Author Archive

• Sunday, December 25th, 2022
Minwax Poly satin

For tabletops that are expected to receive more punishment, there are two options that I employ as I briefly mentioned in the previous post. When I want the look of a non-film, “close to the wood” finish, I go with several coats of oil-varnish mix. This strategy sacrifices protection for easy reparability. Sometimes though, I want a more protective film finish, yet I still want to avoid an overbuilt, “plastic” look.

For this latter option I use a strategy that I first learned from an article in Fine Woodworking magazine #81 (March/April 1990), page 75, by Greg Johnson. He used one or two coats of brush-on polyurethane followed by two coats of wipe-on gel varnish. The idea is to get the film volume of brush-on poly with the surface finishing ease of the gel.

Here is my approach, which is essentially the same as that in the article but with slight differences.   

I use two coats of brush-on Miniwax Fast Dry Polyurethane, Clear Satin. I use a decent bristle brush but not my thoroughbred ox-hair brush for this because it is unnecessary, and it is difficult if not impossible to fully purge the varnish from it. (See this excellent discourse on brush selection by Joel Moskowitz.)

The method: After finish planing/sanding, I raise the grain by wetting the wood with a damp cloth, let it dry, and then lightly sand with 320 or 400 grit. I usually apply the first coat of poly without thinning it, knowing full well that there inevitably will be some streaks, bubbles, and dust no matter how careful I am. In fact, I don’t bother trying to be too careful. After it dries, I sand with 220 grit, cutting pretty aggressively to remove the defects. By the way, “dry” means that sanding produces a non-sticky dry powder. Then I apply a second coat of poly, trying to be more careful and nicely tipping off the finish. After the second coat dries, I sand to remove defects, this time less aggressively.

An alternative method is to apply the first coat thinned with mineral spirits in an attempt to minimize defects and thus minimize sanding. I have had less luck with this approach, so I use full-strength coats and concentrate mainly on getting a decent film on the wood. 

Next, I apply two coats of General Finishes Oil Based Gel Topcoat – Satin. Between coats, I lightly sand as needed with 320 grit. After the second coat of gel, the defects have been scaled down enough to make the final surface smooth and with minimal or no defects. I complete the sequence with a rubdown with brown bag paper.

GF Gel Satin

This strategy supplies good protection, a pleasant final film that does not look too thick, and circumvents most of the problems of using only brush-on polyurethane varnish. It will not protect as well as heavy duty two-part catalyzed finishes but is easier to deal with for small-scale woodworkers like me, easier to repair, and I think, looks better.

It is a nifty finishing strategy to have in your repertoire.

Next: oil-varnish mix

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | One Comment
• Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
GF Gel Satin

Wiping varnish, a term coined by the Moses of finishing knowledge, Bob Flexner, is simply varnish thinned with mineral spirits to make it easy to wipe, rather than brush, onto the wood. The coats are therefore necessarily thin compared to brush-on varnish. 

So, the great advantage of easily applying virtually problem-free coats carries the possible disadvantage that the coats are less protective. Most of my work, such as a wall cabinet or the lower part of an occasional table, does not need lots of protection. For those situations where more protection is needed, such as a tabletop, wiping varnish is still wonderfully useful in conjunction with brush-on varnish. I will explain that technique in a future post in this series.   

Here are my three favorite wiping varnishes in order of how often I use them:

1. General Finishes Oil Based Gel Topcoat – Satin. Gel varnish is simply wiping varnish with a chemical thickening agent added. This stuff is about as easy as a film finish application can get. 

I use lint-free rags and nitrile gloves. Wipe it on, spread it around, and very soon wipe off the excess along the grain. That’s really about all there is to it. It imparts only a light amber tone.

Some planning is required to work on fairly small areas at a time because this dries quickly. I use a succession of rags, applying with a loaded rag and finishing off with a relatively clean rag. I do a bit of light fine sanding after the first coat and thereafter little to none. Three coats are usually enough, four at the most. I usually buff the final dried coat with brown bag paper

Waterlox Original

2. Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish – Medium Sheen. This is a high quality and reliable, though rather expensive, product. Depending on the contours of a piece, this liquid product can actually be easier to apply than the gel because its easier to wipe off the excess out of corners. 

Note that this is a dark amber varnish, almost like a light stain, so I use it with that in mind. I do not like the cans that it comes in, with the little opening at the top, so I transfer it to a clean regular finish can and tape on the orginal label.

