Finishing is the final step of any project, and like sanding, the only one in which you literally touch every square inch. In everything else, from milling and shaping to jointing and glueing, your attention is on specific areas. But with finishing, every square inch of a piece comes under scrutiny.
For the longest time, I dreaded finishing and often delayed it for as long as possible. A poor finish can wreck the entire piece. Many a potentially great piece has been reduced to mediocrity by careless finishing.
Finishing can also be as boring as watching paint dry, which is something I actually enjoy doing. You can learn a lot by watching paint go through its phase changes. Finishing is meditative. It doesn’t make noise, unlike most shop operations, oo you can do it after hours. I prefer to finish later in the day or in the evening. Amazing things happen overnight as finishes dry, cure, and harden, and I’m less tempted to poke around on a partially cured finish when I’m sung in bed. Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing often comes in the morning when it comes to finishing.
Finishes tend to be smelly and capricious, something that appeals to the chemist in me. Bob Flexner has done much to demythologize the whole field of finishing and bring the science to the game. He literally wrote the book on it. Several, actually. Once you understand that there are really only four kinds of finish – oil, varnish, shellac, and lacquer – the mystery is over.
Oh, there’s paint too. Some woodworkers might scoff at the thought of painting wood, but honestly, some woods are made to be painted. Like poplar. I like to use milk paint. It’s a throwback to the good old days of paint before coatings became hazardous materials. The stuff is a powder that is mixed with water and comes in great colors like “Barn Red” and “Lighthouse Blue.” And it’s non-toxic. You can dump unused milk paint around your plants or on your lawn, unlike most paints which are best dumped on the neighbor’s lawn after dark.
My go to finishes are shellac, varnish, and hard-wax oil. I’ll break out the poly (a type of varnish) when needed for high wear applications, and the occasional stain for projects that call for matching other finishes, though I much prefer tinted shellac. Usually, I just reach for OSMO oil. This amazing piece of German technology is made of natural oils and waxes and is a breeze to apply. I finished my living room floor with it, and it’s held up far better than any of the poly-coated floors in the rest of the house. It’s buffable and repairable without sanding the whole floor. I use it on almost everything that calls for that “close to the surface” look. It’s also non-toxic when hardened, which means you can use it on kid’s toys.
Finishes need to be finished. It took me years to learn what the auto paint guys have known from the beginning. No matter how you apply your finish – rag, brush, spray – there will be flaws ranging from specks of dust (Dust in a woodshop? Who knew?) to streaks, shiny spots, dull spots, brushmarks, and orange peel. Unless you’re pouring epoxy resin, the finish needs to be finished.
Usually, I give the finish a light wet sanding with wet/dry paper 600 to 1000 grit using mineral oil as a wetting agent. Then a light buff with 0000 steel wool and a little wax. If you’re in need of a workout, French polish on a shellac finish will burn the calories and produce that flawless finish just waiting for the cat to scratch it. Buffing small items with a series of abrasives (tripoli, white diamond) followed by carnuba wax gives a great finish to the finish. The whole point is that finishes need to be finished if the piece is going to be viewed under critical light by a discriminating eye.
Speaking of light, I always evaluate my work under light that is more revealing than normal room light – a sunny window, bright shop lights, or a low angle raking light. The truth is always seen in the light. I figure if it looks good under that kind of light it will look nearly perfect in the home. There is a point where good enough is good enough. When my eye doesn’t pick up any obvious flaw, the finish is finished. Tetelesthai. Beyond that would be a work of supererogation. Besides, as soon as it leaves the shop, it is sure to get scratched, dinged, or smudged.
Always take the pictures before the piece leaves the shop.