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We Are All Reluctant Finishers

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While I am a professional finisher, I am a hobbyist woodworker. That mix makes me a wood snob. I love working with wood in any capacity. Because my head and hands are in finishing all week long, I tend to do as little of it as possible in my personal life, but I still love messing around with wood in most any form.

This passion took root for me in 1995 when I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time and meeting what would turn out to be my mentor in the world of wood. I was the only painter on a custom interior project. My mentor, Sandy, was the interior carpenter.  At the ripe age of 26, I knew just enough about finishing to be very dangerous. It is a good thing I met Sandy when I did, or my career would have ended up on a different path.

Sandy is one of few people I have met who is a natural born cabinet maker and finisher. Some people have it in their DNA. I didn’t. I guess it had never occurred to me prior to that year of what effectively turned into an apprenticeship that I had no idea about the what and how of finishing. The biggest lesson that year was that if you don’t understand wood, it is really difficult to finish it properly.

The What: Understanding of Substrate

If you don’t understand the surface you are putting finish on, the finishing process is compromised from the start. The term “substrate” generally refers to whatever it is that needs to be finished. It can be wood, plaster, concrete, sheetrock, even synthetic materials these days, such as PVC products. Within each of those categories, there are wide variations in what you might encounter.

For the purposes of this discussion, wood is the most important substrate. That generally still holds true, especially in the finishing worlds of cabinetry, inerior trim, architectural moldings and furniture. We are still mostly dealing with wood in fine finishing, and I hear that wood is actually making a comeback in construction as a “green” product. That’s good news for all of us wood snobs. All things come full circle, including wood.

We all work with wood in quite a variety of species, and no two are the same. Whether paint grade or stain/clear finishes, each situation is unique. In broad strokes, people tend to refer to wood as either hard or soft. While that is an important fundamental awareness, there are more pressing considerations when taking wood to a high level of finish, which is always the goal.

The beauty of working with wood is that it is a craft that is steeped in centuries of tradition. My mentor taught me right up front, on the job, that finishing poplar window casings is a very different art from finishing cherry stair treads on the formal stairway.

The How: Building a Finish

Circling back to my own private life as a hobbyist woodworker…when I worked with Sandy, he firmly suggested that while I knew a lot about how to spread paint, I needed to learn about wood. The first thing he wanted me to learn was joinery. I had never heard of this concept, but as I was in an impressionable stage of life, and intrigued to have met someone that knew more about what I did than I did, I was game.

When we got deep into the trim package on our project, Sandy began sending me home at night with his cutoffs. A true craftsman produces very little waste, so I was usually sent home with little more than a milk crate full of pieces less than 10 inches in length. My first assignment was to learn how to glue and clamp. The objective, it turns out, was to learn the strength of the glued joint in relationship to the strength of the wood grain itself. Sandy gave me a set of small clamps and some glue. Every night, I would go home, glue and clamp the pieces, and bring them in the next day for inspection at coffee break.

My first week was miserable. I sucked. But I was quickly taught how to use just the right amount of glue and clamping pressure. I was assured that the pieces I was given were perfectly straight edged and ideal for edge gluing. The only thing standing in the way was me – that was humbling. By week two, I was able to produce small glue ups with minimal glue squeeze out and tight, relatively flat joints. We discussed glue application, quantity, clamp tension/duration and achieving the ideal bond.

To my surprise, in the final demonstration of this initial round, Sandy took the nice little birch piece I had glued up, set it up on his workbench, hanging just off the edge, and smashed it with his hammer. When it broke, I thought for sure I had done something wrong. Sandy smiled and held up the two pieces to show me that the piece had broken across its own grain, and not on one of my glued joints.

The metaphorical value of that demonstration was beyond profound. The power of the notion that wood could be ripped apart by a saw, glued back together, and be stronger than in its naturally occurring state blew me away. I have been hooked on wood ever since.

What Else Can We Do With Wood?

