Surface Prep is essential to ensuring a quality finish.

A couple weeks ago, I shared tips on adjusting for seasonal weather changes to ensure your finishes come out the way you want.

(A big thanks to Brian M., Mike L., Larry M., Chris D., Bob M., Jeff S., and Paul K., who shared their comments and kind words!)

Of course, there are plenty other potential snags that are NOT climate related.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve responded to hundreds of troubleshooting questions, and, in the process, developed a 5-step “cheat sheet” to find the root of most problems.

Let’s look at these, one by one, starting with my Surface Prep tips to see how they affect the quality of your final finish…

Step 1: Surface Preparation

  1. Thoroughly clean the surface with a solution of water and denatured alcohol mixed 1:1. This will ensure that the surface to be finished is free of oil, dirt and ambient contamination before the final sanding for the finish application stage. There is nothing worse then finishing a contaminated surface. 
  1. A pre-finish sanding with a quality grade aluminum-oxide (AO for short) sandpaper is recommended to allow for sealers or stains to properly perform on the unfinished wood. Various wood species require different pre-finish preparation to tighten the wood grain. The water/alcohol cleaning mentioned above (no. 1) will not just clean the surface but will also raise, or “pop” the wood grain, which is then sanded to the appropriate schedule based on the wood species being finished. An example is pre-sanding maple – which should be sanded with 320 or 400-grit AO sandpaper to tighten up the grain. Also, sanding-dust removal is critical. We will touch on that subject in future posts.
  1. For a finish that required a stain application, you need to make a test panel to see how the stain will behave on the species you are finishing. All wood species react differently to dye stains and pigmented stains. The best way to determine how you want to fi

    EM1000 Universal Sanding Sealer

    nish the project is to make a storyboard that confirms and illustrates your finishing procedure before you take it to the final project.

  1. Apply a pre-stain sealer to control grain blotching. Many wood species, such maple and cherry, will show a dark, blotchy image in the wood grain when a dye or pigmented based wood stain is applied. The best way to control grain blotch is to apply a pre-stain sealer. This sealer can be made by reducing our EM1000 Universal Sanding Sealer with water by 50%. The purpose of the pre-stain seal is to penetrate deep into the cell structure of the wood grain and to seal off the blotch pattern. This step allows the wood stain to sit a bit higher up on the wood fiber but still perform the task of color adjustment. 
  1. Sneak up on those clear coat applications. What I mean by this is do not apply heavy, wet coats of the water-based clear coat you plan to seal and topcoat with. My mantra has, and will always be, “More thin/light coats versus fewer heavy/fat coats.” By carefully building your clearcoat applications you will obtain better clarity and have more control over your finishing process.

 And–most important, DO NOT RUSH YOUR PROCESS! Be patient and go slow…

I hope the above tips on surface preparation help you achieve the finish you’re looking for.

If you’re confident surface prep is not the reason for your finishing issue, stay tuned and watch your inbox for “Step 2: Stain/Topcoat Compatibility.” I’ll be sharing each of the remaining steps of my 5-Step “Cheat Sheet” over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, do you have any good surface preparation experiences or advice? Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying in the comments section below!