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Sand with the grain when hand sanding or using a belt sander. Scratches are hard to see when they run parallel to the grain. But even the lightest scratches across the grain are obvious, especially after staining.
Sand curved surfaces—and other areas an electric sander can't reach—by hand. Treat all areas equally, using the same progression of sandpaper grits for both hand and power sanding. Start with 80-grit to sand away blemishes, then use 120-grit and finally 180-grit. Using these exact grits isn't vital (100-150-180 works too), but it's important to progress in steps, removing deeper scratches and leaving finer scratches each time.
A random orbital sander leaves scratches that are practically invisible, so you can sand across joints where grain changes direction. But move slowly (about 1 inch per second) and apply light pressure. Otherwise, you'll get swirly scratches.
You can't rely on those stain samples on display in stores. Actual color varies a lot, depending on the type of wood and how you prepared it for finishing. So save scraps from your project, run them through the same sanding process and use them to test finishes. If you didn't build the item you're finishing, run tests on an inconspicuous area—the underside of a table, for example. Test stain on scraps to get the color you want. Leaving excess stain on the wood for longer or shorter periods won't affect the color much. If it's a custom color you're after, you can mix stains of the same brand.
Oil-based poly has an amber tone that can dramatically change the color of stained or unstained wood. Water-based polyurethane affects the color only slightly. The same stain was used on the samples shown in this photo.
Turn out the lights and shine light at a low angle across the wood to reveal imperfections. Flag the problem areas with masking tape and sand them out.
Some woods absorb stain unevenly, which causes dark blotches to appear. Birch, maple, pine and cherry can all play this ugly trick on you. It's hard to eliminate this effect, but you can limit it by applying a wood conditioner before staining. Conditioner also prevents wood's end grain from absorbing more stain than the face grain. Get a quart at a home center or paint store.
If your stained and varnished woodwork is looking a little shabby, you can save time and money with this quick fix. You don't have to strip the finish from your dingy woodwork. Just head to the store and pick up wood stain that's a close match. We like gel stain for this fix, but any wood stain will work.
Start your renewal project by washing the woodwork with soapy water. Rinse with clear water, then gently scrape off any paint spatters with a plastic putty knife. When the wood is dry, dip a rag into the stain and wipe it over the wood. Bare spots and scratches will pick up the stain. Finish by wiping the woodwork with a clean cloth to remove the excess stain. After the stain dries for a few days, you can add a coat of furniture wax or wipe-on poly to really liven up the old wood.
Usually, a brush is the best tool for applying polyurethane. For water-based poly, a synthetic brush (such as nylon or polyester) is best. For oil-based poly, use a natural-bristle brush. In either case, plan to spend more for a good-quality brush. Quality brushes hold more finish, lay it on smoothly and are less likely to leave lost bristles in your clear coat. If you clean your brush immediately after use, it'll serve you well far into the future.
When you notice a run, missed spot or other problem in the polyurethane you applied minutes earlier, you'll be tempted to brush it out. Don't. The finish may look wet, but chances are it's already sticky, and brushing will only make a mess. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: You can pop tiny air bubbles with a pin, and you can pluck out a hair, a lost bristle or unfortunate fly using sharp tweezers and a steady hand.
Wipe oil-based polyurethane onto hard-to-brush surfaces using a soft, lint-free cloth. Wiping leaves a thinner
coat than brushing, so you’ll have to apply more coats. Water-based poly becomes sticky too fast for wiping.
Apply water-based polyurethane to large surfaces fast by
using a paint pad. Water-based poly dries quickly and may
not allow enough “wet” time for brushing out big areas.
Here's a trick for getting a glass-smooth finish on your next woodworking project. Start by brushing on a coat of gloss polyurethane. Let it dry overnight. Then lightly sand with 320-grit sandpaper to remove imperfections. Use a tack cloth or vacuum cleaner and soft brush attachment to remove the dust. Repeat this process for the second coat. Finish up by spraying on the final coat. You can buy aerosol cans of polyurethane in satin, semigloss and gloss finishes. Any of these can go over the gloss coats.
