Furniture Finishing Thoughts From Industry Experts
Furniture finishing is undoubtedly one of the most important steps in producing a beautiful product that looks, feels, and performs the way a client expects. There are a multitude of available finishes and various application techniques so it can be confusing to be sure you’re getting the best available finish for a piece you intend to last. For this blog I’m focusing on table finishes, but these thoughts hold true for most surfaces that’ll see frequent use. I’m always interested in furthering my knowledge of the furniture profession so for this particular post I reached out to some of my contacts who are industry standards of finishing.
Through the following discussion, you’ll hear expert opinions on what finishes they use, why they choose them, and how they’re applied. There are seemingly endless different products and finishing techniques out there, so, admittedly, these are just a few opinions. However, the opinions presented represent nearly 100 years of combined experience.
Who you'll hear from:
Tyler Thompson- Tyler worked with me at Urban Hardwoods in Seattle for several years. He was the only designated finisher there so he saw to it that every piece was flawlessly finished. I saw first hand his attention to detail and care for the product he puts out. He’s been finishing full time for 12 years at custom woodworking shops in the Pacific Northwest. In Tyler’s words, “I have worked with custom cabinetry and custom live edge tables, and am currently at a production oriented shop where the finish durability and dry time has never been more critical in meeting my goals on a daily basis.”
Walter Neill - While mostly a metal worker, Oxford, Mississippi based Neill has worked with an array of wood finishes due to the fact that he’s built several houses, remodeled many houses, and built some fine furniture. “I have, over the years, been around many very talented woodworkers and seen a myriad of finishes,” Neill says, “and I’ve had discussions about the pros and cons of those finishes.”
Greg Pilotti - Greg owns a custom furniture company in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and currently has 7 employees. They run over 100 custom furniture jobs per year and primarily work in solid wood and metal.
Morgan Welch of The HannaBerry Workshop - Morgan and his wife Sarah run The HannaBerry Workshop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a high end art, furniture, and interiors studio.
Fletcher Cox - Born in 1948, Cox is a stalwart of southern furniture design. He was admitted into the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild in 1974 and his work and influence are widely seen in Mississippi and across the south, from private homes to beautifully crafted pecan doors at the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson and a massive grain wrapped “tableau” at the University of Arkansas Architecture School.
Lastly, me, John Haltom of Roxie Woodworks - My interest in woodworking began with hand carving longbows at 5 years old from osage orange and hickory, among many other species. All my life, I’ve pursued nature, creativity, and craftsmanship. I’ve worked as a wilderness ranger with the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado and Montana, a carpenter in Seattle and Mississippi, for Urban Hardwoods in Seattle, and now own and operate Roxie Woodworks, a custom furniture shop in Oxford, Mississippi.
What finish do you use on your dining and conference tables and how is it applied?
Pilotti- "We are typically using a conversion varnish that is sprayed on using a Sata gun and Kremlin pump system. This is a catalyzed finish and requires a large spray booth. We still spray lacquers and catalyzed urethane when requested by the client.”
Neill-“In Neill choosing a finish on any piece of wood furniture that will see a lot of use, such as a dining table, cabinets and drawer fronts, or any wood in a bathroom or bar I would choose a conversion varnish or other catalyzed varnish. I’ve used cup sprayers for my conversion varnishes but there are better methods.”
Welch - “We usually spray a conversion varnish on our dining and conference tables. Because our work consists of making a wide variety of art pieces and custom furniture, we use 3-M’s Paint Preparation System so that we can easily adapt to spraying different paints and finishes. The system also reduces the amount of solvent needed for cleanup.”
Cox - “This is a decision made on a case-by-case basis. I tend to use conversion varnish, especially on conference tables, because it wears so well. I made a 25’ long by 5’ wide “tableau” for the University of Arkansas for one of the main gathering areas in the Fay Jones School of Architecture. Because it was going to get heavy use, in consultation with the architect, I went with ⅓ spar varnish, ⅓ boiled linseed oil, and ⅓ mineral spirits - an easily renewed finish. On a recently completed “raw and cooked series” coffee table, I needed to give depth to the milled and sanded parts, so I used a wipe-on poly, which meant I stuck with polyurethane for over all compatibility. I think there is a place for lacquer, also; for instance on a dining table in a private home. It is reasonably resistant to spills and can easily be repaired. bI used conversion varnish on the renovation of the Eudora Welty Library desks even though I’d initially finished them with a brushed polyurethane. It was a chance to correct some amateur mistakes.”
