Highland Hardware Wood News Online No. 11, April 2006

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Ask the Staff

What finish should I use?

Question: I am a neophyte and need some guidance. I am in the process of stripping off multiple layers of paint from a 100-year-old balustrade that has about 40 balusters made of a light-colored, beautifully grained hardwood – species unknown (to me at least). I am trying to decide about a new finish.

Finishes are applied to wood for protection, dimensional stability and beauty, right? It seems to me that this wood doesn't need too much protection – perhaps the greatest risk is of scuffmarks from a stray foot now and then. As to dimensional stability, a baluster does not have the same requirements for stability that wooden furniture has. And beauty? Well, I don't know that applying a finish will enhance its natural beauty; I like the way it is.

So I think, why finish it? But then I have a nagging feeling that I ought to apply at least some sort of finish. I read about tung oil and considered using it, but then read that penetrating oils highlight surface defects and what with the 100 years of use (those stray feet, etc.), and the gouges from stripping the paint (I am an amateur at this), there are surface defects that just can't be removed. I have thought about water-based finishes – if possible, I would like to use a water-based finish – and went to several local paint stores and my local big-box store, none of which have much of a selection of water-based finishes.

So, another thought I had was to just put a coat of wax on the wood. But the question then becomes what kind of wax? (Big box and paint store personnel don’t seem to have a clue.)

Oh, something I tried: After I finished sanding one of the balusters, I decided to experiment and to NOT stop sanding. I used some automotive paper and worked my up to 2500 grit; now that really shows off the grain! But I read somewhere that it probably also burnishes the wood so it won't accept a finish. I don't know; I haven't tried it yet. But I have done this on only one baluster so if I do decide to apply a finish, I guess I can just rough up the one baluster.

L.L., Baltimore, MD

Answer: Even if the wood is dimensionally stable, the environment is kept perfectly at a constant temperature/humidity to keep seasonal movement to a minimum, and the wood is gorgeous all by itself, you would be served by applying some kind of finish. Most of us don't regularly clean the stairway components of our stairs, and cleaning dust, dirt and grime off a finish coating is easier than getting it off raw wood. If you go to the trouble to strip and sand to perfection all these balusters, it makes sense to take a bit more time and apply the finish of your choice.

I consider wax an old world finish. Better than nothing, but not really much of a finish. Multiple coats of wax don't really "build". The solvent in the wax softens the previous coat to blend with the next coat and once you buff off the excess, you have about the same amount of wax as you did when you finished the first coat. Perhaps the second coat is covering some missed spots and looks more even, but it is not really measurably thicker from a protection standpoint. Most paste waxes are simply a blend of soft and hard waxes (soft for easy application, and hard for durability and to prevent softening when temperatures rise a bit). Wax works well to protect the surface of other finishes, but doesn't offer much in the way of protection by itself.

Closed-grain hardwoods sanded to very fine grits may not absorb as much as when only sanded to 120 grit. However in my opinion, the absorption of a curing oil finish (or thinned-down varnish, so to speak) is determined more by the type of wood than the final sanding grit. If you like the look of the 2500 grit sanding, have at it. If you apply 4-6 coats of an oil finish, you'll have some film build to provide protection. (Any brushed on film finish will appear nicer when the surface you're coating is sanded exceptionally smooth. Stain, on the other hand, may not take as readily when a surface is burnished smooth with very high grits.

Lots of finishes impart their own color (like amber tones with oil, varnish, poly and shellac). They can also yellow with age. Keep this in mind as you decide. Water-based film finishes are water clear and will not yellow with age. They typically do not flow as well as oil-based products when brushed on . The water-based Ceramithane we sell brushes fairly well for a water-based finish. You can even wipe on very thin coats with a lint-free cloth with nice results. It is also available in a matte sheen to look as unobtrusive as possible.

Remember that almost all finishes look better when you apply them in very thin coats, multiple times. Two heavy, thick coats of varnish never look as good as 4 coats applied in thinner coats.

A well-applied finish will usually always enhance the natural beauty of wood unless what you want to look at is bare wood. I've seen some amazing pieces of driftwood worn smooth as glass that look stunning without any finish (nature was the finish, so to speak). However, a lousy finish job can spoil beautiful wood and superb craftsmanship in a heartbeat.

If you can figure out what kind of wood you have, get some sample scraps, sand them and make your own test samples with different finishes to see how the finishes look to you.

If you are a traditionalist, with research, you may discover that at the time the balustrade was built, paint was the historical finish of the day. To be true to the historical period and the craftsman who built the stair, using paint on the balusters would then be in order!

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