Three Fast Finishes

Three finishes that deliver at crunch time: shellac, spray lacquer and water-based poly.

It’s T-minus ten days till Christmas Eve. How are your gift projects coming along? If you’re planning to finish them with oil-based poly, you’ve still got time for it to dry. But, a week from now? No way.

Nothing says “I waited too long” more than a present that smells like wet varnish.

Now, I’m not advocating “eleventh-hour” finishing…but it can happen. So, if you need a contingency plan, let me suggest three wood finishes to turn to when time is running out. You’ll still come out the hero on Christmas morning.

Water-based poly: This finish will get the job done in much less time than its oil-based brother. It looks like skim milk when you lay it down and it dries with a slightly bluish tint, rather than varnish’s typical amber color. The finish dries in about two to three hours. Here’s a good choice for lighter-colored woods like maple, birch or ash if you want to keep that nearly white coloration. Water-based poly isn’t as water-resistant as oil-based poly, and gives off a slightly ammonia smell as it dries. But, cleanup is easy with soap and water. Since it has a water base, raise the wood grain first by wiping with a damp rag. Let the wood dry, and knock off the rough fibers lightly with 220-grit paper. Then, use a foam paint pad to apply it, or spray on the aerosol form.

Premixed shellac: Here’s another super-fast curing finish, but there’s a learning curve to it if you start with dry flakes. So, take the easier route (you’re in a time-crunch here, remember!). Use Zinsser’s SealCoat™ that comes premixed in a can. Thin it by a third with denatured alcohol to make a better wiping finish, and rag it on. Or, you can also buy shellac in aerosol form, either in clear or amber varieties. Shellac cures very quickly as the alcohol evaporates, so keep a wet edge while you apply it and don’t go back over the tacky finish. Shellac works well on any wood, including oily exotics, and SealCoat™ (which is dewaxed, clear shellac) or clear aerosol imparts very little color. But be aware that shellac doesn’t have the solvent or water resistance of oil varnish. Give each coat at least 45 minutes to an hour to dry, and you can recoat. Three coats or so and you’ll have a nice finish in an afternoon’s time.

Spray lacquer: Lacquer cures lightning fast and levels out to a smooth finish very nicely. I don’t have spray equipment, but I’ve had good luck with the aerosol cans that you can find at hardware stores. You can read more about my take on spray lacquer in an earlier post (“Three Cheers for Spray Deft”). Be sure to work in a well-ventilated area—there are strong, hazardous solvents at work here. But, in a pinch, you can get three light coats laid down and cured in about an hour. This finish will help you save face, even if you’re still topcoating on Christmas Eve morning.

Good luck on those last-minute projects!

Catch you in the shop,

Chris Marshall, Field Editor

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