The Gratuitous Finish and Plans for the Future.

This is the last entry directly about the Medieval Hutch Chest build. If you haven't caught the other posts you can certainly catch up by clicking on the link HERE.

I will admit my Achilles Heel in woodworking is the finishing process. I have devoted a lot of time and study to joinery techniques, to working with power and hand tools, to proportions and design and the flow of grain in a piece. The area of my knowledge that is the most lacking is finishing. I just don't feel sophisticated enough in my approach to it. Maybe I'm comparing myself to other woodworkers who's blogs I read or who I follow in the magazines, but lately I've been realizing that if I want to move forward and get better then I have to learn more finishing techniques than the two or three standbys I have.

The biggest problem is that I have learned most of what I know woodworking by either reading or doing. I have yet to find a really good book on finishing out there, (I have heard really good things about "Understanding Wood Finishing" by Bob Flexner and I will probably be checking that out soon) I think the biggest hindrance for me is two fold.

1. For a long time I really just decided that I hated the finishing process, I really have started to revise that thought in my head over the last few years or so, but for a long time I really thought of it as something I "had" to do, not something I should want to do. It slowed down my shop, it took a large amount of extra planing and time management, it meant my shop work had to stop for a while so dust wouldn't interfere with the polyurethane. If I could have built a piece and sent it off to a professional finisher, I would have.

2. I have never taken the time to experiment with finishes, to learn on my own what looks good and what works well. When I started I was slave to the simple idea that you slap on a stain, put on some polyurethane, and call it a day, I followed directions on cans, the pitiful and short things they are, and was never happy with results. Circumstances have lead me to be cheep, I cannot over buy a lot of stock, infact I almost never have extra wood on hand, I try to buy just enough for a project. yes there are some cut offs and I suppose that is probably another lame excuse.

Either way what I have come to is a couple of options in my limited bag of tricks, The first thing I do is if I use a stain, I use a very light stain, less to color the wood than to just bring out the finish a little, I do like to use a stain conditioner first but I have been reading things about whether that is worthwhile or not lately to. Over a stain I use a satin polyurethane, I like to use the variety packaged in the aerosol cans, more expensive, yes, better results, I guess, right or wrong, I've fooled myself into thinking so. but my latest trick, the simplest thing I have ever found, has been Danish Oil, Watco brand to be exact. A couple of coats a half hour apart, and there you go. couldn't be simpler.

I have one more trick, torching the wood, but I will come back to this one in future posts. The real point is
I feel like I'm in a rut when it comes to this stuff and I'll be expanding my horizon's in the future, but I didn't have a whole lot of time leading up to the delivery deadline on the Hutch Chest so I went with a tried and true - two coats of Danish Oil rubbed in with a finishing pad.
 I'm not even sure if this is the right thing, but after the finish is dry I give it a hand buff with some 0000 steel wool to rub out any dust flecks that have been trapped in the finish and I think this probably evens out the look a little. I could be treating the doctor instead of treating the pathology though.

I need to find a good finishing class and make a point of getting my butt there.

So a few more gratuitous pics of the finished product.
I guess I wish I was a better photographer too. There's a lot of shortcomings in this post. Maybe a photography class too. . . now that's not a bad thought either.

Now the big question at the end of every project. What would I have done differently?

1. Well we've nailed down I would have liked to have used a different finish. I'm not unhappy with how this finish turned out, I always seem to get great looking results with Danish Oil. I guess I'm just in a space where I need to expand my horizons.

2. I think it may be the tanin in the oak, (the chemical that makes it possible to ebonize oak) but I made my own wood putty to fill the few finishing nail holes there were. I used a mixture of fine sawdust from the random orbit sander and some of my Gorilla brand wood glue, but I think the tanin in the oak reacted with the moisture in the glue and it looked good to start but after it dried it turned dark, dark, dark. Ugly dark.
After it was dried I couldn't think of any decent way to dig out the black to fix it without causing greater damage, they are small spots and maybe most people miss them, but to me they stand out like the popcorn lights on top of a police car. I pondered my options and decided the enemy of good is perfect, I left it alone, but had I known I would have gone out and bought a commercial filler instead. Just wish I fully understood what happened here, If you know, or even have a guess, please leave a comment. I'd appreciate any input I can get on this.

3. The only other big thing is making the mistake of trying to measuring to mount the hinges on the front panel of the case instead of the back panel, I caught myself before I made a cut with a saw, but not before I struck the line with a chisel, leaving a mark a little too deep to be sanded out, again the enemy of good is perfect, I left the lines and I think they only stand out horribly to me.

4. It would have been very interesting to try and build this piece with riven, green oak. I understand it is much easier to work and infact the build would have been even more period accurate if I'd had that option. Maybe at some point in the future the opportunity will arise and I will have the chance to take advantage.

What's next on my plate? Well I'm going to knock around the shop a bit, I have a turning project a friend of mine has requested that should be fun once we settle on a design. I do have someone who has enquired about building an Arts & Crafts style sideboard, we looked at some options but I'm thinking the upcoming cover project for Popular Woodworking may be just what she's looking for. If so that will be the first time I've built a piece directly from a magazine plan and I think that will be an interesting experience, look forward to plenty of posts about that journey if the plan goes forward. Other than that I have a few things I want to build for the shop. A modification to my Moxon Twin Screw Vise and a Saw Till are at the top of my list, but I'd really also like to come up with a good way to organize my sand paper. We'll see what I can come up with there.




  1. I would stay away from the steel wool on the oak. The same tannins can react with the residual dust and make some funky stains to try to clean up. The stray pieces can get hung in grain or between boards to drip a rust stain as well. Go with a scotchbrite pad or such for a similar buffing.

    I also go with a plain Watco rubdown on most stuff. It is simple and effective. I don't really see much point to the staining but some people like it. If I wanted a different colored wood, I would have made it out of different wood. Maybe if I was making stuff to match odd pieces of differing colors but generally, I get the pieces out of the same stock and matching isn't a problem. Stains also can be splotchy and end up looking worse that what you are trying to fix. I also tend to paint stuff as well. It's a perfectly valid finish. I find varnishes to be finicky and tend to look plastic. Shellac is kind of a pain to mix and work with but works nicely. A wipe on polyurethane is nice and easy and easy to deal with. About the only things left are the hardening oils like BLO. They are good to work with if you have the time to build up enough layers for a good finish.

    The short answer is don't over think it. Lots of thin coats of anything transparent that is sanded between layers will look fine.

  2. you know I never thought about the steel wool and the oak. . . I have done most things in pine and the steel wool wouldn't have reacted there. . . ha

    Mostly I think I just have to spend some more time and effort studying finishing. but you are right I really shouldn't feel any shame at hitting a piece with the oil. It does such a good job at making the color and figure of the wood the champion of the work.


  3. THis has been a great series of posts, Derek. It's also a wonderful piece. I particularly like the carving.

    I second the avoidance of steel wool. I've pretty much given up using it entirely. If you buy the gray versions of "scotch-brite" pads you're pretty close fine steel wool and it works great.

    I think you'd enjoy Flexner's book. He's the 'go to' guy on finishing.

    Thanks for sharing your work.

    Cheers --- Larry "aka Woodnbits"

  4. That came out great. Really nice looking.

    Hide the errant chisel marks by making a lot more of them... make it look like they are supposed to be there.

    Too bad about the filler turning dark. I wonder if a dab of shellac on a q-tip in the hole a couple of times to seal it before you put the sandingdust-n-glue in would have prevented it.


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