A Perfect Finish
By: Richard G. Russell
I’ve read many books and articles on finishing and there seems to be the pervasive idea that if its not difficult and time consuming, then its not a “fine finish”. Well, let me tell you, a very fine craftsman quality finish can be easily and quickly achieved. But the formula is not advertised, it doesn’t come from one can and it doesn’t brush on in one step with a cheap foam brush. This article describes a finishing reciepe which will give you a fine, craftsman quality finish.
Many of the finishing products found in home centers make these kind of claims but produce only lack luster results. The words “easy” “fast” and “cheap”, especially when used together, generally don’t equate with quality, and durability.
Before you read any further, I have a personal note for you: Finishing is both a science and an art. This is one way to produce a fine finish, it is not the only way, or necessarily the “best” way (whatever that is). A number of things I recommend here go against some conventional wisdom. For example, I sand bare hard wood to 320, some people believe that 220 is plenty. This formula works for me. Experiment and do what works for you. With woodworking and finishing, there is seldom one right way to do anything.
About four years ago, I was in a local Austin Texas antique and furniture store, Whit Hanks, where I saw an extraordinarily fine hand crafted chest of six drawers. It was made of beautiful solid woods such as cherry, and maple, had exposed dove tale joints, all the edges and corners were eased, and the drawers were lined with aromatic cedar. All in all, it was a very finely crafted and expensive piece.
The most striking thing was the finish. It was exceptionally smooth and silky to the touch, almost lubricated. It was also very thin and matt. It had non of the plastic or thick feel associated with poorly applied commercial polyurethane or lacquer finishes. Best of all, it allowed the ‘feel’ of the wood to come through – I loved that finish.
When we purchased our first residence with a garage, I was finally able to setup shop. My first goal was to build an Armoire and figure out how to reproduce that finish. Of course, I had lost the card from the craftsman who had created the piece so I couldn’t just ask. I knew what I wanted to do and set out to discover a process to duplicate that fine finish.
I experimented with everything. The first thing I tried was an oil based polyurethane from our local home center. I sanded the wood with a cheap quarter sheet sander and used a basic ‘varnish’ brush. In other words, the kind of steps recommended on home improvement shows and in do-it-yourself magazines.
The picture on the can of polyurethane was nice and the sample of wood at the home center seemed fine but the results I achieved were terrible. The finish was thick, uneven and felt like plastic wrap. The oil based poly took forever to dry and collected hundreds of tiny dust particles. I tried leveling with it sand paper, but the poly film was so soft, even after a week of curing, that any sanding went right trough it.
Discouraged, but determined, I kept experimenting with different things, Danish oils, shellac, spray lacquer, etc. etc. etc. I brushed, padded, sprayed from a can all in a search for a finish with the following qualities:
- Quick drying: I only get to work an hour or so a day during the week and a few hours on the weekends so I wanted something that would dry quickly.
- A thin finish: I appreciate finishes that protect the wood, but still manage to let the feel of the wood’s character through. To me, it’s a shame to cover a beautiful piece of wood with a thick, plastic feeling finish.
- A matt finish: I’m not too keen on gloss finishes. To me, a gloss finish, especially if it is uneven in anyway, makes a piece look cheap. A well done gloss finish on a perfect flat surface is beautiful, but most gloss finishes are not like this. I dislike the commercial sprayed lacquer finishes found on most modern mass produced furniture.
- A tough finish: I have two daughters, 2 and 11. Anything they use needs to be tough. Cold drinks need to be able to sit on table tops without damaging the piece. A top whacked or scuffed with a toy shouldn’t ding or scratch and mom should be able to clean up the piece with a damp sponge.
After two and a half years, I finally figured it out… and let me tell you, the results are stunning. I have several wood working friends and they were all very impressed with the results. Best of all, this finish meets all my requirements!
This finish is a water based polyurethane over a sealer such as shellac or special purpose sanding sealer. This sounds trivial, but as usual the devil is in the details. Unlike many other recipes for fine finishes, there is no mystery or magic here. The steps are simple, straight forward and fast. This process can be varied for different woods and for staining. My first experiments have been on unstained cherry and ash.
Not all finishing products are created equal. Some of the stuff sold in home centers is really junk. Believe me, I’ve tried many of them. I followed all the directions, used all kinds of brushes and ended up really frustrated.
