‘New’ finishes – Part 1

Baseball great Yogi Berra always said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” That can be said for woodworking as well. It ain’t finished till it’s finished.

A large part of the appeal of any given piece of woodwork lies in how well it is finished. A good finish can make or break a piece and can even elevate its appeal by orders of magnitude while a poor finish can detract greatly from an otherwise stunning piece.

Finishing has, in many cases, been considered a specialty trade and many shops have, if not a finishing department, at least one person who specializes in finishing. In smaller shops, the cabinetmaker and the finisher are one and the same person but many shops send their work out raw, to be finished on site or to a specialty shop to be finished prior to delivery.

Finishing has also been a great source of toxic exposure for those who perform this task. Early finishing materials were more natural and were comparatively benign. Shellac, for example, secreted by female bugs and dissolved in alcohol. Oils and waxes are also relatively harmless. Lacquer, which, originally made from bugs but later distilled from cotton in the form of nitrocellulose, is a bit nastier. And the newer versions which are made from acrylic compounds may have lower VOC ratings but they still require some serious protection to avoid toxins.

Varnishes have also been morphing over the years into much more toxic substances. Originally varnishes were made from natural resins. But those were replaced by phenolic resins and required much more toxic solvents than the traditional turpentine which is also distilled from natural resins.

It might be interesting to take a look at some of the newer finishes and also how these finishes have affected some of the traditional finishing techniques. I hope it’s interesting because that is what I’m planning for next week!



  • Bob Kloes says:

    Water base products have come a long way. I use both solvent and waterbase. Each has their good and bad points. But waterbase is getting better all the time. I also see ML Campbell is coming out with a new lower smelling solvent. I am hoping to try some of that in august. I do like certain General Finishes products and Campbell products. Look forward to hear about what you find.

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