Thompson - “I use an Italian company called Milesi. The formula I am spraying right now is an acrylic polyurethane called LUA434. I spray it out of a Graco air assist pump. This is an affordable system that has a high transfer efficiency and even application of material.”
Haltom - “ I currently spray Milesi acrylic polyurethane, ML Campbell conversion varnish, and various lacquers using a pressure pot system with a Binks HVLP gun in a designated finish room with an air intake filtered door and a filtered explosion proof 220 volt exhaust fan.”
What experience(s) led you to use your finish? Was there an evolution of finishes you used for furniture or was it the same finish from day one?
Thompson- "I shopped around for several different finishes. The acrylic polyurethane just works so great for my current needs. It is an expensive product, but it is easy to work with. It has a 24-hour pot life, easy touch up and sanding, and durability which really goes a long way towards justifying the cost."
Cox- "As a self taught beginner before the days of Fine Woodworking Magazine, I used boiled linseed oil. There may be a proper way to do that, but I never found it. Then came along Watco. I used that on the first round of benches I made for the Mississippi Museum of Art. When it came time to renovate them I just basically sanded them smooth and laid on 3 coats of conversion varnish, even though the can said to strip all old finish. I guess if it's 25 year old, it's cured enough to withstand the chemistry, because no problems so far."
Pilotti- "We evolved from lacquers to conversion varnish when lead times got tighter and we started doing more commercial work. This forced us to upgrade our finishing booth and spray system. The need for durability became urgent with conference tables due to the nature of their use."
Neil-" What led me to use conversion varnish can be attributed to my brother in law who was a very talented woodworker and contractor in Jackson, Mississippi. He recognized early on in his career that there were huge advantages to this finish. He had problems with water staining and durability issues with standard poly finishes and oil finishes and he was looking for something that would cause fewer problems with his work and be more satisfying to his clients. I first used the finish on heart pine cabinets and an oak banquet table here in Oxford. I was and still am amazed by the durability of the finish. When I went to install the heart pine drawer fronts that'd been stacked on the kitchen counter I noticed red wine had been spilled on several of them from a gathering of friends weeks prior and was pooled in the panels. I panicked until I wiped them off and they were like new. The banquet table is now in our art gallery here (Oxford Treehouse Gallery) and has been danced on numerous times resulting in only minor scratches."
Welch-" We started out trying various water based finishes. Hydrocote Resistathane was one we used for a while and had promising results with as far as its durability was concerned, but we did not like how it would raise the grain of the wood in between coats, this would happen repeatedly and would slow down the finishing process. We switched from water based finishes to solvent based as our work schedule began filing up. Conversion Varnish was recommended to us by shop mates at the time, we switched over after using it for the firs time. Water based finishes are very appealing to us though for ease of cleanup, reparability, and reduced solvent exposure. We use water based paints for most all colored work, and are currently testing a few water based clear finishes for Target Coatings that show promise in their ease of application and build time. For now we continue to use conversion varnish, but will continue to keep an eye on the world of water based clear coats."
Haltom- "A longbow is finished with an expectation of major force wood movement in the life of the piece. The bow undergoes huge amount of tension and compression with each draw and release of an arrow. A piece of furniture, such as a dining table or conference table, is a piece that's perpetually in a resting state- expected to stay flat and maintain through the wood's natural expansion and contraction that takes place on an frequent basis. A finish is chosen for its visual beauty, feel, durability, and ability to expand and contract with the wood. I've tried traditional wipe on oil mixtures that included boiled linseed oil, tung oil, and Danish oil but never was content with the lack of durability these finishes offer on a table so I moved through sprayed pre-catalyzed lacquer, to post-catalyzed conversion varnishes, to Thompson's recommendation of Milesi's 2-K acrylic polyurethane. I've seen nothing but positive results from conversion varnish, but the acrylic polyurethane has some benefits that lead me to use it for the foreseeable future. It's low VOCs, total absence of formaldehyde, high solids, even flow out and leveling, 24 hour cure time, ultra durability, and ability to expand and contract with wood are all reasons I'm currently using this finish."
Prior to using your current finish, do you have any particular story/stories t hat stand out where you realized a different finish was required to reach the level of quality you set for yourself?
