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The complete guide to wood finishing, preparation, staining, sealing, finishing
Period properties normally have a greater amount of wood on show than more modern houses so properly finished woodwork really can make the difference between a nice home and a really beautiful home. This is a very large field and the one I get asked most about after stripping. I could probably write a book, but suspect you could not wait that long so we will only concern ourselves with interior work not including furniture or floors. I will concentrate on architectural items, doors, cills, panels, beams, skirtings, moldings etc.
There may be a few trade and technical terms that are unfamiliar to you, do not worry I have numbered these and have included them in a glossary at the end of the piece, along with a list of professional product suppliers. The idea should be to do as little as possible, or (and here is the real trick) make it look like you have done as little as possible. If you want to get a great finish you are going to have to put some time into preparation, believe me it is worth it, the final finish can only ever be as good as the prepared surface allows.
A note on materials purchasing
The three main companies currently offering quality professional wood finishing products for the restorer are Morrells, Britain largest wood finishing coatings company, Mylands in South London and Jenkins in North London, the last two being much smaller companies still making and selling the same traditional finishes they always have in addition to many modern alternatives.
Morrells make some of the best stains and lacquers especially their nitro stains and lightfast stains, they are very good for these more durable and modern finishes. Morrells also used to stock a wide range of traditional French polishes, brushes and associated sundries and offered excellent technical advice at their branches. Times have moved on and so have Morrells, the volume of people requesting traditional materials is so small they have lost the range, quality and most importantly the ability to offer high quality advice in this traditional area, so whilst I use them for modern lacquers and stains (including the lightfast stains I use with traditional French polish) I do not use them for shellacs, waxes and brushes.
Mylands also has suffered due to changing tastes and skill levels and I am sure sell far less traditional polishes than they used to and have survived by diversifying into paints. The knowledge level of the counter staff is again sadly lacking compared to the counter staff at the long since closed infamous Batemans Row branch in the East End. The thing is I suspect someone at Mylands is proud of their French Polishing heritage and continue to supply very high quality (the best in my opinion) and wide range of traditional shellacs, waxes and pigments. I am sure they make far more on their paints now but its good to know you can still buy the proper stuff! Even though their counter staff aren’t always knowledgeable if you phone them they will put you in touch with someone at the factory or one of their sales people who I have found to be very experienced, some of whom are ex French Polishers themselves, who knows how long this can last.
Due to recent failures in the shellac harvest in India many companies around the world are mixing cheaper resins into their so called ‘shellacs’ to reduce costs and maintain competitiveness, Mylands I have found have refused to do this, their shellacs certainly aren’t cheap but they are good.
Jenkins is even smaller still, I sometimes wonder how they manage to survive, visiting them is like going back in time. Jenkins is the company who caters to the craftsperson the most and still mostly sell traditional tools and materials whilst adding modern water based lacquers to their range. Mylands and Jenkins are the sort of companies that will be lamented when they are gone as their range of traditional materials and expert knowledge and advice is becoming very rare to find these days.
So, my advice is to visit all three websites and call them all up and discuss your needs, personally I choose to use Mylands French Polishes, waxes are a personal preference and all three offer excellent stains, some better than others (they all specialise in different areas) Finally, if you have real interest in craft and wood finishing and you live in or visit London you may want to consider popping down to Jenkins in Tariff Road in Tottenham. If they are not too busy, you may still be able to take a walk into the factory to see the products being mixed in Willy Wonka style large dripping mixing bowls or a trip to the ‘back room’ where you are left to peruse and ‘inspect’ the zorino, bear hair, squirrel mop and swan quill ‘tiddlers’ polishing brushes from a large old 1940’s style metal filing cabinet.
On a personal note I think it is important to support these businesses like Jenkins who you get the distinct impression still have just as much interest in traditional wood finishing as their bottom line as they always did. Since Granyte surface coatings (Mylands) closed down in Batemans Row in Shoreditch and Foxell and James in Farringdon changed into a Dulux Decorators centre (never a more poignant allegory for anyone who frequented the old Foxells) Jenkins is probably the last place in London where you can pop in for some materials and end up staying for a while with very knowledgeable experts chatting about stuff. It’s sad that those chats will now rarely include gossip about the men working in England’s French Polishing companies because most of them have closed down, everyone normally knew everyone else via one or two degrees of freedom, a visit would invariably mean a chance meeting with an old acquaintance or news of one. Now it’s often queues of Eastern European builders and designers, who are much less in tune, the atmosphere is not convivial, it’s more sterile and business like, I suppose it’s analogous to the pubs and working clubs in the areas where the mines closed down, the atmosphere has changed, time moves on.
Last time I popped into a branch of the largest company I asked the assistant if he had any two and a quarter pound cut special pale he looked at me like I was from Mars and said in his best Polish – English accent, ‘sorry, I’ve never heard of that’. Two and a quarter pound cut special pale French polish was the most widely used French polish in the country for many, many years, a few years ago that company would have sold gallons of it every day at every branch.
Like traditional wood finishing craftsmen, knowledge is dying out so take good advantage of the few who have it whilst you still can.
And to all those well meaning people who struggle to reach the uplands of cognitive dissonance, mentioning the nationality of the foot soldiers of the European wide capitalist wage price deflation army is not a crime. They are a symptom, not the cause. Just because others do not have the mental acuity to know the difference does not preclude me from disliking the symptoms just as much. When there are no experienced, dedicated, caring wood finishing craftsmen left then the hard of thinking will look back after it is too late and go ‘oh’.
I’m simply going ‘oh’ now.
Crafts are lost in the name of economic ‘progress’. I think that’s a shame. In generations to come when we colonise Mars, amid the acres of polymer, ceramic and metal we will take small pieces of wood with us to remind us of home.
Your wood, either new, in the white, or stripped should be dry, smooth, and free of grease, wax, dust or dirt. It should be sanded to P180 grade or finer for staining and P240 grade or finer for finishing. For a really fine finish, for example on mahogany doors, you can wet the wood with water to raise the grain let it dry and re-sand. This will reduce the grain raising caused by staining and/or sealer and will give a finer finish. Water washing with a weak solution of mild detergent like washing up liquid or soda will help to clean dirty wood by drawing dirt out of the grain and is more effective than sanding alone. (For advice on stripping, sanding and surface preparation please refer to the guide to wood stripping page here which includes all these topics, for floors also take a look at my guide to floor sanding here for an in depth look at floor sanding)
This is the area where most people can gain the biggest improvement in their work. There are basically four types of stain. Plus the two extra ‘stains’ in brackets which are not actually proper stains but are marketed as such and are so widely used these days they deserve a mention.
An important note on the difference between stains and pigments
The definition of a stain as understood by restoration craftsmen is a coloured substance dissolved in a solvent. A stain is translucent, enhances the figure and does not obscure it, the solvent soaks into the substrate taking the colour with it. A pigment is a coloured substance held in suspension in a solvent. It consists of tiny solid particles that when applied lay on the surface, they are opaque, do not let light through and obscure the grain (paint is a pigmented finish). Brewed tea is a stain, if left to stand the tea colour does not settle out. Chalk, mud or poster paints in water are pigments and when shaken will form a coloured liquid but when left will settle to the bottom leaving clear water once again.
The problem is that this definition has become confused. To save us all time DIY coating manufacturers have helpfully produced vast ranges of pigmented finishes which are in effect thinned out paints, and labelled them as ‘stains’. So that if you go into your local DIY store and look in the wood stain section it is quite probable they may not contain any real stains at all. The implied advantage is that the finish, normally an oil or water based varnish of some sort is incorporated into the stain and so you can stain and finish in one go. ‘Take two finishes into the home? Not me, I just stain and go’. Well, we all know what happens when you try to cut corners.
I can even understand people wanting to do things quicker but the fact is pigmented varnishes are amongst the hardest to apply, they just cut down on the complexity of the task, not the ease of obtaining a streak free and even finish. It is almost impossible for an amateur to avoid, overlapping, patchiness and pulling. Also the colour rests on the surface and when the timber gets scratched it shows the ‘white wood’ underneath which makes the scratch look even worse. These ‘stains’ obscure the grain and after three or four coats some will actually bear more resemblance to a painted finish than anything else. If there is one thing you learn from this article it is to avoid these awful so-called stains. Also their colour range is poor, normally ranging from mahogany (typically post box red) pine (fluorescent orange) through to oak (either fluorescent yellow or green) Everything has its use and they are actually very effective for exterior work as the pigments resting on the surface reflect much of the sun’s harmful UV rays which help to protect the wood from environmental damage.
Two newly mass marketed ‘stains’ similar to the above ‘varnish stains’ are the water pigmented and oil pigmented finishes. These are the latest development of ‘stained’ finishes, effectively they are slightly thinned out versions of the above
Pigmented water based stains have been around for a few years in the finishing trade as specialist finishes and strictly speaking people, including Chippendale, have mixed raw earth pigments with much thicker traditional oils before, but not produced colours commercially. Water pigmented stains are the thinnest of all and offer little body in themselves, they will need to be sealed in and finished with top lacquers, they can be quite difficult to apply evenly and take some practice as they have a very short open time and so overlapping is a problem. Oil pigmented stains which are very popular now for floors due to their ease of use compared to traditional water and spirit stains are almost the same as coloured varnishes except they have more oil in them, they provide a ‘body’ and so need no top coats, they will benefit from having a clear coat of oil finish applied over the top. The oil stains are by far the easiest to apply as they take much longer to dry and so any overlaps can be ‘evened up’. The main problem with the oil stains is, apart from their pigments obscuring the grain, they can only be over coated with more oil finish or wax, which means they are no good when high durability is required, for example, tables and floors.
Both these new finishes have been mass produced only recently to satisfy the requirements of unskilled labour to be able to apply colour, mainly to floors. They obscure the grain, reduce clarity, depth and in the case of oil pigments, have low durability.
I do use pigments, they are very useful, but I buy the raw pigments and intermix these myself so I can vary the colour, strength and solvent/carrier to my exact requirements. This is an advanced technique and is not covered here. Anybody wishing to make their own pigmented finishes can purchase raw earth pigments from either Liberon or Mylands. Make up a fairly diluted pigment in shellac and apply even coats quickly with a polisher’s squirrel hair colour mop. Leave to dry overnight before applying another coat to avoid pulling.
