A Simple guide to Finishing Wood
My father always told me that a good foundation was the most important part
of a job well done. That holds true for so many things, including properly
finishing your latest wood project. Here are some steps you can follow to
achieve a professional looking finish.
1. Sand paper, both med(100 to 120 grit) and fine (150 to 220 grits) ,
nylon sanding pads, sanding sponges for curved or concave surfaces)
2. Belt and orbital sanders ( if you own them)
3. Pure china bristle brush
4. Clean, lint free cotton cloths
5. Paint thinner
6. Steel wool (0000)
8. Varnish or polyurethane
9. Tack cloth
10. Cabinet maker's wax
11. Artist's brush
12. Stir sticks
Preparing Your Work:
1. Begin by sanding with medium grit sand paper, always sand with the grain.
In some extreme cases, such as uneven glue joints, I have found it useful and
time saving to cross sand ( sanding at right angles to the grain). I'd suggest
some practice doing this before attempting it on a good piece of work. After
cross sanding, return to sanding with the grain taking care to remove all cross
2. After rough sanding is complete, start finish sanding. Again, with the
grain making sure all cross sanding marks are removed. Check your work by
holding it in different light and different angles. I find my hands feel more
than my eyes see, so I use touch to find mistakes and defects. Run your hands
over your work slowly and feel the surfaces. Check all your corners for glue
seepage, if you find any, a sharp carving chisel works to remove it, or even old
dental instruments work very nicely.
3. At times during finish sanding you will encounter spots that are very
difficult to get smooth, or a glue joint that still shows unevenness. Here's a
trick that works well. Using a glass cutter, cut squares of regular window glass
in 2" squares. Take a piece of glass in your fingers and scrape the surface
of the wood, holding the glass at approx. 45 degrees as you pull it across the
wood. When the edge gets dull turn it over, you have eight cutting edges on
every piece. You will be amazed at how smooth and clean the glass will cut.
Glass also works well removing old finish from antiques.
Use of Fillers:
If you have areas that require filling and are using a filler that will
accept a stain you will apply it after rough sanding and blend it with finish
sanding. I have found that, although the manufacturers say they accept stain,
fillers don't stain very well. I prefer to mix the dust from sanding with glue,
making my own filler, which matches much better.
Paste wood fillers are used on porous wood such as red oak to fill the grain
and should not affect the color or your finish.
Putty sticks are commonly used to fill small holes. You can match them
closely to your stain. I recommend waiting until your first coat of varnish is
dry to apply putty stick filler to holes. This way you eliminate the chance of
rubbing or smudging the filler in surrounding grain. Fill the hole and use a
cloth, damp with thinner, to remove the excess around the hole, taking care not
to rub to hard and leave a depression over the hole.
Get Ready to Finish:
Try to create as dust free of an environment as you can. Work in a ventilated
area, not only for your own safety, but it also aids in drying of the finish.
Whether you are using poly or varnish, it is very important to not shake the
cans . This creates bubbles which are carried to your work and leave a rough
finish. If using a gloss varnish, open the can and start using it, do not stir
or shake it.
Satin, or semi-gloss varnishes should be stirred gently with a turning
lifting motion to thoroughly mix the product. Again, Do Not Shake the can.
Regardless of the final look you are trying to achieve, start with a first
coat of high gloss. It is clear, dries faster (minimizing dust collection on the
surface), penetrates deeper and sands easier. Successive coats of satin may
Remove your brush from it's package and slap it across your hand several
times followed by combing it with your fingers to remove any lose bristles.
Natural bristle brushes do lose bristles during use. This is normal.
We have all been conditioned from the first time we held a paint brush to dip
it in the paint and wipe it against the rim of the can. With varnish and poly,
this is a Major NO-NO. Each time you wipe the brush on the rim bubbles form as
the varnish drips back into the can and are suspended. They are then picked up
on your brush the next time and placed on your work. Before you know it , the
entire surface of the varnish in the can is covered by a foamy layer of bubbles.
Therefore, it is very important that you force yourself to dip your brush only
slightly into the varnish and remove it without touching the can rim.
Begin brushing the varnish onto the wood surface with the grain, covering
with a thin smooth coat. Final strokes should be long and non stop if possible.
Try to keep a wet edge at all times. This means to not work too big an area so
that the edge dries before you continue on with the finish. Don't worry about
brush marks in your first coat . After you have completed the first coat of
finish place your brush in a can half filled with paint thinner. You might find
it useful to use an empty coffee can with a plastic lid. Cut a slot in the lid
and insert the handle of the brush though it so the brush hangs in the thinner ,
yet does not touch the bottom of the can. This accomplishes two things,1. It
keeps the bristles fro becoming deformed by pushing against the bottom of the
can , and 2. If you leave your brush in the thinner for long periods of time, a
residue forms in the bottom of the can and your brush will be free from that.
After your first coat is completely dry (usually 6 to 8 hours) sand it using
fine sand paper , removing all the bumps and imperfections of the first coat.
You may find that it appears that you are scratching up the finish as you sand ,
but it is normal and the next coat of finish will hide it . When sanding is
complete use a clean cloth, damp with paint thinner , to wipe off the finished
surface. This may leave what seems to be a film over the surface. Don't worry
about that either , it will disappear with the second coat of finish.
Remove your brush from the thinner and shake it once or twice to remove
excess thinner. It is not necessary to wipe the brush dry . The remaining
thinner in the bristles will replace that which evaporates from the varnish
while open. Often, when doing a large project I find my brush starts to stick as
I am working. At this point I emerse it again in the thinner , shake it out and
go back to work. This will make the brush work more easily. You will find that
not all varnishes and polyurethane's work the same. Some are harder to spread
than others and this often requires some for of thinning. As long as you are
using a solvent based product , I recommend using a product called Penetrol
(made by the Flood Co.) If ever there was a cure all product in the paint
industry , this one comes very close.
Begin the second coat using the same method of application as you used on the
first, followed by another sanding , wiping and application of a third and final
coat. Allow to dry for at least 8 hours.
At this point you should have a relatively smooth , attractive looking
finish. To add a finishing touch use the 0000 steel wool dipped sparingly into a
can of cabinetmakers wax (I have used Goddard's Cabinetmaker's Wax for years ) .
Apply the wax with even stokes with the grain of the wood. The steel wool will
remove small imperfections left in the finish by dust particles and will also
embed the wax into your finish. Be careful not to rub too hard , especially near
the edges. The wax will also prevent the steel wool from cutting too much into
the finish. After several minutes , using a clean , dry cloth, buff the surface
of your finish.
You will find that after following these instructions on your next project
that you have achieved a beautiful hand rubbed look to your work .