John Godfrey, Custom Finisher
A former woodworker now specializes in creating top-quality glazed finishes for other shops’ furniture, cabinetry and millwork projects.
By Hannah Miller
Under John Godfrey’s skilled hands, an ordinary painted or stained surface takes on the dark splotches of age or the faint lines of wood grain. Godfrey, a woodworker-turned-specialty-finisher in Stallings, NC, creates these illusions by lightly applying, then brushing off glaze. “Glaze gives a finish character,” he says, “and it gives it depth.”
The owner of Godfrey & Sons adds that this holds true whether the piece is MDF or solid wood. In fact, “For any of the painted finishes, I tell people to use MDF one-piece doors,” Godfrey says, because they don’t eventually crack at the joints as stile and rail doors do.
With glaze, the possibilities of combining shades of color are “endless,” he says. But he adds that only about one out of 10 combinations works. Most of his glazes are darker than the colors they cover, but he also has applied a white glaze over stain with great success. “White looks elegant,” he says.
Godfrey was so pleased with one look he developed for a customer that he is using it in his own kitchen. It is a mahogany glaze over white-painted oak. Since glaze settles in and accentuates cracks and crevices, the oak grain remains faintly visible, which is a look both he and the customer liked.
Many cabinetmakers avoid glazing because they want to complete a job quickly, Godfrey says, but he thinks they are making a mistake. Glazed doors on stock cabinets are such high quality that they are going into millionaires’ homes these days, he says, so custom woodworkers “have got to stay on top of things, or somebody is going to be ‘taking your candy.’”
‘Cappuccino’ creates a calling
“Cappuccino” was lapped up by its audience, and shortly afterward Godfrey struck out on his own as a specialty finisher. He and two employees work from a 3,000-square-foot shop outside Charlotte in Stallings. (The “sons” in the company’s name refers to Godfrey’s three sons, who at the moment are too young to work in the business.) They are hired by interior decorators and homeowners to work on some of the area’s most expensive homes.
Their jobs include finishes on cabinets, furniture, interior architectural trim including staircases, even wood-paneled walls — “anything that is wood,” Godfrey says. They finish cabinet frames on-site, but bring the doors to the shop. Godfrey uses M.L. Campbell conversion varnishes and lacquers, Mohawk and Old Masters stains, and Mohawk glazes. For sprayed finishes he uses DeVilbiss HVLP guns.
Now that sales have climbed to some $200,000 a year for his five-year-old company, Godfrey has more difficulty setting time aside to invent the combinations of finishes and glazes that keep his work in demand. “I have to make a Saturday appointment with myself,” he says.
Creating unique glazed looks
When Godfrey uses paint, he applies primer that is the same shade of the first coat he will use. This way, if someone exposes the primer by hitting or nicking the paint later on, the damage won’t show.
For his first coat of paint, he applies either a conversion varnish or a lacquer, sands it lightly and lets it dry overnight. To create an aged look with the second coat, he applies lacquer, then removes it in selected spots to reveal the underlying layer.
Whether the finish is stain or paint, after the piece dries Godfrey starts brushing on glaze with a large paintbrush. He wipes most of it off with a rag almost immediately, letting it linger in those areas where it naturally collects, like corners, edges and distress marks.
He leaves enough streaks on flat areas to hint at grain, “to give it kind of a wood look instead of a plastic look,” he says. He sometimes dry-brushes the wiped surface to soften the streaks.
At the joints where rail and stile meet in five-piece wood doors, he makes his streaks mimic the vertical and horizontal wood grains, so that when the joints eventually separate slightly, the hairline cracks blend in.
The beauty of glazing, Godfrey says, is that, “It is real forgiving. If you glaze a door and it’s not like you want it, you can wipe it right off.”
He lets pieces set up for two hours, then covers them with two coats of M.L. Campbell Klearplast. It is moisture-resistant, which is an important feature in baths and kitchens. It is also non-yellowing, Godfrey says. Without such a topcoat, a finish can yellow quickly, he adds, “especially if it is a lighter color.”
Godfrey suggests that customers bring him photographs of finishes they like, and he will make them a finish sample. For kitchen cabinets, Godfrey likes clients to bring samples of their tile, granite countertops and wallpaper. If he is finishing a bookcase or entertainment center for a living room or game room, he asks to see scraps of the window treatment. Some fleck of color in the furnishings may give him an idea for the finish, he says.
Sometimes he ends up functioning as an interior decorator, he adds. But since there is no limit to the variety of finishes that can be created, he can make cabinets complement even unusual surroundings.
Because people have such different ideas about color, he always finishes one door for a customer’s inspection before he does a whole set. There would be nothing worse, he says, than showing up to install 50 cabinet doors for a customer who had envisioned a different result.
Though he admires woodworkers’ skill, Godfrey is happy that he chose to specialize in finishing. “It lets you be a little creative,” he says. “I don’t even own a saw.”
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