3. Minwax Wipe-On Poly – Clear Satin or very occasionally, Clear Gloss. This is a quality product, inexpensive and widely available. I use it when I want a liquid but without the dark amber of the Waterlox. It is particularly handy when I do not want to mess with the gel on interior cabinet corners and I do not want the dark amber.

[Why no photo? Because I can find this stuff anywhere, anytime, so I don’t usually stock it in the shop.]

I do not like thick film finishes. I also think that protection is an overrated concern with the possible exception of tabletops. I have built household furniture items finished with only gel varnish that have gracefully withstood 20-30 years of regular use. Even for some table tops such as an occasional table or coffee table, trying to “protect” it with a thick film finish can create more problems as the finish inevitably becomes more and more scratched and the great enemy, water, gets in and it all looks bad. Sometimes, a non-building finish, like oil-varnish ends up looking better and is much easier to repair. 

Next in this (not-necessarily-contiguous) series: Brush-on varnish plus wiping varnish when you feel the need to protect.

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• Sunday, December 18th, 2022
sketch book

You have an idea for a piece – a compelling, strong idea. The more you think it through, the more it grows and the more you think, “I can do this. It’s going to be worth it.”

You research design options, wood, and joinery. Things seem to be coming together. Along the way, however, you find some dangerously impressive work of the general type that you have in mind. This happens to me when I look at woodwork by Tim Coleman, John Cameron, and Craig Vandall Stevens, to name a few. How did they do that?

And you begin to wonder: “OK, it’s not a competition but, good heavens, I love that piece that I’m looking at on the internet and I know, or at least I feel pretty sure, that I will not love mine as much when I finish it – if I make it at all, that is.”

Now what to do? Sometimes it is difficult to avoid outright copying strong ideas – to simply build again what has already been built just fine – but that is not what you set out to do, and not your road to fulfillment. 

Or do you give up part way into the design process and say “Good enough. I know I could do better but why bother?” Will you tank the design, knowing that no one else will know? Or don’t sing at all if you’re not Pavarotti? 

That’s silly. You have a voice. Use it, plain or fancy, innovative or derivative. If you work at it, if you do not lull into laziness, the piece you have in mind is going to be at least good, maybe very good, and who knows, maybe even great. Humility and confidence are willing partners. 

But here is what you do not expect. If you really put mind, hand, and heart into it, I will bet that the piece is going to be better than you think. 

This is perhaps the biggest secret and the magic of creative work. Trust yourself! Yes, it could flop but if you are diligent and you have developed a decent level of skill, the odds are actually in your favor. You are working hard, you are necessarily taking a risk, and you do not, you cannot, know quite what the outcome will be . . . 

Until it is there!

And when it is there, it will be more than the sum of your ideas and your craft. In fact, you likely will look at it sometime hence and think, “How did I do that?”

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
• Wednesday, November 30th, 2022


This series will explain the wood finishes that I use. I will tell you the specific finish formula, how I apply it, and explain where and why it works. 

The finishing systems that I present here are anecdotal and based on my preferences and experience. I can tell you that through many years and many trials, I know these work for me and I think they will work for you as long as you use them in appropriate situations.

For expert comprehensive discussions of finishes, there is no better source than Bob Flexner’s book Understanding Wood Finishing

We’ll start with:


I turn dewaxed flakes into powder in a spice grinder and mix the powder into Klean Strip Green denatured alcohol. I use glass canning jars with two-piece lids to minimize the problem of ordinary lids sticking (you’ll see). Swirl the jar repeatedly over about 20 minutes or so to get all of the shellac to dissolve. Some will latter gum up on the bottom but that is no problem because it is easy redissolved. 

This is nowhere near difficult and has important advantages over premixed shellac. First, you can choose the shade that you like – super blonde, blonde, orange, ruby, garnet – to achieve the look you want. Of course, experiment on scrap wood. 

I also know that it will be fresh and thus dry properly because I bought the flakes from a reliable dealer and I know when I mixed it. I store the flakes in the refrigerator. I mix what I need for a project. Mixed dewaxed shellac will probably last at least six months but if you have any doubts, smear some on a smooth surface. It should dry hard quickly and not remain at all tacky.

There are several good shellac dealers. I have had good luck ordering from Shellac Shack

denatured alchohol

Why Klean Strip Green? The MSDS says it is 80-90% ethanol, which is very good. It evaporates quickly. In my opinion, there is no need to bother with exotic alcohol concoctions or Everclear from the liquor store. 

