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Woodturning Finishes
By Curtis Turner
Round Rock, TX


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A regular discussion among my turning students is; what type of finish should they use? The finishing options for turners are almost unlimited, which makes it a difficult topic to cover in a brief article. Therefore, I will cover this topic from a different perspective.
The goal of this article is to share what I wish someone told me when I was starting out. Therefore, my recommendations will reflect my experiences. This is not intended to be an all-encompassing article about finishing. There are many great books from experts on finishing which will expand on your technical understanding of how finishes work and can be applied. You will find a few of those resources listed at the end of the article.

In the Beginning

As a new woodturner, I gravitated to products marketed to turners. These were generally shellac and wax based products blended with other chemicals to aid with application and drying. These were very easy to apply with almost instant results. The sheen or polish was dazzling to my eye. I soon learned these were not the best finishes for everything. For example, the shiny new mallet and tool handles did not remain glossy after limited uses. It began to dawn on me that the world of finishing was vast and there was no single product for all situations.

What I later realized was I had used the wrong product for my intended application. What I needed was a better understanding of what I was trying to accomplish and match that with the correct product. Clearly, no single product will work in all applications. It sounds so obvious now.

I outlined below, several products and how I use them. In almost every category, there are countless recipes for homemade solutions. A concoction of your own making can be a great way to save money and distinguish your items from others. Also, please take note of the product warning labels . Many products contain additives that can be combustible or otherwise hazardous to your health if improperly handled or mixed.

  1. Wax : My favorite ready-to-use, commercially available product is Renaissance Wax . Expensive? Yes, however, the finish is smooth warm and pleasing. A little wax will go a long way. An alternative could be a homemade blend.
    Any wax is only a temporary protective finish. A wax finish is perhaps the easiest to apply. Simply apply a small dab of wax to a paper towel and apply it to piece while it is spinning on the lathe. I was blown away by the glowing finish the first time I tried this. A wax finish is also easy to reapply. Wax can be applied over other finishes to add extra protection and/or adjust sheen.

  2. Bottled Shellac/Wax Solutions : These products are also easy to apply and relatively inexpensive. They can be applied with a paper towel while the item spins on the lathe. They dry quickly and can add a brilliance to your work. I consider these products best for items with limited handling. A popular product in this category include Mylands High Build Friction Polish .

  3. Oil based products : This category is filled with products blended with natural and not so natural additives. These products can be applied with a paper towel, brush or dipped into a container containing the oil. Typically, oil based products soak into the wood and offer a warmer/softer visual and tactile experience. Products in this category that I find myself using include Mahoney's Walnut Oil and Waterlox .
  4. Lacquer : This type of film building finish is very durable and capable of a achieving a range of surface sheen from low to high gloss. Lacquer finishes can typically be brushed, sprayed or wiped on.

    I have gravitated to using more spray lacquers (rattle can) like Behlen Jet Spray Lacquer . The convenience of spray cans is hard to beat when only small quantities are required.
  5. Other Finishes : There are other products that can be applied to the surface that can justify their own article, for example, paints, buffing processes and finishes suited for pen turning.

When I first started out, I wish someone had recommended that I invest the time and money to try several different products on various samples. If I could do this again, with what I know now, I would purchase select leading products from several categories and test them all at the same time. It is more difficult to understand how products vary if you buy one product and use it exclusively until it runs out, then buy something else and use that exclusively and so on and so forth. It sounds more economical to use one product at a time, however, you will lose the benefit of immediate and direct comparisons between products. At a minimum, you risk using the wrong product for an item because it is the only finish you own. I know it sounds like I am trying to sell you gallons of finishing products. I am not! I do not profit from product sales.

My recommendation is to buy products from different categories that appeal to you. Then turn several sample blanks and test like crazy.

I wish I had been more aggressive in the beginning about experimenting with all of the wonderful options.

I cannot help but feel I missed out on expanding my early experiences by waiting to try products.

Resources

Great Wood Finishes: A Step-By- Step Guide To Beautiful Results . Author, Jeff Jewitt

Understanding Wood Finishing . Author, Bob Flexner

More Finishing books available at Highland Woodworking


Curtis was a former President of Central Texas Woodturners , is a member of the American Association of Woodturners , and is a member of Fine Woodworkers of Austin . Curtis teaches and demonstrates nationally for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He also teaches for TechShop. He owns a studio where he works and teaches. Curtis lives in Central Texas with his wife and four young children. Take a look at his website at www.curtisturnerstudio.com or visit his Instagram: tx_planes .

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