My Finishing "Process"

Click on any of the pics to enlarge and get a better view...

Introduction

Hemlock cross section -- © S.C. Rogers 139 years old when it was cut down in 1999.
Hemlock cross section -- © S.C. Rogers A brief write up on the tree's history. Hemlock cross section -- © S.C. Rogers Another view of the cross section. Hemlock cross section -- © S.C. Rogers A closeup of some of the early events.

Several years ago, I was at the U.S. Forest Service visitor center just up the road from Tallulah Falls Gorge State Park in north Georgia.  In that visitor center there's a display of a cross section of a hemlock tree.  This tree was deemed to be hazardous and had to be cut down.  But, on that cross section, they had counted back from the year it was cut (1999) to the center ring.  It was born in 1860, and they had pins on growth rings with notes on events in the tree's life: its birth, Civil War, Garfield's assassination, man on the moon, etc. 

When I pick up a piece of lumber, I have a project in mind.  I don't get all Zen or philisophical or James Krenov.  The lumber isn't going to tell me what it wants to be.  I already know what it's going to be.  At the same time, I always tend to look at those growth rings.  Much of it is older than I am, and seeing that old hemlock gave me a perspective that I've never lost since I saw it.

The medullary rays of quarter sawn white oak, the chatoyance of a piece of cherry, the "figure" of a piece of birdseye maple, they are all something beautiful to behold.  It is God's handywork.  In consideration of its beauty and its age, all I can do as a woodworker is to showcase it.  I want it on display, I want its life to be measured in generations, and I do NOT WANT TO COVER IT UP! 

I have used milk paint on occasion when I need to make something that's requested.  I don't like it, but at least I know it's historically accurate.  Other than that, I refuse to paint wood.  If that's what you want, I'm really not a good fit for your woodworking projects.  And, long ago, I stopped using stains with heavy pigment loads.  While they very well may make something the desired color, they also hide the wood.  Not for me...

What I do

Here's what I do, and pretty much the order with which I do it. 

Sanding Sealer - One man's "figure" is anothe man's "blotch."  When the finishing process is beginning, some hardwoods are prone to highly differential rates of absorption to the bare wood.  This can be the desired result and highlighted, or it can be a distraction and spoil the look.  If one wants to control the rate of absorption, sanding sealer Blotch Control -- © S.C. Rogers Bull's Eye Sealcoat or Charles Neil's Pre-Color Conditioner becomes the first step.  I use two products for this.  Both work, and depending on subsequent finishing steps, I use one or the other.  I use either, Charles Neil's Pre-Color Conditioner or Bull's Eye SealCoat.  SealCoat comes in a 2 lb. cut, but I thin it down to a 1 lb. cut for use as blotch control.  If I use Charles' conditioner, it's straight out of the bottle.

Colorants - Regardless of the sanding sealer I use, if a sanding sealer was used at all, it's because I want to control the color going onto the project.  So the next step is to add the colorants I'm going to use.  I no longer use stains.  In my humble opinion, the pigment loads in them obscure the grain of the wood.  I use dyes, specifically TransTint or TransFast dyes. My Prefered Colorants -- © S.C. Rogers TransTint or TransFast dyes.  Both are water soluble and, although I rarely use alcohol, the TransTint dye is also alcohol soluble. 

There is one exception though, and it is exceptional.  On occasion, I use an old world recipe of tanic acid and iron, without first sealing the wood, to "ebonize" it.  It's done by applying a tanic acid (naturally occuring in most hardwoods) solution, letting it dry, and then applying an iron solution.  The reaction is almost instantaneous.  It can also come out with a "blue" tint reminiscent of gun blue.  That can be fixed by a second coat of the tanic acid. 

Oil - Those first two steps are control mechanisms for changing the color of wood or controlling blotch.  However, very often, I skip the first two steps completely, and move to oil.  I use either, raw or boiled linseed oil (BLO), or tung oil, and most often BLO.  Both are reactive oils in that they react to oxygen and form a polymerized film finish. 

The first coat of oil is pure magic.  It soaks in and turns plain wood into a thing of beauty.  As BLO imparts a small amount of color, it not only highlights the grain, it gives wood a warmth that begs to be touched.  A second coat will usually serve to deepen the effect.  Because of this, oils are almost always my starting point.

Shellac - Shellac is the "universal sealant."  Shop jigs and projects may get two or three coats of Bull's Eye (the 3 lb. cut) and a quick sanding between coats.  It's only used to protect the wood. 

Furniture is a different matter.  I mix my own shellac to ensure it's fresh, and apply several coats.  The first is a 3 lb. cut to seal the oil and act as a sanding coat. . From there, I'll add several thinner coats (usually a 1 lb. to 1.5 lb cut) to get the level of sheen and depth that I want.  The alcohol in the wet coat will dissolve the shellac in the previous coat.  The advantage of that is the several coats become homogeneous to form a single protective layer.  A light buffing with #0000 steel wool gives a wonderful tactile feel. 

If the piece is destined for an easy life, it's done as far as the film finish is concerned.  Otherwise, on to varnish. Varnish - Spills, bathrooms, kids, etc., can all "stress" furniture.  Like shellac, I make my own varnish.  It's equal parts polyurethane and BLO, and usually thinned (with mineral spirits) to a water like viscosity, to be used as a wiping varnish.  Three or four coats of that will build a very durable protective finish that will live for years.

Wax - I use good old Johnson's Paste Wax. They haven't changed the formula in years, and it has been around since the late 1800s.  It's fairly predictable.  I start with a fresh can, and scoop the contents to partially fill a wide mouth Mason jar with a tad of artist's oil paint.  Put it in a small pot with hot water to dissolve the paint, and once mixed, fill the jar for a custom colored wax.  The only down side to it is it smells like grandma's furniture, complete with the "old people" furniture smell.  Put it in a couple of drops of lavender oil and that fixes that. 

A Final Thought...

I'm not crazy about finishing.  Because of the process I use, it can take several days and I find it tedious.  But, I always like the end result.


Resources

Rogers, S.C.  About Colorants About OilsAbout ShellacAbout Varnish.
North Florida Woodworking.  2018.

Boggs, Brian.  Ebonizing Wood.
Popular Woodworking Magazine.  July 6, 2009

Flexner, Bob.  Understanding Wood Finishing: How to Select and Apply the Right Finish.
Pleasantville, NY: The Reader's Digest Association, 1994.  ISBN-10: 0762106212ISBN-13: 978-0762106219

Jewitt, Jeff.  Taunton's Complete Illustrated Guide to Finishing.
Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2004.  ISBN-10: 1561585920ISBN-13: 978-1561585922. .
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Last Updated:  Oct. 16, 2018