Brushing on the first two coats allows you to build up a thicker layer of finish with less cost and effort than spraying from cans. And using an aerosol can to apply the final coat produces a professional-looking finish, free of brush marks.
When sanding between coats, it's easy to rub right through the clear coat, removing the stain below. So sand super lightly after the first coat, just enough to cut down any dust whiskers on the surface. If there are bigger problems—such as runs—deal with them after the second coat when you can sand a bit harder. To repair rubbed-through spots, just apply new stain. Immediately wipe away any stain that gets on the surrounding polyurethane.
When sanding between coats, smooth curves with a steel
wool substitute such as 3M's Scotchbrite pads. Steel wool
leaves fibers behind, which can cause stains in the finish.
Lightly sand between coats with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper, which won't fall apart when it gets wet. A little water provides lubrication and keeps the finish from clogging the paper. Sanding after each coat (except the last) rubs out imperfections and roughens the surface for better adhesion of the next coat. In most cases, this is a quick job, more like wiping the surface than sanding it. When the sanding is done, wipe away the residue with a damp rag.
Save time and mineral spirits with this three-container brush-cleaning method. Partially fill three containers with mineral spirits. When you're done working for the day, swish your brush around in the first container. Wipe it along the edge of the container to remove as much finish as you can. Then repeat the process in the second container. By now the brush will be pretty clean.
Suspend the brush in the third container. Drill a hole in the handle and suspend it from a wire or dowel so that the bristles aren't resting on the bottom of the container. Put a lid on the first two containers, and wrap plastic wrap or
aluminum foil around the brush handle on the third container. You can use the same mineral spirits for several brush cleanings.
When the first container gets too full of old finish, dump it into a fourth container labeled “used mineral spirits.” Shift the second and third containers to positions one and two, and pour clean mineral spirits into the one you emptied and place it at the end of the line. You can reuse the mineral spirits from the “used” container after the finish settles. Decant it carefully to avoid stirring up the gunk on the bottom.
Steel scrapers work great—for the first few minutes. Then they need to be sharpened or replaced. But a carbide scraper blade will stay plenty sharp for a long time, even when you're removing thick paint buildup.
In addition to a reversible carbide blade, this heavy-duty scraper has a knob on top for two-handed operation—a must for tough scraping jobs. You can even flip the scraper over and use the knob as a hammer to set protruding siding nails. If you've ever scraped paint from an old house, you know how handy that is.
These handy plastic pyramids hold your project off the surface so you can paint the edges easily. Better yet, you can finish the front of doors (or the top of shelves) without waiting for the back to dry. Paint the back of the door and set it painted side down on the pyramids while you paint the front. The sharp points on the pyramids will leave only
little spots on the wet paint, and they're easy to touch up later. You'll find plastic pyramids at home centers, paint stores and hardware stores.
If you have lap siding to paint, you can save a lot of time by painting the edges of window and door casings the same color as the siding. Most pros do it this way, and the beauty is, nobody will ever notice this little shortcut. Caulk the joint between the casing and the siding as usual. Then when you paint the siding, just extend the paint onto the edge of the casing instead of meticulously cutting in. If you get paint on the face of the casing, wipe it off with a wet rag to create a neat edge.
Sand With the Grain
Hand-Sand the Curves
Sand Without Scratches
Test Stains Thoroughly!
Test Clear Finishes, Too
Inspect Before You Stain
Consider a Wood Conditioner
Renew Woodwork Without Refinishing
Better Brushes are the Key
Leave Mistakes Alone (Usually)
Wipe Instead of Brush
Use a Pad on Large Areas
Spray on the Final Coat
Don't Sand Through the Stain
Sand Curves With a Pad
Sand Fine Surfaces With Wet/Dry Sandpaper
Three-Stage Brush-Cleaning System
Scrape Paint Faster
Work Faster With Pyramids
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