Every time I meet with patrons and potential patrons, I can count on getting at least two questions. Question number one: “what’s your favorite wood?” and (number 2) “what’s your favorite finish?” I’ll leave the question about favorite woods for another time; but for now, let’s delve into favorite finishes.
First off: I don’t have a “favorite finish”, per se; rather, I base my choice of finish on essentially three factors: (1) how the piece is to be used, (2) the species of wood and (3) the expected selling price. (Basing a finish on selling price might seem a bit crass, but I promise to explain.) But going back to the first two factors, I choose the finish to be both practical (that is: it must protect the piece for its intended use) and beautiful (meaning that it must enhance the natural colors and grain of the wood while still being “practical.”)
With limited exceptions, I strongly favor eco-friendly finishes: pure walnut oil (yep, the same stuff you get at any health food store), shop-compounded shellac (shellac buttons or flakes dissolved in a 190-proof grain alcohol like “Everclear”), beeswax and carnauba wax. The exceptions are “Deft”, a nitrocellulose lacquer and micro-crystalline wax (sometimes called “Conservator’s wax.”)
So let’s first talk about “intended use.” All my work intended for direct food contact (bowls, platters, cutting boards, etc.) is soaked in pure walnut oil until the piece reaches saturation – that is: until it won’t absorb any more. Generally, that means soaking in a tub of walnut oil overnight. In the morning, I remove the piece, wipe it off and set it aside for a day or two to allow the oil to polymerize (that is, harden). This “finish,” unlike the more commonly used mineral oil, resists washing off. That means, you can wash the piece in normal dish washing detergent without fear of washing away the protective finish. (I have one bowl that’s seen daily use – often several times a day from everything from salsa, salad, to ice cream and pickled beets – for the past four years and it’s still protected.) The appearance of an oil finished piece varies depending on the type of wood. Very hard woods, like this red oak burl candy dish, take on a pleasing satin, almost semi-gloss finish, while softer woods like walnut and cherry, yield a flat matt finish.
Candy Dish, Red Oak Burl, Walnut Oil, 7 x 3 in. – sold
Vases, urns and my “Classic Series” pepper mills are often French-Polished. French-Polishing is a technique developed in Europe back in the 19th century for finishing fine furniture. It’s an extremely time-intensive process whereby thousands of micro-coats of shellac “polish”, pumice and walnut oil are rubbed into the piece over a period that can range from several days to a month or longer. (Note that I use shellac I mix myself. Commercial shellac contains preservatives and other adulterants that interfere with the french-polishing process.) Also, due to the time and degree of experience/skill involved, I now reserve french-polishing for high-end pieces priced at $200 and above. You can read more about French polishing in these posts http://wp.me/p1u5Hd-2R and http://wp.me/p1u5Hd-7.
Coffee Grinder, “Classic Series”: Cocobolo, French-Polish. 6 x 12 in.
An alternative to French-Polishing, for those who prefer a more subdued finish, is the oil and wax-polished finish. Here, the workpiece is soaked in walnut oil, allowed to dry/harden, then re-mounted the piece on the lathe and, turning at high-speed, a stick of carnauba wax is pressed into the spinning workpiece – then, holding a wad a paper towelling against it, pressure is applied to generate friction that melts the wax into the wood. I’ll often follow this up by rubbing a coat of Conservator’s wax into the piece to further protect the finish. (Beeswax can also be used, either in combination with or as a substitute for carnauba wax. Beeswax yields a softer, less brilliant finish, which is appealing in some instances.)
At first glance, it might seem that the oil and wax-polishing process is not as time-intensive as french-polishing. And that’s true. But because this finish magnifies even the smallest defect in the wood, achieving an acceptable oil/wax finish requires absolutely perfect surface preparation. I often spend as much time sanding and burnishing the surface of a piece to be oil/wax-polished as I did turning it.
Pepper Mill, “Classic Series”; Cocobolo, Walnut Oil & Wax-polish. 14 x 4 in.
A final choice of finish, which I’ve recently started using for some of my more moderately priced pieces, is a Deft lacquer finish. Marketed a “clear wood finish”, Deft is a brand of nitrocellulose lacquer that’s durable and, unlike other lacquers I’ve tried, non-yellowing. Although surface preparation needs to be almost as good as the oil/wax-polish process described above, the Deft finishing process is comparatively quick. After sanding and removing the sanding dust, leaving the piece on the lathe, we apply a generous coat of Deft with either a rag or paper towel. Slowly rotating the piece by hand for about a minute, we tear off 2 – 3 pieces of towelling, then running the lathe at about 500 rpm, wipe off the excess Deft. After a minute or so of wiping, the surface is dry and hard. Keeping the lathe running, we burnish the surface with either 0000 steel wool or a fine abrasive hand pad (the grey one). Remove the surface dust, then burnish with an ultra-fine abrasive hand pad (the white one). We next speed up the lathe and burnish with a piece of brown paper bag. (Apply some pressure here. We’ll generate some heat, but that really levels the finish in preparation for the final coats of Deft.) Apply two more coats of Deft, removing the excess as before, then wax-polish with carnauba wax, just like we did with the oil/wax-polish process, and we’re done.
Pepper Mill, “Antique Series”; Walnut, Deft finish, 8 x 3″
As a final note, Deft is available in a number of versions (satin, semi-gloss and gloss.) I use either semi-gloss or gloss. Semi-gloss might be a bit better at grain filling than gloss due to it’s higher “solids” content, but I’ve yet to see a real difference in the final product.
At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that there are many choices of finish available to the modern wood turner – along with an infinitely variable number of techniques for applying them! As a full-time professional, my objective is to produce high-quality work at prices that fairly reflect the value my patrons receive when they purchase it and that, at the same time, provide a reasonable return for my time and costs. The finishes and techniques I’ve described here meet those objectives in spades! I invite you to learn more about me and my work on my website at http://www.turningarts.com.