[Addendum: A reader has pointed out that the Klean Strip Green denatured alcohol product is no longer available. However, there are good alternatives available. Please see the Comments section below.]

I use a one-pound cut. [In shellac parlance, a one-pound cut is defined as one pound of flakes in one gallon of alcohol. This equals one ounce of flakes in 8 fluid ounces of alcohol.] That may sound thin but I usually use four coats. Each coat is very fast and easy to apply. I much prefer the reliable incremental approach of using thin, problem-free coats. Also, I do not like thick finishes in general. However, you can build to whatever thickness you want. 

As with everything in finishing, always test on scrap, including the number of coats. The color and look will change as you progress through coats. 

I prepare the wood surfaces by handplaning and/or sanding. For oak, 220 grit is plenty fine to stop sanding. For a finer-pored wood like maple or cherry, 320 is usually enough. Test and observe. Do the least sanding work possible; it’s boring.  

To apply the shellac, I use what I will call a cloth “pad-brush.” I find brushing surfaces with an expensive bristle brush no faster or better. In fact, after repeated experimenting, I get more reliable results with my padding method. For detail work such as moldings, brushing is better. 

I use lint-free cloth such as PFC Paint and Cleaning rags from the home center store. I fold a 6-8″ square of cloth three times to end up with an approximately 1 1/2-2″ x 3-4″ rectangle. The short end with the folds (i.e. not loose ends) acts like a combination pad-brush. I dip that end into the jar and pick up enough shellac to be just short of drippy. 

shellac pad-brush

The key now is to move fast! Mimic smooth, fast airplane landings and takeoffs with the cloth on the wood. Keep a “wet edge” and do not allow the shellac to flow over edges and ends. When practical, say for a 15-18″ long panel, apply shellac to the full length and then go to the next row. It is easier to neatly blend application strokes laterally than end-to-end. 

Do not be intimidated by what you may have read and do not make a big deal about this. Your job is to get the shellac on the wood thinly and smoothly without drips, sags, or ripples. Remember, this stuff dries extremely fast. Remember too, you can correct errors with sanding or by partially redissolving uneven runs or build-ups with an alcohol soaked pad-brush. 

After the first coat, I sand with usually 220 grit to remove grain raising, dust, and application imperfections. This goes better with just hand holding the sandpaper or using a very soft block (even cork is too firm). Use a light touch. 

I can usually get the second coat on by the time I have finished all the parts with the first coat, such as by 30-60 minutes or so. After the second coat, I lightly sand with finer paper, say 320 or 400. After the third coat, I very lightly touch up sand with 400. Do not overdo these sandings; some may not even be necessary. Shellac is a fast finish; not like the days of waiting with varnishes or oil-varnishes.

Depending on the sheen you want, you can sand after the final coat. It will probably already be smooth if you have done a good job but do not worry about slight remaining roughness, just remove it. I do not like high sheen finishes but I do like smooth finishes. I lightly use 2000 grit silicon carbide paper after the final coat. Sometimes a 2500 Mirlon pad gives me the look I want. 

Usually that is all but sometimes, such as for mahogany or sapele, a buffed coat of wax gives a nice look. I still like Renaissance microcrystalline wax.

For some reason, there is commonly an intimidation factor with applying shellac. Forget that. It is not difficult. Give it a try. Applying shellac gives a wonderful sense of immediacy, and you can adjust the look to what you want within a wide range. Also, there is a certain authentic clarity that a shellac finish produces. 

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 6 Comments
• Monday, October 31st, 2022
round pegs

Maybe. It depends.

The idea is to make the joint “stronger.” But stronger how

In ballistic and gradual load tests reported in magazines, the M&T joint does not usually fail by the tenon withdrawing, which is mostly what a peg is designed to prevent. Rather, it is the mortise wall or the tenon itself that gives out first. Pegs can and usually are shown to weaken the mortise wall, and probably also the tenon itself. So, pinning does not seem to strengthen the joint against this type of destruction.

A few qualifications are in order. Most tests are done on frame M&Ts. However, in leg-and-apron M&Ts, there is more wood around the mortise and the result may well be that pins are a net benefit in strength.

Also, this discussion refers to glued furniture-sized joints, not timber framing joints. Also, I am not referring to draw boring. In my opinion, this technique has limited use in furniture making unless it is needed to circumvent having to use very long clamps, and even then there are alternatives such as Universal Wedgegrip clamps.

