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Myths, folklore, tall tales and finishing

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Many years ago I coined what I call my half-right rule: Half of what you read or hear about finishing is right, but you just don’t know which half.

I could have come up with this rule from reading contradictory information published in woodworking magazines, but I didn’t. The rule originated from my experience with the elderly clerk, Glen, at a paint store down the street from my shop where I bought most of my supplies.

I always enjoyed my trips to the paint store because I was greeted warmly and I knew I was going to learn something. Glen had been around paints and finishes all his life and he gave me many tips that helped me raise the quality of my work. He also led me astray just about as often.

He wasn’t misleading me about how to hold a brush or pull the trigger on a spray gun. Just as with the various procedures in woodworking, these are mechanical. They are physics. They are fairly intuitive and you can see them.

The problems were with the finishes, which are chemistry. You can’t “see” what’s going on inside a finish when it’s drying or when you mix two products together. You can’t see protection, durability, bonding or a dozen other qualities that separate one finishing product from another. This lack of visual confirmation opens up all sorts of possibilities for mythologies to develop and be spread from person to person, or “expert” to “expert.”

Here are a few common examples that might sound familiar:

Thin the first coat of finish by half for a better bond. On the contrary, full-strength finishes bond perfectly well. The purpose of thinning is to create a thinner build that is easier to sand.

Don’t sand to too fine a grit or you’ll close the wood’s pores and it won’t take stain as well. You don’t “close” the pores with finer grits. You create finer scratches that retain less stain when you wipe off the excess.

Use sandpaper to knock off sharp edges because these will show wear first. Softened edges show wear as well. You should sand edges with a couple of sandpaper passes so the finish doesn’t pull away (called a “fat edge”) and leave too little build on the edge to be protective.

The longer you leave a stain wet on the wood the more it soaks in and the darker the coloring when you wipe off the excess. This isn’t the way it happens. The stain isn’t soaking deeper; the thinner is evaporating, which leaves a higher colorant-to-liquid ratio.

Notice in all these examples that the problem with the instruction is not that you should or shouldn’t do it. It’s the explanation of what’s going to happen or why it happens or how it happens that is incorrect.

When the what, why and how explanations are wrong, you are left struggling to understand finishing. You are left with the attitude expressed to me 25 years ago by the editor of a leading woodworking magazine: “Bob, we don’t take finishing seriously because no one can understand it.”

Clerks and reps

Incorrect and misleading explanations circulate in magazines and books, but the primary source, at least for professionals, is store clerks and manufacturer reps.

Here’s the problem: These people get their jobs (and keep them if they’re good) because they are good at sales. It’s rare that you find a former professional finisher or painter in one of these positions.

Selling, as it has been explained to me, is a talent that can’t be easily taught. It’s much easier to teach the ins and outs of finishes and finishing than how to sell. But you can’t really teach finishing well either, especially if the teacher is steeped in mythologies.

Instead, clerks and reps learn most of what they know from the people to which they are selling. I can remember clearly reps who called on my shop telling me how other shops solved a problem. They were acting as a conduit of information between shops.

And this was great — as far as it went. But just as with Glen, the half-right rule applied. Some of what they were telling me was right on and I really appreciated it. But other solutions — especially the what, why and how — led me astray.

These reps, after all, were struggling just like I was to understand finishing. And it was even harder for them because they weren’t actually doing it. They didn’t have the personal experience with which to judge the accuracy of what they were saying.

So what’s the solution? There is no solution, as far as I know. But it is helpful to be skeptical of everything you hear or read and use your experience to question the explanations you are given.

(I surely don’t want any clerks or reps to take these comments personally. I’m just relating my experience and how I think things work. We are all more or less good at what we do and the hope is that we are always trying to get better.)

One more thought

Supply sources for finishing products have changed a lot during the last three or four decades — and, in my opinion, not for the better.

It’s not the Internet, which I think is far more positive than negative because of all the technical information made available (though the half-right rule still applies in chat rooms, on message boards and in manufacturers’ instructions and explanations). It’s the growing disappearance of owner-run paint stores and distributers in favor of chains that’s the problem.

The owner of the paint store where Glen worked also worked there. The two of them, along with a couple of other clerks, were fixtures for decades. We became friends. They knew my wife and kids. There were always warm greetings when I went shopping. I felt good going there.

But that store no longer exists. It’s been replaced by chain stores, including home centers. The managers and clerks come and go so often I rarely learn their names. Maybe they just move on to other jobs, but if they’re good (which is what we want in a clerk), they get promoted to other stores in the chain.

Very often I’m dealing with a new person who I have no relationship with and whose knowledge I have to spend weeks or months trying to figure out.

The trend away from owner-occupied stores is a big loss for all finishers. 

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing” and “Flexner on Finishing.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.

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