My Current Favorite Wood Finish

Most of my projects, as of late, have been finished in a similar manner. I thought I'd share the process I use to get a nice smooth protective finish for my woodworking projects. This procedure is something I learned reading Michael Dresdner's The New Wood Finishing Book, a great resource for finishing wood.

The first step starts with wood preparation. Anyone with experience in wood finishing will tell you that all the best finishing techniques will come to naught if you haven't prepared the wood properly. For me, this means sanding to 150 or 220 grit. I try to sand as much as possible before assembly, since it's easier to access some surfaces at this point. Just make sure that your sanding doesn't affect your joinery. For example, sand your panels before cutting the dados they will fit in.

The first coat of finish that I apply is typically a coat of boiled linseed oil. This tends to give the wood a nice color, something that is particularly important if you're using a water-based top coat. While some don't like the yellowing effect of most oil-based finishes, I like the warm tones it gives to the wood. Water-based finishes don't usually impart any tint, so a coat or two of oil can replicate this effect to a degree. Just flood it on and wipe off the excess. Make sure to lay out the rags to dry completely or soak in water in a fireproof bucket to avoid spontaneous combustion. Let the oil dry completely before continuing.

For a top coat, I like to apply two to three coats of a polyurethane. I'm currently working through a quart of Deft polyurethane that seems to work well for me. I like to brush it on full strength, but I sometimes thin the first coat slightly with mineral spirits to get it to flow better. Between each coat, sand the finish lightly with 320 or 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper. This gives the next coat something to grab on to for better adhesion.

At this stage, the finish is still pretty rough. The final step is to finish the finish. Before going any further, let the polyurethane cure completely. This usually takes a week or two, depending on the conditions in your shop. The more humid it is, the longer the cure time.

Once the finish has cured, sand the entire surface with 400 grit serrated sandpaper backed by a sanding block. Be careful, especially around the edges, not to sand through the finish. The object here is to level the surface, removing any dust nibs, runs, brush marks and any other imperfections left on the surface. Carefully remove all the sanding dust with a vacuum, compressed air and wiping the surface down with a rag.

Now, sand the surface with 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper, using mineral spirits as a lubricant. Again, be careful not to sand too aggressively. You're just trying to remove the scratch pattern left by the previous step. Wipe off the wood to remove the sanding slurry and let it dry completely.

At this point, the finish should be looking pretty good. The final touch is to rub out the finish with steel wool and wax. Using some #0000 steel wool, apply paste wax to the finish, with the grain. Don't be afraid to apply a fair amount of pressure. For panels, I like to make short scrubbing strokes at each end and then long strokes across the entire panel. You don't want the wax to dry completely -- the wax is just being used a lubricant -- so work quickly and on small sections at a time. After you've gone over the wood about three times, wipe off the excess wax with a clean rag. To remove the remaining wax, sprinkle a little bit of water on the surface and wipe lightly with a clean piece of steel wool.

This leaves the finish with a nice smooth satin finish that just invites you to touch it.

So what is your favorite finish?

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