Whether we like the process of finishing or not, no woodworking project is really complete without slathering on some protective finish. Years ago, I was a “poly” only kinda guy. Back in the 1980s, oil-based polyurethane is pretty what seemed to fill the hardware store shelf under the “Wood Finishes” sign. So, that’s what I used. It smelled bad and dried slowly, but once the finish finally hardened up, it was fairly tough. And I could count on its consistency and characteristics every time.
I’m glad to say that my finishing palate has expanded some since then. While oil-based poly is certainly durable—and sometimes it’s the flat-out best choice—now I choose my finishes based on other sorts of criteria, too. If it’s winter and the shop windows are closed up, I use water-based poly to keep the odor down. For figured woods, I start with linseed oil, then follow that with shellac. Lacquer is handy when I have very little time to get my finishing done; it dries almost instantly. Sometimes I like to keep the surface smooth and velvety: a few coats of wipe-on varnish or thinned shellac topped off with wax and a good buffing do the trick. Friction finishes are a hoot to apply to a new turning. It’s fun to bear down and burnish them into the surface with the piece spinning on the lathe. Nothing dries faster than that, and you get a lustrous shine that just about glows.
I’m even playing around with different applicators these days. Foam rollers, panty hose stuffed with cotton pads, rags folded up in a binder clip… Tending to use fewer brushes to cut down on the cleaning hassle and just tossing my applicator when the finish cures hard. The simpler, the better.
What about you? What’s your favorite finish? Do you go with a particular type because it’s dependable, easy or shows off the wood in some special way? Care to share a brand or a special recipe that works well for you? Maybe you’ve got a tip or two to share about your favorite topcoat that someone else would find useful.
I hope you’ll leave a comment here and bring us all into the loop.
Catch you in the shop,
Chris Marshall, Field Editor