Finishing wood has several benefits, with the main one being protection. Finished wood is protected from contaminants and other fluids (especially water) that could ruin the piece. Finishing wood also makes the piece look more beautiful than a raw piece of wood. It adds depth and brings out details that would be completely hidden otherwise. Finishing wood also makes a piece just seem, for lack of a better word, finished, like someone cares, like it is more valuable. A good finish is nice and smooth and begs to be touched. Reaching out and touching a finished piece of wood seems to be an instinctual way to determine the overall quality, like smelling your food before taking a big bite. I can tell you from lots of personal experiences that the first thing customers do when they see a newly finished piece of furniture is to reach out and touch the wood. They are using their eyes to look at it at the same time, but they are doing half of their looking with their hands. With that in mind, I would suggest that you do at least half of your looking with your hands when finishing a piece of wood.
Your hands can tell you so much about a surface that your eyes can’t. First of all, you can feel lots of places that you cannot see, whether it simply be hidden from view from a lack of light or from a lack of access or maybe just that it is in a bad position at the time. A great example of all of these is on chair work. A chair is meant to be seen from all angles and there are usually lots of intersecting surfaces headed in all directions, with many hidden from view.
Your hands can also feel things in plain sight that your eyes might never see. This is especially true for clear finish coats. If you don’t have big, obvious, light-reflecting mistakes in a well-lit shop, they may not show up enough to see – that is until after you deliver it to your customer and they put it right in front of their big bay window, the one that is similar to the bay window you don’t have in your shop.
I use my bare hands continually through the finishing process. Combined with a low, raking light to help highlight imperfections, they create a dragnet that catches anything trying to make its way into the finished pice. And, the best part is that my hands never miss, they feel everything (except color).
Get your hands involved early in the finishing process, even during rough sanding and surface preparation. During this phase your hands will let you know if there are any dents or chips that aren’t obvious enough to see, and they will give you an overall feel for the surface, how smooth it is and if there are any unflat areas that need to be straightened out. It will give you a good idea where you need to spend more time sanding and point out areas of raised grain that you could never see with your eyes alone.
After you have finished sanding, use your hands, while you are blowing off the surfaces with compressed air, to wipe the surfaces clean. Your hands will loosen particles that would otherwise stick and the air can blow them away. In lieu of tack clothes (which I don’t own anyway), I always use this method, just wiping my hand on my pants as I go. While you are cleaning the surface, without noticing it, you will also be looking at the surface with your hands. You will feel anything that wasn’t adequately sanded the first time, and have a chance to take care of it before you are in too deep.
Your hands are also fantastic for work in-between finish coats too. At this point, the surface and color should be in great shape and any issues should be small and almost undetectable, except with your hands. After scraping or sanding the first sealer coat, use your hands to help clean the surface for the following coat, just like you did before applying the first coat of sealer. While you are wiping off the dust (and wiping it on your pants), you will feel any dust nibs or rough patches or even runs while you are working. Your hands will tell you everything you need to know about the quality of your surface and how you are progressing.
I usually apply one or two more coats of finish, each of which requires less work, but every one involving my hands to make sure the surface is ready for the next step. In fact, I use my hands so much that I am pretty sure I could do my work in-between finish coats without even using my eyes (insert your own joke here, I teed it up for you).
The next time you are working on a finish, get your hands more involved. Try to use your hands as much as your eyes to recognize what is going on with the surface, even in places that are hidden from view. You will be amazed at how much you can “see” with your hands.
When I think of green products, especially a green cleaner, I think of something that is nice to the environment and nice to dirt. I imagine a product that tries harder to make me feel better about using it than it does about getting the job done. Now, I am not in a hurry to damage the earth, but if I have to choose, I often lean to the more manly and more toxic.
One of my favorite toxic substances is lye. It is mean, and if you want something to melt any organic substance you can think of, lye is it. Lye is the main ingredient in Drano drain cleaner, and it removes clogs by dissolving the most common culprit – hair. I also know that it burns skin and while I use it to darken cherry, if left on too long and too strong it will actually dissolve the wood.
Now that got me thinking. I have used oven cleaner in the past to clean saw blades; it did a good job dissolving the wood stuck to the blades and it burns my skin. With those two things in common, there just might be lye in the oven cleaner. It doesn’t really matter what is in the oven cleaner, but it started to make a stronger connection in my head between lye and using it as a cleaner to remove wood and wood pitch that gets stuck to every high-speed tool in the shop.
I got very excited and very sidetracked and started using lye to clean everything, and it worked great. The most impressive use of the lye was on belts from my wide-belt sander. At $40 a pop the sanding belts are hard to part with, especially when I know the only thing wrong with them is that they are full of pitch. In the past, I had used the rubber sticks that are specifically built to clean sanding belts and there were always spots that wouldn’t come clean, but not with the lye. In just a matter of minutes, even the nastiest chunks of burnished and burnt wood streaks melted away and left me with a like-new belt. Luckily, the sanding belt itself seemed rather impervious to the lye.
I couldn’t believe it. There was only one thing left to do – go to YouTube and see if anyone else knew about this dramatic new finding. I didn’t find anything for cleaning big belts, only ideas for smaller belts and none of them mentioned lye. I couldn’t believe that no one had come up with this yet. Lye was the ticket. But as I soon found out, it wasn’t the Holy Grail.
