There’s no way around it: finishing a Windsor chair is a painstaking process. It can also be a pretty scary process, because the chair will look terrible until the very last step is complete. You just have to do your best and trust that it will all work out in the end. My finishing process seems pretty typical for modern Windsor chairmakers:
Stain the wood
Paint with milk paint
Sand the first coat with 320-grit
Another coat of milk paint
Burnish the second coat with steel wool or Scotch-Brite
A final coat of milk paint (usually a different color from the first two)
Burnish the final coat of paint
Seal the paint with oil
You might use more coats of paint, depending on the effect you’re going for, but the process will be more-or-less the same. I decided to use a black-on-red paint job to match a Windsor chair that I re-finished a couple of years ago. Eventually, I’d like to have a whole set of these things for our dinner table.
The stain that you choose isn’t particularly critical. It’s not supposed to show at all; it’s only there so, in case the paint wears through in a few years, you don’t see the fresh white wood poking through the finish. Peter Galbert uses a homemade brown stain made from walnut husks. I have a bunch of water-soluble dyes that a fellow woodworker gave me a few years back, so that’s what I used. I’m not even sure what brand it is, because it came in hand-labeled jars. You can just use whatever you want, but I would avoid oil-based stains, since they take so long to dry and could cause issues with the milk paint adhering if it isn’t fully cured.
As I said before, the chair will look like crap from the moment you apply the dye until the moment that you seal the paint with oil. Brace yourself:
Stain is unforgiving. It will hunt down your mistakes and highlight them for all to see. It will point at you and laugh. If the stain is meant to be seen, that’s a bad thing, but in this case, it’s actually quite helpful. I thought I had done a good job cleaning up the glue squeeze-out. I was wrong.
The water-based dye does not soak into the glue spots as it does on the wood, so they stand out prominently when the stain is applied. This gives me a chance to clean them up with a bit of sanding before I proceed with the paint. Next time, I’ll try to be more careful with the glue.
When the stain is completely dry, you can proceed with milk paint. Mixing milk paint is an art unto itself. Bottom line: Don’t use the directions that come with the package. Go read this blog post from Elia Bizzarri. My base coat is “Barn Red” from The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. It’s really darker than I would have preferred for the base coat, but I had some on hand so it’s what I used. “Salem Red” would have been a better choice, but I forgot how dark Barn Red was until after it was dry.
The first coat looks pretty good from a distance, but while I was applying it, I noticed that it seemed unusually grainy. Apparently the sieve that I used wasn’t fine enough and I failed to get all the dregs out of the paint. Bummer. Have a closer look:
The first coat required far more sanding than I was anticipating to get all of that crap off. For the second coat, I used a re-usable mesh coffee filter to strain the paint, and the results were much better.
After letting this coat dry, I burnished the paint with a Scotch-Brite pad and proceeded with the final coat of paint. This time, I used “Arabian Night” from The Real Milk Paint Co. Peter Galbert spoke highly of this company on his blog and in his book, so I decided to give their paint a shot. I found that there was much less of the coarse material in their paint, so it didn’t require filtration like the paint from Old-Fashioned Milk Paint. It’s always nice to cut out a step, so I’ll be using their paint from now on.
With a black-on-red finish, the red milk paint is supposed to show through just a bit – you don’t want too thick of a coat. But it does need to go on evenly. The trick is to put it on a bit thicker than you want, then use the Scotch-Brite to rub it off to the desired level of show-through.
The black paint looks terrible when dry, with some of the chalk rising to the surface and drying with a grayish cast. This is as far as I’ve gotten, so I’m crossing my fingers that a bit of burnishing and a coat of oil will make all right with the world. Wish me luck.
For those of you who have read more than a couple of my posts, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not much for a simple how-to post. My writing style tends to be narrative, rather than instructional. Since I know that some folks simply want information and not a story, for this post, I will be eschewing my preferred style in an attempt to clearly communicate a method of finishing that I’ve found to be easy, repeatable, and dare I say foolproof?
I want to call the process “simple”, but some might balk at that, since there are quite a few steps involved; however, you’ll find that you spend far more time waiting for the finish to cure than actually working on the finish. A little bit of patience in between the steps will pay off handsomely in the end.All of the materials are inexpensive and readily available from your local hardware store (I tend to favor Home Depot for my finishing supplies, because they always seem to have aerosol lacquer in stock, which is the linchpin of my finishing process).
