Furniture Project part 8: The finish and the finish.

I know this has been a very long time in coming.  In truth, the cabinet was finished before Gothmas, but until recently it had things sitting on top of it, preventing me from getting good photos of it conveniently as a finished product. Then when I finally did get photos, I was also working on eggs(still doing that, btw) and  this post loomed in the back of my mind.

But I’d like to finish it up, so here goes.

When last we left the cabinet, I was babbling on about perfection and how ultimately boring it is.

I had finished all the mosaic work and the only thing really left was to put finish coats on it.  This is where I get frustrated and threaten to shave all the cats.  But assuming you can manage to do this without losing your sanity, here’s how it goes.  I’m only going to show you how this works on one side of the cabinet, because it’s the same process for all of them.

So first off, the cabinet’s been rotated a number of times while it was worked on.  It’s been handled, touched, jumped on by cats and generally abused throughout this entire recycling process.  So it needs some touchups.




Ok, with me now? You can see from these various shots that there were areas where the stain needed to be fixed up.  Not difficult to understand.  But before I can do that I need to get all the accumulated dust, cat hair and other random detritus off of the surface I’m about to work on.  That takes a tack rag.

For those who don’t know what a tack rag is, it’s a piece of cheesecloth (lint-free, yo.) that has been impregnated with a small amount of finish (usually a very, very weak spit coat of shellac/alcohol or poly/thinner) so it’s just sticky.  You run it over the surface of your piece and the dust and other assorted crap stick to the surface of the rag.  You can make them yourself. It’s really easy.  Frankly, I find it also really easy to grab one for 79 cents, too, which is what I did. You open it up, wad it into a loose ball and gently go to town on the surface.  If an area gets full, rewad, and find a cleaner spot.

It’s a lot better looking once it’s clean, even when you haven’t done anything else to it. You can see how much ick and overstain comes off onto the rag.



Once that’s accomplished(and don’t wait too long cause it will only get covered in crap again…) I touched up the areas that needed more stain with a small brush. Fortunately, I’m not too invested in how even the stain coat is.


Let it dry as you would with any other stain coat. Once it’s dry enough to finish over, you need to decide what kind of finish you’re going to put on your piece.  This is not always an easy choice, and I’m going to divert here to explain that.

Folks, not everything in the world needs to be covered in polyurethane.  As happens *THIS* piece is, but again, there’s choices to be made here.  However this is something you should understand, and I will put it in big, bold letters:

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Do not cover fine furniture in polyurethane.

Repeat as necessary.  Polyurethane is a lovely thing. However it’s not a reversible thing, and as such it’s NOT SUITABLE for fine antiques.  Polyurethane has problems. There is no way to repair it if the finish breaks. It’s impossible to actually remove.  It’s problematic and if you bring your fine piece in later for repair the restorers will give you That Look, and for good reason, since you’ve largely handed them Mission Impossible.  Polyurethane is a cheap, all purpose coating that is very hard wearing. But it’s not, not, not to be used for fine furniture.  Fine furniture does quite well with shellac and a bit of wax for protection, or a natural varnish or other resin finish.  Those things are reversible and repairable.  Poly? Forget it.

THIS piece is covered in poly because it’s from fucking IKEA and made of MDF. I got it for *free* and cats are going to leap all over the damned thing.  THAT is why *this* piece has poly on it.  However my good carved 1918 chair in the back room?  Wax.   With me now?


But you still have to decide how shiny you want your piece to be, no matter what you use. Matte? Semi-gloss? Gloss?  A gloss like a bowling alley in the sun?  I chose the latter, because most of the room it’s in is at best a combination of dead matte and a light gloss (the walls are venetian plaster, but they only have light wax- they’re not really glossy) The floor is a semi gloss.  The ceilings and floors are *black*, and on its best day this room doesn’t get a ton of light.  (in the winter it’s ridiculous since the windows face west, it may as well be a cave.).  So anything that will reflect light around the room a little? That works for me.

I used a foam brush (no brushmarks) to apply a first coat of finish.  It’s not very impressive looking afterward, honestly.


Ok big deal.  That’s one coat down.  Four zillion to go. But what is important is what happens between the coats.   See, your furniture has flaws. It’s not dead level. You’ll have missed spots.  It looks like HELL and now you can see just how uneven it all is, because the light bounces off the surface differently highlighting each one.

That’s okay. That’s why we have 400 grit silicon carbide wet/dry sandpaper to the rescue.  Also, apparently, a pink plastic cup of water.


The whole thing with using wet paper is that there should be a “suction” that happens where the paper meets the surface that keeps the paper flat.  Remember to rinse off your paper often to unclog it. Now, I’m trying to eliminate anything resembling grain, so I’m using an orbital sanding motion.  Don’t worry about the water on the surface.  It’s going to show you something important in just a few moments.


What you’ll start to see is where your high spots are, because they will now be matte.  Your low spots will still be glossy.  Ideally, the entire surface will be the same. But that doesn’t really happen on the first coat of finish.  You’re trying to cut the high areas, and build up the low ones.  Since I have no grain to care about , I can use an orbital sanding  pattern, which you can see in the photos.  Folks, don’t use an orbital pattern on bare wood- go with the grain.  Finish coats COVER grain- you’re trying to make a flat surface, which is the critical difference.


What will also happen is a white residue will appear on the surface. Don’t panic, that’s supposed to happen. It’s the powdered finish you’ve removed, mixed with the water on the paper to make a paste. It will come off with a tack rag. Promise.


Speaking of tack rags,  use yours and clean this mess up again. Now it looks like piebald shit. Great. You’re by now cursing my name and wondering why you listened to me.  Patience, padawan.

What comes next is a whole lot of lather, rinse, repeat.  Same steps over and over. What is important to know though is to brush your finish on *in the opposite direction* from whichever way you started.  So if you went the long way the first time? Go the short way the second.  All your odd numbered coats go one way, and all your evens the other.  You are trying to avoid ridges and get an even coat.  Generally one uses an odd number of coats.  Normally 3 will do it, but it really, really depeneds on the piece, because again, ideally, as you’re sanding the last between coat your piece should be a uniform gray all over, indicating a flat surface.  You can tell when you’re getting close. Once that happens, switch to a 600 grit paper rather than a 400.  If you really want to have a glass finish, go to a 1200 after that. I don’t need to for a piece like this. 600 was as far as I got.   But as to the whole lather, rinse, repeat thing:


With each coat you’ll see a more uniform surface. But it takes a while to get there.





You can see here, after several coats, that the finish is starting to become much more level and even.


In the end, though, it’s really about where you say “Okay, good enough.”  Which for me, was here:

Finally, finished.

Once the top was finally done, I put on a coat of wax. Honestly? It’s plain old garden variety Turtle Wax, like the kind you’d use on your car.  Works just fine.  I waxed the top because it gets foot traffic from the cats and needs more protection. I wax it whenever I can feel it starting to tack up as I dust(if you’ve ever gone bowling regularly, you know when this point is, because you get stuck and practically kill yourself as you try to release the ball when your shoes stop and the rest of you keeps moving.)

So, this is it:

To remind everyone where this piece started…


And now, it looks like this:

So that wraps this one up.

What’s next? I have a table design I need to work out, I’m still working on eggs, and I am also trying to get a built in bookcase ready for finishing.

That should keep me busy a while.