On a whim, I recently ordered some products from Target Coatings, a small company in New England which has been serving the boat building industry there for a long time. Their bread and butter products are water based Varnish, Lacquer, Polyurethane, Urethane and sanding sealer. These products are infinitely better than the mass produced commercial stuff found in most home centers and hardware stores. The Target products are designed for the high end professional, but they are also well suited to the “armature professional” like me. This means they are not finicky, forgiving and no harder to apply than anything else.
Target’s finishes are all water based. Water clean up is really great – soap and warm water are all that’s required. Everything just goes down the drain and cleanup doesn’t require any stinky chemicals. In my experience, these finishes are easier to work with and perform as well or better than their solvent based counterparts.
You may wonder about the quality of water based products. I’ve had bad experiences with them has have many others. For several years, water based products just didn’t measure up to their oil based brethren. In my experience, this is still true for many of the home center finishes. However, the products from Target Coatings are at least as good or better than their oil based counterparts.
The polyurethane from Target is particularly nice and is key to this process. It is advertised to be ultra clear and never to yellow. For me its two most important characteristics are:
- It dries very fast: For thin coats on a warm day, it can be sanded and re-coated in as little as twenty or thirty minutes.
- It cures very hard: This isn’t cheap poly from the home center. This is a high quality product designed for commercial use on yachts, fine homes and furniture. Two thin coats easily holds up to cold ice tea glass and crayons.
Note that this technique works well with the Target Varnish and Lacquer finishes as well. I generally like to use polyurethane for its durability. It stands up to life with a two year old and a twelve year old quite well.
The second important component is the brush. I’ve tried all kinds of different types of brushes, foam, synthetic varnish brushes, sable, and badger hair. They all have problems and require lots of what some people call ‘technique’ and I simply call patience. For example, I never understood why foam brushes are recommended for polyurethane. In my experience foam brushes just leave zillions of little bubbles in the fresh poly that lead to tiny little craters when dried.
Fortunately, Target Coatings sells a brand of brush they call “Sable Lite”. This is a synthetic brush, no cute little sable critters where harmed for their manufacture. The fibers are made from a synthetic a material called “Taklon” which is most often used in artist brushes. To my knowledge, Target sells the only finishing brushes made with Taklon. They come in three sizes, one, two and three inch.
Let me tell you, these brushes are simply GREAT. The Taklon fibers are very fine and come to a delicately tapered point. Unlike many other brushes which are designed to deposit huge quantities of material on a large area (e.g. the cheap brushes from a home center) the Sable Lite brushes allow very fine control of the finish. This is because they do not have an open core which holds gallons of finish. Imagine an artist’s brush, just bigger.
In short, these brushes will glide on a glass smooth thin layer of finish with no bubbles or brush marks. These brushes are easy to control, easy to clean and sturdy. What I like best about these brushes is that they don’t require a mysterious technique that can only be learned from years of experience. They do require you to be slow and smooth, but you can figure that out in a few minutes.
The Long and the Short of it
As I said earlier, this is a simple finish; All of these steps are intended to be complimentary. The earlier steps provide a foundation for the next steps. Here is a summary of the recipe and the details follow in subsequent sections:
Step 1: Machine the wood flat and smooth to begin with – plane it, joint it, glue it up.
Step 2: Sand to 320 on hardwoods, 220 on pine and other soft woods – go easy, don’t be too aggressive, use a good random orbital sander. If it is variable speed, slow it down to ½ at 220 and use the lowest speed on 320.
Step 3: Raise the grain and knock it down again. I like to use thin quarter pound cut shellac. The alcohol will raise the grain. I prefer alcohol over water as alcohol dries faster. Knock the grain back down with 320 grit and the random orbital set at its lowest speed. Let it dry. Do this one more time. If you are staining, you may want to use plain alcohol (without any shellac) as even ¼lb cut shellac will partially seal the wood.
Step 4: Brush on a thin coat of one pound cut of orange shellac. Let it dry, sand again lightly with 320 grit using the random orbital on its lowest speed. This coat of shellac acts as a sanding sealer. This seals the pores of the wood and lets the surface be sanded very flat. If you don’t want to use orange shellac, you can use de-waxed shellac or a special purpose sanding sealer (Target Coatings makes a fine sanding sealer).
