The Finished High Chair

I took a couple of evenings earlier this week to get the continuous-arm high chair finished up. I was pretty dissatisfied with the effect of the black milk paint on my chair from last fall, so I decided to go back to where I began. A couple of years ago, I bought a cheap, falling-apart factory-made Windsor chair from an “antique” store in Mississippi. I took it completely apart and re-shaped every one of the ill-conceived parts into a more pleasing and historically sympathetic form. Upon re-assembly and finishing, the chair immediately became one of my favorites and has graced our dining room table ever since.

On that chair, I used homemade red milk paint as the base coat using red iron oxide as the pigment. That paint turned out lovely. I then tried to concoct some black milk paint using powdered charcoal as pigment. I may as well have painted it with dirty dishwater. The milk paint didn’t have enough substance to provide the opacity required to achieve good coverage. Fortuitously, I found that a bit of finely powdered charcoal mixed with shellac created a lovely black paint, and the finish has held up well and aged beautifully over the past couple of years. Hence, I determined to re-create the same finish on the high chair.

With the red milk paint fully cured over the weekend, I gave it a good rubbing down with a crumpled brown paper bag to achieve a lovely low luster. I find that milk paint performs far better when allowed to cure a few days before rubbing it out. Too soon, and you’ll just wear through the finish. I don’t always have the time or the patience to wait, but three or four days is optimal.

With the milk paint readied, I proceeded to mix up my shellac paint as best as I could remember. The charcoal powder I procured some years earlier from a pyrotechnic supplier. It was dirt cheap – around $25 for 5 lbs worth – and should last me several lifetimes (if I live that long). It is not as finely ground as lampblack, a more common black pigment which can also be obtained from pyrotechnic suppliers. I sifted the charcoal through a reusable brass mesh coffee filter prior to mixing, to remove the coarser bits. A mortar and pestle would be welcome, but I don’t have one.

Tinted Shellac Supplies

I found that a ratio of 1-2 tsp. of charcoal per 1 Tbsp. of shellac (orange, 3-lb cut) made a serviceable paint. A bit of experimentation is required to achieve the proper consistency, but if you get it right, it will go on quite smoothly with a synthetic bristle brush. I use a 1-1/2″ brush for the larger surfaces and a cheap artist’s brush for the nooks, crannies, and spindles.

Tinted Shellac Applied

The finish should not be applied too thickly or it will orange-peel, just like straight shellac. But you can apply multiple thin coats in fairly quick succession. I put two coats on in one evening, then allowed it to cure overnight. You do not want to begin rubbing the shellac until it is fully cured. A Scotch-Brite pad and some judicious use of 400-grit sandpaper on some stubborn rough patches yielded a lovely smooth satin sheen.

Burnishing Tinted Shellac

Finally, I topped off the shellac with a coat of tinted oil. The finish was nothing more than a bit of charcoal powder mixed with boiled linseed oil. To be truthful, I should have skipped the tinting altogether. The charcoal did not seem to add any coverage to the finish – rather, it only served to make the chair messy and annoying to handle until the oil was fully cured. Next time I’ll skip the tinting and just apply pure BLO or a thin wiping varnish.

Tinted Linseed Oil

I can’t say that the finish is perfect. There are some spots that are too thick, and some rough patches that I simply ran out of the will to smooth. But I can say with certainty that it is the best finish I have achieved yet on any of my chairs. The new owner is equally pleased and was rather excited to eat his bowl of cereal while seated upon his new perch this morning.

Continuous-Arm High Chair Rear Quarter View

Indulging My Masochistic Tendencies with More Milk Paint

Stumpy Feet

One thing about my chair that caught some attention when I posted pictures on Instagram was the stumpy nubs on the feet. To answer any questions that may have popped into your head: no, I’m not planning on leaving the stumps. I just prefer to keep those on until after assembling the undercarriage. This allows me to pop them back on the lathe to turn the tapered tenons that pierce the seat after they’ve had a chance to super-dry in the kiln.

In this case, I was very glad I didn’t cut the stumps off prematurely. Elia Bizzarri had suggested 22″ legs for the high chair. I ended making them 23″ long (plus the ~1.5″ stumps) just to make sure they’d be long enough. Well, after assembling the chair, my wife wisely suggested that we put it in front of the table with my son in it, so I would know how much to cut off. Turns out, if I had cut the stumps off as I had planned, the chair would have been uncomfortably short for him. Dodged a bullet there, but now I had to turn the stumps flush with the feet, and it was a *bit* too late to put them onto the lathe again.

