Finish samples might be the death of me
When I started working with a custom woodworking shop about 25 years ago, I remember the owner staying that he thought finishing was the most important step in the entire furniture and millwork process. I would have to agree. His reasoning was that it’s the main colour the client sees, it’s what they reach out to touch right away and it’s also what will protect the wood for years to come. I’ve always selected and applied finishes with great care ever since he pointed that out to me.
Hello, pine, it’s been a while
Over the past few months, I’ve been building distressed pine and Douglas fir furniture for a large new home. I haven’t worked with pine for probably 20 years, but I’ve enjoyed it. Pine is sometimes downgraded to “beginner-only” status, but it has some good qualities. I was also using clear pine, which was a bit of a treat.
The designs for some of the pieces are unique, and all of them are distressed to look like antiques. This aspect is new to me. Until recently, all of my work goes out the door completely scratch-free, the finish has no blemishes and the piece looks brand new. One of the first pieces I built was a 9′ long dining table. The strange thing is that I’ve been using it as a workbench ever since, until I put a few coats of finish on it the other day.
Speaking of the finish
The home these pieces will go into is custom built, with a lot of care taken to bring the home together as a whole. Colours and textures play a large role in the décor. Earth tones, such as muted browns, beiges and greys, all play a starring role in this home, and I had to come up with a finish for each of the pieces that would complement the floors, walls and other items in the home. This is where things got tricky.
If you read my post a month ago, titled “Learning when to say no”, alarm bells might be going off in your mind. Thankfully, this isn’t the case in this situation. I enjoy working with the designer, and I understand where she’s coming from with the designs and colours she wants. She’s picky, but not unreasonable. And since my thing is custom furniture, this is right up my alley.
The construction portion of each piece goes very smoothly. It’s my favourite part. Simple, yet solid joinery, coupled with a few interesting techniques or details, keeps me on my toes. Determining the finish for each of these pieces has been a bit of a slog, though, and that’s an understatement. Browns are easy to come by when it comes to stains, but the browns I’m after are much more muted than what you typically find on the shelf. The designer also wants a very muted, flat finish, with no gloss. She mentioned Rubio Monocoat towards the start of the project, as it doesn’t build a heavy film, and it’s available in a wide range of muted colours that can be mixed. It also includes a few products for adding additional layers of colour on the piece before the final oil topcoat is applied. This allows for further fine-tuning of the final colour.
This is also where things start to get confusing.
Rubio has about 15 “Precolour Easy” products. When included in the finishing process, these are applied to bare wood to give the wood colour. They can all be mixed in whatever ratio you’d like, to achieve the colour you want. Rubio also has about 10 “Pre-Aging” products that are used similarly to the “Precolour Easy” product, in that they go on before the topcoat. Again, these can be mixed and thinned to perfect the final colour. I’m no math whiz, but I think the possible colour combinations are already pushing well into the thousands of options. Likely tens of thousands, really.
But that’s not where it stops. The final single layer of protection and colour that must go on these pieces comes in about 60 colours, all of which can be mixed together in whatever ratio you’d like. I’m sure we’re at infinite options by now. On one hand, this is good, because it will allow me to mix these combinations to get the right colour. On the other hand, this can be time consuming and frustrating, especially when you’re not working towards a specific colour sample, which was the case here.
Mix, apply, repeat
Long story, short…I’ve made about 100 samples over the past month as I get closer and closer to a final magic combination. To clarify, there’s not one final solution. There are eight, as that’s how many pieces of furniture I’m building. The colour on the different pieces will all be a bit different, though all in the same sort of colour category. To confuse things slightly, all of the pieces are pine, except for one coffee table made of Douglas fir. A finish on pine has a much different colour when it’s applied on Douglas fir. Thankfully, the differences aren’t huge, and the colours can be adjusted to be very close to a match, so I don’t need to start from scratch.
I started out completely in the dark. I mixed up what I thought might look good, but I really wasn’t working from anything too specific. I’d mix up a “Precolour Easy” finish, apply it, then add an oil topcoat (that had a colour to it) and send a photo or two to the designer. At first, she would reply with “Well, that’s not quite the colour I was thinking,” or something to that effect. “A bit more grey” or “A bit less orange” or…you get the idea.
I’d go back to the drawing board and inch closer and closer to the final thing. Some of the samples I sent her were a few inches wide and a few inches long. When I got closer, the sample size increased so she could see it better. There were also many I didn’t even send to her because I thought they were so ugly.
I eventually sent a panel with about 10 small samples on it that was a bit of a home run. I will use four of these for the first four pieces I finish. At this stage, I’ve only finished two pieces — the dining table and the Douglas fir coffee table — and I’m happy to say they turned out well. I’m comforted by the fact that I have two finishes determined and only four more to figure out. Having said that, I don’t think the last four will be nearly as hard as the first four. I have the general colour we’re looking for nailed down, so we might be able to just tweak the colours I’ve used to come up with something for the last few pieces.
Back in April I mentioned the Douglas fir I was working with to make this coffee table. With a quick count, it had about 265 annual growth rings in it. Feeling a bit guilty about playing a role in having this ancient tree cut down, I wanted to make sure I built a coffee table that lasts and is appreciated. I hope I’ve done that. The upper surface of the top was carved to make it look like it was hewn with an adze. The texture is quite pronounced, but hopefully not so deep that a glass of wine will tip over if misplaced. Nobody will appreciate this table then!
Would You Like to Try a Sample?
Here are just a few of the many sample boards I’ve made over the past month or so. A finish is a critical part of making custom furniture, so this is time well spent. The vast majority of these samples have different finishes on both their fronts and backs.
Millions of Options
Though Rubio has many more colour options, I started with about 25 different products in three different categories. Some of the products act like a stain, and their only purpose is to colour the wood, while others are protective topcoats. The protective topcoats also come in many colours, though, so they have to be taken into account when working on samples.
Lay Them Out
Some of Rubio’s products aren’t oil-based, so the rags used won’t spontaneously combust. Others, like their “Oil Plus 2C” products, are oil-based. Laying the wet rags out to thoroughly dry is essential to avoid a catastrophe. Shown here is only a small fraction of the tiny bits of shop rags I used to apply all the different finishes to the many samples.
Finally, We’re Getting Somewhere
The Douglas fir coffee table I’ve been fussing over for the last month or two finally got two coats of finish. First, I applied a mixture of Rubio’s “Precolour Easy,” which was actually a mix of two of their colours, diluted with water. Once dry, I applied a mix of two colours of Rubio’s “Oil Plus 2C” to add more colour and offer up a healthy amount of protection to this table for years to come.
Tight Growth Rings
These pieces of Douglas fir had a lot of growth rings in them. You’ll also notice the dust in my shop while I’m applying a finish to this table. I wasn’t too worried about it, as the two steps are both wiped on, then wiped off. Unlike a film finish, any dust that happened to get onto the surface was wiped away easily, and didn’t get embedded in the finish.
The Final Recipe
Although I started with a million options, we eventually settled on one finish for each of the pieces I made. My workbench also gets a few coats of finish, though it wasn’t on purpose.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.