Step 5: Brush on a second thin coat of one pound cut orange shellac. Let it dry. Hand sand lightly with 320. I really like the richness of color that the shellac adds to the finish. On woods like cherry and ash the orange shellac adds a rich, warm iridescent quality to the wood. Repeat this step to taste.
Step 6: Brush on a thin coat of polyurethane. Let it dry. Knock down any dust bumps with a green 3M pad. Smooth the surface with #1 then #000 steel wool. Use a tack rag to get all the dust and steel wool bits off the surface. Repeat this step two or three times.
Step 7: Using 1500 or 2000 grit “black” sand paper and a flat sanding block, gently wet sand the polyurethane.
That’s it. The resulting finish is very thin, smooth and durable. The next few sections provide the details for each step.
Step 1: Initial Dimensioning of the wood
This article isn’t about joinery and assembly, but these project steps lay the foundation for a good finish. I like nice flat smooth boards. This makes the finish, especially on tops, appear consistent and even, particularly when viewed from low angles.
I usually plane my boards first. I have a Dewalt DW733 twelve inch planer that machines boards to a a very smooth flat machine surface. I plane both sides. The nice thing about the planer is that it makes the boards machine smooth and exactly the same thickness. This is essential if you are gluing up boards to make a top or panel. I also glue up boards right after I plane and joint them – before they have had time to change shape due to changes in humidity. I’m also a firm believer is biscuit joinery – I use biscuits every 8 to 10 inches or so on all my edge glue ups.
I use my jointer to square the edges that go with the grain. I cut the raw stock about an inch longer (1/2 and inch on each end) than the required finished length so I can trim off any tear out from the jointer.
To get the end grain ends of the board nice and smooth, I cross cut them using an 80 tooth carbide thin kerf Freud blade in my table saw. It leaves the end grain perfectly smooth with absolutely no tear out (on all kinds of woods). This blade slices the wood such that the end grain very open, so if you are staining, you may want to pay special attention to sealing the end grain with thin shellac or other sealer so the exposed end grain doesn’t look different from the rest of the piece.
Here is some unconventional wisdom for you – I use this blade for everything: cross cutting, ripping, plywood, melamine, hard exotic woods, etc. etc. The blade costs $45 at a home center and leaves a glass smooth surface on everything. I achieved these results even on my old Jet 10” contractors saw, which I no longer have (I have a Powermatic 66 now).
I also have a table saw sled that I use for cross cuts. Its absolutely perfectly set to 90 degrees and is much more accurate than even a good table saw miter gauge such as an Accumitre. I’ve also carefully set the blade so it is perfectly parallel to the table’s miter gauge slots.
Most saws, even the good ones, do not have accurate verticle blade angle gauges. I always carefully check to make sure that the blade is 90 degrees to the table. There is nothing more frustrating for a joint to be sloppy because the table saw bade was off a fraction of a degree.
Step 2: Sanding the wood
There are lots of different opinions about sanding. Some people start with 100 grit and work their way up to 220 in small steps. I have found that starting at 80 or 120 is usually ok. I start at 80 if there is some leveling to do or bad saw marks to remove In general, starting at 120 works fine with boards just out of the planer.
I use a variable speed Dewalt random orbital sander. This is a singularly great tool. Its small, powerful and very easy to use. Better yet, it produces great results. At its highest speed, with 80 grit paper it can be very aggressive, but still controllable. At low speed, with 320 grit paper, it takes off wood almost a molecule at a time and can be used to level even very thin finishes.
From 120, I go right to 220. This is generally considered too big a step, but I’ve put wood under a strong magnifying glass and I just cannot see feel or feel the difference compared to wood sanded with a 120-220 step and wood sanded from 100-220 in three or four steps.
With soft woods, such as pine, I generally stop at 220 grit. Going any finer just doesn’t seem to make any difference. With hard woods I go from 220, straight to 320 grit. This makes hard wood exceptionally smooth. I keep the sander on its lowest speed when using 320 grit paper. The goal here is to just remove the scratches from the coarser grit papers, not to remove material.
Its quite important to keep the sander moving — even 320 grit paper on a low speed can put a dish in the wood that is visible when the surface is seen from a low angle. As the sander drifts over the edges of the board, ease off on the downward pressure so that you don’t over-sand on the edges. This is especially important on the corners. Remember, the board was made flat by the planer, you want to keep it that way. If I’m really paranoid, I’ll avoid the corners with the sander and hit them by hand with a flat sanding block.