So, on to Plan B:

Split leg stumps
Split off as much as I dared…
Shaved leg stumps
Shave the remainder flush with a drawknife and spokeshave…
Sanding leg stumps
And sand to smooth them out.
Tippy toes windsor chair
Now I’m left with much more normal-looking feet.

And with that, the chair was ready for a finish. If you’ll recall, I got rather frustrated using milk paint on the Tavern Table and decided to experiment with some alternatives – namely, oil paint and tinted shellac – in the future. I still plan to do just that, but since I still have a hundred bucks’ worth of milk paint laying around the shop, I figured it would be prudent to press on and try to make peace with it.

I mixed up some Barn Red from Old-Fashioned Milk Paint, using 4 tbsp of powder to 8 tbsp warm water. I let the mixture sit for an hour or so and double-filtered it with cheese cloth. It started going on just beautifully – a smooth, thin coat, more like ink than like paint. But some some reason, after about 30 minutes (it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to paint a chair, by the way) the mixture started foaming up for no apparent reason. There were no bubbles in the mixture, yet as soon as I brushed it on, it would look like this:

Milk Paint Bubbles
Just a few small bubbles in the finish – nothing to worry about…

But as I brushed the coat to smooth it and spread it, it just worked itself up into a foamy, lathery mess, like this:

Milk Paint Foam
Yuck. This is one of the reasons I swore off milk paint in the first place.

There was nothing I could do. I tried adding some more water to the mix, but that didn’t help. No amount of stirring made a difference. It was annoying and disappointing. Luckily, after about 5 minutes of drying, I found that I could go back over the bubbly areas with a semi-dry brush and smooth them down. The most egregious spots were in the crevices around the turnings, where the bubbles seemed to accumulate the most.

In the end, I was able to smooth the finish to an acceptable degree, and I think it will look reasonably good after burnishing with a bit of brown paper. Still more effort than I think a good finish should require. If I’m not pleased with the appearance after burnishing, I’ll give the milk paint a coat of red oxide oil paint to even it out some more. My wife is liking the red color, so we may just leave it solid red rather than proceeding with a black topcoat, as I’ve done in the past.

Red Continuous Arm High Chair II


Final Chapter on the Tavern Table

Wow, I see that almost a month has passed since my last post on the tavern table. Hard to believe it’s been that long, but I’ve finally completed the finish after pecking away at it on evenings and weekends. I honestly think it may be the last time I use milk paint for a long while. I love the results, but it is ridiculously labor-intensive. Look for some experimentation with alternatives – oil paints and tinted shellac – in future blog posts.

When I left off, I had just burnished the second coat of ‘Goldenrod’ and applied a layer of orange shellac.


It’s a bit gaudy to modern eyes at this point, though I believe a color similar to this was pretty popular for Windsor chairs in the late 1700s (those folks liked brighter colors than we tolerate today).

The next step was to cover the Goldenrod with a couple coats of ‘Peacock’.

Tavern 001

Originally, my plan was to paint the top the same color as the base, but once I got the Peacock on the base, I realized that the table actually looked really good with a contrasting top. I decided that a layer of red paint, judiciously rubbed through to the yellow below, might look even better.

Rather than marching forward with more milk paint, I decided to experiment with some oil paint instead:

Making oil paint does not require fancy materials. I used some boiled linseed oil, red iron oxide pigment, and turpentine. (Long-time readers might know that I’ve complained about boiled linseed oil before due to its metallic dryers, but its rapid drying time was too tempting in this case for a project that has already dragged on for far too long.)
I don’t have a fancy glass muddler, but a glass bowl and a teaspoon seems to work fine. I used 1/4 tsp. pigment, 1 tsp. oil, and 1/2 tsp. turpentine. I made that up on the spot, so don’t make the mistake of assuming that there is any magic behind those proportions. It did make a fine paint of good consistency.
I gave the top a washcoat of Peacock, which dried overnight before I used the oil paint. The effect of layering different colors gives a natural irregularity to the color, which I enjoy.
And here is the tabletop with two coats of the red paint. Quite nice, I think. I like this much more than a solid-color table.

