A comprehensive survey of finishing practices among CabinetMakerFDM readers shows a solid preference for solvent finishes applied with spray equipment. But at the same time, the survey also reveals strong concerns about the environmental impact of finishing materials.

The survey involved responses from more than 500 readers who make up a representative sampling of the CabinetMakerFDM audience. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) were from small shops of five or fewer employees. Some 13.5 percent of respondents were from woodworking companies with more than 20 employees. The remaining 14 percent were shops with six to 20 employees. An average of 3.7 employees were reported to be involved in finishing per shop among all the respondents.

Respondents also represent a solid cross-section of the woodworking industry. About three-quarters build residential cabinets and built-ins. Some 44 percent build residential furniture. A little more than 31 percent of respondents do architectural millwork. Commercial cabinets and built-ins account for 29 percent of the work done by respondents. About of fifth of those responding do office or commercial furniture. Finally, some 9 percent listed other woodworking that ranged from musical instruments to flooring, doors, and even aerospace cabinetry.

In house or outsourcing

When it comes to finishing, it seems that most of those responding to the survey think it shouldn’t be left to outsiders. More than 79 percent do all of their finishing in house. Only 3.8 percent contract out all of their finishing. The remaining 17 percent split their finishing work between in-house processes and outside contractors.

A similar response shows up when discussing the use of pre-finished components. Only about 38 percent of the shops in the survey say they buy pre-finished components. The vast majority of 62 percent do not buy pre-finished components at all.

Solvents still strong

Despite the inroads made by water-based finishes along with increased environmental concerns and regulations, solvent-based finishes still dominate in woodworking. Fully 88 percent of those responding to the survey use solvent-based finishes. Of those, some 47 percent use a mixture of both solvent and water-based finishes. But only 12 percent use water-based finishes exclusively. That compares with more than 41 percent who use solvent-based finishes exclusively.

When asked what top coat shops use most frequently, catalyzed solvent-based lacquer comes out on top with more than 27 percent of respondents listing it as their preference. Second place goes to conversion varnish with 21 percent of shops citing that as their preferred top coat. But water-based lacquer comes in third place at 14 percent, followed by solvent-based lacquer. In single digits are catalyzed solvent-based polyurethane (8.7 percent), catalyzed solvent-based varnish (4.5 percent), and UV-cured finishes (3.1 percent). Nearly 9 percent listed other finishes, including oil, spar varnish, shellac, and various other versions of polyurethane.

Spraying dominates

When it comes to applying finish to woodwork in a professional setting, spraying dominates, and the survey results reflect that. More than 89 percent of those responding said they use spray application. That compares with about 50 percent who use hand applications such as brush, roller or cloth. Automated flat finishing accounts for a significant 6.3 percent of those responding. Other methods reported included hand application with sponges, flat line finishing with brushes, roll coating, and even faux finishing, but the other methods accounted for just 2.2 percent of the responses. (Note that responses add up to more than 100 percent because many shops use multiple techniques.

Asked another way, respondents were polled as to which process they use most. Here again, spraying is by far the first choice with 78 percent listing that. Hand applications come in a distant second at 16.5 percent. Some 4 percent use automated flat finishing as their primary finishing process. Only 1.3 percent listed other processes as what they use most.

HVLP is top choice

When it comes to favorite spray systems, the majority of respondents to the survey (56 percent) said they use high volume low pressure (HVLP) systems most. In second place were airless air assisted spray systems, listed as the top choice by more than 21 percent of the shops in the survey.

Conventional high pressure low volume finishing still is listed by 14 percent of the shops as their top choice. Low volume low pressure (LVLP) was listed by 3.1 percent of the shops, and 2.7 percent said they use reduced pressure systems most. Among the nearly 3 percent who listed other choices, conventional airless systems dominated.

Getting finishing help

Finishing has always been a complex challenge for woodworking shops. Most finished projects are judged highly by the finish, but most woodworkers are more connected to the construction process. So, where do they go when sourcing finishing products and seeking answers to finishing questions? A significant majority (56 percent) say they buy products from only a few trusted vendors. Some 30 percent say they rely on just one vendor to meet all of their finishing needs. Only about 14 percent say they use a wide variety of products from different vendors.

Despite the heavy reliance on trusted vendors, though, most shops in the survey don’t seem to be obtaining a lot of technical support from their finish suppliers. More than half (51.4 percent) said they get some technical help from their finishing vendors, but the shops still feel they are mostly on their own when it comes solving finishing problems. Nearly 17 percent said they don’t get much technical help at all from vendors. Still, 32 percent reported that they receive lots of help and advice from suppliers to meet their shops’ finishing needs.

Environmental impacts

Environmental concerns are high among the shops responding to the survey. More than 80 percent said they are concerned about the environmental impact of finishing processes and products. Some 31 percent say they are “very concerned” about the environmental impact. That compares to just under 19 percent who said they are “not very concerned” about environmental impact.

We’ve heard a lot about the impact of environmental regulations on finishing in woodworking, but the responses in this survey seem to suggest only a moderate to minor impact from regulations. The largest number of respondents (37 percent) said that they have not changed any finishing practices to meet environmental regulations. More than a third (35 percent) said they have made only minor changes in finishing processes to meet regulations.

Still, more than a fifth of those responding to the survey said environmental regulations have forced them to make significant changes to their processes, and they called the impact “moderate.” Nearly 6 percent said environmental regulations have forced them to completely revamp their finishing processes. And finally, just over 1 percent of those surveyed reported they have completely discontinued their finishing in response to environmental regulations.

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