Minimizing sanding is one reason I like plane both sides of my boards. Planeing really reduces the sanding required to get all the joints even and the surfaces really smooth. the amount of sanding is minimized since the boards are made flat and very smooth by the planer.
I also sand the entire board: top, bottom and all the edges. Note that the 80 tooth carbide blade leaves the end grain very smooth so I generally skip sanding the end grain with anything less than 220.
After sanding, I blow off the board with 120 pound air and wipe off the remaining dust with a tack rag or lint free cloth. This combination works well. On open grain woods, sanding with 320 produces very fine dust which will get in the pores of the wood. The air blows most of this out of the pores. The tack rag gets the remainder of any dust not removed with the air
It’s a good idea to practice sanding to 320 on some good sized scrap pieces that have been planed. Go slow, don’t be too aggressive and you’ll end up with a flat smooth board.
Step 3: Raising and Knocking Down the Grain
I like to raise and knock down the grain so that I get a very smooth finish. This step can make the difference between a good finish and a fine, craftsman quality finish. Its also easy and not prone to screw ups. However, sometimes you may want to let the first finish coats raise the grain, or even raise it on purpose to really bring out the “feel” of the wood. Its up to you. If you want the grain raised, skip this step.
Alcohol and water will both raise the wood’s grain. Personally, I like to use Alcohol. It dries faster and is compatible with shellac, which I like to use as a sanding sealer and base finish layer. Raising the grain with water works well, but you must make sure the wood is completely dry before putting down any shellac. Depending on temperature and humidity, drying water can take a couple hours to all afternoon, so I generally don’t use water.
On a humid days, I sometimes take things inside my air conditioned house to dry. They dry faster there because the air is much dryer, the moisture having been removed by the air conditioning system.
I usually raise the grain with ¼ pound cut shellac. This raises the grain nicely and the small amount of shellac stiffens the raised grain and helps it all to sand off very nicely. This small amount of shellac also acts as a very thin sanding sealer, minimizing the work that needs to be done in the next step.
To raise the grain do the following:
- Brush on the ¼ pound cut shellac. You don’t need to be really careful or stingy. Most of this will get sanded off after it dries. I usually don’t use my Sable Lite brushes for this. A basic foam brush or badger hair brush will work well.
- Let it dry thoroughly.
- Sand lightly with 320 grit paper using a random orbit sander on its lowest speed. Be gentle. The goal isn’t to remove material, but to simply level the raised grain and the thin layer of shellac. As in the previous step, be careful around the edges and corners.
- Brush on some more ¼ pound cut shellac.
- Let it dry thoroughly
- Hand sand with 320 using a nice flat sanding block. I hand sand in this step because I don’t want to run the risk of sanding too much. All that needs to happen here is to knock down any remaining grain. I always use nice flat sanding block for hand sanding. This helps to ensure that the piece stays flat and that I don’t miss anything. Don’t use your hand here. Your bare hand simply isn’t flat and there will be a lot of pressure under your fingers and almost none any were else.
- Blow off the piece with air and then tack rag to remove the sanding dust.
None of the sanding action in these sub-steps needs to be the least bit aggressive. The board was made flat and smooth in steps one and two. It doesn’t take much sanding to knock down raised grain and remove a little shellac. Only do as much sanding here as necessary, don’t over sand.
At the end of this step, the wood should be very smooth and you should see a little bit of the color which the shellac brings to the work. An important note: you should be careful with the piece. I dropped a nice piece of cherry at this stage and dinged it right on the top where it fell on a small bolt lying on my garage floor. If I had sanded out the little ding, then there would have been a visible dish in the wood. I know this because just to experiment, I went ahead and finished the board and sure enough, the sanding left a dish that you could both see and feel.
Step 4: Sanding Sealing the wood
A sanding sealer of some sort is essential to this process. Without a sanding sealer, the finish won’t be perfectly smooth or you’ll have to put on thicker coats of poly to obtain a perfectly smooth finish. Skipping this step and applying a thicker layer of poly defeats the purpose of this whole process which is to end up with a thin durable finish.
