Overview: Materials and techniques
Even though I’ve built dozens of
cabinets and furniture pieces, I
don’t consider myself a high-end finisher.
But I’ve developed my own little
collection of tips, systems and techniques
for applying oil-based polyurethane. It gives me great results,
quickly and painlessly. This is a skip-the-brush system. It’s all about rolling
poly on the big areas, using wipe-on
poly on the small ones, and above all,
controlling dust. I’ll show you the tips
I used while I was finishing my latest
project, a flat-screen TV stand.
Tip 1: Sand out pencil marks
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Use a light held
at a low, raking
angle to check for
scratches, dirt and
any other imperfections
sand and apply
Begin by drawing light, squiggly pencil
lines on the surface at each grit stage.
When the pencil lines disappear,
you’re ready to move on to the next
grit. You’re wasting your time sanding
coarse, open-grained woods like ash or
oak baby-butt smooth. I generally start
at 80 grit and end with 100 or 120 grit.
Sanding through all the grits to 220 grit
won’t improve the finish one bit. But
with closed-grained woods like maple
or birch, don’t skip any grit steps, and
go all the way to 220 grit.
Tip 2: Maintain a clean work area
A clean work area is key. The more dust free the project and the
surrounding surfaces, the less work
you’ll have and the more flawless your
finish will be. Before the finishing
starts, I vacuum the project, the workbench
and the floor. Under the piece to
be finished, I spread out 6-mil poly to
protect the floor from drips and spills
and make cleanup easy. I’ll reuse these
sheets several times, then toss them.
Don’t finish on the same day you sand;
the dust stays in the air for hours. Start
finishing with clean clothes and hair.
Tip 3: Wipe the project with mineral spirits
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Lose the dust
Wipe down every square inch of the workpiece with a lint-free cotton cloth dampened
with mineral spirits or denatured alcohol.
Wipe down the project with a tack
cloth, or a lint-free cloth saturated with
solvent. I like to use an old, clean cotton
T-shirt for this and the wipe-on
step shown later. This step removes
nearly all traces of dust. It only takes a
few minutes for the solvent to evaporate
so you can get started on finishing.
Don’t use water; it’ll raise the grain and
you’ll have to sand again.
Tip 4: Use a roller on large, flat surfaces
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Roll on poly fast—then quit!
Dampen the roller with mineral spirits and roll the poly on all of the large flat areas
and cabinet interiors. Coat the surface and quit. Don't continue to work the finish.
I love these little rollers. You can get
the poly on fast and evenly. No brushstrokes,
puddles or thin spots. I’ve had
bubble problems with some rollers. I
prefer to use 6-in. microfiber rollers dampened with mineral
spirits. There’s always a bit of leftover
lint, but only on the first coat. A Teflon
baking tray makes a great rolling pan.
Don’t freak out when you see the finish
right after you lay it down. It’ll look
like it’s full of flaws. Just roll it out and
use the raking light to make sure the
surface is completely covered. Don’t
keep working the finish. Let it be, and
it will flatten out. I keep a can of spray
poly handy in case of bubbles. A light
mist knocks them out.
After each coat, redip the roller in
mineral spirits and put it into a zippered
plastic bag for the next coat and
leave the wet tray to dry. In a couple of
hours, the dried poly just peels right
out of the pan. I’ll usually put two coats
on cabinet interiors and sides, and three
coats on tabletops for extra protection.
Tip 5: Finish both sides at once
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Finish both sides at once
Coat the bottom first and then flip over the top, resting it on standoffs while you roll
the finish on the top. The Painter's Pyramid shown is available at home centers.
With a solid wood top like this one, finish
both the top and the bottom surfaces,
even if the bottom won’t show.
Skip this step and the top can twist,
cup or warp. To save drying time, coat
the bottom and then immediately flip it
over to finish the top. I just don’t care if
there are a few fingerprints. Right after
the top is rolled out, I roll the edges and
then go around them with a dry foam
brush to eliminate any drips or thick
spots. I skip the final coat on the underside.
Being short a single coat on the
underside isn’t a big deal.
Tip 6: Use wipe-on poly for small or tight areas
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Dribble wipe-on poly on the rag and wet the entire area. Sand between coats with
extra-fine sanding pads.
After the roll-on coats are dry, I use
wipe-on oil poly (use the same sheen
you chose for the roll-on poly) for the
face frames, legs, doors or any other
narrow, small or intricate areas. I do
this after the large areas are dry so I
don’t smudge adjacent areas. I like it
because only two things get dirty: a
glove and a cotton rag, both of which I
toss after each coat. (Spread them out
to dry first.) I can put on two to four
coats in one day depending on the temperature
and humidity. There are no
drips, sags or runs—ever. And because
it dries so fast, there’s rarely a dust
problem. The downside? Because the
coats are so thin, you need lots of them.
I’ll put on as many as eight coats of
wipe-on when two rolled coats would
do the trick.
Tip 7: Lightly sand with pads and paper
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Sand lightly between coats
Wipe off dust whiskers with extra-fine sanding pads. For larger blemishes, use
280-grit paper. The raking light will show you when the surface is smooth.
I lightly sand between coats with extra-fine
synthetic sanding pads. The goal is
to roughen the surface a bit and rub out
dust motes, hairs and drips. If there are
stubborn nibs that stand up to the pads,
grab 280-grit and be more aggressive.
Then just wipe off the dust with mineral
spirits and apply another coat.
Tip 8: Let the final coat dry in a dust-free area
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For big projects, build yourself a temporary drying booth with poly sheeting. If it's cool,
use an electric space heater to hasten drying and shorten the time that dust can
become embedded in the finish.
For the final coat, I vacuum the work
area again and let the dust settle
overnight. In the winter, I warm the
room and then turn off the overhead
furnace a couple of hours before finishing
to settle any dust.
After the finish is on, I immediately
roll small workpieces into my shop
bathroom, which is nearly dust free. If
it’s cool in the bathroom, I use an electric
space heater to speed up the drying.
If it’s a big project, I make a drying
booth out of 6-mil poly sheeting first,
which nearly eliminates dust specks.