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The Twist of Variables

exterior finish interior the finishing store wood woodfinishing woodwork woodworking

If you engage in the act of finishing at any kind of level, even if just a few meaningful times a year, then you definitely understand that the proof is in the pudding when it comes to creating good finishes. When you get really good at finishing, it almost doesn’t matter whether you are spraying, rolling, brushing, or any combination thereof, the application method is just the medium – the thing standing between you and the result you are after in the finish. The goal is to be able to use whatever means at hand to get the desired result.

Renaissance men in literature were revered for being “skilled in all ways of contending,” and the romantic in me holds the art of finishing to that same standard.

I am lucky to be able to work on all types of interior and exterior finishes and see how they fail, and more importantly, figure out how to fix them. Working on exterior surfaces in the summer gives me the “bulldozer” perspective on finishing. Exterior finishes have to hold up to the elements, which is no small feat. While interior finishes are more Porsche than bulldozer. The sequencing of prep and finishing for exterior trim is not all that different from interior, just different products. But, of course, product drives process. So while similar, everything is different.

Professionally, I am generally either taking finish off or putting it on. Each process comes with a sequence of steps.

What is a finish failure?

On exterior surfaces, it is a finish that literally does not remain intact on the surface. Think flaking or peeling paint. Interior finishes fail in different ways, and it is usually not the fault of the product, but rather the application process. Dramatic interior failures are rare, and more subjective.

If you take finishing seriously enough to continue chasing the dragon of perfection, then you might at times feel like anything short of perfection was a failure, particularly in sprayed finishes.

Number One Cause of Finish Failure…

Without doubt, the biggest way that people create finish failure is by over applying finish: putting too much on at once. It is counterintuitive, I know, and almost like some stubborn vestige of good old fashioned common sense. More paint will hold up better, right? In the old days of old products, sure. And again, it doesn’t matter your particular finishing discipline or interest, the same truths seem to hold.

As products continue to move toward EPA compliance, less is definitely more in the application of finish. Creating thinner layers can really help with adhesion. But can make the glassy lay down you are looking for more elusive – regardless of application tool. In spraying, we refer to the thin coat build technique as “tack coats”. It is easier to get a thin coat of finish to adhere (hold) to a thin layer of itself than to get a heavy coat of the same finish to hang on verticals or edges.

Where Finishes Fail the Most

The number one biggest failure I see in the entire range of paint jobs that failed is the user tendency to apply way too much on the edges of wood surfaces. It is not a conscious decision, it just sort of comes with the lack of control of the application tool and the finish.

It is the “eye” for finishing that I talk so much about. We call them “fat lips” or “fat edges”. On sprayed surfaces, they show up on large surfaces (such as the edges of table tops) as well as narrow surfaces (face frames). They happen both vertically and horizontally.

Side Stepping Failure

Let’s face it, most people don’t really enjoy sanding, and consider finishing a necessary evil at best. I have written in the past in this newsletter about how to trick yourself into learning to love the things you hate about your projects. It is a mind game. The hate of certain aspects of a project is usually rooted in fear. Mastery creates the confidence that eliminates fear.

You are probably expecting me to reveal some esoteric finishing tricks or tips, like some Zen “don’t be there” when failure approaches, but it is really the most incredibly basic practices that create success. Easy to say, harder to do.

Basically, finishing is different every time. And you have to make it the same, by being regimented in everything from your basic habits, to workshop environment and processes. The best finishers I know are highly ritualized, almost instinctual. If something does not look or feel right, they will NOT proceed. Keep in mind, finishes are really only to be appreciated by the tactile and visual senses. It is subjective appeal. Their performance is the only big picture concrete evidence of how you did as the finisher, and believe it or not, that too is detectable by the senses. You can tell when you nailed it. But you have to nail it a few times consistently first.

Here are a couple of habits I notice myself reinforcing in my own work:

  • Easing edges - This is where good “edge hold” begins. Breaking, or easing, wood edges is essential to the tactile experience of those who might appreciate your results, and the finish also appreciates having a bit more surface on the edge to hang onto. In a nutshell, those are the reasons to do it. It is detailed work, and has to be done with precision, because those edges define the “lines” that your piece will take, the form. Sometimes just for fun I hack into a maple log with a grinder just to see what form it wants to take. Do this for an hour and you will learn to love the simple act of edge easing as part of your surface preparation ritual on finer pieces of furniture.
  • Working from the Edges In – When finishing, whether by brush or sprayer, try focusing on the perimeter of the piece first, then blow down the middle. This is the same mindset for me as a day on the mountain with my snowboard. First couple of runs, I will noodle the edges, then I want to blow right down the middle. Use the whole mountain, with discretion. The finish applied to the edges first helps to “frame” what you will fill in the middle with. Of course, keep it all wet at the same time for uniform laydown.
  • Sight it Down - In any phase of finishing (removing undesired finishes, applying new finishes, or scuffing in between coats), always be feeling your surfaces and sighting them down from different angles. In the shop, we use LED inspection lights from all different angles. It is critical to do this constantly so that if you see any issues, you can address them during the limited window of opportunity presented by wet finishes that are trying to lay down.

This is a lot to think about, especially while finishing. That is why it is critical to make them habits, so you don’t have to think about them. It is much more fun when you can just appreciate what is happening at your fingertips.

Plug in some of these habits, even if you already know you should be doing them, and especially if you think you already are.

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