Here’s what you’ll need:
Boiled linseed oil (or another drying oil, like walnut oil or tung oil)
Aerosol shellac (Zinsser is the only company that makes it, as far as I’m aware)
Aerosol lacquer, satin (I’ve used Deft for years with great results, and I’ve recently found the Minwax brand to be of similar quality)
Sandpaper, 220- or 320-grit (Use high-quality sandpaper – Norton and 3M are excellent)
Cork-backed sanding block
Scotch-Brite pads (AKA synthetic steel wool)
Healthy supply of cotton rags and/or paper towels
That’s it. No expensive brushes or fancy air compressor-powered devices required. The list is still a bit long to start out, but the shellac and lacquer are the only items that can be consumed by a single project. Everything else goes a long way.
Before You Get Started
A standard disclaimer: No wood finish will ever look good if the wood isn’t properly prepared. It makes no difference how you get to “properly prepared”. You can sand, you can scrape, you can plane. I usually do all three. No matter how sharp my hand plane is, there’s always some small areas of tearout that need to be addressed with a scraper. I follow the plane and scraper with a cork-backed sanding block and 180- or 220-grit sandpaper, always making sure to sand with the grain. The sanding is nothing more than a quick rub to get an even texture before the finish goes on.
You can also use a power-sanding, which is what I did before I gained experience with a hand plane. I’m fully aware of the years of practice and the expense of the tools that were required for me to get a consistently satisfactory hand-planed surface. A random orbit sander is a perfectly acceptable tool for preparing your surfaces and it can be wielded with only a modicum of skill, so that’s where most people start. But, for the love of Neptune, please sand to a fine grit and finish up with hand-sanding along the grain, being sure to use a raking light to highlight any areas of pig-tail swirls on your wood so you can remove them.
Step 1: Start with the Oil
Alright, so now that you have a well-prepped piece of furniture, the first step is to slather it in oil like a sunbathing supermodel. This is the best part of the finishing process, because it requires no skill, and you get to catch the first glimpse of the grain in its full shimmering glory. Depending on the surface that you’re treating, you can either pour a bit of oil on the surface and use a rag to spread it around evenly (for large surfaces, like tabletops), or you can apply the oil to your rag and wipe it on the wood (for smaller surfaces, like table legs). However you choose to apply, be sure to coat the wood thoroughly. After a couple or five minutes, use a clean rag to wipe off the excess.
I start with oil for a couple of reasons. First, it should immediately highlight any problem areas that you might not have caught in your prepwork. Glue spots are a prime example – they can escape casual observation on bare wood, but will stand out like a turd in the punch bowl once oil is applied. It’s much easier to repair a blemished oil finish than a film finish. Second, the oil increases the chatoyance of figured woods like curly maple, and darkens over time, which improves the appearance of certain woods, like walnut, cherry, oak, and many exotics. You might consider skipping the oil if you’re trying to keep your wood light in color (like plain maple or holly) or if you’re using a softwood that’s prone to blotching.
The easiest drying oil to get is boiled linseed oil. You can find it at any hardware store in the solvents sections, and it works great and dries fast. If you’re wary of the metallic dryers in boiled linseed oil, you can use raw linseed oil (also called flaxseed oil), raw tung oil, or walnut oil. Just be aware that if you’re using raw oils, you’ll need to let the oil dry for a longer period of time before the next step. Boiled linseed oil will be completely dry in 24 hours. Raw oils will generally need to wait a few days to a week before you can proceed with the next step.
Step 2: Next Comes Shellac
After the oil is fully cured, wipe the wood down with a clean cloth to remove any dust and stray insects. You’ll want to wait for a clear day with low humidity for the next step, because it’s important to do your spraying outside unless you have a clean finishing room with full respiratory protection (and if you do, then why the heck are you reading this article?) Set up your furniture/parts so you can work with them at a comfortable level and move all the way around them. I find that some 5-gallon buckets and some scraps of lumber and plywood come in handy here – but make sure your setup is stable enough that your furniture doesn’t blow over in a stiff breeze!
Now spray the entire project – or as much as you can reach – with shellac, using long, even strokes. Start spraying slightly away from the furniture, then move the spray towards the piece. Don’t start spraying at the piece, because the finish can spit a little as it begins. Hold the can about 10″ from the surface, and overlap just a bit. It doesn’t take much practice to figure out what works.
Don’t spray too much in one area – shellac is dissolved in ethanol, which has a low surface tension – it’s more prone to drips on vertical surfaces than other finishes. Don’t over-spray horizontal surfaces, either, because you’ll get a bumpy texture that resembles an orange peel. Again, it doesn’t take much practice to figure out the sweet spot. After the first coat is dry to the touch, apply a second coat, then maybe a third. You don’t have to be exact, just get a good, solid base coat. Now you’re done for the day.
