Oxbow: The return of the blog

Well, for those who got my little allusion, the oxbow chest blog is finally coming to a close. I’m out of things to make for it. And I’m out of pictures of meaningful processes to show you. I just need to wrap up a few loose ends.

As you can see, the piece is pretty much wrapped up (ok it was delivered before the first blog about it hit the web…now you know my secret). I did my final surface prep, tossed on some color and brushed on a handful of coats of shellac. Rubbed the thing out and waxed it. Drilled a bunch of hole and mounted the hardware. To me it all seems a bit mundane to blog about but, as I was reminded in an email yesterday, some of you are truly mystified by the finishing process.

Sure, you’ve spent some time learning how to sharpen your hand tools and cut dovetails. You’ve even figured out some cool jigs for your tablesaw and router but you just haven’t been able to make the leap from building a project to actually “finishing” a project. For most people it scares them silly. So, lots of people build lots of projects that sit in their shop, or their home, waiting for the day when they work up enough nerve to actually try to finish the thing.

Now I could talk about the joys of making drawer stops for this piece. Or I could engage everyone in a deep meaningful conversation about fitting drawer bottoms but that doesn’t get you any closer to the goal of actually finishing something. If you read my last post you know I had an alumni finishing weekend here at the school last weekend. What I walked away from the class learning was that many of the students were just petrified at the thought of finishing the pieces they had sunk their hearts and souls into. Even as they worked with me in the shop and built up layers of color and/or finish they still had this nagging doubt that THEY could actually pull off a respectable finish on a piece of furniture.

I think the largest problem that people have where finishing is concerned is that they truly believe they will reach a point of no return. Sure, if you screw up applying a molding you can just make another but if you screw up when applying a finish you might as well burn the piece and all your tools. The reality is, finishing is not much different than building the piece. It’s a process. You make a plan and follow it and, more likely than not, you’ll end up with something that is at least salvageable.

So, what does all this have to do with the oxbow? Well, I guess the answer is that it has very little to do with it actually. I had a plan and I executed it. The customer looked over color samples my wife had made and chose the one she liked. My wife took a handful of water based analine dyes, combined them to get the color the customer liked and she applied the dye to the cherry chest. From there it was all downhill. We brushed on a handful of coats of orange shellac (probably about a 1-1/2 to 2 lb cut) sanding between coats with 400 grit “A” weight paper. When we got to the last coat, we dry steel wooled the piece with 0000 steel wool and applied a coat of paste wax. Pretty simple, eh? The reality is, most finishes aren’t any more complicated than that.

The key to any decent finish is to do the proper prep work before you start coloring and adding top coats. Whether you leave your surfaces scraped or sanded doesn’t matter as long as they are smooth and free of tool and/or sandpaper marks. If you prep the wood properly before you apply color and finish, the rest of the job is easy. Maybe that’s what intimidates people so much about finishing? There’s always that awful fear that you didn’t sand enough.

During the class, one of the projects had gotten colored with water based analine dye. Unfortunately, the piece had a bunch of tiny dents in one surface. No one is sure how the dents got there (most likely they occurred during the building process). They were imperceptible before the piece had finish on it but once the color was on and the first coat of shellac was dry, they jumped out like a bunch of sore thumbs. We stripped the surface and sanded it down to an even tone again. We then re-applied the dye and started building up shellac. In a little over an hour and a half, we had the surface right back to where it was when we noticed the problem only this time it was flawless. What does this tell you? It reminds me that the fear of doing something is often far greater than actually doing it. This person was certain they were going to ruin the piece. When the blemishes showed up, they were sure their fears were confirmed. When we easily fixed the problem and returned the surface to the desired level of perfection, they realized that it wasn’t so bad after all.

Finishing is very much like the act of constructing a piece. It’s usually pretty scary until you figure out how to do it simply…then it’s just fun. People fear the unknown. Finishing to most people is an unknown. You can read all the books and magazines you want on it, watch every show that’s ever been committed to DVD about how to do it but until you dive in and try it, you’re not really living. I understand, finishing is a subjective thing. A color I like might be horrible to you. I like my finishes on the dry side but you might like the wet look. The basic process is pretty much the same.

So, I think the next blog series I’m going to start is a bit about basic finishing techniques. I know, I still have a bunch to write about connoisseurship. I’ll get there. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Now, about those drawer stops…


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