Traditional, cheap, can give great natural looking results. Work by reacting with wood acids (tannins) present in the timber to give good penetration and good light-fast properties. Difficult to apply due to variability in distribution of tannins in the timber which can result in patchy effect. Normal washing soda in warm water gives a lovely natural patina to oak of all ages, don’t use too much and rinse off any excess crystals afterwards. A dilute solution of ammonia gives similar if slightly more dramatic results. These are the only two chemical stains commonly used, in reality soda and ammonia are used as an additive to water stains to aid penetration and give an overall improved effect to water stains which is how I use them.
The main problem with chemical stains as applied by hand is ensuring an even finish as many of the stains react with the wood tannins in the wood which are not always evenly distributed, especially in modern grown timber, apart from the fact that many of the stains are dangerous, poisonous or both.
Chemical stains were amongst the first stains and have been used for thousands of years, one can imagine at a time when most buildings, furniture and almost all non ceramic / metallic items were produced from wood that certain plants or material came accidently into contact with the wood and left a mark, this was then reproduced and refined. Over the years a vast large library of ‘recipes’ concoctions and potions has been created, too numerous to list here. My Grandfather for example, in his younger days mind you, used to use horse manure on oak to give a golden oak colour (the ammonia effectively fumed the wood) This is probably one of the safer stains by chemical stain standards as many were made using strong acids reacting with metals and alkalis that reacted with the wood tannins.
Common stains include, green copperas (sulphate of iron) turns oak grey-blue, mahogany – knocks back the red, mostly used for turning sycamore into ‘harewood’ (greywood) although whenever I have used it the effect was rather patchy. Bichromate of potash crystals in water turn good quality mahogany deep brown and oak a cold green-grey.
If you are interested in making your own chemical stains or just the history of them then I can heartily recommend hunting down a copy of the excellent “The Complete Manual of Wood Finishing” by Frederick Oughton which was required reading for all City and Guilds French polisher apprentices at the London School of furniture, at least when I was there. A wonderful book for anyone interested in wood finishing and it’s history.
Dripak washing soda (seems to be widely available, green packet) or similar, .88 ammonia from chemists supply or from Mylands, Jenkins or Morrells. I don’t tend to use any of the other chemical stains due to their variability. Although I sometimes put a little fine wire wool into my hot soda / walnut crystal / vegetable black stain which forms little black iron II oxide stains (black rust) onto the stained oak and helps to age it when matching in new items to very old timbers.
There are two versions and you should be careful to obtain the correct one for your needs. The first one has more body to it and is very tricky to use, it is usually sprayed on or applied to an already finished piece of timber or worn timber as an ‘overstain’. The second one (which is the type I am discussing here) has less body (hardly any) and has a different solvent, this one is easier to use, normally the product numbers will only differ by a few letters/numbers detailing their different solvent content. Easy to apply, good for larger areas as has a long “open time” (the time it stays wet) which helps to avoid overlapping and patchiness, excellent penetration, good for previously stripped work as they have a slight body which helps mask minor blemishes, glue, filler etc. Dilutable with white spirits, can be intermixed easily. Needs to be well sealed with shellac before coating with varnish or wax as the stain may bleed or pull. Not as light fast as water or chemical stains so not very good for very red colours (which fly faster) or for areas exposed to constant sunlight, south facing front doors for example. Popular in the trade due to ease of application, can be used to overstain previously sealed work to give a more subtle tint.
I tend not use Nitrostains on floors incase of adhesion problems unless I can leave the stained floor for a day or two (over the weekend) Morrells, if I need to do a lot of doors or panels / staircases then Mylands and Jenkins do good ranges of these stains although you will probably receive far better technical advice from Mylands and Jenkins. It’s important to check what solvent you require for the stain and how they advise sealing and re coating, my advice here is just a guide and all products, especially solvent based ones are constantly changing due to solvent and emissions regulations and so formulations may change. These stains from these companies are for professional use and in most cases may not come with instructions on the tin.
Usually sold in crystal form, although now available ‘ready mixed’ with water. Traditionally made from organic matter now mostly aniline dyes are used as they give deeper colours and a wider palette, although sometimes exhibit poorer light fastness.
Large colour range, relatively cheap (when diluted, the powders are quite expensive to buy) and easily intermixable. Difficult to apply without going patchy, needs two people on large areas unless experienced. Good penetration, aided by a dash of ammonia or detergent which helps to break down the surface tension. Very light-fast, so excellent choice for front doors, south facing architectural features and very warm colours, can produce both very deep and very bright colours. Probably the second most used stain in the trade, used for high class work and the one I use most. Also there are no solvents so much easier if home is occupied, especially with children.
Vandyke crystals give a lovely colour on oak, especially with the addition of a little water black and washing soda. Tone orangey pine boards down with a walnut stain with a little added green to kill the warmth.
If mixing water stains from powder form you will need a large bucket, something to stir it with and a piece of wood to check the strength / colour. Always make the stain with warm water as we all know from chemistry that heat normally aids dissolution.
Important note, always add powder to the water, not the other way round. I will repeat that, add powder to the water which should be in the bucket first, otherwise the powder will clump up into little balls and you will never mix it, worse still you will get streaks when you apply the stain as little balls of powder burst on the wood surface. Stir as you add the powder a little at a time. The water should be on the hot side of warm for normal aniline type dyes but for traditional walnut (van dyke) crystals the water should be boiling hot as these are harder to dissolve. You may need to stir for several minutes, let rest for half an hour, then stir again. If the stain is too light then add more powder a little at a time. If you want an easier time I am sure you can buy them ready made although I am certain these will be considerably more expensive.
This applies to all stains but more so to water stains, when you are assessing the colour you will not only need to let the stain dry, but then coat it with some shellac as this will give the final colour when the wood is finished, the colour will change dramatically when you apply the shellac, normally it will get lighter and warmer in appearance. After a few years practice you will not need to add the shellac because your brain will have been calibrated to do that automatically. Until then, apply a thin coat to check you have the right colour / shade.
Mylands, Jenkins and Morrells water dye (stain) powders, plus classic van dyke crystals (walnut crystals made from walnut husks) I intermix red, green, yellow and black with van dyke brown , to get any shade, sometimes I use water grey to get a green / Jacobean effect on oak. I make all my own colours but you can buy a wide range of powder colours. They are quite expensive but go a long way. You may be able to buy ready made water stains from the DIY shops but I presume these would work out much more expensive.
These are made from aniline dyes dissolved with methylated spirit (meths) and are mixed with shellac to give them body. Very difficult to apply. Not very light-fast. Used in the trade to apply translucent layers to tint and match up areas of different colour. Only really for professional use. Must be applied either by fad, rubber or squirrel colour mop. Sub species are Light-fast stains which are more light-fast, used in the trade to tint lacquers and polishes for commercial spraying.
Lately these have made the crossover to the end user DIY world and I believe some of these stains are available in DIY stores although they almost certainly will not be described as spirit stains.
The advantages are that you can obtain a very strong deep colour with them, more so than with Nitrostains, which they are similar to as they can be and frequently are added to finishes to give translucent (mostly) spray finishes. They are Ok for small items but applied directly to the wood have a tendency to bleed out into subsequent coats of finish. They are one of the few stains that cannot be sealed with shellac as the solvent will dissolve the stain leaving a patchy effect. They can normally be sealed directly with water stains (as the solvent here, water, is different)
Spirit dyes are the colours I use mostly on a day to day basis but always as an additive to a shellac to give a translucent stain that is infinitely variable by adding more dye or more solvent (meths) or shellac. The range of colour tints produced is virtually limitless, by combining small amounts of raw earth pigments with the shellac / spirit dye mix and building up in several layers I can create virtually any wood colour / patination / aged effect in a very clear and natural looking manner. This is an advanced technique and can only be applied using a squirrel hair or zorino hair polishers mop (brush) one must work quickly to avoid overlaps and to avoid pulling. To use this technique it is advisable to undertake a course on French polishing or antique restoration.
I mostly use light-fast stains in the primary colours of red, green, yellow and black and mix my own browns and can infinitely vary the shade. Although I have a wide range of other traditional aniline dye colours like bismark brown, rose pink and spirit crysiodine I mostly use the light-fast these days to prolong the life of the colouring I do. Spirit blue and spirit green powders are so strong, be very careful how you use them. I still have a very small amount of spirit blue which my Grandfather bought before the second world war. It was a baked bean sized tin, but isn’t quite finished yet 73 years later. Open the containers carefully or you may look in the mirror to find you have contracted the blue / green measles.
Previously only available in the trade, known to Polishers as ‘Fiesta stains’ (popular trade name) consist of finely ground pigments normally in a water / alcohol dispersion although some still use a water / thin acrylic carrier (similar to a thinned out water-based lacquer with a pigment colour)
Although rarely used these stains are essential in the trade for producing pastel shade effects and creating semi-translucent effects and have traditionally been sprayed as applying them by hand is tricky, especially when staining intricate objects e.g. door frames. They have recently become available as the public have demanded a wider range of alternate wood effects such as limed effect or pastel shades to match mostly factory produced furniture / floors.
It is worth checking the manufacturers instructions as all products vary but in general they are fairly easy to overcoat with a shellac seal or directly with a water-based lacquer. Shellac should not be used with the lighter pastel shades as it can impart a warm colour cast. In fact any finish can impart a slight cast, so many thin coats over pastel shades are required to avoid excessive irregular build up which may show up as discolouration. In this regard they are better than the oil pigmented finishes in that they can be over coated with a wide range of top coats which gives the whole staining system greater durability.
They are quite difficult to apply on detailed surfaces where the pigment can build up in the quirks (recess in between mouldings e.g. door frame architrave) and be wiped off more on the outer edge of the moldings leaving lighter and darker areas, sometimes this effect may be pleasing, sometimes it isn’t. They are also difficult to apply on large flat surfaces where overlapping and streaking can occur, the trick is to apply the stain quite liberally, wet a decent size area with a wet rag, even up whilst wet, then buff off, you will need to work very quickly to apply the next load of stain to keep a wet edge to avoid overlapping and / pulling of the already drying section. Changing your wiping off rags regularly helps, as does having an assistant so you can emulate karate kid together, one wipe on, one wipe off.
