First off, we all talk about doing it the same way every time. Creating finishes is like watching snowflakes fall. No two are identical. Even if two pieces are identical and being finished simultaneously in the spray zone, they are never identical because they are happening at two different spaces in time, with a twist of variables.
You can rarely replicate anything exactly. Finishing is too subjective, and the better you get at it, the more your eye becomes brutally honest with you. The spray rig with the operator who has the best eye wins in most cases.
So, trick yourself into believing that finishing is easy, but continue to have a healthy respect and fear for it. Your chances for success are much greater when you stand a bit in awe of finishes because that is the self check for making sure that you are still a student of the game.
Be a Good Student of the Game
I wrote in a previous piece about having good consistent work habits to ward off the fear of finishes. That is more important than anything because that is what keeps your instincts sharp. It is like being a musician, you have to know the rules, but you have to know how to go outside of them because craft is located there.
While we use machines in finishing, we are humans who have to understand how to think like a machine, without being consumed by it. Too many guys have HVLP’s sitting on shelves collecting dust because they just couldn’t reach an agreement with it. Sometimes, even the best finishers fight the urge to throw a gun at the wall.
Welcome to the Machine
Develop a relationship with your sprayers. Give them names and talk to them. Play them good music and have a drink at the end of the day while admiring, praising and cleaning them.
The machine is brutally honest and it plays a large part in developing your critical eye because it shows you more and more each time what is possible in sprayed finish. And where you swung and missed. Whether it was in sanding grits or that unfortunate fingerprint or eyelash that found the finish while wet. Flies will even show up at times. (Don’t spray outdoors).
HVLP’s if treated too clinically do become finicky. Add some finicky finish product in variable conditions (don’t spray outdoors) and you have stress. When sprayed, stains and clear finishes are particularly brutal in pointing out how you have done as a wood finisher. The sprayer is never wrong. Guys who blame the machine are only asking for trouble. It is a form of denial that lands most guys in the Cursed Land of Finishing for a while until attitudes improve. Sometimes I hear “the machine” can’t do it. The machine can, it is you who needs to know how.
The reality of true cabinet grade HVLP finishing is that NOTHING can go wrong in the end. The closer you get to the finish, the more that becomes the case. Things will go wrong sometimes and you have to respond quickly. The last minute swirls, only now the sprayer and wood are wet and you are in it. So, the good habits that we discuss eliminate as many of these variables, or at least have a solution ready to whip out, right from the start. Finishing is time sensitive.
You have to learn to love the parts that you hate and take responsibility for them by learning to do them efficiently and well. For some people, they hate sanding. Figure out whatever tools and time you need to learn to love that aspect, instead of racing through it miserably. In this day and age, there are solutions for most every possible eventuality. Take the high road, master your process and become quick through efficiency. Not speed, it’s never a game of speed when finishing. Not a sprint, a short marathon.
If you hate to use a viscosity cup or clutter your head with reduction rates, have the confidence to work around. In our shop, we say “you learn when you play with spray.” A lot of people only take the sprayer out on game day. That doesn’t always go well.
If you know finish, which presumably you do because you are finishing projects, you have to develop the eye for identifying flow. We will check against a cup for a benchmark, but that should be happening in some sort of product evaluation and sprayer dial in phases, not at the finish line. You should be able to tell how material flows off a stir stick and levels back into itself. You don’t see bartenders using measuring cups on drinks. And you are about to give your sprayer a drink. So, as the human in the equation, you do have to ask if the finish looks like it will please your sprayer. Too thin can be a real problem. Products, especially the new waterbornes, are designed to level and lay. Take advantage of that.
You can get a very good reduction understanding by watching how the product strains. You should be straining anything that goes in your sprayer cup. There are times when you just know upon spraying that it will be juicy. Embrace those moments and encourage yourself to “just know” more, because it reduces stress and expedites your process. I have about a 6 hour mental capacity on spray day. Things deteriorate after that.
Cans of product rarely come with specific instructions on how they like to be sprayed. The biggest favor you can do for your sprayer is to understand the product side. Products have become more simple. Waterborne changes the entire experience of finishing by eliminating harsh chemicals and producing a much more healthy airspace in the booth, conducive to what both product, machine and operator want. Fans and filters in the shop are happier, so we know this to be true.
The other big tip to learn to hate is sprayer maintenance. That is something that you should do the same way every time so that The Machine knows what to expect each time.
Take the above, and spend more time mastering the parts of the finishing process that you don’t enjoy. It starts with prep. I hear from finishers all the time that sanding is the flaw in their program, and they do not enjoy it as a result. If you are not sanding in the spray area, you should be. But only if you can do it dustfree. Our shop happens to use Festool for that, so it is clean. The wood appreciates that because you are not grinding dust into the grain, you are completely removing it from the scene to reveal true grain which is where you need to know that you will be swirl free. So, we use the same line of abrasives on that type of system for ALL sanding.
By getting the sanding program into the spray area without contaminating it, you are halfway to a better finish in your shop, with less moving stuff around, which also reduces general finish contamination risk.
Instead of sanding by hand for days and getting lots of dust on yourself, your piece and your floor, do all of your sanding all in one day. The day before or the day of spraying, zip right up through the grits to finish ready. The less elapsed time between prep and finish, the better, it eliminates risk.
A bunch of little tweaks can make for a much more enjoyable experience. If you love working with wood, you should appreciate every moment you spend with it in preparation and finishing. Prep is where your eye begins to create the finish. Everything that happens here will be revealed for better or worse upon finish. Make it better. The machine will duplicate you later.
The finishing process is just a series of leaps through the hoops of good habits. Going straight from prep to finish makes is ideal. Time is made through efficiency.
Where Most Variables Lie
- Wood Prep
- Sprayer Prep
- Product Prep
Prep, prep and prep. When you pull the trigger, it’s on. And these are the 3 things you are watching for the whole rest of the game. Your eye develops and learns every time you finish something. Even within just minutes of each other. Every piece.
With good habits, time can actually be your friend. You will probably only spray for about 20-30 minutes max most of the time. Even if you only spray for 10 minutes, spend 20-30 with your HVLP after. It’s not like you have a fluid hose or pump to flush. It only takes about 8 minutes to thoroughly clean, but look at everything. Understanding what happened inside the machine when you added material, pushed material through and pulled the trigger is critical.
Preparing For Twists Eliminates Backward Motion
I get more questions about what to do when a problem arises after the piece is half wet. Developing your critical eye through good consistent finishing habits is the big picture answer to that issue. But, you do have to learn how to fix your own mistakes, whether the piece is for you, a friend or a paying customer, it is your name going out with it. The finish carries that legacy.
Doing these simple things everytime makes it so everytime you wet the sprayer, both you and it know what to expect. You take some of the insecurity, unknown and what if’s out of it. As the human with the machine, that is your challenge, which is the craft of making finishing fun.