The more I searched the internet to see what others were saying about lye, the more I came across what I assumed were the granola’s of the earth pushing Simple Green to clean saw blades. I thought sure, if you want your saw blades cleaned sometime this year then go ahead. Then I read a few more posts about the virtues of Simple Green and eventually I couldn’t ignore it, so I tried it.
Simple Green worked great on my saw blades. They cleaned up as quickly as they would have with lye or oven cleaner – WHAT? I truly couldn’t believe it. No way on God’s Simple Green earth was it going to beat the muscle-bound, knee-busting power of my good friend lye. There was only one way to find out, so I put them in a head-to-head test on a belt of wood-clogged sandpaper from my wide-belt sander.
I am sure you can tell from the title that Simple Green had more than a good showing. Simple Green worked just as well as lye – absolutely no difference. If a spot needed to soak a bit with lye, it needed to soak the same amount with Simple Green, with the added benefit of not melting everything it touches. I don’t know what is in that stuff, but it works.
Lately, I have even been using it in my drip system on my sawmill. In the past (when my sawmill was outside) I would resort to using diesel to keep the blades clean on pitchy wood, like pine. It worked, but at the end of the day everything felt extra dirty and smelled like diesel, which is the exact opposite of how it should smell when cutting fresh wood, especially pine. Just a little Simple Green added to the water in my drip system keeps the blade clean and the shop smelling fresh. It really is amazing how well it works.
Simple Green, who knew?
Sanding is one of those things that is low on the priority list but high on the necessity list. Very few of us want to do it, but we all know that we have to do it. And, even though most of us aren’t excited about it, the quality of a sanding job can be the difference between a masterpiece and a large paperweight. Poor sanding techniques cannot only ruin the actual piece but can also ruin the finish. No single tool in the shop can be so disastrous (note that I didn’t say bloody).
It all starts with the right mindset. Often sanding is viewed as an obstacle, something that gets in the way of actually finishing, but it is the opposite. Sanding is finishing. Treat is as a separate and integral first part of the finishing process.
Be happy about it. If you break a woodworking project into two halves, the second half would be the finishing, which starts with sanding. Celebrate that your project is more than halfway finished and sand with a smile on your face. If you aren’t happy about it, at least try to fake it.
Don’t be lazy. Laziness shows up in the worst ways. Hard to reach areas will still have saw marks. Wide open areas will have chatter marks from the planer. Glue joints won’t be flush. If you don’t want to put in the time to sand, don’t be a woodworker! (Wow! That was harsh.)
Be disciplined. Don’t sand just because you are supposed to. Sand with a purpose, achieve the goal, and stop. Lack of discipline only creates more problems. Sanding through veneer, sanding through topcoats or stain, sanding across the grain, and rounding off edges too much (and this is only a partial list) all come from a lack of discipline.
Obviously, I think sanding (good sanding) is critical. Think about the four points above next time you are sanding and see where you land. It may be the difference between woodworking success or failure.
I love, love, love Eastern White Pine. First of all, I love the way it smells – it can make even the nastiest of shops smell like new. I love the way it cuts –it cuts great on the sawmill and in the shop. I love that it’s lightweight – even, the widest boards are easy to handle. I love that is dries flat – most boards can just be run through the planer without any flattening. I love that it is soft – I can work it with hand tools and enjoy every minute of it. I love that when it starts to decay it gets lots of bugholes and blue-stain – it’s great for rustic work. I love that it makes great planer shavings – I want to roll in them just like the animals that use it for bedding.
There is, however, one major problem with white pine, especially air-dried white pine. It’s name is pitch. Pitch is the sticky transparent yellow goo that can ooze from the boards. In lumber that has been kiln-dried at high temperatures to “set the pitch”, this is less of a problem. As long as the lumber stays cooler than the temperature that the kiln was run at, the pitch will remain hard. But, once that threshold is passed, the wood starts to get sticky. And, since air-dried lumber hasn’t reached a very high temperature in its life, the stickiness is almost immediate.
Now, couple this setup with a large job and large boards and a lot of surface to cover with a power sander and you have a recipe for potential disaster. In fact, some air-dried white pine will be so sticky that you’ll start to wonder if there is enough sandpaper in the world to get through the job. There is, of course, a secret to working with white pine and an orbital sander. The secret is turpentine or mineral spirits.
I read somewhere that turpentine is made from pine trees, and I figured if it came from pine trees, it should be a great solvent for pine pitch, which also happens to come from pine trees – and it is. A rag dampened with either turpentine or mineral spirits will clean the pitch right off of a sanding disc or off of lumber where it has built up. To make it work in an almost automatic mode, I keep a sacrificial rag next to me soaked in the solvent and simply run the sander on the rag when it gets clogged. Just a few seconds running the sander on the rag makes the sandpaper look like new.
As I now get ready to sand a project that is all white pine, with wide boards and big, pitchy knots, I know the first thing I will do is get out the mineral spirits. Hopefully, this lumber cooperates and I won’t need to use it. Happy sanding to all!
For fun, I have some photos of the wide white pine (up to 20″) being used for shelves that inspired this post.