Finishing up

Jun 05 2014

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

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Ready for the final step, some finish. Lately I’ve been building everything with poplar and applying a shellac finish. I’ve used tung oil, danish oil and poly finishes, and worked with pine, oak, walnut, cherry, maple, and probably some other woods. But I decided to stick to one wood, one finish for a little bit, until I get a solid feel for it, then move on. Jumping around trying to try one thing after another, I find they all just get jumbled in your mind. Now, I feel like I know how poplar cuts, planes, chisels, sands and finishes. It’s part of my experience. And I know how shellac goes on, how much to cut it, how many coats, how much to sand it, or steel wool it and exactly how it’s going to look and feel at each stage. Soon I can move on and get some experience with other things. But one more time with shellac.

Shellac is alcohol based, and I’ve thinned this with 50% denatured alcohol. This makes it go on thinner and smoother, though it may need more coats.

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First coat done. After a bit, I’ll flip it over and apply a coat to the bottom.

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Shellac dries really quickly, presumably because the alcohol evaporates so easily. In less than an hour, it’s ready for the next step. I sand with some 320 grit sandpaper and apply a second coat. Let that dry, sand again, do a third coat. It’s getting super silky smooth now. Sanding the dry shellac produces a white powder that quickly clogs up the 320 grit sandpaper, and gets all over your hands and clothes. It also smells like someone’s living room the morning after a big party, before anyone has cleaned up all the empty beer bottles. Dried, stale alcohol. No lie.

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This particular piece is a total pain to sand, too. Reaching down into those compartments trying to hold a piece of sandpaper and hit all the surfaces… all the knuckles on my right hand are torn up.

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After the third coat is dry, I hit it with 4-0 steel wool rather than sandpaper, then shoot the final coat of shellac on it. When that’s dry, another once over with steel wool. The shellac fills the pores and seals the wood, so it’s hard to describe how smooth this feels. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a thick build up on top of the wood, just that the wood itself is now super smooth. Also, the alcohol in each fresh layer of shellac dissolved the previous layers and joins with it, so you end up with one solid surface, not multiple layers like some other finishes. Because the shellac dries so quickly, you can really do all the coats in a single day. Apply, go away for an hour, come back, sand, apply. This is great, but I left the shellac out and open in a jar this whole time. I think a lot of the alcohol evaporated during the day, so the last coats were a lot thicker than the first ones. You can see that in some of the pictures above, where it got kind of drippy. Not a big deal. Just meant for more vigorous steel wooling.

After wiping all the dust away, I apply finishing wax. Before I tried applying it directly with a cloth, but you end up with big chunks of it stuck in corners. Others actually say to apply it with steel wool, which kind of works OK, but you end up with bits of steel wool kind of stuck to the surface in the wax. I tried this time doing something else I’ve read, to put a chunk of wax inside a cloth and squeeze it out. This worked great. The wax kind of liquifies as it comes through the cloth and you get a nice, thin, even layer on the wood.

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When that’s done, I let the wax dry for 20-30 minutes, then buff it out with a clean cloth, and then a shoe polish brush. This gives it an amazingly smooth, shiny surface. And we are done! Finished, literally. This goes to my daughter.

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After years of making software and sites that are obsolete or ignored after a few months or a year or two, or require constant maintenance and upgrades to stay relevant, it’s nice to know that I can make something and call it done and release it into the world and know that it will probably survive and continue to be useful for decades after I’m gone.

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