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How I Came to Write “Flexner On Finishing”

Jun 17, 2016 | Expert's Corner | 0 comments

Writing about wood finishing is the last thing I ever thought I’d do. In fact, I’ve never particularly liked doing finishing. I’d much rather do woodworking, like most everyone else.

Being good at finishing (whether I liked it or not) became important, however, in the late 1970s when I opened my furniture making and restoration shop. I needed to learn how to do it, but I quickly found that the available information was really bad.

There were three sources: books at the public library, Fine Woodworking magazine (the only magazine dedicated to woodworking at that time) and instructions from manufacturers of the finishing products. The problem wasn’t that all the information from these sources was wrong. It was that it was contradictory, so I couldn’t figure out what was right and what was wrong.

This situation continues today, almost as bad now as it was then, and is the source of great frustration for me because I’ve worked really hard over the last two decades trying to straighten out these contradictions.

I did this, first, by studying the technology of coatings—that is, paints, stains and finishes. By chance I live walking distance to a major university library, so I’ve had easy access to all the technical information. Slowly, over a number of years, I was able to learn the vocabulary of this literature well enough to understand what I was reading. And slowly, finishing started making sense to me. I was able to separate fact from fiction, though in many cases the “fiction” seemed more like unacceptable ignorance or even deliberate deception.

I started writing about what I was learning and was given the opportunity to write a book, “Understanding Wood Finishing,” first published in 1994, then a second edition in 2005.

Wood finishing at our level (rags, brushes and hand-held spray guns) is not complicated. It’s actually quite simple. It’s the misleading (too kind a word) labeling and contradictory information that makes finishing so difficult to master.

In 1999 Popular Woodworking magazine asked me to write a column on finishing. The editors left me alone to write what I wanted, and they didn’t change what I wrote (both situations rare among woodworking magazines). I was able to be much looser and freer than I had been in “Understanding Wood Finishing.” I could give my opinion, point fingers and name names. And I did.

So, when Popular Woodworking proposed that we put these columns (more than 60) into a book, I jumped at the opportunity. Articles in magazines typically have a very short lifespan—just until the next issue comes out. Books are forever.

For most of my columns I bounced off bad information published in other woodworking magazines, problems I encountered from students or callers, or I just got upset with the misleading labeling or bad directions coming from so many manufacturers. I also explained how to do all the common steps in finishing, especially whenever I came up with something new, and I wrote a few articles on spray guns and on furniture repair (the wood and joints), which is actually what I love doing most.

Taking advantage of the article format, I was able to probe deeper into many more than I had in “Understanding Wood Finishing,” and I was able to develop many new topics. Here are some examples of articles that might interest you:

  • How woodworkers, and especially woodturners, continue to suffer from the myth that some finishes are food safe and others aren’t;
  • How much extra work woodworkers go to because of the false belief that they need to finish both sides of the wood;
  • How much damage the Antiques Roadshow has done indirectly to old and antique furniture with their mantra, “Don’t Refinish”;
  • How shellac is totally over-recommended as a “sealer;”
  • How the term “tung oil” is used to refer to many finishes that aren’t tung oil; and
  • How the directions on cans of Danish Oil and Wood Conditioner lead to poor results.

And best of all, in my opinion, my exasperation with how little has changed since the 1970s comes through. I love this book.

Get your own copy of “Flexner On Finishing.”