Finish the Finish
By Paul Coppinger
Woodturners generally are much better at turning than finishing. My first AAW Symposium really drove this home. They had hundreds of great turnings in the Instant Gallery but many had really bad finishes. By bad, I mean they had runs, droops, dust particles, etc., that were visible and feel-able. I believe a turning is to be both seen and touched. To accomplish both, the turner needs to apply a suitable finish and then “finish the finish”. “Finish the finish” can be obtained using several techniques. All the techniques require a sufficiently thick finish so some abrasive process can remove a small portion of the top surface to planarize (smooth) the surface and then polish using progressively finer abrasives. This is the same progressive process as sanding, just using another medium.
The most popular technique for turned items is using the Beall Buffing System after the piece is off the lathe. This utilizes different buffing wheels with 2 abrasive grits plus carnuba wax, all in separate molded blocks. The courser grit (tripoli) is held against the accompanying spinning buffing wheel to transfer abrasive to the wheel, then the turning is buffed until a uniform dull appearance is obtained. Be very careful as this buffing wheel can catch your piece and throw it across the shop…DAMHIKT. Then the finer grit stick (white diamond) is transferred to its buffing wheel and the piece is buffed again until a nice shine appears. The wax is then applied to its own wheel for luster buffing as above. This wax adds that unique waxy feel of quality.
For either on or off the lathe, Micro Mesh can be used. It comes in progressively finer sheets that can be used to “finish the finish”. If on the lathe, do not use much speed as it will generate too much heat that can damage your finish or the Micro Mesh. If off the lathe, it can be used like sandpaper with lots of elbow grease. I find I am usually ready to give up on obtaining the luster I desire until the last 2 grits. Then the piece will really jump up and shine.
The classic approach to “finish the finish” has been French polish. Traditionally this was used on shellac finishes and produces outstanding deep luster, but takes lots of effort, i.e., elbow grease. After the shellac finish is applied, a buffing pad is used to rub by hand pumice stone powder and shellac into the pores. The pad uses shellac diluted with alcohol to lubricate the rubbing process and to provide a binder for holding the pumice in the pores. After drying, another pad is used to polish with rotten stone rubbing powder. This pad has to have alcohol as a lubricant and to dissolve the top surface of the shellac. Finally, wax is applied with a soft cloth. The Jan/Feb 2011 copy of Fine Woodworking has an excellent article on French polishing by Vijay Velji.
Two other products to accomplish this same process on non-dissolving finishes like lacquer and varnish are Mequiar’s Auto finishes and Howard’s Furniture polishes. Howard’s comes in two grits, Fine and Super fine, and are available at Ace Hardware. Mequiar’s have two grits (The Professional Med Cut Cleaner #1 and Fine Cut Cleaner #2) plus a swirl remover (#9) and are obtainable from any auto paint supply source such as English Paints. All these can be messy and if done off the lathe, require significant effort, i.e., more elbow grease. The process is simple: pour some on a rag and start rubbing. Turn the rag to keep it clean. Always use a clean rag when you go to the next finer grit polish. Finally, buff with a soft, clean cloth and wax.
Regardless of which approach you take, the result is worth the effort and makes the difference between nice turnings and outstanding turnings. Try one or more and let me know what you think. Later this year, I plan to present my “Art of Finishing” demo which will touch on this with examples.