I rarely use these stains as I prefer to finish wood with clear, traditional water dyes and translucent spirit-tinted shellac which gives a totally natural, clear finish. If I am asked to do a specific finish then I will use whatever the architect / designer stipulates, Mylands, Jenkins and Morrells all do these stains and you can also buy them from most DIY stores.
These finishes, although not true stains, are really the latest most modern addition to the wood colouring industry. They have been specifically designed to be used by people with little or no prior experience or skill and as such would make my Grandfather turn in his grave as they are another nail in the coffin of the traditional French polisher.
They consist of finely ground pigments suspended in basically a modern oil finish or hard wax oil, in this respect they more closely resemble pigmented varnishes described above, as modern oil finishes and hard wax oils are in reality slightly modified traditional varnishes with a little more oil added.
The advantage they have over the pigmented varnishes is that they are thinner and can be applied via rag, meaning they can be evened up more easily and several coats can be applied further evening up the process. They suffer some of the same disadvantages as their water pigmented cousins regarding build up in moldings and quirks although the greater open time means you have more time to work with them and even them up on larger surfaces, they are ideal therefore for use on larger panels and floors for example and indeed floors is what they were primarily designed for.
Ordinarily they give a less milky appearance than the water stains and do not have as good opacity (covering power) which may or may not be desirable. Usually two or more coats (follow manufacturers instructions) are required for a deep colour build up.
There is no denying their relative ease of use, they of course are still pigments and will cloud and cover up the grain which ordinarily is not desirable, but on cheaper woods like pine or beech this may be advantageous.
Their main disadvantage and unfortunately (fortunately for craftsmen like me!) quite a major one at that is their durability. Due to the fact that oil finishes are only compatible with other oil finishes and waxes they can only be clear coated to protect the ‘stained’ colour with more oil without pigment or wax, both of which wear easily and have very poor wet resistance.
There appears to be some sort of green marketing conspiracy occurring whereby architects, designers et al have taken it upon themselves to believe the misleading hype and believe these are somehow environmentally friendly, which they are not, (please see my FAQs section here for more details on environmentally sound finishes) and that somehow these finishes are durable. As a very inquisitive French polisher, who by chance also has happened to study Materials Engineering and work on an International coating manufacturing project I can tell you these finishes do not unfortunately live up to their billing with regards to strength.
Applied correctly they do look nice, even for a pigmented finish, but they are not what you would call traditional, I would not advise them for period properties and unfortunately never use them myself due to their very poor wear properties. Personally I like my work to look good and continue to look good for many years. If you have an area in a modern home that requires staining in a modern colour way, like a pastel shade that gets very little use / wear then pigmented oils may be the answer.
I do not use these stains for the same reason as per water pigmented stains above as they obscure the grain and severely limit coating options. These are becoming more popular so you should be able to get them from your local DIY store, for floors I think, Osmo, Blanchon, Bona and Trip Trap do them, you can use the floor oil colours for all other timber.
Which stain to use and how to apply them
As I stated earlier better staining will probably give you the biggest tangible aesthetic improvement in your work. For large areas like floors and/or intricate items like banister spindles then Nitrostain is probably the easiest to use (greater open time is the advantage for the former and greater penetration for the latter). Nitrostains can also be used after water stains have dried to add an extra dimension or tint the colour. They can also be used to overstain sealed wood which will give a very slight tint, remember to re seal the wood afterwards. When staining floors that are to be coated with water-based lacquers it is best to leave nitrostains for at least 24 hours before sealing in as the solvent used can take a long time to fully evaporate and this can then attack and soften the applied water-based lacquer. If applying a solvent based product such as shellac and wax or a nitrocellulose lacquer, like a two part acid catalysed lacquer or moisture cured polyurethane then the stain can normally be over coated the same day.
With beams, skirtings, plain moldings etc (linear work where you can work fast) is when you can use water stains, you can achieve much deeper colours with water stain. If you want to use water stains on large areas like floors then it is easier if one of you applies the stain with a rag or brush whilst the other follows behind with a large clean cloth to remove the excess and even up the finish in the direction of the grain. Using water stains on floors will give you by far the best result, in terms of clarity, depth of colour, colour fastness and compatibility with any finish (as long as you remember to seal with a non water-based sealer first to fix them) It is the stain I use on my floors 99% of the time. For the amateur having two people is essential when water staining floors, one wipe on, other wipe off.
For floors only work on one or two boards at a time, finish the row then go back to the start, work smartly and confidently and try to keep a wet edge16.
For intricate moldings and panelled doors use a brush to get into the corners. If using water stains on these areas be careful not to use too much stain as the water will “stick” in between the molding and the panel via surface tension and the colour will bleed back by capillary action as it dries leaving water marks at the edges. To reduce this dry the area as much as possible afterwards, use of a hair dryer can be a useful aid for this.
The advice for chemical stain is as for water stain. Be careful, chemical stains are tricky to apply, always be careful when working on vertical surfaces of run down where runs will show up as streaks. Try staining from the bottom upwards, that way run off from further up the timber will be running onto a pre-stained area and will therefore not soak in so much. Wipe off any excess straight away.
Always make up or purchase more stain than you will need, if you stop halfway through you will notice the overlap (also the colour may be slightly different from a different stain batch and it is difficult to mix the same colour twice)
By the same token always allow yourself enough time to finish the section you are on without interruption so lock up the kids, switch the mobile off and go to the loo first. Work in small manageable sections that you can finish in isolation, for floors you will have to do these from start to finish unless you have wide gaps in between boards and you are very careful.
Always decant stain/make stain up in an appropriate container that is not affected by the solvent used, make sure this is oversized, do not overfill. Try placing the stain container within a larger empty one so that if knocked no stain will spill over. Make sure you have as much rag available as possible and change your drying off/evening up rag as it gets loaded.
Use small brushes to get into corners and nooks and crannies. It is better to cut in than to mask as many stains will creep behind normal masking tape. Professional low tack decorators tape is better but is very expensive and not 100 per cent fool proof.
Try “dry brushing” the edge, load your brush fully then remove as much as possible on the side of the container, dry the brush with your drying off rag until it is nearly dry. You will find you will be able to pick up enough stain from the still wet surrounding stained area to work the stain up to the edge in a feathering action which will not wet the adjacent surface, this takes practice but is quicker, cleaner and cheaper than using masking tape.
Do not overly worry about splashes/runs etc. Try and wipe these up as soon as possible but bear in mind it is much better to work swiftly and confidently in broad strokes than to concentrate on wiping up every spot as your wet edge will dry out. It is inevitable that some of the surrounding areas will get some stain on them, do not worry you can touch these up afterwards.
It is a good idea to do any wood staining before applying the final coat of paint to adjacent areas.
If in doubt always start off with a lighter stain, when it is dry you can always re-stain it or over stain it darker. If your stain is too dark to start off with it is virtually impossible to lighten it without stripping the stain back by sanding (bleaching gives varying results)
Advanced techniques involve a combination of water staining, over staining with Nitrostain, and applying successive coats of translucent and semi-translucent spirit stains and/or pigments in subtle layers. In this manner it is possible to achieve an incredibly natural looking patination and match virtually any wood to another, whatever their respective age difference. (Sometimes called “faking” in the trade)
Because it is faster, cheaper and gives a much smoother final finish.
Shellac is very unreactive and forms a barrier between contaminants (especially on stripped work) and the final top coats therefore it is a good precaution to apply it to every project as it aids adhesion and therefore the ultimate strength of the applied finish. Unless you have used shellac sealer (or shellac sanding sealer) before you will not be aware of its fantastic advantages, sealer is probably the most important material you will use and after staining will give you the greatest improvement in your work.
What is sealer?
Sealer is shellac or ‘French polish’ which is an unreactive exudate of a beetle dissolved in wood alcohol (methylated spirits, Industrial Methylated Spirits (IMS) or ‘meths’) Shellac sealer is a mixture of fillers and lubrication additives suspended in shellac mixture.
Sanding sealer and plain shellac sealer, the difference
Unless otherwise stated when I mention ‘sealer’ I will be talking about pure shellac sealer, this gives the highest strength and promotes the best adhesion to subsequent applied layers of shellac or other finishes.
Shellac sanding sealer helps to choke up the grain and makes sanding super smooth and easy, it is mostly used in the furniture trade or for coating large areas of panels etc. Lubrication additives such as stearates form a fine chalky white powder on sanding and help the paper to glide over the surface, this not only saves the paper getting clogged up but stops the abrasive grains tearing the finish which makes things even smoother the advantage is that the finish is super smooth and sanding is much easier, it is not used on table tops or floors for example as the addition of the fillers and sanding enhancers (stearates) affect the adhesion of further coats and therefore reduces the strength of the overall finish. For doors or panels in your cottage and especially for old beams however it is ideal and a pleasure to work with.
On previously coated then stripped timber the use of sanding sealer does not offer the same benefit with regard to ‘choking’ (filling) up the grain as the grain is still partially filled with old finish, even if sanded lightly with a hand machine, with new in the white timber or wood that has been stripped, especially dipped and stripped which dries out the wood and wood that has been wire brushed it can be helpful.
How to use shellac sealer (both types)
It dries in about ten minutes and is ready to sand, although the longer you leave it the better it will sand. The sealer will help fill up the grain of the wood which reduce the sinking in of subsequent coats limiting the amount of “top coat” you need to apply.
Apply with a good quality soft brush, polishing mop, or rag. Use a generous amount and work quickly
Be careful on vertical surfaces as it is very thin and you may get runs or spots if you are not used to using it.
Do not be fooled by it’s apparent lack of body, one coat of sealer which is sandable after ten minutes will sand far smoother than one coat of varnish which sands after twenty four hours.
Always use sealer to fix stains after they have dried.
