Water-based finishes have gotten a bad rap over the years. Honestly, most of it is justified. But these days, the formulas are getting better and the products are becoming easier to work with. Also keep in mind that water-based dyes are a great way to add color to your projects. Regardless of how you feel about water-based finishes, you may not have much choice in the future as legislation is passed that restricts the use of high VOC (volatile organic compounds) finishes. So the sooner you get comfortable with this stuff, the better.
Any material that contains water will raise the grain of the wood. You can try this yourself by pouring a little water on a scrap piece of wood in the shop. After it dries, the surface should feel rough and gritty. This is definitely not the kind of surface you want to apply finish to, so sanding is in order. Fortunately, this grain-raising only happens once. So if we can pre-raise the grain ahead of time using water, we can easily sand the surface smooth again before applying any finish or dye. When the dye or finish is applied, the surface won’t be nearly as rough as it would have been without the pre-raising step.
In the world of finishing, most things come down to a compromise. For instance, varnishes provide a thick protective film that prevents excessive damage to the surface. But when this film does become damaged, its very difficult to repair in a way that isn’t noticeable. Frequently, a complete strip and refinish is necessary.
This is not the case with oil finishes. Boiled linseed oil and tung oil are very easy to apply and repair, as you’ll see in this video. So why doesn’t everyone use them? Because they don’t offer all that much protection in the first place. So the surface is more likely to require frequent repair.
A good compromise is an oil/varnish blend (1/3 thinner, 1/3 oil, 1/3 varnish). A few coats of this material will act and look similar to an oil finish, but will have a little more protection than oil alone. Apply numerous coats and the varnish begins to build up, effectively giving you a finish similar to straight varnish. Its all about compromise and allowing the finish to follow the function.
Chapter Three – The Art of Sanding: The Pencil Trick
Even after years of working with wood, I still use this pencil trick to help me decide when its time to switch to the next grit. Not only that, on larger pieces it helps me determine where I’ve sanded already and where I haven’t. Using a system like this, I almost NEVER have problems with sanding marks making it into my final finish. Of course, most folks don’t notice these until after the finish is applied. So having a system in place that prevents sanding issues ahead of time is absolutely essential!
Chapter Five – Cheap Wood: Blotch Control
I have tried many blotch-control remedies over the years, and non have been as effective as Charles Neil’s Formula. The system works well with oil based stains and dyes, but you’ll notice the most significant results with alcohol and water-based coloring agents. For even more explanation of this blotch control system with some more test samples, check out this post.
Chapter Six – The Wrong Tools: The Finishing Rag
Old t-shirts make great finishing rags. This video shows you how to properly fold and store your application rags for optimal finishing results. For more information on how to use this type of wiping rag, check out my DVD: A Simple Varnish Finish
Chapter Nine – Shine a Light On It: The Raking Light
Many finishing flaws could be prevented if we could just SEE the surface. A raking light’s low horizontal light source gives you much more visibility than standard room lighting alone. Once you start using one, you’ll wonder how you ever did any finishing without it!
You really don’t need anything fancy to create your own raking light. A cheap clip-on aluminum work light with a standard light bulb will do the trick: like this one!
Chapter Ten – Finishing the Finish: Finishing the Finish!
The only way I know to get an absolutely perfect finish every time is to work in a professional spray booth. But I don’t have one of those in my shop and I’m sure you don’t either. So what can we do? Fortunately, once your finish dries, you can lightly buff the surface with high grit abrasives that will help smooth everything out without really changing the sheen. This is my secret to a perfect finish, in an imperfect environment.
My favorite tools for this job are Festool Platin Abrasives. 1000 grit and 2000 grit. You can use these dry if you like (as shown in the video), but you might also want to try it using a lubricant such as mineral spirits, mineral oil, or even water.
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