Why do I use shellac? Primarily, I use it as a barrier between the oil and the lacquer. Shellac is like anti-teflon. It will stick to anything, and anything will stick to it. (Almost anything). For this reason, shellac is especially helpful (almost a necessity) on woods that contains a lot of pitch (like pine) or oil (many exotics). In this case, the shellac forms a barrier between the oil and and the lacquer, so your lacquer will not have any trouble adhering even if the oil isn’t 100% cured.
Another great thing about shellac is that it dries incredibly fast. If you’re used to oil-based varnishes, like polyurethane, which are still sticky hours later, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the shellac is dry to the touch in 10 minutes. Finally, shellac is a very easy finish to sand, and this is important because of the next step…
Step 3: Sand the Shellac
After you’ve let the shellac cure overnight, the finish you’ll return to will probably be a little disappointing. It’ll be quite shiny and probably a little uneven, and there will no doubt be some dust nibs in the surface as well. None of that matters, because you’re about to sand it smooth. For flat surfaces, wrap some 220- or 320-grit sandpaper around your sanding block and gently sand the surface until you get an even, dull sheen. It should feel consistently smooth to the touch. For curved surfaces, use the sandpaper without the sanding block, but use a deft touch – the last thing you want to do is sand through the shellac you’ve just applied.
When you’re confident that the finish is completely flat and level, you can move on to step 4. If you’re going for a deeper build, or if the sanding process has revealed flaws that required sanding all the way through the shellac, then go back to step 2 before proceeding. I usually move straight to step 4 at this point.
Step 4: Apply the Lacquer
Brief aside for an important warning: I can’t emphasize this enough. Lacquer contains a downright nasty brew of solvents. What exactly does it contain? Well, it depends, but here’s a list of solvents from one commercial version: Light Aliphatic Hydrocarbon Solvent, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Methanol, 2-Propanol, Acetone, and 2-Butoxyethyl Acetate. I’m not a chemophobe, but you can look up the MSDS sheets for these chemicals and see for yourself that many of them are associated with quite unpleasant acute and chronic effects. Use your head: never spray lacquer indoors, and use a respirator if at all possible. Don’t bring the finished piece inside until it’s completely dry – at least several hours, and more is better.
Alright, I’ve just spelled out some excellent reasons to avoid lacquer. Why would I still want to use it, then? Well, simply put, I have used nearly every finish out there, and there is simply no other that is so consistently durable, attractive, and easy to apply. If they could find a way to make it non-toxic, it would be the perfect finish. Fortunately, it’s only toxic for as long as the solvent is drying, so we just have to take steps to mitigate its effects during application and curing.
Now that the unpleasantness is out of the way, let’s talk about application. You’ll basically follow the same instructions as for the shellac. Be careful to spray evenly and use a consistent sweeping motion. You should notice that the lacquer is much each to apply smoothly than the shellac. It will dry even faster. You can add another coat 5 minutes after the first. I usually give the piece three to four coats of lacquer.
Now, let the piece dry overnight. It’s best to keep it outside for several hours to let the solvents evaporate (you did choose a pretty day, didn’t you?) I bring the furniture piece into the shop before I go to bed to keep the dew off of it. The next day, the finish should be cured and should no longer stink of the chemical brew. If it still smells strongly of chemicals, let the finish dry until the smell has dissipated.
Step 5: Rub Out the Lacquer
When the lacquer has cured, it should look quite good – the best part about lacquer is how nice the finish looks straight from the can. You might be tempted to stop now and call it done – and I suppose you could – but just a couple more steps will greatly improve the tactile qualities of the finish. If you rub your hand on it, you’ll probably notice some small bumps and such from stray dust that landed in your wet finish, and you’ll possibly see some uneven areas where you didn’t spray very consistently or overlap the edges enough.
You can smooth out the bumps and even out the sheen by rubbing the vigorously with a Scotch-Brite pad. It’s just abrasive enough to give the finish a silky polish but not abrasive enough to wear through the finish. If you have a random-orbit sander, you can put the pad right on the sander and power-buff it. It works fine on large, flat surfaces. You’ll need to rub out the curves by hand. You’ll know you’re done when the surface has a consistent sheen all over and feels as smooth as silk sheets.
Step 6: Last Step, Paste Wax
Finally, get a clean cotton cloth and put a nickel-sized glob of paste wax right in the middle. Wrap the cloth around the glob of wax and squeeze it a bit until it starts to work through. Now rub all over the piece, leaving a thin, even coat of wax. After 5 or 10 minutes, the wax will dry and leave a whitish blush on the surface.
Now, buff off the wax with a dry cloth or paper towel. That’s it. The wood is finished, you’re finished, too. It should be a smooth, silky finish – with just the right amount of shine – that just begs to be touched. (I’m talking about the wood, not you.)
So there you have it. My recipe for a foolproof finish. Good luck.