The final step was to rub down the whole table with Scotch-Brite pads. I tried to simulate age by rubbing through the top coat in predictable locations: around the drawer knob, on the corners and edge of the top and legs, and especially on the tops of the stretchers where feet should rest. I stopped short of “distressing” the piece with dents, scratches, rasping, and sanding. I don’t have the willpower to spend the time on a good and realistic distressed finish, and a poorly distressed piece (AKA “shabby chic”) is, shall we say, not to my taste.

Tavern 004

Finally, after an hour of burnishing, the table was ready for its final coat: a layer of home-brewed wiping varnish (1/3 boiled linseed oil, 1/3 satin oil varnish, 1/3 turpentine).

The final coat highlighted my second major annoyance with milk paint (the first being labor): It changes color dramatically when the oil is applied. I quite liked the blue-green appearance of the unfinished milk paint. But the second you apply the varnish (or oil, or shellac, or any other protective finish), the color darkens more than you might expect.

Tavern 001
Before Varnish
Tavern 005
After Varnish

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m quite happy with the final appearance of the table. I’m just annoyed that I couldn’t predict how it would look until after the varnish was applied. If I had a specific color that I was trying to match, I would have been far more annoyed. The nice thing about oil paints and tinted shellac is that the color looks pretty much the same when it’s mixed, when it’s going on, and when it dries. Milk paint, on the other hand, has one shade when you mix it, a different shade completely when it dries, and yet another completely different shade when you finish it. Unless you are deeply familiar with the product, it’s just unpredictable.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. How about some glamour shots of the finished table?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Getting Shellacked at the Tavern Table

The finish on the tavern table is well underway. I put on two coats of “Goldenrod” milk paint from The Real Milk Paint Co. on consecutive evenings, burnishing with Scotch-Brite between each coat. Let’s be clear: I hate burnishing milk paint. It’s not so bad on a flat surface, like this tabletop, but it is dusty, messy, smelly, finger-numbing work on the turnings with all their curves and crevices. But, if you wish to use milk paint, it is a necessary evil (a necessary evil that almost makes me want to try oil paints).


The color goes on rather bold:

shrink pot 004

But after two coats, I apply a layer of orange shellac which calms things down considerably.


I once asked Chris Schwarz if he used pre-mixed shellac or mixed his own. His response: “Buying pre-mixed shellac is like buying frozen lasagna”. Perhaps, but the frozen lasagna has one thing going for it that homemade does not: it may be mediocre, but at least it’s consistently and predictably mediocre. Homemade lasagna can be world-class, but I have had some crappy homemade lasagna as well.

This is relevant, because I have had mixed success mixing my own shellac. Last time I bought a pound of flakes, they didn’t dissolve in the alcohol any more than if I’d thrown a handful of Wheaties into the jar. And the dregs that did dissolve refused to dry, but instead preferred to live out their brief existence as a gummy film on top of my painstakingly wrought furniture. The shellac was from a reputable dealer, but I was too inexperienced at the time to know that it was a bad batch, so I just ate the cost and moved on.

All this to say: I buy Zinsser from Home Depot, and I don’t feel a bit of guilt. It’s always 10 minutes away, and at least I know what I’m getting when I buy it. I have no complaints about how it’s held up on my furniture, and my earliest shellac-finished piece will turn 10 years old this year.

So, after hours of painting and burnishing and shellacking, here’s where things stand. Next up will be a couple coats of blue-green “Peacock”, unless I decide that this straw color is more to my liking. I’ll have a better idea when the shellac is fully dry and rubbed down.




Crawling to the Finish Line.

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:

  1. Stain the wood
  2. Paint with milk paint
  3. Sand the first coat with 320-grit
  4. Another coat of milk paint
  5. Burnish the second coat with steel wool or Scotch-Brite
  6. A final coat of milk paint (usually a different color from the first two)
  7. Burnish the final coat of paint
  8. 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:

Chair Finish 001
See, I told you. I hate stain, but in this case, it’s called for.

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.

Chair Finish 008

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.

Chair Finish 015

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:

Chair Finish 017

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.

Chair Finish 028

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.

Chair Finish 031

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.

Chair Finish 032

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.


Create a Pretty Awesome Wood Finish with Minimal Fuss

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
  • Paste wax
Tools of the Trade
Tools of the Trade

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.

Pig-tails: Cute on a toddler, revolting on a piece of furniture.