The only exception to this is oil finish, you should not pre seal any timber that you are going to oil as this will reduce penetration. Whilst shellac will go over oil finishes and pigmented oil type stains there really is no need as only wax can then go on top and you could just as easily just apply the wax without first applying the shellac (or just apply clear oil finish) For really intricate areas just thin the sealer with meths and apply an extra coat. You should sand in between every coat you apply as a matter of rule, it may be tedious but if you want great results you have to put the effort in. I would use P240 or P320 for inter coat sanding.
For shellacs I use click here It’s hard to beat Mylands’ 2000 Pale Shellac Sealer Basecoat, after you have applied a coat or two of that and sanded off with some P240 lubricated silicon carbide paper you just will not believe how smooth it is. Unless of course you have done it before. Smooth as a baby’s b** is the generally regarded technical term in the trade, being the opposite of rough as a bears a****. Don’t look at me, I don’t make these things up. I just tell you about them.
Choosing the finish
This is mostly down to personal taste. All I can do is offer advice on ease of application and durability. If you follow my advice any finish can give great results. A well stained, sealed and smooth surface will tend to look good whatever final finish you apply to it. You may find my views differ from the established common views which are not always based in fact.
The majority of wood finishes can be divided up into the following groups:
Two part / moisture cured polyurethanes
There are many more commercial finishes that are mainly used in the flooring industry or at the factory including UV cured finishes, polyester, melamine, acid-catalysed (ac) moisture cured and isocyanate crosslinked.
In general if you are coating a light traffic floor and you do not have children or pets (or both are very well house trained) you can use shellac and wax. This looks especially nice on stripped or hand sanded older timber like Victorian or Georgian pine or older, in the gallery you can see pictures of a 500 year old elm floor which I water stained with traditional walnut crystals then coated with shellac (eight coats) and waxed twice with Mylands wax. This would be my favoured method, it is hard work but worth it and is totally authentic.
Stripped beams also respond well to shellac and wax, the shellac sealer really makes the subsequent waxing much easier and is equal to at least two or three coats of wax in build and depth. If you have ever spent any time waxing you will be very happy to know you can reduce the amount of coats you have to apply. Doors, panels, stairs and all interior woodwork can be shellac and waxed perhaps with the exception of areas that get wet like the bathroom, kitchen and window sills which are better served with a coat or two of shellac to give depth then over coating with either nitrocellulose pre-cat lacquer or water-based lacquers. Also I am not in favour of coating the treads of stairs with shellac unless their is a runner to be fitted, any sanded and smoothly finished stair tread is already a slip hazard, putting wax on just seems to be asking for trouble. If people want their stairs finished naturally I usually coat the strings, banister sticks, handrails, aprons, acorns and everything else with shellac and wax and coat the treads and risers with a water-based floor lacquer which is at least rated for slip resistance, sometimes I will pre-cat lacquer the handrails and newels with satin or bar top gloss lacquer to give extra resistance to hand sweat / cleaning.
Pre-cat lacquer is favoured finish in the trade for finishing on site but because of it’s smell, flammability and skill required to apply it those not in the trade are advised to use water-based lacquers as these are easier to use, they dry slower and don’t show quite so good clarity but pre-sealed with shellac will give a lovely finish. For more details on floor finishes see my floor sanding guide here.
Resinous exudate of the Laccifer lacc beetle from India and Sri Lanka, harvested from the twigs of trees on managed estates, melted, sieved and dissolved in wood alcohol (methylated spirits) approx. 25% solid content organic and natural resin totally non toxic, used to coat smarties, fruit, chocolates and headache tablets. Solvent methylated spirits, 90% ethanol (alcohol) 9.5% methanol (to avoid consumption) ethanol and methanol produced from natural gas or from fermentation of starch and sugar based crops, also from food waste. Mostly and increasingly sustainable as South and now North America adopt the bio production route of ethanol as a bio fuel. Very environmentally responsible. Flammable. Fumes given off during drying may be unpleasant but not harmful.
Sometimes called Shellack or French polish, variations include, sanding sealer, button polish, garnet, special pale, pale transparent, lemon and white. The harvested and refined exudate of the Laccifer Lacca beetle, when dry it is odourless, non-toxic and is used for coating fruit, sweets and tablets amongst other things. It is dissolvable in alcohol (meths) it can be bought in flake or button form or ready mixed.
The ‘cut’ refers to the amount of solid shellac in pounds weight per gallon of meths, i.e normal two and a quarter pound cut contains two and a quarter pounds per gallon container. It has good penetration and can produce an outstanding finish to thickness ratio. i.e. the finish reflects more light per unit thickness, a thin coating of shellac will give a smoother and finer finish than a much thicker coating of varnish for example.
It is fairly easy to apply (to a medium shine on small areas) dries very rapidly, is very unreactive and used as a barrier seal between coats of different finishes. It has poor durability, having low dry and wet heat resistance and very poor water and solvent resistance, scuff resistance is medium.
Used for fine furniture, for sealing after staining and prior to waxing, for tinting (with spirit stains) and for finishing wood where a superior looking finish is required that is not exposed to heavy wear, heat or moisture. Easy to sand and easy to strip.
Can be dulled with fine wire wool or pumice and a dulling brush to give satin finish. Matting agents can be added to give matt finish but this is very difficult to apply over larger areas. Brings out the real beauty of interior wood, especially beams, mouldings, skirtings, frames and low traffic floors.
Mylands Special Pale or Special Pale Transparent (2.25 /2.5lb cut) excellent quality all round polish. Mylands Pale Semi Matt Wuncote, beautifully smooth and lovely looking satin polish, when waxed afterwards with 0000 wire wool there is nothing smoother bar a full oil finish which takes many more coats. Jenkins or Mylands 4lb button (not dewaxed) which gives excellent adhesion and resistance to ‘frying’ when ‘reviving’ (going over existing shellac / other finishes. Mylands or Jenkins outside Pale for sealing outside. You probably won’t need any other polishes. Although if attempting French polishing then you may want to apply a coat or two of Amber varnish to build a body quickly. Mylands Shellac Barrier Seal for Floors is one of the best if not the best for pre sealing floors before coating with lacquer and can be tinted with spirit dyes and intermixed with raw earth pigments which Mylands and Jenkins also sell.
French polish (noun) is either shellac (a solution of shellac dissolved in alcohol) or the glossy finish produced by the repeated application of several layers of this French polish. To French polish (verb) is the action of French polishing. In reality French polishing, at least in the UK serves as a blanket term to describe any wood finishing based activity carried out by a trained, normally apprentice trained (normally qualified) workman, or craftsman if you want to be less prosaic. Thus all the information contained within this page and indeed the rest of this website could be said to be about French polishing. The term is therefore vague but in general refers to a level of effort, skill and diligence that your average builder or painter will struggle to obtain, a painter or ordinary floor sander staining a floor with a pigmented finish cannot be truly said to be ‘French polishing’ although they may be ‘wood finishing’.
There are many different stories around but unless you like to get your information from Wikipedia, like some ‘prestigious’ architects, no names mentioned, if you read around you will discover shellac, which originates from the Indian sub continent had been used for hundreds of years in it’s stick lac form to burnish turned items in it’s native India (in fact the Romans had processed it as a dye since the second century AD)
It was the Europeans who developed the cultivation and refinement of this stick lac into French polish in the very early 18th century. It is probably called French polish as the very flamboyant and ever-so-slightly over the top Louis Quatorze had a propensity for anything, over the top and very shiny. I am sure he had everything that stood still for more than a moment in Versailles French polished, that is, if it wasn’t already covered in gold and mirrored glass of course. Seeing as he was ‘the man’ of fashion at the time, French polishing caught on and by Chippendales’ heyday in the mid 18th century although oiling still took place, most of the fine furniture was Shellac and waxed or fully French polished to a high lustre. Floors were also shellacked and waxed as this dried quicker than the traditional oils. Copal and other resins were added to modify it’s properties to form early varnishes (boiled linseed oil being another primitive form of varnish but on a different branch of the evolutionary tree) these helped to create the popular Chinoisie style for example being used in ‘Japanning’ (although to be fair it was a poor imitation, Europeans had no intention of sitting in a damp cave for several days stirring a mixture of gums and resins and then applying several hundred thin coats as the Chinese and Japanese did)
The Chinese can lay claim to be the first decorative wood finishers with lacquer and tung oil being used from the 2nd century, which is probably why, if you look carefully at a French polishing colour brush, it looks almost identical to a Chinese writing brush whose design has hardly changed in over two thousand years (coloured lacquer was used to write with before ink was invented)
To try and teach someone how to French polish by building up a body of several hundred coats by wiping a rubber of double skinned wadding in a white linen cotton wiper is like trying to teach someone how to swim, or ride a bike via a piece of prose. It’s not really going to happen. I asked my Grandfather for over two years to tell me how to make a rubber and he just made one quickly in front of me. I tried but it wasn’t until much later after months of practice that I just ‘got ‘it’ and it came together. I cannot adequately explain in words how when you have built up a sufficient body you should dry your rubber out by pressing down harder with your hand whilst squeezing slightly harder laterally to release more polish, speeding up the horizontal motion across the piece slightly as you approach the edge to counteract the tendency for the polish to stick to the edge whilst releasing the pressure at the same time to glide off. Let alone tell you how to glide on back again without the rubber sticking and you having to wait two days for the mistake to dry so you can sand back and start again!
If you are interested you should find a good book or watch some instructional videos. If you can still get it “The Complete Manual of Wood Finishing” by Frederick Oughton is probably as good book as any I know if you want to investigate French polishing further. You can however apply several coats, say 8 or more on your woodwork to give a good approximation of a French polish finish without the years of practice.
First you will need to have stained your piece and sealed in with shellac sanding sealer, or just sealed the bare wood. Two coats of sanding sealer will help. Make sure you sand back really well with a P240 sandpaper, or sanding sponge and dusted off. An application of grain filler (available at Mylands, Jenkins and Morrells) of similar or slightly darker colour than the wood / stain (to avoid ‘white in the grain’ look) will help to choke up the grain. Traditionalists can apply a mixture of water stain powder dye with plaster of Paris and a little water. Apply the filler with a Hessian or similar cloth, press hard and rub into the grain with a circular motion, wipe off and even up in the direction of the grain with a fresh piece of the same, following the instructions, work on a small area at the time as the filler dries very quickly and once set is very hard to remove. You may need a selection of rounded blunt sticks / slightly sharpened sticks to eek the filler out of the quirks and corners.
