In discussing the subject of “the perfect finish,” let’s start with a question so we understand what we’re talking about; namely, “What is the difference between the finish and the coating?”

I would say that the “finish” is comprised of all or any of the different materials utilized in creating a finish, such as stains, toners, glazes, washes, shading stains, primers and paste wood fillers. The “coatings” can be sealers or colored or clear protective coverings. There are some who consider the coatings as a part of the finish, while others do not.

You can have a perfect finish, but your coatings may not meet the “perfect” standard. Or, I can turn it around and say, the coating maybe perfect, but the finish leaves a lot to be desired. So, to have a perfect finish, the way I see it, both your finish and your coatings must be “perfect.”

I am no perfectionist, but I do get by. I start out by first inspecting all the wood that I am going to be finishing. I then mark each defect so I can easily find and identify them, because I know from experience that you can't end up with good finishes if your wood is not properly prepared.

After all the defects are filled and allowed to cure, then the filler should be sanded level with the surface. Next, I sand the rest of the wood, take care of any minor surface damages and remove the sanding dust. In this way, I end up with wood that is ready for finishing.

Depending on the type of finish I am working on, I usually make up a simple color sample by first applying my stain. If I am using a dye stain, it will be sprayed and allowed to dry, and then it will be clearcoated. Pigmented stains are usually wiped on and wiped dry. In some cases I use a hand-held hair dryer to speed up the drying process. A clearcoat or two is applied to the sample, which gives me an opportunity to compare the color. If adjustments are needed, I can fine-tune the sample before I do it on the work.

Don’t Cause the Problems

Many of the common problems in finishing shops are caused by the finisher not allowing enough dry time between each step in the process. If you are stripping furniture, never begin finishing until the paint remover and after-wash have completely dried on the wood.

Whenever you are staining, never stain on wet wood, as your sealer or clearcoats may blush or you may end up with poor adhesion in your finishes. This also applies to tinting toners and colored glazes.

Another problem that easily can be prevented is refraining from sanding your first coat of sealer or clear coat, as you may sand through the coating and affect the stain, toner or glaze. Allow the first coat to dry and apply a second coat; allow time for drying again and then do your light scuffing or sanding, depending on the coating you are using.

You should get to know the dry times of all your finishing materials, so you can plan on the time you will need between each application of each of the products you will be using in each finish you do. You should take into consideration the climatic conditions in your shop and make the necessary adjustments for any of the temperature changes that occur from season to season, as these conditions can cause big problems and delays.

Preparation and Knowledge

It’s very important to have a plan for each job you do, from the inspection of the wood to the repairs to the final sanding preparation and on to doing start-to-finish samples. I always stress the advantages of making up complete samples for three reasons: One is to learn the steps in each of the finishing processes; two is to be certain that all the materials used in each finish are compatible with each other, and three is to have the opportunity to make any necessary or desirable changes on the samples, rather than trying to correct something on your project.

It’s also important in finishing that you do not assume anything, as assuming can be dangerous. You need to know about the products you use and any new products you will be using. Beside doing a sample, ask questions of your suppliers. The more you know and the better you understand your finishing materials, the fewer troubles you will have, and the better your finishes and clearcoatings will appear.

Getting the ‘Perfect Finish’

No book or article can make your finishes perfect, only you can do that (if there even is such a thing as the “perfect finish” in the first place). And no matter how good your finishes may be, your final clearcoats also must be good, since one depends on the other.

Regardless of whether you do fine or faux finishes, each must be protected with clearcoats. These can be sprayed, brushed or wiped on.

“Perfection” sometimes comes from rubbing, polishing or compounding the clearcoats — in many cases, it’s not just the application of the clearcoats, it’s what you do after the final clearcoats have dried that may make the difference between a mediocre and a marvelous finish.

I realize that all of these techniques take time and extra work. But that’s the price for perfection, and it is worthy of your time. I would add, however, that your time and extra work should not be for naught; you must charge for them. Show customers the difference between the two types of finishes, one with just clearcoats and the other with a fine finish. It will be telling, and you can let your customer decide on which type of finish he wants and what he is willing to pay. You will get the job anyway.

Fine finishes really are not too difficult to do, but just take time. However, the more of them you do, the better and faster you will become. Ultimately, you need to be your own judge as to what the “perfect finish” is for you, and how much time and effort you can spend on your work and still make a profit. Only you can answer that question, and it won't be in any book or finishing article.

Mac Simmons is a freelance writer and 50-year veteran of the furniture finishing, refinishing and restoration trades. Mac has written articles for woodworking magazines in the U.S. and in the U.K., Austria and Canada. Questions may be directed to him in writing c/o CWB, 400 Knightsbridge Pkwy., Lincolnshire, IL 60069 or via e-mail c/o

These furniture pieces, done by members of the Long Island (NY) Woodworking Club, show off the beauty of well-executed, fine finishes. The individual woodworkers are top l to r: Meo Meilak, Daryl Rosenblatt and bottom, left: Brian Haywood.

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