How to Get the Ultimate Furniture Finish – Part 1. By Marty Schlosser
There’s no denying the key role finishing plays in any successful piece of furniture or set of cabinets.
Even an exciting design, meticulously crafted with the most appropriate materials will fall flat if the furniture finish is poorly conceived and executed.
The opposite is also true: a poorly designed and crafted piece of furniture can’t be saved by an amazing finish. Sure, it’ll bring it up a notch or two, but it’ll still be a “sow’s ear.”
In this article I will share with you my seven pro tips which will help you consistently achieve that ultimate furniture finish your work deserves.
And to better explain the more complicated tips, I’ll use as an example my most recent project: my spouse’s craft room with its Murphy bed and cabinetry allowing it to act as a spare guest bedroom.
This is a big project, and no doubt it will take more than a brief explanation as to how I approached and completed the finishing schedule for it.
Therefore, we are going break this blog post into two parts. Here are the first three tips on getting the ultimate furniture finish…
Pro Tip #1: Understanding Objectives
To be most successful your finish needs to dovetail with the objectives the designer and maker had envisioned. To understand those objectives, ask yourself such things as:
“What purpose will the item serve?”
“What environment (indoors/outdoors/day-to-day use/kitchen…) will it be used in?”
“What appearance (color, sheen, texture…) is envisioned?
Once you have a firm grip on the objectives, you’ll be able to proceed.
Example Project – Objectives: The upper and base cabinets would see daily use, so the finish had to be durable – most especially the tops of the two side tables.
My spouse wanted the cabinetry finished to blend in with the room’s elegant green walls and medium-brown stained maple floors. She also wanted them to be similar in appearance to the furniture and cabinetry throughout the rest of our home: aged cherry finish in a medium sheen. I certainly had my work cut out!
Pro Tip #2: Selecting Finishing Materials & Equipment
Now is the time to gather the materials and equipment you’ll need to apply the finish.
To help you better understand the various furniture finishes and their uses, Target Coatings has an excellent product specifications webpage which I would highly recommend you refer to when selecting finishing materials.
As well, one book which I have found especially helpful for those just getting into finishing is Bob Flexner’s “Understanding Wood Finishing.”
Ensure you understand the characteristics of the wood(s) and other materials your project is made from and take them into consideration when selecting finishing materials.
It’s easy to overlook such things as the need for using filler to seal the open pores of heavily grained woods such as oak and mahogany.
Although knowing what finishing products to apply and developing a sound finishing schedule (i.e. what order to follow, including sanding grits and when to use them) are essential, you still need to be fully familiar with the equipment you’ll need to apply them.
And don’t forget about safety: your lungs deserve the protection an approved respirator provides.
Finally, once you’re selected the finishing products, take the time to confirm that they’re still good.
Most finish manufacturers stamp their containers with a batch number, which your supplier can use to find out how old it is. And because I always print the date, I open a new tin of finish, right on the tin, I can use that as an good indicator of its condition.
As a rule, if it’s 3 years or older, I will automatically assume it needs to be replaced.
Example Project – Finishing Products Chosen: Because the cabinet doors, drawer fronts and side tabletops of my project were solid cherry – a wood species known to blotch when stained – prior to staining I had to first seal the wood to allow even penetration of the stain.
For this I used Target Coatings NR4028 Clear Base, thinned 50/50 with tap water.
For stain, I selected Target Coatings NR41728 Cherry Toner.
Then, to lock in the stain, I chose Target Coatings EM1000 sanding-sealer, which I followed up with two different topcoats.
I used Target Coatings EM2000 water based alkyd varnish for the vertical surfaces, as I knew it would give those surfaces the look and feel my client (you know, she who must be obeyed…) wanted.
From experience I know that particular varnish will deliver the look and feel I needed.
Example Project – Finishing Schedule & Application Equipment:
* Machine sand all surfaces to P180 (starting at P80), vacuuming off sanding dust between grits if your sander is not vacuum equipped. Hand sand all end grain sections to P220. Ensure all sanding dust and sanding grit has been removed by either compressed air or vacuum. Do not, repeat, do not use a tack cloth as the solvents therein will contaminate the surface and lead to fisheye and other problems.
* Reduce the stain base by 50% with water, then spray a 2 mil thick coat. I used my Fuji Spray LX-20 compressed air spray gun, with a 1.0mm needle/nozzle/air cap set.
* 10 minutes later I applied the first of two coats of stain with my Fuji Spray LX-20 compressed air powered spray gun, with a 1.4mm needle/nozzle/air cap set.
* 1 hour later I applied the last coat of stain and allowed it to set overnight.
* Using my Q5 Platinum turbine system with its T75G spray gun (with a 1.0mm needle/nozzle/air cap set), I applied two, 3mm coats of sanding-sealer. Do not sand between coats.
* Sand everything with P400 grit, being especially careful at edges to ensure you don’t sand through the stain. I use my random orbit sander for all flat surfaces; for raised panel sections I hand sand with a sanding sponge pad.
* Apply 3 coats of topcoat with my Q5 Platinum turbine system with its T75G spray gun (1.3mm needle/nozzle/air cap set). Respect the mixing instructions for the conversion varnish and cross linker. Unless problems are encountered no sanding is required.
Pro Tip #3: Preparation
The role of sound construction (e.g., limiting & addressing glue squeeze-out, dealing with clamping dents) techniques and surface preparation prior to applying finish simply cannot be understated.
Yes, I know from personal experience how arduous preparation can be but believe me when I say that doing this work correctly will save you many hours of headache down the line. Here are some details to consider:
A. Surface preparation. Some finishers prefer to use hand plane and scrapers in lieu of, or in concert with machine and/or hand sanding. The fact is that it really doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the surface is properly smoothed, and any sanding dust and grit removed. I usually caution against sanding above P180 if your finishing schedule calls for staining… although there are some products that require a different protocol, so ensure you familiarize yourself with them before proceeding.
B. Prepare your spray finishing equipment. Pros know the importance of this step, and you should, too if you wish to get consistently excellent results. Always start with a clean and properly lubed spray gun and ensure your air compressor/turbine filters are clean and if necessary, replaced.
C. Know the ins and outs of your spray finishing equipment for use with the various finishing products you’ll be applying. Don’t assume that just because you’ve sprayed solvent based lacquer in the past with your favorite gun that the same needle/nozzle/air cap set will suffice for the water based conversion varnish you’ve selected for your project.
D. Set an Environment for Success:
- Prepare Spray Finishing Area (Booth exhaust and intake filters clean, your spray stands ready to go and your lighting set working well.
- Prepare Drying Area (have your drying racks at the ready, along with any carts or rolling support systems needed to move heavy/awkward/bulky pieces between the spray booth and drying area)
- Proper Mindset. You’d be surprised how important this latter point is! As well, ensure you have set aside the necessary amount of time to get the job done properly. Factor in some additional “gremlin busting” time.
We’ll conclude with Marty’s post in Part 2. Stay tuned!
Until then, any comments or questions regarding Marty’s above approach? Please share your thoughts or read what others are saying below in the comments section.
Marty Schlosser is a Contributing Consultant to the Target Coatings Blog. Marty lives in Ontario, Canada