the idea is that you will paint over it–your tolerances for how your trim/lumber looks is a bit higher.  You can hide hammer marks (called “Pecker Tracks” in the trades–take from that what you will…), dents, cracks, and just about any small blemish with either a bit of sanding, or some filler.  Bad, or misaligned joints can also be fairly easily fixed.

Finish Grade: Would be using Aunt Bertha’s really nice old oak trim.  The tolerances just aren’t there to screw around.  Generally done with hardwoods–finish grade carpentry would be for the more advanced crew.  Despite sometimes being ridiculously hard to nail, cut, and sand–you would be surprised how easy it is to mar up a piece of hardwood.  It usually happens after you’ve spent a long time shaping, begging, and swearing at a piece of trim when you trip and stab it with a screwdriver.  Not good times.

So–what is up with the softwood, hardwood thing?  If you’re like I was–you would probably think that softwoods are well…soft and hardwoods are hard.  Not so.  It’s actually a botanical difference.  Good rule of thumb here is that hardwoods come from deciduous trees, and softwoods come from coniferous and evergreen trees.  So, certain species of Fir are actually softwoods–which isn’t really the case.  That stuff is hard, and evil.  The hard, evil part comes from the density of the species of wood you are using.  Confused yet?  Good.  Finish projects require you to take a lot of time–and think about how things go together, and in what order.  As with framing, you do want to keep in mind the end result, as certain steps omitted or finished out of sequence makes for having to rip stuff out.  Of course–anything you are trying to get to stay will not, and anything you need to rip out feels like you set it in concrete.  That is just how this stuff works.  If you’re going to call yourself a finish carpenter:  Get used to it.

Ok–that was just me getting cranky thinking about having to rip down a piece of beautiful trim just because I wasn’t paying attention.  It happens.  Don’t let the “easy” pace of finish carpentry lull you into forgetting safety rules.  Finish tools hurt just as much as framing tools–if not a little more because of the smaller dimensions and closeness of fingers to blades, sandpaper, and nails.

Oh, and before I leave you to ripping out all the trim in your house because you’re so fired up about finish carpentry:  I do read the comments–so leave ’em!  If you’d like me to cover a particular finish carpentry technique, tool, or style let me know, and I’ll do my best to get you up to speed.  Plus–you’ll be entered into the monthly free shizz giveaway.

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8 thoughts on “Finish Carpentry: A Beginning”

  1. It may help some beginners to go over the different types of finish carpentry in order of difficulty so they know what to attempt first. I.e. Base moulding=easy, crown moulding=very hard, everything else in between. Also, cover the basic tools for getting started.

  2. I hear ya on the ripping stuff down front (unfortunately)! I’m in the process of redoing my parent’s kitchen (and laying 700 + sf of bamboo, but that’s not relevant) and I extended the pantry closet out about 10″ to allow for 2 built-in full height cabinets. I got the whole extensions to the walls built out only to find that it was about 1/4″ too narrow to fit the cabinets. I had to rip down everything, including hours of drywall work, and rebuild it all to make room. Always remember the fractions in finish carpentry!

  3. Drew–no doubt. Crown Moulding is like a demon that has been unleashed on the carpentry world to create misery and swearing. Lots of coping saw time…there is probably really good reason it is named a “coping” saw.

    Thanks for the suggestion Russ! I’ll get on that, as I do happen to have a kitchen island in the shop right now wanting a finish. As far as brushes v. rags: Can you apply the bulk of your stain with the brush and then wipe with a rag to avoid the brush marks? Seems a route that ought to work. I wouldn’t want to go from unfinished with just a rag. Anyone else have experience with this?

  4. I like this article I would like to see a discussion about applying stain. Specifically to large furniture projects. Use rags or brushes?

    • Hi Russ! Stain application preferences seem to vary broadly, and some of that has to do with the type of stain and type of wood you’re using. For larger pieces or intricate pieces, using a sprayer and wiping the excess off with a rag sometimes is a good option. Some finishing folks that I’ve worked with used an HVLP sprayer (which many of us don’t exactly have lying around). I just did a stain project last weekend and tried a stain applicator pad (it’s basically a sponge sewn into a terry cloth cover). The sponge helps retain some of the stain and the cloth helps wipe up the excess. For my particular job, I liked that better than just using a rag. If you’re able to, I’d experiment with a couple different techniques on scrap or similar wood and see what gives you the best results. Some stains will have product-specific application tips on the container too. Good luck, and let us know how the project(s) turns out!

  5. I have an 1889 Victorian, there’s no such thing as ‘square’, ‘plumb’, or ‘level’ in this house. When we ripped out the wall between the kitchen & dining room, I had to reinstall the crown molding as part of the finish work. One wall, with a soffit, and a dogleg (one outside, one inside corner). I have not sworn that much in a long time. Crown molding is an evil, evil, substance, put on this earth to drive you mad while the gods laugh. What’s the compound angle for an outside 43 degree corner with an 88.5 degree angle between the wall & the ceiling ? Oh, and the other end of the piece with the 43 degree corner ends in a 46 degree inside corner. Good luck with that. The only saving grace is that is was all paint grade, so a lot was hidden with caulk & paint.

  6. OK. You got my attention with the tweet about the nuclear powered Bosch impact driver! I could definitely use something lighter in weight than the 18v NiCad driver I use now. And I was on Rocklers site this weekend ordering a tongue & groove router bit set and saw the magnifying light; added to mental wish list for when I get my new jig saw. Neither will help with the finish carpentry I’m doing on the renovations to my home though!

    • Thanks for the comment Bob. If you’re in the middle of finish carpentry, stay tuned for the September giveaway. . . . it’s going to be a good one!


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