Welch- “We started our business using professional grade finishes, so the evolution of our finishing process was really influenced by efficiency. As our time became more valuable, we realized that a bottleneck in the finishing process could really bring our pace to a crawl. The last project we did before switching to our current finish, was a large wall unit with lots of inlaid art panels attached to the face. Everything was being pre-finished before assembly and it completely brought our shop to a halt. We had so many parts and were having to cycle through them too many times to achieve an acceptable build of finish. During this time, we watched a shop mate casually finish a large dining table in an afternoon. After seeing the difference in the time it took to build an acceptable finish using the two products, we switched.”
Thompson - “When you are running a business that guarantees products to have an expected lifetime, doing a rework for free is tough. A few bad reworks or touch-ups will get you thinking about the quality of your finish very quickly.”
Pilotti-“When we were limited by cure times of lacquer for getting jobs out the door we knew we needed to switch to a finish that cured (not dried) overnight.”
Cox - Simply states, “concern for my client’s experience quality is the major factor.”
The pieces you work with are high end, professional-grade pieces-how does your finish factor into that?
Thompson- “The finish is so critical to a shop running smoothly. People like to feel a smooth finish and don’t want to see scratches in their product upon delivery. These kinds of things can be deal breakers for a sale regardless of the quality of the product.”
Neill- “Conversion varnish is well worth the added cost in finishing. The material is more than twice the cost and the mechanical and technical aspect is far greater and requires much practice but the client surely gets what they pay for in durability, longevity, and beauty.”
Haltom-“Finishing is absolutely a science, one that I’m continually learning about. I’m fortunate to have expert finisher contacts, because I absorb their knowledge and apply it to my work. Seeing Tyler systematically finish one massive live edge table after another was eye opening for me. There’s a knowledge base required to repeatedly and efficiently produce glassy smooth finishes that are both beautiful and durable. Honestly, a huge amount of the furniture building process is simply prepping a piece to receive the best, most aesthetically pleasing finish possible.”
Welch- “We think that the finish is a huge part of how our clients perceive the quality of the object they are getting from us. People always want to “feel the finish” and talk about how smooth it is. This experience would be different if time were not taken to do things such as pore filling open pored woods, or letting a finish sit and cure and then polishing it out before sending it off to the client. Extra steps taken in the finish prep process can really make the difference in the overall look and feel of the finished piece.”
Pilotti- “Finish plays a huge role. We sometimes spray 20’ long live edge tables with a gloss finish, and that needs to come out prefect. People are drawn to tables and want to touch them; not only must it look perfect, but it must feel perfect and be free of defect. The other huge concern is color, which must match expectations.”
Do you have any knowledge of how OSMO or Rubio Monocoat hold up on a dining or conference table?
Thompson- “I use OSMO regularly to finish countertops made from composite solid material like Paper Stone (Rich Lite is a similar product). The benefit of these kinds of finishes are that people can re-apply them at home. The problem is that they aren’t durable and don't protect from mars or scratches, thought they do seal and protect the surface. But they aren’t comparable to a solid coating.”
Pilotti- “We have never used it, and most likely never will due to the insanely long dry and cure time. Our clients don’t seem to want it.”
Cox - “Never heard of either of them.”
Any further thoughts or info you'd share with a potential client regarding your table finishing?
Welch-" We are generally open with our clients about the finishes that we use, the pluses and minuses of them, and how and why we have chosen to use them. We also are willing to select a finish that addresses any concerns that our clients may have."
Pilotti-" There are a lot of small one man shops, or small shops out there that are hungry for work and charge too little. Time and time again the easiest way to see they are making an inferior product is their finish. Finishing goes much further than wiping on Monocoat, this is a science that requires education and precision."
Cox-"Appropriate finish for the task at hand. Just like appropriate level of craft for the task at hand- only a Japanese temple carpenter would dovetail together pressure-treated decking."
Haltom-" Ask for a sample of the finish that the furniture maker is quoting you for. If you're not driving distance from the maker it's extremely important that you run your hands across a sample of what you are considering purchasing so have a sample mailed. Test it against other options and ask questions you might have."
This discussion has been interesting and informative for me. I'm always open to trying different finishes, be they old or new approaches. However, I am certain at this current time that the catalyzed sprayed on finishes discussed are undoubtedly the best option available for tables and other frequently used wood surfaces. Thank you to the participants for their wonderful knowledge and insights.