Once the filler has dried for an hour or two, sand back again carefully with P240 paper or a similar sponge, be very careful not to burn the edges. If you have a lot of area to cover you may want to buy a quantity of 4lb or 6lb cut polish or some amber varnish, this is thicker than normal shellac and when applied by brush will build up the shine much quicker, one or two coats should be enough. Sand in between all coats and dust down. The drying time is cumulative so the more coats you apply the longer you should leave it before denibbing (lightly sanding) and re coating If your sandpaper is getting excessively clogged with nibs of polish, stop and wait a few more hours. Be careful you don’t re melt these nibs to the finished surface by using clogged paper as they are hard to get off. If you get a hair in the finish t is sometimes better to let it dry and pick it off then rather than leave a fingerprint.
After about eight coats or so the finish should be coming up to a nice level, you do not need to fill, or use the amber varnish if you have a smaller area to do, instead just apply another three coats or so. The brush you use is very important. It should be a French polishing mop, either zorino or squirrel hair. Jenkins in Tottenham North London probably have the best brushes. Before you start work you will need to ‘set’ your brush, the brushes are all hand made in England and you should get a little instruction paper wrapped round your brush with an elastic band. Follow the instructions. Setting the brush helps to keep initial hair loss to a minimum. Whilst you are getting the brush, you have to order a French polishing apron, it doesn’t cost much and makes you look the part, as well as having a place to stash your sand paper (or your iphone, although maybe not at the same time) My Grandfather wore a suit and tie to work every day, even into his eighties, when he was really working hard he might undo the top button. You need to wear an apron. And I will let you off with a T-shirt.
Thin out your polish if it gets too thick with meths which you should also use to clean out your brush with. Wrap in a freezer bag or similar, I do this and keep mine in a small tuppleware sandwich container, which keeps it nice and soft, remember to shape it into a nice tulip-shaped point before you put it away. If the brush goes hard just soak it in meths for a few hours. Looked after this way your brush should last you a life time. My number 16 zorino polishing mop is going to be retired soon after seven years as it’s wearing a little thin now and I’m actually sad. I shall still keep it of course, (I still have one of my Grandfathers ‘Camels’) it’s replacement has been warming up for the last six months so should be ready to take over duties soon. In seven years I don’t know how many miles of beams, cills, skirtings, square miles of floors, doors, stairs and tables it’s coated, but it’s probably quite a few of your lifetimes’ worth of coating.
You will need a number 10 zorino minimum for cills, frames and small panels, ideally for larger flat areas / floors you will be better off with a number 14 zorino (I use a number 16 but slightly smaller is probably better for the inexperienced) a number 2 zorino is good for getting into the quirks and doing edges. Ideally, if you can you want a no. 10, no. 14 and no. 2. Yes. I know. That’s one hundred pounds for three small brushes. If that’s upsetting for you don’t look at the prices for the squirrels.
Look at it like this, that’s still cheaper than employing a French polisher for the day, if you could even find a ‘proper’ one that is. They will also last you a lifetime and you can lend them to select family and friends. The bottom line is, you are not going to get a beautifully smooth finish with no brush marks without one and if you have never used one, well, you know the feeling you get when you break the seal on a new jar of coffee with a spoon? Well it’s better than that. Smooth with a capital smoo. Be aware, even though they are hand made in Britain, you know, possibly not quite as well hand made as in my Grandfathers day, some of the brass wires may ping off after a while, no matter, simply tighten them again, fit new wires or just place a regular small staple from a staple gun through the ferrule into the wood and brush hair. Oh and just incase you were wondering. Don’t ever put them in water, they don’t like that.
If you want to create a slightly mellower finish wait for a week or two and then ‘wire and wax’ the finish, if you have very old oak and elm beams these can look fantastic cleaned up and clear coated like this with five or six coats, there is no need to grain fill the beams.
Sometimes called nitrocellulose, stronger varieties include acid-catalysed and pre-catalysed. Cellulose is dissolvable in ‘thinners’ which are volatile aromatic hydrocarbons like xylene, therefore a respirator is advisable for larger areas. Fire safety precautions should be taken as the lacquer is highly flammable with a flash point less than normal room temperature (around 22 degrees Celsius) which means the concentrated fumes are able to ignite at this temperature. Normal common sense should apply and no naked flames and dispose of thinners rags and wiping cloths outside where they should be left to dry before placing into a bin.
Used extensively by professionals as it is cheap, quick drying and gives a great finish. Very hard to apply by hand (designed for spraying). Good scuff resistance, medium heat and wet heat resistance, water resistance ranges from poor to good. If you want to have a go try using precat with a polishers mop on small linear items e.g. windows. Normal nitrocellulose is the weakest of the lacquers followed by pre-cat which is short for pre-catalysed which means it is a one component finish that reacts with oxygen in the air to chemically cure the finish and increase its mechanical properties. Acid-catalysed (AC) of which Melamine is a sub branch are sometimes called two pack lacquers as they are formed by adding a small quantity of catalyst or ‘hardner’ at the time of use, they have a limited pot life (time before they go ‘off’ or hard whether dry or not) They are very difficult to apply by brush, go off quickly and have a very strong, unpleasant and noxious smell.
Acid-catalysed lacquer can be used on floors to good effect but the fumes are so prohibitive I personally will not use this particular product. Gives a very smooth finish and more durable than shellac, oil and wax, only moisture cured polyurethane and some two pack finishes are more durable. Less water resistance than traditional varnish but much finer finish achievable and more scuff resistant.
Bar top lacquer is a one component nitrocellulose lacquer with added resins which make it very water and alcohol resistant, in the past it was very common for bars, restaurants and banks to have their bar tops and counters coated in this, first by brush, then after a sufficient body had been built up, by rubber much like a French Polish finish but much tougher.
Only really usable if you have some experience or are very confident, can be applied by brush with a zorino polishers mop or even with a decent 2 inch clean paint brush. You will need special thinners for the AC lacquer and need to clean your brushes carefully or they will be ruined.
It is hard to advise on how to use these finishes as to apply by hand they are harder in some respects to French polishing, it was quite a while after I could French Polish a table that I developed the skill and confidence to lacquer a table with these finishes by brush. They can be ‘pulled over’ (flattened out by softening the top layers and letting them settle) by going over the semi dried surface with a cotton rag covered piece of wadding known as a rubber soaked in a milder version of the finishes solvent called ‘pullover’. I told you it was complicated. Bar tops pulled over and burnished like this obtain the appearance of glass and the famous smoothness whereby you could slide a glass down the side. Alas these days the quality in general has gone down and people are content with any varnish plastered onto their bar. Every French Polisher worth his salt will have coated many, many pubs and bars like this.
If you want to have a go, get some pre-cat, some dual thinners and a nice zorino mop. I would suggest investing in a respirator fitted with EN141 compliant charcoal filters and open the windows.
Morrells do very good lacquers. Mylands and Jenkins do good lacquers too.
Two part and moisture cured polyurethanes
Solvent borne polyurethane or nitro cellulose base with aromatic hydrocarbon solvent. approx. 20 to 35% solid content. Produced largely from fossil fuels, high solvent content, very unpleasant and strong odour during drying. Not very environmentally sustainable and unpleasant to use. Very heard wearing, excellent clarity (especially on darker woods and at higher gloss levels) and excellent chemical resistance though.
I include these finishes for reference and completeness. These are very, very strong finishes and have excellent build, normally only come in gloss, very hard to use outside of a spray shop or factory and have very strong solvents, even stronger than two part nitrocellulose. Full face respirators are advised as the fumes will sting your eyes. Rarely used these days but can be found for coating floors, will give a high gloss and very hard wearing finish with excellent resistance to water and chemicals.
I have used them on bars and if you want to know what they look like applied by hand the Council tables at The Law Society in the French polishing services page here where finished with them. I invented my own method which involved applying the lacquer (onto a stripped and sanded, water stained and thin shellac sealed surface) via mohair paint pad prototype which I was testing for a paint pad manufacturer. One had to work quickly as the plastic paint pad holders soon melted. I will say no more.
I expect they will be banned soon. Interesting fact. I worked at one time for Ted Tracy a famous French Polisher from a large and old London company who would tell anyone who would listen that he invented this type of finish in the 1950’s. Very, flammable. Use with caution.
If you enjoy feeling dizzy without the benefit of drinking any alcohol try contacting Sonneborn & Rieck Ltd and ask about their two part clear basecoats. Sadly you cannot visit the factory direct anymore to pick up small orders so you may struggle to obtain such finishes. Although if you are mad enough I have a few gallons left in my fireproof storage.
Oil finishes include linseed oil, tung oil, teak oil, Danish oil, oil-based polyurethane varnish and modern oils and hardwax oils
From pressed flax seed, tricky to apply can go sticky.
You really want to know? Its quite simple, produces a wonderful full, natural finish, yellows over time like modern oil finishes and PU varnish due to the action of sunlight, not ideal over lighter woods, good on darker hardwoods like Mahogany and naturally oily woods like Rosewood, Walnut and Teak.
The wood should be clean and very smooth and clear of dust, apply liberally with a rag soaked in oil, work into the grain in a circular motion, thin first one or two coats with up to 20% turps or white spirits. After 20 minutes or so (you will have to judge this yourself as all woods have different porosity, oils differ and site conditions vary) you can wipe off the excess and even up in the direction of the grain. Leave to dry for at least 24 to 48 hours.
Repeat every day for a week, then every week for a month and every month for a year, then every year or two afterwards.
And you wonder why they invented modern ‘oil finishes’ which are more like varnishes as they have lots of drying additives added.
Mylands, Jenkins or Liberon, widely available in online restoration craft shops.
Boiled linseed oil
As name suggests, linseed oil is boiled then drying agents e.g. terbene are added to aid drying, gives darker colour, slightly easier to apply due to dryers but not as durable. Traditionally various gums and resins were added during boiling (which resulted in the first effective varnishes) they dried in around a day. Their formulation whilst quaint frequently involved the use of chemicals which are now accepted to be bad for your health usually including some form of acid, lead or zinc compounds.