The goal of the sanding sealing step is to get the work perfectly flat and very smooth. This is extremely important as this technique depends on putting the finish coats on very thin. Because of this you don’t wan to use the orbital sander. In other words, you don’t want to ‘level’ the finish coats, just burnish them. The bulk of the leveling is done during this step, not when applying the finish coats.
I like to use a coat of one pound cut orange shellac as a sanding sealer. It works as well a special purpose sanding sealer and also ads some nice color to the work. Using thin shellac to raise the grain followed by a one pound cut of shellac as a sanding sealer works particularly well.
To seal the work, do the following
- Use a good brush (Sable Lite or badger hair) to apply a thin of coat of shellac. This coat won’t go on quite as thin as the shellac used to raise the grain because here you’ll be using a heaver mix of shellac.
- Let this dry
- Sand gently with 320 grit paper using the random orbital sander on its lowest speed. The goal here is to make the surface perfectly flat and smooth.
- Blow off the dust and then wipe with a tack rag.
The wood is now sealed: all the small pores are filled and the work should be perfectly leveled.
Step 5: The Intermediate Shellac Coat
At this point I like to add one more coat of one pound cut orange shellac . This isn’t to seal the wood, but to add more orange shellac color to the work. This kind of coat is often called a ‘glaze’ which generally means an intermediate coat used to tint the finish. I handle this tinting coat a little differently than the shellac coat used for sealing; here’s how.
- Apply a thin coat of the shellac, just like the shellac applied as a sanding sealer.
- Let it dry
- Since this is a ‘finish’ coat I don’t use the random orbital sander. Since the work is already leveled, a sander is overkill and is too aggressive, even on its lowest speed. This coat just needs to be very lightly scuffed. The purpose is to remove any dust nibs or other minor defects. I use one of two techniques:
a) First, rub lightly with a 3M green pad, which knocks down any dust nubs. Follow this with a light rub with #000 steel wool, which makes the surface uniform b) Lightly wet sand with 400 grit “black” paper 
- Remove any dust and steel wood bits with some air and tack rag.
By now, you’ll begin to see how nicely this finish will look. The surface should feel very smooth and have some nice luster. You could simply add two or three more coats of shellac this way and end up with a beautiful classic finish. The only problem is shellac’s durability. Plain shellac is susceptible to water rings from cold drinks, damage from hot mugs of coffee and damage from common house hold cleaners. These problems are solved by top coating with polyurethane in the next step.
Shellac comes in two variants, dexwaxed and shellac with wax. There is no difference visibly, but topcoats don’t adhere as well to shellac which contains wax. Its important here to use dewaxed shellac. If you do not have dwaxed orange shellac, (most orange shellac is not dewaxed) then you’ll need to apply one coat of super-blond dewaxed shellac as a tie coat between the orange shellac and the top coat.
Step 6: The Finish Coats
This is where the rubber meets the road, or more apropos, where the two year old meets the table top. The Target Coatings polyurethane is very clear and very hard and will not yellow. It makes an excellent top coat. The Sable Lite brushes allow the poly to go on glass smooth and very thin. By this step, the surface is completely leveled and smooth and the poly will just glides on, even around the edges and corners.
This step is very simple and consists of the following:
- Make sure there is no dust or steel wool bits on the piece. Use air and a tack cloth, to remove bits and dust
- Brush on a thin coat of poly with a Sable Lite brush. Using this brush is very intuitive and involves nothing mysterious. One thing to remember is that these brushes are not intended to be loaded up with finish. Don’t put too much poly on the brush. Glide the poly on smoothly and evenly. This is quite simple to do. You shouldn’t have any problem using these excellent brushes.
- Let this coat dry.
- Just as with the shellac glaze coat, using the orbital sander here is overkill. Just lightly rub with a 3M pad, then with #000 steel wool (or wet sand with 400 grit wet dry as above).
- As in the previous steps, remove dust and steel wool bits.
- Apply another thin coat of poly just as above.
- Let this coat dry.
- De-nib this last coat just as above.
- Added one or two more coats if desired – two or three coats is generally plenty.
