Full Chisel Blog

December 29, 2009

Am I the only Woodworker…

Filed under: Finishing,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:18 pm


that likes to finish my work?  And I don’t mean complete it, I mean put on a finish, like linseed oil, shellac or paint.  I for one, enjoy the process because it is the culmination of the project.  Everything up to that point, all of the woodworking has been directed towards producing a smooth surface on the wood to receive a finish. 

Yet this phase of woodworking is the one dreaded by most woodworkers.  They will spend countless hours learning how to use hand tools, money on expensive materials and days if not weeks making a project then use a quick, one step, easy to use wipe on plastic finish that looks like crap.  This I just don’t understand.

Even a few coats of linseed oil thinned with a bit of turpentine, rubbed on once a day will produce a far superior finish.  And shellac, what could be easier, if you don’t like how it looks, take some alcohol and wipe it off.  And paint, consider painting your woodwork, it follows a long tradition.  However don’t use Milk Paint; because there is no such thing historically, it is a modern construct.  In the nineteenth century and earlier if it was made of milk, then it was whitewash, which is great to paint houses with, but never furniture.  Of course if you are making wainscoting, wall panels or interior moldings, etc. then whitewash would be a good choice.

I on a regular basis finish pieces for people because they just don’t like finishing.  I gladly do so as I enjoy the process enough that I would consider doing just finishing.  There is nothing greater than to get the grain of the wood to glow from within or to pull off a French polish or grain pine in a convincing enough manner to fool woodworkers into thinking it was crotch mahogany.

I consider finishing the reward for doing the woodworking.  I like finishing so much, I mix up my own shellac from seedlac, I make my own paint, stains, dyes, I make most of my own varnish and I have even kettle boiled raw linseed oil [be careful if you try this at home].

I bring this up because of comments I have been reading around on various forums, finishing seems to be the bane of most woodworkers.  And I am wondering if there are people out there that actually like to finish their woodwork?



  1. No, Stephen, you are not the only woodworker out there that enjoys finishing your work. While I don’t have quite the same love for it as you do, I would not consider becoming a professional finisher, I do love to see the way the wood starts to glow as I add layer after layer of oil or shellac. I recently had to learn how to use catalyzed, water based laquer, and it is not nearly as nice as the other options I commonly use, it left the wood looking dull and lifeless.

    Comment by Nathan Beal — December 29, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Absolutely not! I can hardly wait to breathe life into my creation by putting a finish on it. It’s the moment I wait for. And, my favorite finish is shellac and tung oil.

    Comment by Praki — December 29, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

  3. Well, perhaps there are four of us? My last poll yielded 3.4% liked finishing. This being the lowest rank of all. Why? I think it’s the result of spray finished commercial stuff from IKEA. It’s this drive for perfection in every dovetail and a mirror finish all over. Me, I love finishing. I’ve been known to apply a nice shellac finish to the tree long before it gets milled.


    Comment by Gary Roberts — December 30, 2009 @ 12:41 am

  4. I’m with you! I like finishing my projects with finish! It is a relaxing time and realy seeingn the real beauty of the wood comming out, the grain showing it’s true caracter! I use prety much the same finish all the time, a 3/3 varnish mixte finished with a coat of wax.
    And to fnish, cheers!

    Comment by David Gendron — December 30, 2009 @ 2:31 am

  5. Count me.

    It’s the it’s the first time in any project that I feel in control. Final I can relax – you cannot cut Tung oil to short (or Varnish to long). I might feel differently if I was spraying but for the types of finish I like (oil, varnish/oil blends and shellac) it’s a cake walk.

    Comment by Don Peregoy — December 30, 2009 @ 7:03 am

  6. “one step, easy to use wipe on plastic finish that looks like crap”

    I may be wrong but I think most dislike finishing because what you’ve said in this coat is simply not true. Oh, the “looks like crap” part can certainly be true but the notion that polyurethanes are “one step, easy to use” is a myth.

    As you point out, applying thinned linseed oil and/or shellac is a piece of cake and makes a piece come alive. But wiping on polyurethane (avoiding the “hard” brushing approach) requires a deft hand, requires applying it in very thin coats, AND it requires sanding between each slow-drying coat so that the new coat will stick to the previous coat.

    In short, finishing the “modern” way has become a painful process,requiring respirators, dust masks, etc. just as replacing a hand plane for an orbital sander has made pre-finish chores disagreeable.

    Cheers — Larry

    Comment by Larry Marshall — December 30, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  7. Two words Stephen,
    Mastery and Materials

    We rarely dread something that we have mastered, or are well on the road to mastering. You and a few of the early folks leaving comments have enough mastery to feel comfortable with the work and enjoy it. Many of us have decent capabilities in other woodworking aspects, and no dread of them. Much of our confidence comes from knowing how to recover from mistakes. We learn quickly how to recover from most woodworking mistakes, and therefore the costs of errors is low. (Except when you measure the Bubinga (substitute any expensive material) once and cut twice.) We just need to get to the right comfort level with finishing. We need to learn how to inexpensively recover from mistakes.

