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Not lost in translation

Though British finishing terminology can differ significantly from our terminology, we’re still speaking the same language

For the last 25 years or so I have been what’s known as a freelance writer. Freelance means that I make my living by taking on various jobs wherever I can find them. I don’t have just one job working for a company that provides me with a paycheck.

Explaining this makes me realize that I was actually a freelance woodworker before I became a freelance writer, even though I’ve never seen those two words put together before. I worked alone doing woodworking and restoration and took on all sorts of jobs to provide an income.

I have done the same as a writer. One of the most interesting and different jobs was some years ago working for a British publisher translating British woodworking and finishing books into American English.

You may have heard the expression: England and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common language. There are many examples of this. I’m sure you know that soccer here is football over there. Other examples include, an apartment here is a flat there. A cookie is a bisquit. Vacation is a holiday. And so on.


Well, the same language differences exist in woodworking and finishing. Specifically, when it comes to finishing, probably the most common are the terms having to do with French polishing. This is probably due to how much of the early instructions for performing this application technique were actually written by British French polishers. In fact, even the term French polishing is that way because the technique is thought to have been invented in France and then transmitted to the U.K. through Holland.

I remember reading some of these instructions in my early days. French polishing is, of course, a technique for rubbing shellac onto a surface using a balled up cloth. The solvent we were told to use was methylated spirits. So like many others who misunderstood this term, I dutifully went to the paint store and bought a can of methanol, that is, methyl alcohol, because that’s what methylated sounded like to me.

But methylated spirits is ethyl alcohol (spirits – the stuff we drink) that has been made poisonous by the addition of some methanol. So methylated spirits is our denatured alcohol. Methanol works well, of course, but it is quite poisonous, and you shouldn’t be standing over it for a long time breathing in the fumes.

Other French polishing terms adopted from the British include, rubber, which is British for pad (the shellac is rubbed onto the surface, so the pad becomes a rubber), wadding, which is cloth or batting, used to make the pad, and charge, as in charge the rubber, which means to add more thinned shellac, or load the pad.

Here are some more British finishing terms and how they translate into American English: Emulsion paint (latex paint); wire wool (steel wool); white spirit (mineral spirits); pencil brush (an artist’s brush); mop (a round brush); liming (pickling), and atomizer (an airbrush).

Finally, I want to mention melamine, which has been sold here to woodturners. It is what we call, pre-catalyzed lacquer. The term, melamine, comes from one of the main resins used to make this finish.

Here’s how I determined that melamine was pre-cat. A woodturner came by my shop one day with his container of melamine wanting to know what it was. First, I knew that melamine formaldehyde was a primary ingredient in catalyzed lacquer, so I had a head start.

But the way I tested was to apply some to a board. It dried very rapidly and it smelled like lacquer. So when dry I dabbed on some lacquer thinner. It didn’t soften or remove the finish. The finish was resistant to lacquer thinner, so it couldn’t be nitrocellulose lacquer. Also, it came in one part; there was no second part to add, so it couldn’t be a post-catalyzed lacquer. It had to be pre-cat.


Most of the books I translated were woodworking books, and there are a lot of British terms having to do with various categories of woodworking. Subjects included Boxes, Children’s Toys, Children’s Furniture, Woodcarving, Bird Houses and a Complete Woodworking Course. You can get a feel for the market this publisher was targeting in the U.S.

The most common British term you might have come across is timber for a board or wood. Or cramps for clamps. A lot of the British terms sort of struck my funny bone. They made sense when I thought a little about the words used, but they caused me to smile. For example, a spanner is a wrench. Well, yeah, it spans the bolt or whatever. So it’s a spanner. It makes more sense than a wrench.

Another similar example is a cross-head screwdriver. That’s a Phillips screwdriver. Cross-head makes total sense. As does impact adhesive (contact cement).

Here are some more: Nesting box (birdhouse); wheel brace (the brace in a brace and bit); pillar drill (a drill press); multi-ply (plywood), and scalpel (craft knife).

A few terms that I thought most Americans wouldn’t understand I changed. But these terms have since become so common I would leave them now. Here are a few examples: DIY, for do-it-yourself; proud, as in leaving the pin proud. I translated it as protruding. Another is tin for can. I think most people would understand tin.

Anyway, it was an interesting experience. Freelancing, whether writing or in a shop can often be fun and challenging. In this case, the publisher would send me a manuscript by Fed Ex, along with a typical publisher plea to turn it around as fast as I could. I would mark it up and return it by Fed Ex. Now, of course, it would all be done online.

The British terms were not always obvious. Many times I had to use the context to figure out what was being referred to. If you happened to buy one of these books, I hope it all made sense to you.

Bob Flexner is author of “Understanding Wood Finishing,” and “Wood Finishing 101.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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