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Furniture Finishing for Woodworkers

A Q & A session with an experienced woodworker on finishing woodworking project plans. Nordy Rockler has years of experience in the workshop having constructed and finished thousands woodworking project plans.

Tips and Tricks

Q: Woodworkers often say that finishing their projects is the part of the process they struggle with most. Do you share that struggle with finishing, and why do you think that is?

A: Years ago it was more of a struggle finishing plans and projects because there wasn't a variety of good wood finishing products available. In the earliest times a person would just use an oil pigment, wipe on stain, maybe a coat of shellac as a sealer, and then a varnish, which perhaps took 24 hours or more to dry. Because it was so slow to dry you'd get a lot of dust particles settling in it. Today there are so many finishing products available it is much simpler, especially once you get familiar with the products and use the ones you like. Finishing is the culmination of doing woodworking projects. You can put a lot of time and money into your project, and then finally you can botch the whole thing with a bad finishing job. Finishing is clearly an important part of woodworking projects.

Importance of Finishing

Q: When did you develop such a strong interest in furniture finishing?

A: Well, when we started Woodworking. Finishes are a crucial part of doing woodworking projects and plans, so it was just sort of a natural process that I became interested in it. Through looking at various lines and talking to different salespeople, I learned a lot about finishing. I tested a lot of finishing products, and I still do today. To keep on top of it woodworking and finishing, you really have to keep on trying them and testing the products.

Great Finishes

Q: What is the main key in getting great finishes on woodworking projects?

A: Two things. First of all, you have to be very patient; don't rush your projects. And the main thing is to test it on some scrap wood and make sure you get the effect you really want. Another reason for testing your finishing is that you have a roster of finishing materials; test them all the way through the whole process, from beginning to end, and you will get a really good idea of what the end result of your project will be.

Q: How do you decide which finishes to put on particular pieces?

A: The type of project really dictates what type of finishes are to be used. If you're building cabinets or bookcases, an oil-type finish is very simple and pleasing, and very easy to repair. I woudn't recommend oil finishes for dining room tables, because you need more protection. You need something harder, more durable, and waterproof. It all depends on what you're building. It also has to do with personal preference. Do you want a gloss, a semi-gloss, a flat finish? Does the piece need a lot of protection? Does the piece need to match another piece in the room? There's a lot of considerations.

Shellac & Polyurethane Gel Finishes

Q: What are the benefits of shellac and Rockler Woodworking's shellac finishing kits?

A: Shellac is a different type of material, and not necessarily used as a top coat. It's a multi-purpose product. It was very popular in the 1700s, and a lot of antiques were finished with it because that was the only finish available at the time. It has its advantages. It dries very fast and gives you a nice appearance. But it does have its drawbacks. It is not completely water resistant, and it can be brittle. Sometimes it's the finish you have to use, especially for the furniture restoration people who want to get a piece as close to the original as possible.

The pre-mixed shellac you buy off the shelf in a hardware store has a limited life. It's usually only good for six months after you open it up. If you buy shellac in flake form you can mix it yourself very easily just by mixing with denatured alcohol in different proportions. If you want to use it for a sealer, or wash coat, you use a thin solution, what they call a two-pound cut shellac. If you're using it as a top coat or finish you want it a little thicker, you want a four-pound cut. We came up with our new shellac kit because we had previously been selling it by the pound, which is a lot of shellac flake for the average consumer. So we packaged it into a smaller 2 oz. size, and they can make a two-, three- or four-pound cut, whichever they want, and it has a graduated scale on the container showing what proportions of denatured alcohol to shellac to use. It simplified the use of it. We're also going to be offering it in a half-pound container.

Q: On what projects does a woodworker want to use a polyurethane gel?

A: You can use it anywhere you want a urethane finish. Urethanes give you hard, durable, tough and, in most cases, waterproof finishes. A lot of people prefer the gel type for application as opposed to the liquid type you need to brush on. It's just a question of personal tastes.

Great Woodworkers

Q: When did you develop a relationship with Sam Maloof, who is regarded as one of this country's greatest woodworking craftsmen?

Q: Another highly-regarded furniture finishing expert is Michael Dresdner. How did you meet him?


Q: WunderCote, a water-based, wipe-on polyurethane finish, is one of Rockler's newest furniture finishing products. What are the benefits of WunderCote?

A: It's so easy to use. It's in a flip-top bottle, and you just pour it out and use a foam rubber brush over the surface. It dries in about 20 or 30 minutes, although our label says one or two hours. It doesn't require much sanding (with 220 grit paper) between coats, then you can re-coat it. I've done that in half an hour after I applied it. What's nice about a water-based polyurethane is it doesn't smell, it's not carcinogenic to the user and harmful to the environment. It drys faster, is very easy to apply, and easy to clean up. What's different about our finishes is others tend to have a plastic look to them when they're finished. Ours has a slightly amber cast to it so it looks more like a varnish finish.

Furniture Finishing

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add about furniture finishing?

A: Like any skill or acquired labor, the worst part is fear of doing it. Half the battle is just trying it. There's such an abundance of finishing and woodworking products out there that there's something for everybody. There's just no end to supplies. There should be something anybody can apply for very professional-looking finishes.

We're constantly on the lookout for new finishing products that we're testing. We try to have a real wide selection on the internet and in our stores. Usually in each store there's someone that specializes in finishing, and then we have classes at our stores. Mostly it's getting up the nerve to try it and getting used to the products you're using. In a lot of cases it's fun, especially when you have a beautiful project and you want to put the finishing touch on it that enhances the whole project.

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