Directions are exactly the same as for pure linseed oil above except that the boiled oil will dry quicker so you may have to even up quicker, may not need to dilute first coats so much and may be able to apply another coat within 24 hours.
Gives a deeper colour than pure linseed but not so durable.
Mylands, Jenkins or Liberon, widely available in online restoration craft shops.
From Candlenut, Tung (from an old Chinese word for heart as leaves are heart shaped) and similar Chinese deciduous trees, used for millennia by the Chinese, a pure oil, easy to apply, more durable than any other oil, medium durability on non-oily woods, medium scuff resistance, medium water resistance (rising to good on oily woods such as teak and rosewood) the best out of all the oils, slightly more durable than shellac but inferior to cellulose, polyurethane or water-based materials. Apply several coats, thin the first with turpentine, wipe off excess. I find ten coats minimum are required for a decent finish, apply over several weeks. (The Chinese would usually apply around thirty coats)
It’s hard to use for commercial jobs because the finish takes so long to produce the price would be prohibitive although I have coated several items for some of my close customers where they let me have the item for several weeks and I add a coat every day or whenever I have the time.
Mylands, Jenkins or Liberon, widely available in online restoration craft shops.
Teak oil / Danish oil
Synonyms for the same products. Vary greatly in quality, in general Danish oil is lighter and teak oil slightly heavier for use outside use.
Combination of linseed oil (which is cheaper and less durable) and tung oil (which is more expensive and more durable) solvents, alkyd and urethane plasticisers and drying chemicals, basically just a polyurethane varnish with up to 20 percent more oil, better quality oils have more tung oil and less linseed. A modern finish but around a while longer than the latest hard wax oils so can appear semi-traditional to some although this is highly relative as they have been around since the 1950s but a traditional oil like linseed has been used for centuries and tung which has been used for at least four thousand years and is one of the oldest recorded wood finishes, as used by the Chinese)
Easier to apply due to solvents and dryers but, not as strong as tung oil or polyurethane. Useful for coating outside hardwood furniture, especially teak.
Follow instructions on product as these vary with composition. Normally at least two or three coats are advised.
I don’t. If I am doing outside furniture I do not wish to use a modern film forming oil which which polymerise on the surface and then crack up and fall off within a season, I only use pure tung oil and turpentine which penetrates into the wood and is much stronger.
Polyurethane (PU) oil varnish
Essentially an oil finish (contains 40 to 60 percent oil normally linseed, soybean or tung with both alkyd forming resins for strength and UV resistance and urethane forming resins for reduced drying time and moisture resistance. Excellent adhesion, especially on oily timbers, good water, heat and chemical resistance, faster drying than teak/Danish oil but still fairly slow. Has tendency therefore to run if applied too thickly and pick up dust. Available in gloss, satin and matt.
If you have stained the wood with a water stain then you can either go straight on with the varnish, thinned out around 10 to 15% to seal the stain or thinned out shellac or use a thinned out shellac add around an extra 30% meths to a regular 2.5lb cut shellac polish (see shellacs). You will need to seal in nitrostains as well with thinned shellac as the solvent in the varnish may soften the stain and it may pull and bleed through. If you wish to use microporous finishes (see below) it is best to use water stain and seal with thinned out varnish itself. Although shellac is semi porous, microporous finishes work better if they are in direct contact with the wood (the water stain does not count as it is a dye that stains the wood, the water dries out leaving no body)
Excellent for exterior use, possible to achieve good finish but requires patient sanding and multiple coats (minimum five coats) have a tendency to yellow over time. For exterior work I try and always use a traditional yacht varnish but with a modern twist. Traditional yacht varnishes have excellent water and light resistance but tend to be rather harder and brittle compared to their younger water-based counterparts. The best varnish for exterior work combines the best properties of both, it’s called microporous varnish. Microporous varnish is breathable and works just like Goretex does for textiles. At the microscopic level it allows the wood to breathe, letting the timber expire water vapor rather than cracking and flaking the finish but forms an impervious barrier to water ingress.
Polyurethane oil varnishes are fairly easy to apply and applied clear over previously stained and sealed wood with careful sanding can look good. Use many thin coats, apply with good soft brush, ‘lay off’ in direction of grain (feather the top of the coat out with light, long, even strokes) and watch for drips. Only really used by professionals for exterior work, but probably one of the easiest finishes to apply properly for the amateur if you apply many coats, thinly and watch for runs. Apply thinly as possible, if your arm is not aching you are not going thin enough! Use a decent quality clean brush. It is possible to get a decent finish with PU it just takes time. Dry and decant a small amount into a clean glass jar to avoid contamination of the whole tin of varnish and never use right down to the last drop as it will be full of dust and bits. Watch out for runs, especially in the corners of letter boxes, quirks and moldings and at every edge. After you have finished a section, whilst the finish is still ‘open’ have a look round at recently coated areas, de load your brush (on the side of the jar) and try and ‘catch’ any runs that may have developed by feathering them out.
As much as it is possible that Roger Federer could probably beat me in a game of tennis with a fly swat, he would do so far more impressively with a decent racket. Here brushes do matter. You will not get a top quality finish using an old paint, unless you like the rough, hairy look. If you prefer your wood work to look a little more sophisticated then try and source out a nice new brush or two, one detail brush and one larger bush at least two inches wide.
Seeing as we are doing things properly and you are saving lots of money on employing someone why not splash out on a Hamilton Namel Var brush? or failing that, a Hamilton perfection? You will be glad you did. Brushes are beautiful too. Remember to wash them out in white spirits / turpentine before using to remove any loose / trimmed hairs. Also wash them out carefully after completing the undercoats as before you apply the final coat. After you have finished for the day wash out with white spirits / turps, partially dry and store in a plastic bag or cling film if using in the next couple of days.
When you have finished with the brush, wash out well in lots of white spirits / turps and place inside a tough plastic bag and then an air tight container made of wood, metal or glass, a plastic one will deform over time. If you can find some traditional slow drying ‘long-spar’ or ‘tall’ varnish you can mix some of this with turps and suspend the brush in this ‘keeper’ varnish. Modern varnishes do not work so well as they form skins on the surface.
Outside I use Johnstone’s Classic Matt Wood stain or Satin Wood stain, (they are called wood stains but come in clear, make sure to get the microporous ones, they come in a lovely two tone green tin, just like this website) Try and apply as many coats as you can, minimum five coats. Thinner is better, you can apply slightly more on the final coat but watch out for those runs. I do not use varnish indoors.
Modern oil finishes / hardwax oil / waxoil
40% to 90% oil content (typically around 50%) naphtha (white spirit based) solvent from fossil fuels normally 50% plus, look out for the latest ultra high solid and water emulsion finishes which contain little to no solvents. Oils refined from natural plant and nut extracts with some paraffin oil refined from fossil fuels. High solvent content, strong and unpleasant odour (similar to gloss paint) flammable. Although 50% of product largely plant derived, processing required consumes much energy and fossil based solvent is very high unless solvent free.
The majority are not very environmentally sustainable due to their very high fossil-based solvent content (unless at 90% plus oil concentration) Driers and plasticisers are added to aid film formation. Although heavily mismarketed as environmentally sustainable they are, in essence, high oil content (long spar) varnishes with alternate chemicals substituted for the traditional polyurethane and alkyd resin film-forming components to promote, film formation, quick drying and water/UV resistance.
Their true environmental impact is therefore only medium and lies between water based, shellac & traditional waxes (low) and volatile solvent based (high) NB Traditional oils like Tung oil (from nut of Chinese tree) and Linseed oil (from Flax seed) take far too long to dry to be practical, boiled Linseed oil (effectively an early varnish of sorts with driers) dries quicker but is weaker and still not suitable. Two hundred years ago people waited weeks for their floors and furniture to be finished!
These days people expect (and can only afford) a slightly quicker service. The marketing of these modern ‘Green’ oils preys on peoples wish to make an effort to be environmentally responsible, whilst alluding to the traditional oils of the past (which were very ‘green’ as they had virtually no solvents at all) to which they bear little resemblance. Coupled with the facts that modern oil finished floors only last a fraction of the time of the water based lacquer finished floors before requiring refinishing and that they require constant maintenance I find it upsetting that they are dishonestly marketed as being ‘green’ when, frankly, many of them are not.
In general are low to medium build (depending upon application method) have medium to good penetration and have low to medium durability. They can look very attractive if little is applied due to their low build and the consequent ‘natural’ appearance but contrary to popular belief exaggerated by aggressive and dishonest marketing have relatively poor water resistance on non-oily woods. They have greater durability on oily woods like Rosewood and Teak which are already saturated with natural oils.
Danish and teak oils are modern oil finishes even though they may have gained a ‘traditional’ status. Danish and teak oils are likely to have been updated as the technology has developed to be very similar in some cases to other oils and hardwax oil finishes the only difference being their marketing.
Widely misrepresented as having greater strength and water resistant properties they need to be maintained regularly at least every year, preferably every few months in a high traffic use area or commercial environment. They have a warm, full and deep appearance when first applied (although the wood does darken considerably over time) but they do yellow over time as solvent based varnishes do (only slightly less) and quite a bit more than water based lacquers that deepen and mellow in a more natural (less yellow) looking way. Recently attempts have been made to address this problem with more UV resistant finishes. Applied in a thin coat to low traffic areas these finishes can give a beautiful result.
They can be technically very easy to apply by hand via brush and cloth, albeit very slow and care must be taken to ensure a thin even film is applied. Application via bespoke floor application brush requires more skill as the oil has to be distributed correctly as wiping off is not normally undertaken, this means a thicker coat can be applied giving a much quicker build but a certain amount of skill and experience may be required not to overload the brush and leave excess finish which dries showing up application marks, drips and patches. Application via buffing machine normally via cloth placed over sponge and sometimes buffed with a sponge is faster but may require more skill and experience and can be messy to adjacent skirtings.