    Which brings me to the second word, materials. There seems a constant with those who enjoy finishing: simple materials. Some materials, such as the oils are generously forgiving in their behaviour. Others, like shellac, are easily reversed, just as hide glue is reversible. (Dread glue-ups anyone?) On the other hand, the modern plastics are harder to work with, far less forgiving, and very costly in time and effort to recover mistakes. I’m guessing that many who dread finishing have suffered needing to recover from mistakes with modern materials. Each of those time consuming, or costly, mistakes leads to greater dissatisfaction with finishing.

    I’m easily convinced that the simpler materials are better for my wants. They produce very good results, that even I can achieve with a quite low level of mastery. The dread is almost gone.

    … and THANKS for showing some of us the way these simpler materials work!

    Comment by Bob Easton — December 30, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  8. “…Each of those time consuming, or costly, mistakes leads to greater dissatisfaction with finishing…” Bob Easton
    I would like to add, some of us (like me) who have little experience in finishing might be apprehensive (understatement) about ruining a just-completed quartersawn white oak Morris chair. If asked “Do you enjoy finishing as well as building this project?” All I need do is contemplate the frightening prospect of finishing that rather expensive Morris and the answer would be “No. I don’t enjoy finishing as much.”

    Comment by John T — December 30, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  9. Thanks everyone, I don’t feel so alone now. I appreciate all of the comments but I think those that don’t like finishing didn’t respond.

    Happy New Year to all.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — December 31, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  10. I think the uninitiated have far too high expectations of what a finish should look like (factory-finished store furniture may be the culprit).

    Modern finish manufacturers’ descriptions of their products and application techniques frighten me – I don’t want something that will transform my lovingly worked furniture into a Formica monstrosity and I don’t want to have to apply it standing on one leg, with the moon is in the second quarter and the wind in the East.

    Modern products and techniques have stolen a formerly simple and enjoyable stage of furniture making from thousands of woodworkers.

    Comment by Jack — January 1, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  11. There have been a lot of good comments to this posting. I’ll add mine.

    I have found that people as a group trust physical processes more than they trust chemical processes. If a person is going to have to trust their life to an airplane wing, they like to see rivets in there even if it has been proven ad nauseum that modern adhesives are superior. You can see rivets and understand them. It’s not easy to ‘see’ how adhesives work.
    Woodworkers, being people, share this notion. The shaping of wood is understandable. It’s physical. Finishing is chemical. It’s indecipherable voodoo. A small mis-step in finishing seems to cause more anguish than a similar mis-step in forming. Mis-saw a dovetail and you have to patch it or hide it. That’s a lot less perilous than stripping and re-finishing a piece because the colour match is wrong, or it blotched, or whatever.
    So I believe that many, many woodworkers fear finishing, and there is some logical basis for that fear.

    Yes, there are virtually fool-proof methods, and linseed oil is one of them. However, linseed oil is not a film-building finish. It won’t repel… well, anything, really. Shellac is better. Shellac is far better, and it is invaluable as a boundary/sealing layer between different finishes, but still it won’t repeal alcohol, hence the development of bar-top varnish, which is the Western world’s first ‘plastic’ finish understood as such. I don’t think there are many film-building finishes that aren’t plastic. Shellac is one, I suppose. Any others? I guess the point I should like to make here is that plastic finishes have been used for a very, very long time and they have an unimpeachable pedigree. Chinese lacquer is based on phenols, and that’s what the first plastic was made out of, so the Chinese have essentially been using plastic finishes for over 8000 years. That’s a good, long time.

    So, in closing, there should be no stigma of plastic finishes on historical grounds. Linseed oil is wonderful for adding a warmth to wood, and I use it incessantly, but it does not provide significant protection to a piece. It is not a film finish.

    Jack mentioned unreasonable expectations and that is an excellent point. Mirror-surface furniture might go through a 17 step process from raw wood to finished product. Few would be willing to put in that kind of time and effort. Additionally, these finishes are often a catalyzed lacquer that is best sprayed – few good forms of brushing lacquer exist, with Deft being a cherished exception. So it’s not far off the mark to say that a pro-level finish of the type found at a modern furniture gallery *requires* a spray set-up. This, in my opinion, adds greatly to the cost, complication, and general annoyance of applying a finish.

    For me, the biggest detraction of finishing is sanding, and since sanded areas look different from scraped/planed surfaces and not all surfaces can be effectively planed or scraped (carved details, mouldings, etc.) the net effect is that I end up sanding everything, and that heartbreaking left-over mark from a lower grit is sufficiently wrenching to give me a generally poor feeling about the whole process. That being said, I do more finishing than woodworking, and I read a lot about it, so I’d consider myself to be reasonably well-informed for an amateur.

    I’ve finished three small pieces in the last couple of weeks. All got linseed oil for warmth. One had the linseed oil tinted with a dye to darken it more. One of the pieces got just the plain linseed oil, plus some enamel paint as a detail, and that was it, but the other two got a wiped on polyurethane varish. One was varnished because I wanted a glossy finish, and the other because it was needed for durability. One heavy base coat, then a quick run over with stearated 400 grit sand paper or fine steel wool, then a thin top coat to shine it up again. Easy stuff. Large pieces get their varnish applied with a brush. I do have an HVLP sprayer, but I only use it for very large projects.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — January 2, 2010 @ 9:24 am

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