To me, wood is a sacred matter. There are so many ways I want it in my life. I not only want most everything inside and outside of my house to be made out of it, but I also want to heat my home with it. And yes, it was news to me when I started burning large quantities of wood, that different species of wood have different BTU values for heating. That’s another discussion entirely, but suffice it to say that I spend a healthy portion of my life pondering wood. It is everywhere in my personal life. Many of its manifestations in my home were made and finished by me. I stare extra at them and watch over the years how they age. It’s my windows, floors, doors, countertops, siding, trim, decking, overhead doors, built ins, furniture and in some cases even my walls. It is a wonder I get anything done, given this preoccupation.

And Here Is the Point I Labor to Make

For those of us who choose to make wood an important part of our existence, there are really two fundamental practices that come into play:

  • We build stuff with it
  • We (usually) finish the stuff we build with it (eventually)

Building stuff is the fun part. We all love to find a reason to build something. It is the problem solving, solution seeking soul of the craftsperson, at any level. We love to design the piece, figure out the dimensions, where it will live when done, what it will look like. We love to create takeoffs to figure out how much wood we need to buy or otherwise procure to complete the project. The wood selection phase is the most exciting…figuring out which pieces will be used where and why – studying the grain and attitude of each piece.

It is easy to get drawn into months of evenings and weekends milling and joining. Carving on the piece to discover what form it will take.

Then What?

When it comes time to apply finish and achieve the final result, there is a fear about that. Psychologically it marks the end of the journey, and the beginning of the destination. About this time, whoever else in our life will enjoy the piece – be it a customer, spouse, relative – is really starting to look for the piece. To the end user, which is often not us, when the piece has taken its physical form, it looks just about done. To us, the creator, and reluctant finisher, it could go on forever and that would be ok. Nothing is ever really finished, there is always more that could be done.

There is permanence in finishing. Pieces that are crafted out of wood are enjoyed from a sensory standpoint – appealing to the visual and tactile senses. People look, people touch. And we are sensitive, almost protective and insecure about our passion.

It’s About Time

I get called, emailed and texted almost daily by makers of wood based things of all different scales, who are paralyzed by the act of finishing. The one common theme that I find in all of these “finish emergencies” is that the finishing phase is approached as an afterthought – something that needs to happen quickly.

This is where it gets tricky for me to advise, because I am a professional finisher. I know most routes between any point A and point B in finishing, with just about any species of wood and finish. I can do them quickly, but it is not because I am fast. Expediting turnaround in the finishing world is only done through efficiency, with methodical and well thought out approaches. I look at any finishing opportunity, and I can usually see at least 5 different ways that it could go, given products and process permutations. Some are faster, some are slower, and they are always driven by product selection. Product drives the finishing process, and process determines application method.

Small scale fine finishes are best achieved through spraying, and HVLP gets the overwhelming majority of nods due to quantities of finish to be dispensed, and quality sought. The biggest mistake I see in people struggling as they enter the finish stage is the unrealistic desire to just walk up to the piece and finish it.

While fine finishing is often best completed as a “one and done” process (in other words, no room for backwards motion once you get into it), it is only to be attempted after all the right preliminary moves have been done.

Tips for Overcoming Fear of Finishing

  • During the build phase, save all cutoffs (called “drops”)
  • Sand the drops to the same prep level as your finished piece
  • Prep sanding grit level is determined by finish to be applied
  • Finish to be applied is determined by the desired look, color tone, sheen
  • Use the prepped drops as finish samples
  • Arrive at your exact finish sequence on the samples before going “live”
  • Take careful notes, commit nothing to memory
  • Notes include material reduction, HVLP settings and tip selections
  • Observe the spraying pace and distance from target that produces the best results
  • When you spray the actual piece, do it in a controlled environment (not outdoors)
  • When done, clean your sprayer in a different area than your finish/drying space
  • Walk away. You are nothing but a contamination risk at this point.

These are some finishing basics that will help to get you over the hump of fear. They are also good reminders for even more experienced finishers who have developed habits that work against the desired effect. Finishing is nothing but a series of habits. As Sandy taught me in ’95, the only thing standing between you and the result, is you.

Think of the finish process as actually “building a finish”. That is what you are doing. Do the research for material selection, do the sampling, enter the spray zone with confidence and have fun!



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