Key Steps to a Killer Wood Finish

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wood stainYou’ve spent weeks planning that special project.  Endless hours went into drawing up plans and details.  Mountains of sawdust stand testimony to the sweat equity invested in milling, sawing, and planning.  Serious research went into getting just the right wood for the project – wood that shows who you really are and what you’re made of.  Painstaking steps were taken to finesse those joints together with nary a gap.  You stand back and admire the fruits of your hard earned labor.

OK, so you bought a kit with pre-machined parts and you followed instructions to put it together.  WHATever…

But you’re still one step away before unveiling your masterpiece. That’s right, you still need to do The Finish.  A really good finish can make your work “POP!”

On the other hand, a bad finish can take you down like Ali took down Liston.  A lot of times at the end of a project, you’re just too damned tired to go that extra mile for a proper finish. Or maybe someone’s voice is in your ear.  “Aren’t you done yet?”  Or the ever inspiring, “Hell’s gonna freeze over before that thing’s done!”

So what’s in a good finish?  Books have been written about finishing that cover every imaginable look you can think of.  Find one that applies to you and check it out.  Inside those pages are the X’s and O’s for a game plan that will get that awesome look.  In the meantime, let’s cover some steps that I never see in those books.

Like patience.  It’s going to take a while to get the “wow” look, so don’t cut corners now.  I like to roughly calculate how long each step will take so I can set a pace for myself.  I don’t like to get all bummed looking up after an hour, thinking I’m almost done, and realizing I’ve got a long way to go.

If it’s a big project, definitely schedule some breaks.  It’s the tortoise and the hare thing for sure.  It’s not like moving, when you can call all your buddies, and for a couple pizzas and a case of beer get ‘em to help you haul your stuff out the door.  This you need to do on your own.

A really good prep job is the key – we all know that.  We also know how boring it is.  So for each step, start with the hard stuff.  And I don’t mean Jack either.  Sipping some suds is fine, but lay off the liquor or you’ll regret it in the morning.  You know you always did!

Depending on your finish, you might start with puttying and filling all the nail holes, cracks, and whatever.  Then it’s time for your first go around on the sanding, which usually starts with 150 grit paper.  If your material is more on the rough side, you can drop down a grade or two if you need to.

Sand out the tough spots first.  The inside corners and hard-to-get-to spots should be attacked while you still have high hopes and aspirations.  Those are the places you scrimp on if you leave them for last.  Come down the back stretch with the easier sanding, and you’ll see what I mean.  After that, take a break, have a cold one, and get ready for the next round.

Now you need to get some color or sealer on your wood.  If you’re staining, do some samples first.  And I don’t mean just for color. The can reads, “Brush on and wait 5 minutes.  Then remove excess with a cloth.”  How does the can know how long it takes for the stain to work on your wood?  Maybe your wood is so soft and porous that 2 minutes is all you need.  Try the minimum first.  Remember you can always make it darker.

Once you think you have the perfect stain, now’s the time to call your “client.”  Even with a signed sample in hand, it’s really a good idea to get ahold of your client and see if all is good.  Try to set up an 8- to 10-foot perimeter so the sample is seen as it would be in the living room or wherever it’s going, not up close like an autopsy.  Try to get your client to look at the whole picture, not just individual areas.  It’s wood, and it’s not all going to take stain the same in each and every piece.

If your client is family or your wife, take everything I just told you and throw it out the window.  Different rules apply and since I love my marriage I will not go into them now.

After that ever-important final approval stage, you’re ready to start applying your coats of clear finish to your job.  An HVLP spray gun will make your life so much easier, and your work will come out so much better, that it’s the only way to go.  You may swear by old-school methods, but once you spray, you’ll never go back.

Now put on as many coats as you need, while sanding between coats with finer and finer grits.

Your finish coat can be satin, semi-gloss or even high gloss polish.  It all depends on how bad you want to hurt yourself and how much elbow grease you have left in the tank.

I haven’t even mentioned paint grade finishes but the concepts are the same.  The wood doesn’t care if you’re heading for paint grade or stain – you have to prep it and sand it in the same way.  It rewards you best when you work up a good sweat.

So follow these simple tips and you will be so stoked when you hear “Wow, awesome job dude.”  And even more stoked if it happens to be “Wow, awesome job, dear.”

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About Brad

Brad Baker is Vice President of Operations at Miller Woodworking in the Los Angeles area, designers and builders of custom cabinetry and interior millwork for the rich and famous. They make the impossible, and their work has been featured in fancy schmantsy architectural glossies more than a few times. All that high end creative stuff aside, he maintains a strong spiritual belief that the real sign of a good woodworker is all 10 fingers. He and his wife Ann Baker co-write for HomeFixated. Ann is CEO of Publicity Pros, a firm that provides “All Things Publicity” services and training for small businesses. She’s a hopeless nerd who revels in anything and everything having to do with the technology of attracting attention. And, no joke, she loves to bake.

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1 thought on “Key Steps to a Killer Wood Finish”

  1. Got HVLP? Then go with LACQUER!

    I learned to love working with lacquer while working in a custom cabinet shop.

    Spray then wait 10 min for it to dry.
    Got a run?
    Wait 10 min then sand it out.
    Got a project that needs to get out the door fast?
    Spray 10 – 15 layers of lacquer on it in less than a day.
    Don’t like that “plastic-y” look?
    Wipe it down with some paste wax on #0000 steel wool and it will look like a million bucks.
    Don’t like the ‘toxic vapors’?
    Man up, sissies… this is inorganic stuff – a miracle of modern science and that is sure to be more durable than anything made with an H and a couple of O’s. So, get a mask and spray some lacquer.

    I think the tone of the article got me feeling a bit plucky (or maybe it’s the fumes?)



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