You could stop here and end up with a very nice finish. However, there is one more step that takes the work to the next level. Best of all, its simple and easy:
Step 7: Wet Sanding
The last step is simply wet sanding the piece with 1500 grit automotive sandpaper. I use the same nice flat sanding block I used previously. You only need to sand a little bit. Go back and forth with the grain gently and evenly. Make five to seven passes and that’s it. The key here is using water as a lubricant. You don’t have to drench the surface, just sprinkle some water evenly over the piece and sand lightly and evenly. I have a trigger operated spray bottle. You can add a little Murphy’s Oil Soap if you’d like, this will help lubricate the sand paper. I don’t use any soapy lubricants as I find them somewhat difficult to remove – plain water works fine for me.
I’m a little unconventional here as well – many people would suggest starting with 400 or 600 grit paper and moving up to the 1500. In my experience, if the surface smooth you can jump right to the 1500. As with the other steps, some experimentation is the order of the day.
After sanding, use a clean cotton towel to dry the piece. You should feel an incredibly smooth and silky surface that is very ‘close’ to the wood. It shouldn’t feel plastic or tacky at all. Best of all, your are done and have a beautiful, durable, craftsman quality finish.
The finish should be very smooth and defect free to the eye with a even matt finish.
This is a simple finish to apply. A moderately sized table top, one that might sit four people, can be finished in a weekend The orange shellac adds a beautiful luster and warmth to the wood that is difficult to obtain any other way. This is also a durable finish, the poly protects both the wood and the shellac allowing your beautiful work to also be a functional and robust in a family setting.
- I wrote this while on vacation in the Bahamas with some buddies.
- I may update this from time-to-time so check back if you’d like
- Feel free to link to this page
- Let me know if you try this and it works out… or doesn’t!
Addendum / January 2001
- I’ve switched from using shellac as a sanding sealer to simply using the Target Coatings sanding sealer. This works just as well as the shellac (maybe a bit better) and is easier to do.
- There is certainly nothing wrong with brushing, but I’ve switched to spraying shellac and the top coats. I have a Lex-Aire 2002 HVLP gun. Its a big finicky, but other wise works very well. it will spray a wide variety of finishes.
- I’ve used the Target Coatings Gloss Premium Spray Lacquer and polished with the Menzerna polishing system (also from Target). I have now found a gloss finish I like. On pieces where a gloss finish is appropriate, this is beautiful stuff!
- The two small kid sized cherry tables I finished a year ago are holding up great. They get used and abused every day.
Target Coatings -you can order their products directly from them. Other on-line finishing sites also sell Target Coating’s products.
Shellac.Net is a great place to get Shellac. Shelalc.net has dwaxed orange shellac!
 (go back)A Note on Shellac
I make small amounts of quarter pound cut shellac for grain raising by taking one quarter cup of 1 pound cut shellac and three quarter cups of alcohol and mixing them together. A one pound cut of shellac is made by taking one pound of shellac flakes and mixing them with one gallon of alcohol.
 (go back)A Note on Shellac
I love shellac. Its easy to apply (at least with the right brush), and dries fast. It can be mixed heavy or thin and it is compatible with almost every other finish. Shellac is also often considered a “classic” finish and its presences in a finish can add a tangible degree of ‘quality’ to a piece. Its drawback is that it is not as durable as modern polyurethane or varnish.
Those are good reasons to use shellac, but the best reason, at least to me, is the luster and richness orange shellac brings to a piece. A coat or two of one pound cut shellac can make the difference between a nice finish and a beautiful one.
 (go back)Wet Sanding
Wet sanding is pretty easy and quite effective. I like it better than using 3M pads and steel wool. However, it is messier.
I generally wet sand with plain water. I sprits it on with a small spray bottle. I don’t use any soapy lubricant as they can be difficult to completely remove from the surface. Its hard to tell when they are all gone and if you don’t remove all the lubricant, then the successive coats will not adhere well.
In any case, I go against conventional wisdom here as well. I find that wet sanding is effective enough to skip grits. I pick the grit according to how aggressive I need to be. I use 320 grit when I need to be aggressive as when removing orange peel or brush marks. I use 400 for the same tasks but when a less aggressive approach is needed. I find that wet sanding with 600 will remove sanding marks or scratches from 320 or 400 paper or steel wool and 3M pads.
Cleaning a flat surface after wet sanding can be a bit of a pain. I use a lot of towels and cotton rags to clean and dry the surface. I recently learnd of a great trick from the professional refinishers group: Use a squeegee to pull off the water! it works great and saves lots of towels.
Copright © 2001, by Richard G. Russell, All Rights Reserved