I am always amazed at how little most woodworkers know about finishing wood and the products used in this process. Hours are spent pouring over magazines, books and videos, learning how to build that ultimate project and how to use the tools needed. But, one very important tool is all too often neglected……..finishing! This lack of knowledge of a very important subject leads to no end of frustration and disappointment.
Occasionally a customer requests a knob and tote set unfinished so he/she can apply their favorite finish. In almost every case their favorite finish is one that affords less protection to their new tool handles than the finish I use. So, you ask, what do I use? Polyurethane! Surprised? I published an article on polyurethane varnish and if you are interested you can read it here. Most people who want to use their own finish use some form of spar varnish. Here is where the misconception lies. They think that because this varnish was made to protect wood in a harsh marine environment that is hard and tough and therefore great for tool handles. Well, think again!
Spar varnish, no matter the maker, is what is called a long oil varnish. This simply means it has more oil, usually linseed oil, than standard varnish. What the additional oil does is to allow the cured finish to more readily expand and contract with the excessive wood movement caused by the harsh environment. This minimizes cracking, checking, and peeling. The additional oil accomplishes this by keeping the finish soft and flexible. This is not the most desirable characteristic in a tool handle finish.
Oil finishes and oil varnish blends do not afford the most protection from oils and grime being ground into them and the wood beneath the finish. The hardest of the easily available finishes is polyurethane varnish. But it looks like plastic you say. It doesn’t have to if used properly. That “plastic” look that most of us detest is caused by too heavy of a build and the high gloss. To avoid that plastic look knock off the high gloss. The only place high gloss looks good is on a French polished table. High gloss French polish looks so good because there is very little build.
Three coats of satin polyurethane varnish thinned approximately 50/50 will give you a great looking finish that will last a long time. And, it is easily renewed by scuffing it with some 0000 steel wool and applying a couple more coats. Try it, you will be surprised.
Oh, and by the way. The resins used in all varnished is usually some type of plastic.
As always, thanks for stopping by and please feel free to leave a comment.