Oil finishes are more easily ‘spot repaired’ soon after they are applied or after a longer period if only a thin coating has been applied. Before long the wood darkens and patinates and any sanding of a ‘spot’ area is in danger of exposing fresh lighter wood making the repair stand out although the finish itself should still be able to be blended in. Individual boards or blocks may be masked individually and sanded carefully back to the wood using many sanding sheets as these will clog up very quickly. Larger areas may be partially sanded using white spirits and fine sandpaper or scotch pad sponge and lots of cloths, this removes the surface layers and many of the scratches/discolouration but leaves an amount of oil and colour in the wood, after the white spirits have dried overnight fresh colour or clear oil can be applied.
On floors the oil and hardwax oils give relatively poor durability as the film is quite weak and the thickness of applied film is very thin when compared with other finishes. They do soak well into the wood and therefore work well on naturally oily timbers like teak, rosewood and traditional European walnut and indeed are an excellent choice for reclaimed hardwood parquet for example as oil finishes are the least fussy of all finishes and will sit over contaminated timber much better. Modern floor oils and hardwax oils were developed and widely marketed quite recently to reduce material and labour costs by enabling them to be applied by the unskilled and not to offer any move forward in quality.
If you require a bright or very pigmented colour finish in a very lightly used area they can give very pleasing and striking results. If you require a clear coat finish and a measure of durability then you may be better served by a coat of shellac followed by a quality water-based lacquer in a satin or matt finish which mimics an oil finish in appearance very well if not applied too thick. Modern crown cut cheaper and quicker grown oak which to us traditionalists can appear boring and plain when compared to older denser and much more beautifully figured quarter cut oaks are especially suited to coloured oil finishes as the deep oak grain provides a nice figurative contrast and the obscuration of the sometimes plain modern oak timber with pigments is not such a hardship and indeed sometimes a bonus. Just remember the resulting finish will not be as durable as a traditionally stained, shellacked and lacquered floor.
On furniture, small items like boxes interior doors and frames they can produce a very low build (thin) very attractive and very smooth finish which feels silky smooth and is wonderful to the touch and is good way for a novice to obtain a very smooth and good looking finish.
Uses are as for shellac but remember, like shellac it will require regular re coating if the floor area / item is used frequently. They are virtually identical to pigmented oil stains minus the pigments so for more information on them try reading about oil pigment stains here.
Follow manufacturers instructions, some can be applied by brush but most are applied via rag, as per waxing you will require a detail brush to get into edges, quirks and corners, and three cloths, one totally wetted one, squeezed out to apply, one to even up and one to dry off and buff. The time between applying and removing the excess varies so read the instructions clearly. Although marketed as traditional, they are not, so do not think you can leave the applied oil for several hours like Linseed oil for example, or it will start to polymerise and go sticky and horrible. The advantage of modern oil finishes is that they dry quickly, so you have been warned.
As a safety precaution, as with cellulose rags, all rags should be placed outside to dry for a few hours before putting into a bin as theoretically they are capable of auto ignition (catching fire spontaneously) this obviously is not a regular occurrence under normal circumstances but peace of mind is worth a few extra rags.
For furniture: I use Liberon Finishing oil. Liberon are to be commended for still producing artisan quality products when many have stopped making them. Their finishing oil may not be traditional but it produces a lovely finish. They also stock linseed, boiled linseed and tung oil for the traditionalists among you.
For floors: I do not advocate the use of oils on the majority of my floors which tend to be old pine floors as most customers want a finish that is durable and I can normally achieve a similar look but with much more durability using shellac and water based lacquers, also many customers want a stain or tint that is translucent and not pigmented which does not obscure the grain like the coloured oils do. I normally reserve their use to floors that have previously been oiled as once oiled timber is sometimes reluctant to let another finish sit on top without protest. I also use oils on some of the darker and naturally oily hardwood floors like rosewood, teak and on reclaimed hardwood where previous contamination with oils and waxes may be a problem.
Applying an oil based finish to a naturally oily wood seems a natural and proper use for them as this timber is usually naturally more durable and evolved to absorb oil, furthermore some very oily woods can create adhesion problems with non oil based finishes although an extra coat of shellac as a barrier seal can go a long way to remedying this. I normally use any of the following, Osmo, Blanchon or Trip Trap. I also use Blanchon wood floor oil environment which uniquely uses water as an emulsified solvent and more uniquely amongst oils is environmentally responsible and leaves an almost invisible super matt finish.
Mixture of paraffin wax, beeswax and carnauba wax softened in 10 to 20% naphtha (white spirit) or pure turpentine. High quality waxes contain mostly beeswax (from honeycomb) and carnauba wax (from nuts) and little or no paraffin wax (from fossil fuels) and are very environmentally sustainable especially as very little is required for a large area. The cheaper the wax the more refined fossil fuel (paraffin wax) they contain. Pronounced but normally pleasant, sweet odour. Used in conjunction with shellac (above) Shellac traditionally applied to fill the grain and apply a protective sheen, then waxed to smooth out the lustre and provide a replenishable protective surface (application of subsequent maintenance coats of wax serve to increase protection and clean surface at same time)
Waxes, like all solvent finishes dry by evaporation of the carrier solvent.
Turpentine or turps (the lighter fraction distillate of coniferous tree resin, expensive) or white spirit (distilled from oil, much cheaper) are used.
Traditional waxes were made from beeswax (either yellow or white, refined from bee hive combs) and turpentine, this gave a very soft wax that had low durability. These were then modified by the addition of harder vegetable waxes like canuba wax (the hardest and most expensive) and Candelilla wax (softer and cheaper). Modern waxes also contain some paraffin wax (the softest and cheapest) this aids application but too much can reduce durability and sheen level.
Some modern waxes also contain aromatic solvents and drying agents which are supposed to aid drying but I find them very difficult to use and do not recommend them (Briwax for example is popular in the pine trade as it dries quickly, but is not a totally traditional wax and tricky to use)
It is widely accepted (in the trade) that a good wax should contain beeswax, paraffin wax and canuba wax with turpentine as the solvent. The beeswax and turps smell wonderful and the paraffin aids application whilst a good percentage of canuba increases shine and durability. Whilst it is fun making your own wax, it is quite messy and there really is no need as there are some wonderful traditional waxes still available at prices cheaper than you can make them for. Mylands wax for example is based on Gedges recipe dating from the late nineteenth century and is the one I mostly use.
As mentioned in the sealing section it is far better to seal the wood before you apply the wax. Another tip is do not leave the wax to dry too long before you wipe off and buff up. On almost all wax containers the instructions will tell you to wait five minutes, after this time it will prove very hard work to remove the wax, do not wait that long. Your arms will thank you.
Personally I suggest getting three cloths and two brushes, one brush to apply the wax into awkward areas with (a short haired, or old cut down brush) one large clothes or shoe type brush to buff up afterwards with, one cloth to apply the wax with, one to wipe off the excess straight away and even up and the third to clean and buff up.
Work in small sections and start wiping off immediately you have finished coating an area, do not apply too much wax and change your cloths regularly.
You can also apply the wax with fine wire wool, 000 or 0000 (very fine / ultra fine) grade which will dull surfaces and smooth out any minor imperfections. Leave at least two or three days between wax coats (preferably a week) or you will just soften the previous coat and make everything smeary. Less is more, apply too much and the wax will just smear.
For best results after the finish has dried for a few days (the longer the better) take a well worn fine sanding sponge of P240 or finer or a piece of worn P400 paper and lightly denib the whole surface thoroughly, then go over evenly with 000 or 0000 wire wool before you apply the wax and this will dull the surface down nicely. Be careful if doing this on high gloss cellulose and varnish finishes as it takes some practice to dull the surface evenly. This is best left as a treatment for shellac finishes and on satin cellulose finishes.
Remove the wax every year or two with pure turps, white vinegar and meths and reapply to avoid dirt build up.
Mylands Traditional Wax Polish made to the same Gedges 1880’s recipe. There is no need to make your own but if you must Mylands helpfully sell everything you need from gum arabic, pure beeswax, canuba wax and paraffin wax. Mylands are worth supporting as they are one of the few original French polish and wax makers left in London and in my opinion, they make the best quality french polishes in the country, if not in the world. Jenkins in Tottenham are the only other traditional polish and wax supplier left and are worth supporting also. Their Harrell’s wax is also a very good traditional wax. Both companies have very knowledgeable and helpful technical people who are often ex-French polishers. A trip to Jenkins is worth it if you are in North London, they sell some of the best quality British hand made French polishing brushes in the country and if you ask the two ever friendly West Indian ladies in the front of the shop, they will let you round the back of the storeroom where you can be left to Peruse the ‘brush cupboard’ on your own.
Briwax is very popular but I do not like it as most of their products I have come across contain driers and highly aromatised hydrocarbon solvents, used extensively in the pine furniture trade but not as traditional and harder to apply and the smell is unpleasant.
Water based finishes
Developed by Bona AB of Sweden in the 1970’s less than 6% VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds – normally obtained from fossil fuels) approx. 40% solid content mostly made from refined maize starch, solvent is water, very environmentally responsible, zero fire rating. Virtually no fumes and virtually odour free.
Most waterborne varnishes in the DIY stores are acrylic based for interior use, some are polyurethane-acrylic copolymers for exterior or floor use and only some professional lacquers are 100 percent polyurethane either single component normally being self catalysing (oxygen cross linking) or two component (‘two pack’) with an isocyanate-based catalyst. Acrylic and acrylic-polyurethane copolymers are relatively soft and can be problematic to sand and do not offer high durability. Professional 100 percent polyurethane lacquers are several times more durable, harder and easier to sand and are perfect for almost all domestic uses. For areas that get very heavily used, for people with scratchy pets or for people who just want the peace of mind in having the absolute best and longest lasting finish available then two component polyurethane lacquers like Bona Trafic HD and Junckers HP Commercial both of which I use, may be the best. I only use the strongest two component finishes for commercial jobs.
Water based products are very useful for large areas like floors where the absence of solvents is a distinct advantage. They can also prove very useful for window cills, bathrooms and kitchens as they have excellent water resistance and for kids rooms as they are tough (i.e. flexible) and easily cleanable.
