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Watch Yourself

Jul 1, 2016 | Expert's Corner | 0 comments

Usually that phrase is a warning. It can also be a really good idea.

In recent articles, I have written about the importance of eliminating bad habits in your finish program and how to replace them with better ones that are duplicable. But, how do you really know HOW you are doing? The proof is not always totally in the pudding, the finish. Sometimes you can end up with a good finish in spite of a horrible experience getting there, solely on the virtue of good gear and materials. The products can be better than you. Ideally, you want to be in charge of your finishing destiny.

We take those lucky days and run – gifts from the Finishing Gods. Personally, I would rather have a slight flaw in a finish where everything went right. I’m not so sure it is better to be lucky than to be good in the long run. Most of us prefer to be good, it is more predictable.


Most of the best finishers I have ever known are students of the game…always engaged in learning. One of the best ways that we learn new skills (or improve on existing ones) is by either doing them ourselves, or observing others in the act of doing them.

That certainly holds true for improving in sprayed finishes. I have spent countless hours observing others both on video and in person. Spraying, like many other skills, lends itself well to visual learning and assessment.

In recent years, my shop mate, Todd Pudvar, and I have made it a practice to video record most of the important spray projects that we do, and we even archive the videos on Youtube for other practitioners to learn from.

We have come to appreciate the value of being able to observe ourselves in action. We figured out that we document in writing most everything else related to a project – wood species, product used, spray equipment, tip sizes, settings, even climate info – so it only makes sense to go the extra step and commit to visual record for later review.

This is very easy to do. Even an iphone can get you started. That is how we started, then we upgraded to a nicer camera, tripod system, video card archiving, etc. I recommend avoiding the GoPro type of video for finishing. It lacks focus and clairty, and is limited to the perspective you already have – your own. I prefer to set a tripod from the angle that casts the most unfavorable light on the situation…for instance, the camera positioned to look across what you are spraying, and into a wash of natural light. That tends to show everything. I want to see the worst case scenario of all aspects of my program. The best aspects tend to take care of themselves, need little improvement, and only fool us into thinking we are all set.

What to Look For

When we are spraying a finish, we tend to be more focused on the finish as it relates to the surface being sprayed. This is partly because we know that our equipment is good, if we find ourselves having to focus on the gear instead of the result being created, that would be a bad thing. In fact, that would be a good time to stop spraying.

I have long taught others, in all styles of finishing, that only thing standing between the tools/products and the desired result is…YOU.

Some of the obvious:

  • The pace at which you spray
  • Your distance from the target
  • The nature of your passes
  • Perpendicular technique
  • How you enter/exit a pass
  • Trigger engagement and release

Each of these could be a chapter in the book you should be writing yourself about how you spray, so that when you are old and your eyesight is failing, you can reference it. Yes, that is why we all talk about “feel”.

Some of the more complex technical aspects that you should observe:

  • Bounce back
  • Overspray
  • Pattern winks
  • Your overlap and how the product lays into itself
  • Your general comfort level as you work

These are qualities that are really hard to assess when you are “in the moment” as a finisher. But all of the items on both of the above lists in some way leave an impression on your finished product, for better or worse.

Many of us work in solitude, with little feedback from co-workers on projects. That makes it especially critical to get that additional perspective that a tripod camera shooting you from a different angle can give.

I am fortunate to have a shop mate and fellow finishing expert to work with daily. We are constantly observing ourselves and each other, and offering immediate feedback so that adjustments can be made before bad habits set in. And we still go back and study the videos. You can even go so far as to dump the video file into a movie maker program and slow the speed down for deeper analysis. Why not? Professional athletes do! How else would a baseball star find a hitch in his million dollar swing?

In our case, video analysis is not always to find issues in our technique. More often, it is related to trouble shooting the system we are working with. If we are using a certain HVLP with a certain finish and not getting that certain result that we certainly remember getting every time previously, we go digging into the archives – both the written and the visual documentation.

Almost every single time, we find the problem and correct it. Sometimes it requires a wholesale correction, as in the case where unbeknownst to us, that favorite clear finish we have always had great results with has been reformulated and we didn’t get the memo. That leads to either a “redial” of the product, or a change of product altogether.

Remember: Finishing is a Mind Game

Those who leave it to chance end up with dusty spray rigs sitting on shop shelves.

I know that I have written here about the Psychology of HVLP and the Fear of Finishing. Those matters are very real and always bear repeating in any healthy consideration of improvement as a finisher.

We all need to remember that our minds play tricks on us during the act of finishing. You can do everything right, and have it all go wrong…with a half wet piece sitting in front of you. Confidence and mental clarity are key.

Finding the quickest and safest alternate route to a temporary destination so that you can salvage the piece is the definition of disaster recovery for finishers. As long as the gun is moving material, not clogged and not spitting gunk all over the surface, it can be salvaged. Unless it is the final coat, which is an entire psychology unto itself. This is why we emphasize “duplicable practices”…treat every coat as if it is the last.

The point is, at that critical moment when you have done everything according to your documented experience with your chosen spray rig and product, and the fan lollygags out the gun and says “meh, not so much…”, your mind can almost trick you into thinking: “Ok, that’s how the fan was last time, let’s just do this and get it over with.”

These are things we try to tell ourselves to make ourselves forget how good it needs to be. Psychological corners are the easiest, but most costly, to cut. That is why we call ourselves on it through the use of video. We will go pull up the previous project, with that spray rig, set up the same way, in the same product, prepared the same way…and we will usually see a glaring difference and figure out the necessary adjustment.

If you really want to be proactive, study the video the day before so that you already have in your mind what you are looking for. Sports psychologists call it visualization. We call it common sense.

Watch yourself, and learn.