Fool Proof Finish??

Article - October 29, 2007

This article was inspired by a question from. He writes:

I have just finished assembling my first big project: a walnut blanket chest for my wife. I did make mistakes but as of now I am somewhat pleased. Since I jumped in full force for the piece I decided to do the same with the finishing. I derived my finishing from a recipe from a book called Foolproof Wood Finishing by Teri Masaschi. I decided to stray a little from the recipe in the book because when I practiced on scrap I wasn’t happy with a few details.

Sanded to 180 grit, wash coat of 1 lb cut shellac, 320 scuff, Behlen’s burnt umber glaze, shellac wash coat, 320 scuff, general finish oil base mahogany wood stain, and then Minwax Dark Walnut Oil Base Wood Stain. Now here is where my question is. I was planning on top coating with 3 layers of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Oil and Urethane Topcoat (Semi-Gloss). The books I have don’t give much detail on really making a topcoat work well.

So do you think this topcoat is a good one? Do you see any problems that I may have? If I don’t like the Semi-Gloss after 3 layers and want more gloss can I do a 4th layer of High Gloss? What kind of Gloss does a blanket chest usually have? Have I gone too far and does finishing really have to be this complex to get a piece to look better than amateur? Any and all feedback will be well-received. Be brutal.

The FoolProof Folly

“Fool-Proof Finish” eh? Well, that’s just one of those silly terms publishers like to use to sell books and magazines. No finish is foolproof, but it sure as heck doesn’t need to be all that difficult either. In fact, the regimen you described sounds anything BUT foolproof to me. The reality is somewhere in the middle. Let me address a few of your questions first.

I see no problem top-coating with Arm-R-Seal semi gloss. In fact, that would be my recommendation. I’m not a fan of super high gloss so I think you are on the right track. And after several coats of semi-gloss, adding a coat of gloss can make the surface look a little odd. It wont really look like gloss again, so much as a glossy layer over a semi-gloss surface. Like I said, a little odd.

Worth the Effort?

Now for the criticism. Finishing can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. I haven’t read Teri’s book so I don’t know how closely you followed the recipe. But, when you have that many ingredients and steps in a finishing regimen, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go south. Before I go any further, I would like to say the construction, design and craftsmanship on the chest look great. If that’s your first big project, then you certainly have bright woodworking future ahead of you!

So here’s my perspective on the finish (a combination of biased opinions and fact). That regimen isn’t exactly appropriate for walnut. You paid good money for that wood, and with that finish, you could have purchased alder at 1/4 the price and the final result would be nearly identical. Personally, I think its a darn shame to put layers of color on top of a naturally-beautiful wood. The most I would do to walnut is maybe hit it with a walnut dye or stain to enhance the color or even out some lighter sapwood. But that’s a very rare occurrence in my shop. From what I see in the photo, the finish appears to be a slightly muddy and it obscures what would have been beautiful grain. Several coats of Arm-R-Seal alone would have given you a beautiful protective finish that enhances the grain and really lets the wood’s natural beauty shine. It also lets people know that this piece is real walnut and not just layers of color on top of a cheaper piece of wood.

Critiquing The Recipe

Now lets say you did use a less expensive wood and you wanted to make it look like walnut. How would this finish regimen stack up? Honestly, not too well. By sealing with shellac twice, before we even add the oil based stain, we can’t expect there to be too much of a color shift. In order for these stains to work properly, they need to absorb into the raw wood. The shellac is going to prevent that from happening to some extent. Also, its a little unusual to apply the glaze before the stain. Most times, a glaze is applied as a final color effect once you already have the base color you are looking for. You would then add your final clear coats over top of the glaze. Generally speaking, with a little rearrangement and simplification, this finish regimen would work quite well.

Finishing is a lot like cooking: the more crap you throw in, the less you can discern and appreciate the individual ingredients. And when it comes to finishing, there is a lot of confusing info out there. As a person who spends a great deal of time trying to show people that this woodworking/finishing stuff is NOT as hard as it seems, its upsetting to me to see you go through all these extra steps. But hopefully this clears things up a bit and you’ll be better prepared for your next creation.

And just an FYI, three authors that have never steered me wrong are Bob Flexner, Jeff Jewitt, and Michael Dresdner. This is not a knock on Teri Masachi’s work by any means. I just haven’t had the pleasure of reading her book so I can’t make a personal recommendation on it.


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