T-Minus 2 Coats of Lacquer: The Sassafras Kitchen Table, Cont’d.

If there’s one part of woodworking that I’d just as soon do without, it’s the finishing. Something tells me I’m not alone in this regard. I can easily get into “the zone” when cutting joinery or planing or carving where the time seems to pass without notice, but for some reason that never seems to happen during the finishing process – I very much notice the time, and there’s a part of me that dreads it. It’s not really that I’m worried about messing up the piece. That used to be a concern early on, but I’ve worked out some reliable processes that have been pretty fool-proof.

Well, the time has come to give this table a finish – I can’t put it off any longer. I started a couple of days ago with a good rubbing of tung oil. I use real, 100% tung oil, not the “Tung Oil Finish” that they sell at the hardware store that’s actually a wiping varnish that doesn’t contain any actual tung oil. I bought it from Woodcraft, one bottle goes a long way.

There is nothing magical about tung oil, and you can use most any drying oil to get the same results. I used to used boiled linseed oil, which dries very quickly (for an oil) and looks pretty much the same once it’s on the wood, but I’ve grown wary of the chemicals in it that enhance the drying. It’s probably fine, but it annoys me that manufacturers won’t say what’s actually in it. All I know is that it contains “metallic dryers”. They don’t use lead any more, but what do they use? So anyway, I’ve switched to tung oil for now. Real tung oil is slow to dry, much slower than boiled linseed oil. I left this bottle in the window for probably a year – the sunlight helps catalyze the cross-linking process that results in a hard finish. It’s noticeably thicker now than it was when I bought it.

Wiping with oil is the one part of the finishing process that I don’t mind – actually, it’s one of the best parts of woodworking. There’s nothing like seeing the fine glow first appear when the oil hits the wood.

Tung Oil

After a couple of days of drying, the less-fun parts must commence. I lay out the pieces and start with some aerosol shellac. I used to brush shellac, which can leave a beautiful finish if you’re careful, but it’s a pain in the ass to clean up your brushes. Plus, the solvent is denatured alcohol, which doesn’t come cheap. It’s even more expensive if you want to avoid the denaturing chemicals and use Everclear instead. You can’t use disposable brushes, either. Brushed shellac demands high-quality (read: expensive) brushes, there is no alternative.

Aerosol Shellac

I have to say, the primary benefit of aerosol finishes is the complete elimination of solvents and brushes. They’re half the cost of your finishing materials. I don’t ever consider brushing film finishes any more, and the thought of having to clean and maintain an HVLP system gives me nightmares and cold sweats. So, aerosol it is for me. I really don’t see this as a cop-out, though: I can achieve a finish with aerosol sprays that rivals anything I’ve seen in fancy studio furniture. Most of the effect of a fine finish comes through rubbing it out after it’s applied, not the application process itself.

The top and legs both got two coats of shellac. Shellac is fast-drying – you can re-coat within 10 minutes on a sunny day. You have to be careful not to overdo it, though. Shellac doesn’t have the same surface tension as more modern film finishes, like polyurethane and lacquer. That means that if you over-spray a vertical surface, you’re very likely to get runs in the finish. It’s also susceptible to “orange peel” effect if you over-spray a horizontal surface.


After a day of drying, the shellac is fully-cured, and I’ll rub it out with some 320-grit sandpaper and a cork sanding block. This will leave a wonderfully smooth surface for the final coats. I use aerosol lacquer for the topcoat. I used to use a Deft satin lacquer, which was cheap (around $6/can) and could be purchased at Home Depot. I noticed that Home Depot has done away with the Deft brand and replaced it with some Minwax lacquer. They also upped the price to $9/can, the bastards. The Deft lacquer was an incredible finish, durable, easy to apply, it went on beautifully straight from the can, and it dried so fast that it was almost impossible to over-apply. Once you went ’round your furniture one time, you could start right back again. I have no experience with the Minwax product, but I’m going to be pissed if it’s not a full 50% better, given the price.

After supper, I brought the pieces back into my shop to install the battens on the underside. I know fully well that this tabletop will shrink by a lot when I bring it inside. My shop is humid and wood can scarcely get below 12% moisture content in there. It’s never been a problem, though – just accept that your wood is going to move and makes plans to accommodate it. I drilled elongated holes in my battens and screwed them on with panhead screws and washers.

Finish 019

I’ll probably not worry with a film finish on the underside of the table. A good coat of oil is all she’ll get.

Finish 020

I’m so excited to get this table into my kitchen I can hardly stand it. Honestly, I think that’s one of my problems with finishing. The furniture is built, and I’m over-eager to put the thing to use, so I’m prone to rush things. That’s bad news for a good finish – it takes time, and there’s not much you can do to hasten the process. I have learn to take a deep breath and take my time, just like I do with the rest of the furniture-making process.


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