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A Time and a Place for Every Finishing Method
In the two years that I have been helping readers with their finishing questions, there has been a consistent theme: Give me a finish that is easy to apply and hard to mess up; doesn't require expensive equipment; can be applied to everything; retains the wood's natural appearance; is durable; is not dangerous; and can be wiped on.
The bad news is that there is no one solution in this search for the finishing Holy Grail. The good news is that there are many different solutions that will meet all of your finishing needs-providing you show some flexibility and not be wed to just one application method. In order of simplicity, there are three main ways to apply a finish: wiping, brushing and spraying.
Wiping away those finishing blues
If you are wed to wiping, you are in good company. Fine Woodworking did an article on three contributing editors about their favorite finishes. While each uses a different kind of finish, they all wipe it on.
The popularity of wipe-on/wipeoff finishes has grown in the last decade for many reasons: the invention of gel stains and gel varnishes designed for wiping; the growing preference for a natural-looking thin finish as opposed to the traditional high-gloss look; and the growth of amateur woodworking where ease of application takes precedence over saving time. The main advantage of wiping is that it is very hard to do badly. Because so little finish is applied to the wood with each coat, there is no chance of causing sags or runs. The thin coating also attracts very little dust while it dries. And, as far as tools go, you only need the T-shirt off your back, or any other lint-free cotton cloth.
Another plus is that wipe-on finishes can be applied to any type of work. For instance, Hack wipes his oil/varnish mixture on everything from tables to garden-tool handles.
Wiping is relatively safe, because the fumes released are unlikely to be potent enough to cause a headache, let alone an explosion. However, you should let the oil-soaked rags dry before disposal to avoid the risk of spontaneous ignition.
One drawback to wiping is the very thin layer of finish it applies. Even with multiple coats, the degree of protection is insufficient for prolonged moisture contact. Finish- wiping advocates tout its easy repairability, but this makes a virtue out of necessity. Vely few surfaces treated with wipe-on finishes are able to withstand a wet glass left on them for a few hours witl10ut incurring some damage. For this reason, tabletops and kitchen counters benefit from a different finishing method, such as brushing or spraying.
The other drawback to wiping is the amount of time it takes to build a finish. Shaker furniture maker Becksvoort's preferred wipe-on oil finish adds three weeks to the length of a project, because four or five wipe-on coats equal just the thickness of one brush-on coat.
Brushing has stood the test of time, but still takes time
Anyone who has brushed on a finish has gone back over their handiwork to discover a large sag or run right in the most obvious spot-or a stray bristle left in the middle of an otherwise pristine tabletop.
Choosing the right brush and using it correctly can make brushing on a finish a less-frustrating experience. Part of the problem is the range of drying times for different finishes. If you have been brushing on oil-based varnish, with its long drying time, then you are used to going back over the wet surface two or three times, perfecting the finish. Switching to fast-drying lacquer requires a different technique: The finish should be applied with a single sweeping brush stroke and then left to dry. Any blemishes can be sanded out or melted away with the next coat.
The great advantage of brushing is the much faster rate of build and the degree of protection given to the wood. Two or three coats are sufficient for areas subject to light use, while tabletops need four or five coats to pass the wet-glass test.
While a good set of brushes costs more than a set of rags, it is a minimal expenditure in the overall cost of woodworking. The main downside to brushing is the time involved, which is why professionals have switched to the third finishing method.
Nothing matches spraying for speed, results and cost
Only a small minority of amateur woodworkers spray on finishes. Among the reasons are the high initial cost of even a small-scale operation and the confuSing number of spraying options. You need an adequate source of compressed air. This can be either a turbine system dedicated to spraying or a compressor and a tank that also can be used for air-powered tools. Your choice of guns is high-volume low-pressure (HVLP), low-volume low-pressure (LVLP) and smaller touch-up guns. As with most big-ticket items, buy the best you can afford, not a system you'll outgrow quickly.
Then there is the problem of where to spray and what to spray. Spraying solvent-based finishes should take place in a dedicated spray booth with an explosion-proof fan. Many woodworkers set up temporary spray booths outside on a warm, calm day, with a fan blowing air from behind the operator across the workpiece.
A better solution is to spray only water-based finishes. These still require a good flow of air through the spray area, but there is no risk of an explosion. Large sheets of corrugated cardboard and furnace filters form a cheap but effective spray booth, stopping overspray from covering everything in the shop. With a little practice, you can achieve professional-quality finishes by spraying in a fraction of the time it would take by brushing.
Once you wield a spray gun, it is unlikely that you'll go back to your brushes or cloths. However, if time is no object, by all means continue to use those other methods of application--just don't ask me for a durable wipe-on finish.