Reflections on changes and continuity in finishing techniques during the past five decades.

Many years ago, I learned that it does not matter how long someone has been in the business, because it’s not the number of years that really matters in the end, it’s what we have learned in that time, what we have done with that time and how much we still know. It’s what we actually can do with our hands that makes the real difference.

My reason for bringing up the “time” is because I will soon be celebrating 50 years in the finishing business, and the question that most finishers ask me is, “how much has the finishing business really changed in the past 50 years?” My answer is usually to ask a question back, to determine if they are referring to the actual finishing methods and artistic techniques needed to create the numerous fine and faux finishes by combining staining, toning, glazing and shading applications. Then I would say, not very much has changed, as these fine finishing techniques have been around for a long time.

However, if they are talking about the new types of finishing equipment being used today, with the advances that have been made to improve spray guns and their systems, or if they are talking about the new methods being used to apply coatings, or the new and improved coatings themselves that are available today, then I say there have been many changes. There also have been changes in sandpaper, synthetic rubbing pads and various compounds, including numerous changes in the chemicals being used.

Another question that I am asked frequently is, “Other than the introduction of new spraying systems and more durable and chemical-resistant coatings, is finishing better today than it was in yesteryear?” I'd say the art of finishing today, when compared to 50 years ago, has not really changed — a stain is still a stain, a toner is still a toner and it is the same with colored glazes and shading stains. Those four techniques are still the foundation for making all fine and faux finishes.

Today, however, there are newer dyes, which are replacing the older anilines, and there are synthetic resins being used in the milling and grinding of the paste pigmented colorants. Some of the older solvents have been replaced because of the VOC regulations. The dyes and pigments being used today are safer and without any of the dangerous heavy metals that were in the colorants in yesterday.

But today, the pigmented colorants are not the true universals, in most cases. Depending on the stains, toners, glazes, shading stains and coatings that you use, you should be very selective as to which colorants you choose, because they may not always be compatible with each other in different finishing systems. That is why I always recommend that you talk to your supplier about the compatibility of all your finishing products.

Today’s Students Learn the Old and the New

These photos show the staining technique, starting with the raw wood, top left, wiping on and wiping off the stain, and the finish after the application of clear coats.
Glazes are one of the fine finishes that have been around for decades. The tried-and-true five-step technique is shown in these photos. Top to bottom: Prepare the panel, apply sealer coats, wipe on the colored glaze, brush out the glaze and seal it. The final glaze finish is shown at the bottom.

I recently attended a finishing school and a touch-up workshop as a guest of the company for which I worked for 30 years. This was a perfect opportunity to see some of the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years.

In these classes, students were taught how to mix colors, both for touchup and for a total finish; how to do a stained finish and a glazed finish; how to make up colored toners, and how to make and use a shading stain. Each of these techniques has been around longer than my 50 years.

In addition, the instructor demonstrated a new HVLP spray gun, and each student was able to spray his or her own panel, learning to spray with three newer coatings — vinyl sealer, pre-catalyzed lacquer and catalyzed conversion varnish. They also learned about new abrasives, like sanding discs, nylon rubbing pads, sanding and polishing pads with much finer microns, and various grades of rubbing and polishing compounds.

I thought the breadth of the training was impressive, and that the students who attended probably were shown and learned more in those few days than many finishers learn in a lifetime.

The ‘Good Old Days’ — Learn as You Go
As I reflect back to the beginning of my 50 years, I remember that it was very difficult to learn this business at that time. Unless you had a relative in the business, it was “closed shop.” If you did get a job, in most cases it was only to strip off old finishes, do some sanding and fill in damage with wood filler. If you ever got to learn how to spray, it would be all you did the entire day.

If you were allowed to stain, you did not learn how to mix the colors — you had to observe the finisher to see how it was done and then try to figure out what chemicals or colorants were used in the process. Then you had to sneak a look at the containers to learn the names of what was used to make up the materials. It was the owners, their sons or relatives who did all the other work, such as toning, shading, gilding, faux finishes, etc.

There were no finishing or touch-up workshops to attend, and if there were any, chances were that you could not afford to attend. Most of us learned touchup and finishing the hard way — ­­through trial and error. If you got very lucky, you found a finisher who mentored you and gave you some help from time to time. In many respects, I would say that it is pretty much the same today unless you are lucky enough to use a finishing supplier that has knowledgeable salespeople and a good customer service department that offers schools or workshops.

I am sure that there is nothing being done artistically today in fine and faux finishing that was not done years ago. If fact, there are some arts that are not being done any more. Because they are not being passed on to others, they will be lost (until some future finisher reads about it in an ancient CWB article and brings it back to life).

I don't live in the past, but I am looking forward to the future to bring us more new advances in finishing technology. I think it will be the environment that dictates many of the changes to come. I look forward to seeing some of those changes, for I know they will be better for everyone, especially future finishers.

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 UK, Austria and Canada. Reach Simmons c/o CWB, 400 Knightsbridge Pkwy., Lincolnshire, IL 60069 or c/o [email protected].

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