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Start planning if you’re going to finish

Finishing can be a very challenging step in creating anything made of wood.

For every other step in the process of building, woodworkers must have dozens of skills, such as estimating costs, designing joinery methods and making jigs. Each of these skills can take years, if not a lifetime, to master. But many woodworkers who demonstrate such mastery still struggle with the skills needed to make the last step — finishing — go smoothly.

As a professional finisher and instructor, I have heard many woodworkers use terms like dread, loathing, uncertainty, intimidation, and even anger when anticipating finishing work. Too many things have gone wrong in the past for them to feel comfortable. To put it politely, many woodworkers have developed a very low tolerance for the activity of wood finishing. So why is it true that this last step is so often problematic?

Since I am frequently hired to develop finishing processes and do problem-solving consultations with cabinet shops and furniture makers, I have identified three of the main issues that can cause difficulties in any shop’s finishing work.

Budget enough time
The first reason is it’s the very last step. Problems that started earlier can begin to show themselves. “Project burnout” can begin to occur and, in my experience, finishing quality usually goes down as project burnout goes up. Deadlines can creep up sooner than expected. Finishing timelines and costs can be difficult to predict and easily underestimated. As a result, time for testing, color matching, or making samples for customer approval are ignored.

Good, reliable decision making and planning are often the most important part of finishing work. Rushed decision making can doom any process before the physical work has started. When questionable finishing decisions are implemented, even bigger problems may occur. I have seen the building process start over at this point. The last step can ruin the entire project. It is pretty clear where the frustrations can come from.

The obvious common-sense strategy for preventing problems is to accurately budget enough time. This is not easy, but I can offer some general guidelines that have held true for almost every shop I have worked with.

The percentage of cost for finishing on any project should usually fall between 10 to 30 percent or more of the total budget. Ten percent might be appropriate when all that is needed is a quick final sanding, and two or three coats of easy-to-apply, fast-drying and familiar clear coat.

But 10 percent does not allow for attention to detail or touch-up work. Adding stain requires more careful final sanding and an extra material application step, which makes 15 to 30 percent appropriate.

For hand rubbing, color matching, high durability or other fussy work, 30 percent or more is not too high. Some very high-end jobs can even push it toward 50 percent, although this is rare. Almost all the mid- to high-end shops I have surveyed plan 20 to 25 percent of the total budget for final sanding and finishing for most situations.

Plan ahead
A second issue that causes problems is that finishing is very different than building. It is chemistry versus physics — assorted cans of mysterious liquids versus solid boards and sharp blades. This makes finishing harder to understand and therefore less predictable than building. Chemistry related problems are experienced more often when new methods and materials are introduced.

Every shop I have worked with has at least one standard process that is well-known and produces predictable results. When established processes are used, problems are few. Because of this, some shops do not offer custom finishing options. They provide the customer with prepared samples of available options to choose from. Sticking to this approach is a very good way to almost entirely avoid the first two issues discussed in this article.

But customers are going to request a species of wood that has not been used in your shop or want something built to match existing woodwork, and you’ll be forced to execute a new finishing technique. The best strategy for dealing with new finishing chemistry issues is to apply skills learned in other areas of woodworking. The woodworker’s skills of forethought, careful planning, precision and testing are used to make every other step in the building process work out predictably. Somehow it seems these skills are not as often applied to the finishing process.

Planning for the most appropriate finishing materials and processes should begin somewhere in the design stages, just like joinery and wood selection. Client approval of a custom finish may be necessary. This requires planning for at least one extra meeting and phone conversation to be in the budget.

Make samples
The third issue is to make good samples, which is the best way to test or master new finishing materials and processes.

Samples can be used in a variety of ways. They can be prepared to show available options. They can also be carefully custom-made for a unique situation, or sometimes quickly done just to check if a stain color is “close enough.” In every case, they should be made in a way that helps improve predictability of the finishing process for everyone involved.

But making attractive custom samples for a client to view and make decisions is time-consuming. Some shops do not charge for this high-end service, but it really should be in the budget like everything else. If there is not an appropriate budget for this important design step, it may not get done as well as possible. This opens up the possibility that problems will show up during finishing that are actually related to planning and testing skills not being used. They end up looking like finishing problems.

Samples that will be presented to a customer are the most involved to make. They are made to get a positive response from customers and to encourage confidence. To be impressive, they should be made with high-quality materials that are representative of the materials to be used. This may include solid stock as well as sheet goods. They should be large enough to make their point and prepped in the same way as will be done in the building and finishing steps. If stain of any sort is used, it is very important that it saturate the wood consistently by timing the process to mimic full-size processes. Top coats are needed to show the final appearance. Drying times should be about the same as the full-size project.

Any variable that is not taken into account can produce unreliable and inaccurate results that can be misleading. When a stain color sample is not carefully made, it can have disastrous results. Imagine a stain sample made under the following conditions: the board selected is much lighter than the average and is not sanded properly, the can of stain is not stirred well, the saturation time is too short, and there is no topcoat applied. This will probably not be “close enough” to be predictable. Investing time to make useful samples is a good strategy.

Using these three strategies will make finishing more predictable, maybe even profitable.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.

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