They do tend to raise the grain and do not give excellent results on very dark timbers where they can impart a slightly milky or light blue cast especially if not used over shellac sealer. I always use shellac sealer underneath water-based finishes except for on very light timbers like Maple, Beech and sometimes Ash. The shellac coat soaks into the wood giving depth, lustre and increasing chattoyancy, something which the water-based finish cannot do on it’s own, without a shellac pre-seal floors finished with water-based finishes can look anaemic, lifeless and ‘plasticky’ I often incorporate small amounts of spirit dye / fine pigment into my shellac seal which really brings the wood to life. The difference between a shellac and lacquered floor and a plain lacquered floor is very noticeable.
When coating over water stains it is imperative that you first seal with either sanding sealer or plain shellac like a special pale otherwise the water from the lacquer will dissolve the water stain and cause bleeding and running and ruin the finish. To be safe apply a decent amount of shellac, if unsure then apply two thin coats to be on the safe side. Even so, when going over sealed work some of the stain will still be transferred to the finish which may change colour, do not be alarmed, this is normal, it is easy to see if the lacquer is adversely affecting the stain, if it is stop straight away, wait until dry, sand area back and start again.
When coating over nitrostains or pigmented water stains a sealer coat of either shellac or shellac sealer is advisable, although pigmented water stains vary so check the manufacturers instructions. When over coating pure spirit stains and light-fast stains you should not use shellac and go straight over with the lacquer after the stain has dried.
It is important to note that water-based lacquers are softened by the solvent (meths) in shellac so it is vital the shellac or sealer is dry before starting to apply the top coats. If you are unconfident or unsure leaving until the next day is advisable, so too with spirit and light-fast stains which also contain meths. Nitrostain affects water-based lacquer even more and even though it may appear dry, the stain may still be ‘wet’ in the deep grain of oak for example or in between parquet blocks, even if sealed with shellac some of this very powerful solvent can leech back into the lacquer and cause it to fail prematurely, even delaminating in some cases. For this reason I rarely use these stains on floors preferring to use the trickier method of water staining as it is safer. Most floor companies use these sort of stains and top coat them on the same day, this may give rise to premature failure of the finish. My advice is to leave the stain for at least 24 hours (not just overnight) before top coating. If you can using water stain is best as counter intuitively it actually dries quicker. You can tell if its dry as the colour will change and it will not feel cold to the touch.
The water-based lacquers never achieve 100 percent clarity so gloss finishes are always lacking compared to their solvent counterparts (unless undercoated with a solvent finish first!) they can however give a very even matt finish. They are fairly easy to apply and for a satin or matt finish look very good, quite like a modern oil finish. Take great care when sanding as these finishes whilst very flexible lack ultimate hardness especially when freshly applied and it is very easy to tear them.
Apply very thin coats and sand well with fine P320 or P400. Do not apply more than two or three coats as they tend to look plastic-like when applied too thickly.
The exception to the rule is when finishing floors when you should follow the manufacturers instructions or see my other page Guide to floor sanding here in general when coating floor you want to apply as much finish as possible, firstly to aid flowing and eliminate application marks from showing and secondly to provide a decent film thickness for durability. Ordinarily one would apply three coats of water-based floor lacquer or one coat of shellac seal plus two top coats of water-based lacquer.
For floor edges or furniture / vertical surfaces a modern synthetic brush works best. These brushes should last you years if you wash them carefully, for several minutes in lots of running water. I recommend Purdy brushes, they are made in the USA and guarantee no hair loss and they are true to their word, you can buy cheaper but there is always the danger of stray hairs. You will require a 2, 2.5 or 3 inch brush for floor edges depending upon your confidence / coating style a 2 inch is normally enough for most other items unless doing large panels. A round brush is often handy for quirks and other round sections and for getting into corners. Water-based lacquers cannot be applied with a rag, although a medium pile mini roller may also be used on larger flat surfaces.
Bona Mega Satin, Bona Mega Matt and Bona Mega Extra Matt, Bona Traffic Matt and Bona Traffic Satin, Bona Traffic Matt Anti-slip, Junkers Strong Matt and Junkers Strong Satin. Although due to their constant changing of their formulas I have found Loba Viva and the other Loba lacquers which are made by Lecol to have the best overall application characteristics as of March 2020.
You can use all these finishes on vertical surfaces but be careful, their excellent flow and levelling properties make runs a real problem, much better to build up several very thin coats. They dry very quickly when brushed on thinly but tear quite easily until they are fully cured (around one to three days at normal house temperature) so be careful when sanding and use a worn sanding sponge or a good quality silicon carbide sand paper (see sanding below) Bona invented water-borne lacquers in the 1970’s and arguably make the best floor finishes (see Floor sanding guide here for more details on floor lacquer application) Junkers finishes are of similar quality and have excellent application properties.
So you want to achieve a superior finish?
Not only will you require professional materials to apply, decent brushes to apply them with but also decent abrasives to smooth them with. Traditional sandpaper (yellow glass paper) is frankly rubbish, will shed abrasive everywhere, clog up and scratch your finish.
For once modern technology beats traditional hands down. For sanding bare wood you require resin bonded aluminium oxide paper (Alox) P100 or P150 grit are good for smoothing, P180 and P240 are good for finishing preparation.
Garnet cabinet paper is cheap and good for preliminary smoothing, but I never use it, I have so many thousands of pounds worth of high quality machine abrasives I use those for roughing /intermediate sanding by hand.
For inter coat sanding (that is in between coats) then a lubricated paper like 3M Tri-m-ite Frecut and EAC lubrisil (if they still make it) are far superior. You could contact Mylands or Jenkins and ask them if Sia still do a stearated silicon carbide paper. These are blue and white and are made from harder Silicon carbide grains with added zinc stearates for lubrication. You should use P240 or P320 grit for sanding in between coats (you can go ‘up’ to P180 for varnish to avoid clogging and go right ‘down’ to P400 on shellac for an ultra fine finish)
Always sand with the grain, especially with the coarser grits. Try and use a cork block where possible on larger flat surfaces.
Use of powered sanders are fine for floors but not really recommended for sanding finishes as their speed will not only clog up the abrasive but melt, burn or even create a hole in the finish. Much better to take a little longer by hand than to risk ruining all your hard work.
Fine wire wool is messy but is excellent for applying waxes and for final dulling before the last coat. Remember to dust off after every sanding operation. If you can attach an upholstery brush to your vacuum and clear the dust that way, it is much healthier and you will get a better finish.
Wipe down sanded surfaces with a very slightly damp cloth to remove more dust. Tag rags are fine but I find a cloth works just as well. If you have unsealed floors or there is a lot of dust around (maybe from other works) then “dampening down” the floor by flicking water everywhere will reduce the amount of dust kicked up before vacuuming/sweeping. Grit system: In the modern European grit system “P” denotes the number of smallest openings per linear inch in the screen (sieve) that the abrasive grain will pass through. i.e. P240 denotes the abrasive grains are 240 to the linear inch or that each grain is one 240th of an inch across.
Machine sanding is covered in more depth here in the guide to wood stripping page.
3m Tri-m-ite Fre-cut, I’m not sure they make Lubrisil anymore, Jenkins have it listed on their site, so perhaps give them a call. I’m very fussy about my abrasives, it may only be 3m left then! Too thick sandpaper means the abrasive flakes off, its not flexible, it won’t form around curves and it will be stiff and ‘burn’ (take off) the edges which will damage your stain work. It has to be hard (silicon carbide) very sharp and have a thin flexible backing. Sanding sponges from 3M and Sia are very handy, almost invaluable when doing spindles or lots of molding work.
Guide to wood finishing glossary
2. P180 grade: abrasive with grit that passes through a sieve with holes 180th’s of an inch wide. Therefore ‘P’ (international grading system) denotes number of grit particles per linear inch. P24 = 24 grains per inch, P240 = 240 grains per inch. Smaller = coarser, Larger = finer.
3. raise the grain: timber can be thought of a system of compressed fibres which swell when wetted causing the grain to raise up and feel furry and rough
4. penetration: measure of how deep a liquid is absorbed into a timber surface
5. light-fast: a measure of how well a pigment or colour resists fading due to action of UV component of sunlight
6. body: denotes that finishing material has real substance, e.g. that a stain has some thickness to it when applied and will act partly like a top coat
7. shellac: solution of natural resin (exudate of beetle) in alcohol (see also finishing section)
8. bleed: action of primary coat being partly dissolved by a subsequent coat due to same solvent carrier in both resulting in irregular blending and merging of both coats, esp. common in staining
9. pull: action of primary coat being partly dissolved by a subsequent coat due to same solvent carrier in both resulting in primary coat losing adhesion and “rucking” up like a rug
10. fly: as in the Shakespearian sense, to leave, to go, esp. for red (warm) pigments and stains which are attacked more readily by the sun due to them absorbing higher amounts of UV radiation
11. fad: used wadding from inside of rubber (see below) partially air dried and used to apply stains, sealers or finishes prior to final finishing, can also denote shaped pad of mutton cloth more commonly used today, to fad : verb. Action of using fad e.g. “I was fadding up before polishing”
12. rubber: traditional way of applying shellac and only way to achieve a “French polish” double skinned cotton wool like wadding shaped and placed into a white “wiper” which allows controlled amount of finish through
13. mop: traditional brush for applying shellac, lacquers and varnishes. Hand made, wooden handle, swan quill ferrule bound with brass wire, with large dome shaped head. Hair can be squirrel (for colouring, second only to sable in softness) zorino (combination of badger, squirrel and goat, good all rounder) or bear (horse or hog hair, for rough work)
14. figure: denotes colouration and patterning of timber surface (e.g. fiddleback or flame pattern in mahogany or birds eye in maple) not to be confused with grain which is the pattern of small holes left where the tree used to pump nutrients to its leaves
15. carrier: denotes material that gives body (see no. 6) to a stain or pigment to aid application
16. wet edge: edge of current area being coated which needs to remain wet in order to avoid pulling (see no. 9) in bodied (see no. 6) finishes or streaking in stains. To keep a wet edge: to work fast and skilful enough to avoid the edge drying out before it is incorporated into a new area of finish/stain
17. cut in: action of using brush to carefully coat right up to edge or corner without need to mask adjoining area
18. fix: to protect a stain which has no body by over coating it with a compatible finishing material to avoid bleeding and/or accidental damage before finishing