Ironing Out the Problems
To get just the right look for his furniture, custom woodworker Neal Burns uses a unique finishing technique.
By Sam Gazdziak
Specialty Woods uses many of the tools that every woodworking business has: table saw, planer, shaper, clothes iron. Yes, an iron is actually an integral part of Specialty Woods’ finishing process.
Neal Burns has run Specialty Woods in Spokane, WA, for 22 years. For the last dozen or so, he has been ironing on his finishes, creating a finish that looks beautiful and stands up to the toughest use.
“I used to put a gunstock finish on my pieces, where you rubbed oil on until it squeaked,” he says. His finishing technique today involves layer upon layer of hand-rubbed oil coats. “I put a coat on, and then I iron it on. Then I wait about 15 minutes and put another coat on and iron it on, until I feel the underside and get residue on my hands,” he explains. “Then, I’ve got enough oil on it.”
Specialty Woods specializes in all-wood furniture. A sizable portion of Burns’ work is conference tables, but he also does residential furniture and entertainment centers. He is occasionally assisted by two part-time employees during very busy periods. His wife, Judy, also does much of the decorative carving for the furniture. Much of his work is in the Spokane area, but thanks to his Web site, www.specialtywoods.com, Burns is starting to reach customers in Seattle, Houston and New York.
Inspiration from an unlikely source
“I had a customer who had put a diaper on an end table, and it turned black,” he explains. “I looked at that table and thought I could sand it off. I took it back to the shop, sanded it down, and it wouldn’t come off.
“I talked to an old buddy of mine who used to own Spokane Woodworking before he retired. I told him about it, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the ammonia from a dirty diaper.’”
Burns’ friend told him to start ironing on his finishes and instructed him to make a table to test the finish. Burns made the table, applied the finish and put overflowing glasses of water and coffee on it, leaving them on overnight. His friend told him, “The next morning, when you take the glasses off the table, if you did the finish I’m telling you, I guarantee you won’t have a ring on it.” Since that successful test, he has been ironing on all his finishes.
Burns puts a minimum of 20 coats of Pratt & Lambert oil on every piece. He uses Pratt & Lambert because it is the only oil that allows users to apply high heat to it. When he made a cherry bar for a cafeteria at the Spokane airport, he applied 60 coats of oil. “There are nine gallons of oil in that bar, but I knew it was going to have big-time commercial use,” he says.
Burns has the application process down to a science. He has a chart that, given the wood species and thickness, tells him how many gallons of oil he will need. Customers can choose either a satin or a semi-gloss look. The process is exactly the same, but to create the satin look, Burns takes 600-grit sandpaper and sands the sheen off.
The service does not stop after the piece has been delivered, either. Burns gives his customers two years of free maintenance and a five-year unconditional warranty. At the end of five years, he will recondition the whole piece and remove every flaw. Customers can also buy a maintenance package so Burns can periodically come back and re-oil the piece.
Small Shop, Big Tables
Burns works out of a 1,400-square-foot wood shop. Along with a number of portable tools, he has a Rockwell table saw, a Makita planer and Delta shaper. He also has an 8-foot by 40-foot container used solely for finishing. While he’s planning to build a 60-foot by 80-foot two-story shop, for now he manages to create some large pieces in a confined space.
The larger conference table has black walnut squares in the center that can be removed to reveal phone jacks to connect laptop computers to the Internet. The bidding table features storage built right into the table top. Small doors can be lifted up with magnets to reveal hanging file folders. The table top is braced with 2-1/2-inch-thick steel beams to keep its strength. According to the company’s owner, the bidding time has been reduced from four hours to 40 minutes thanks to the table and its conveniences.
Since then, Burns has been commissioned to build a 25-foot-long conference table for a company in Manhattan. The largest piece he has worked on is the bar for the Spokane airport, which is 59 feet long.
No job too hard, No species too rare
He says that Brazilian cherry is cheap to buy, because it is very difficult to work with — Brazilian cherry splinters can fester very quickly, he says. Nevertheless, Burns uses carbide tools and had no problems building a large Brazilian cherry entertainment center for a customer. The customer was so thrilled with the look that he had Burns build flooring in a 180-degree arc in front of the center.
Another notable project was a maple home bar with a purpleheart inlay. The inlay was to be bent at a very tight radius, and the customer heard from many woodworkers who said that purpleheart couldn’t be bent like that. Without revealing any trade secrets, Burns was able to get the inlay to bend without any problems. “When I was all done, he had to have those other woodworkers come in and look at it. They all thought I was crazy, but there’s nothing impossible with wood.”
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