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.

Tung Oil
Any drying oil will do. Tung oil doesn’t yield better results than boiled linseed oil, but it’s free of metallic drying agents.

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!

Layout Shellac
Your finishing platform doesn’t have to be pretty, just stable. Get it above the dirt and grass in an area where you have room to move around.

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…

Shiny Shellac
Shellac comes in one sheen: High-gloss.

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.

Sanding Block
My sanding block is just a 3/4″-thick scrap of wood that measures 4.75″ long x 2.5″ wide. It has a kerf in one side where you slide one edge of a quarter sheet of sandpaper, and wrap it around. It’s faced with some adhesive cork. Somehow I’ve managed to hang onto this simple tool for nearly 10 years.

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.

Sanding Shellac
You’re done when the finish has an evenly flat sheen. Wipe off the dust, and you’re ready for the next step.

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.

Lacquer Layout
Patience, this is the last time we have to deal with this makeshift spraying setup.

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.

Rubbing Out
Rub the finish down eagerly with a Scotch-Brite pad. Unlike the sandpaper, it’s not abrasive enough to cut all the way through the finish.

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.

Waxed Surface
The wax is ready to buff when it dries to a whitish blush.

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.)

Halloween 062
A good finish is as pleasant to the hands as it is to the eyes.

So there you have it. My recipe for a foolproof finish. Good luck.

“In with the New, and Out with the Old”

Song lyrics were running through my head as I rubbed down the final coat of lacquer on Sunday morning:

Down with the shine, the perfect shine, That poisons the well, and ruins my mind, I get took for a ride every time, Down with the glistening shine.

The Avett Brothers are right. Aerosol lacquer leaves a nearly perfect finish straight from the can, but even the “satin” finish is too shiny for my taste. To tone down that glistening shine, I prefer to rub it out with a green synthetic steel wool (Scotch-Brite) pad. You can use real steel wool, but it’s annoying because it disintegrates and leaves a mess.

Halloween 033
Halloween 034

In addition to to reducing the plastic-y look that lacquer can give (not as bad as polyurethane though), rubbing out the finish vastly improves its tactile qualities. The fingers can easily see what your eyes can’t.

Unlike sandpaper, which always needs to be used with the grain when sanding the finish, the Scotch-Brite pad can be rubbed in a circular pattern. If you’re really feeling like a rebel, they attach quite nicely to the Velcro of a random orbit sander.

Halloween 032

The final step is a coat of paste wax. I’ve had one can that I’ve been using for at least 8 years, and it’s still not close to halfway gone. Paste wax brings back just a hint of shine, adds a bit of water-proofing, and further improves the smooth, tactile awesomeness of the finish. Rub it on lightly with a cotton rag, let it dry for about 10 minutes, and buff it off with a clean cloth.
Halloween 035

The layers of finish will continue to cure and harden for at least a month after the final coat is applied. I try to treat my furniture gingerly for a while after I bring it inside – we’ll see how well that works for a kitchen table in a house with two young kids.

After the paste wax was done, the table was ready leave my shop. Cue the next verse:

It’s in with the new, and out with the old, Out goes the warm, and in comes the cold, It’s the most predictable story told, In with the young, out with the old.

The old table was certainly warm and well-used.
Halloween 036

Complete with glitter paint:

Halloween 037

And watercolors:

Halloween 038

And plenty of dents and dings:

Halloween 039

My daughter was actually crying as I disassembled it to store in the attic. Fortunately, her sadness quickly shifted to delight as I brought the new table in and began to set it up. Unlike the old table, which overwhelmed the small space and made it difficult for two people to move around in the kitchen, the new table fits the space perfectly.

Halloween 047
Let’s just pretend that this is an attractive, modern showroom and not the outdated kitchen of 40-year-old rental house, shall we?

Halloween 048

When I began the project, I was mostly excited that I had a kitchen table design that would be quick and easy to build so I could move on to other projects. Now that it’s finished, I have to say that I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. I think the table looks modern, but not avant-garde. It goes nicely with our motley collection of kitchen chairs. We feel more like a family as we sit around this table, all facing one another and within an arm’s reach, rather than stretched out across a too-big table. It just feels right. And that’s a good feeling.

Halloween 053

If you’d like to follow the whole series of posts on designing and building this table, you can click here and start at the bottom. 

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.