I think that for most furniture, and based on decades of observing my own constructions, the joints will hold up either way. Probably the biggest threat is abruptly shoving or dragging a loaded table across a floor on which the bottom of a leg catches. Also, there is always the risk of abusive handling during house moving. Chairs are a different matter. 

But what about slow degradation of the M&T? There, I think a properly placed peg can help keep the tenon shoulder tight against the mortise member as the inherent dimensional conflict may work to create a seasonably variable gap at the shoulder line. Certainly, there are several factors in what happens: the joint dimensions, the flexibility of the glue line, wood species, grain orientation, joint fit, seasonal humidity stress, and more.

square pegs

And as a practical matter, aesthetic preferences often decide the matter. 

Still, I think there is value to pinning the M&T in some cases, particularly when I want to hedge my bets against gaping at the shoulder line. In practice, I have found that it helps. I am more inclined to pin a leg-and-apron M&T than a frame M&T. Maybe luck is a bigger factor than I know. 

If I am going to pin the joint, I am careful where I place the pin(s). The goal is to have most of the movement of the tenon cheek against the mortise wall occur in the part of the tenon deep to the pin, where it will not create a gap at the shoulder. If the pin is too close to the shoulder, there will not be enough mortise wall for strength. If the pin is too far from the shoulder, that defeats its purpose.

frame mortise and tenon
Category: Techniques  | 3 Comments
• Friday, September 30th, 2022
edges, corners, round-overs

Our visual encounters with woodwork tend to be dominated by obvious elements such as volume, proportion, symmetry or asymmetry, and the flow of curves that contribute to the overall design. Of course, the visual beauty of the wood itself plays a major role in bringing us in to the piece, and the wonderful warmth of the wood surfaces treats our tactile sense.

But just as tiny adjustments in intonation and rhythm are critical in creating sense and sensation in music, the arrises, edges and corners where the woodwork meets the space around it are critical in creating our impression of the piece, in both the visual and tactile aspects. 

We should not neglect this but it is easy to do so. These elements do not show in a paper or CAD drawing, only in a real piece – one that you built. 


I remember from some years ago looking through a book of furniture designed by architects. Though many of the designs were at least clever if not beautiful, few of them brought me in, at least as photographed. There was an off-putting harshness to many of the pieces. I think it was mostly due to a lack of thoughtful edge treatments, as if the design was thought to be done when completed on paper or CAD.

edge treatments

We woodworkers do not work this way. Sure, we sketch, draw, mock up, and then build, but even early in the design process we consider chamfers, round-overs, and the like. In fact, some of these decisions are best left to develop as the piece is taking shape in the shop, as long as we don’t neglect these matters until it is too late to practically incorporate them. 

It is perhaps just as a musician leaves subtleties such as the amount of vibrato or the strength of a crescendo to the actual performance but has a good notion of these ahead of time as he is practicing the piece.

The main thing is to consider how the woodwork meets the space around it and the hands of an admirer. These are important to the logic and the sensuality of the woodwork. You manage them well because you are not only a designer of woodwork, you are also, as Sam Maloof preferred to refer to himself, a woodworker.

Category: Techniques  | Comments off
• Sunday, September 04th, 2022
Preppin' Weapon sanding blocks

This is, hands down, the best hand-sanding block I have used. What I like best is that the substantial weight, the thoughtfully designed contours, and the 7 3/4″ x 2 3/4″ dimensions combine to give it a purchase in my hands that resembles a small wooden smoothing plane. This feel, plus the outright effectiveness of the tool, actually raise the dignity of sanding. 

grip on Preppin' Weapon

It is also very practical. It is fast and easy to clamp strips of 2 3/4″-wide paper, which are produced by three tears across the width of standard 9″ x 11″ sheets. (Here’s how to make that easy.) The clamps grab a strip near its ends so there is minimal waste. You can install multiple sheets and tear them away in succession but I prefer the feel with a single layer of paper. Now is a good time to restate my opinion that 3M is the clear winner in sheets for hand sanding. 

Long accustomed to my cork blocks, I bought the Preppin’ Weapons on a whim, but for all but small-scale work, I now favor them over the corks. I suggest buy different color Preppin’ Weapons to code the installed sandpaper and make jobs move along faster. 

Now for an idea or perhaps a bit of insight into some of what happens at the sandpaper-wood interface. We know that a smoothing plane blade with a straight edge and square corners will promptly produce “gutter” marks on the wood surface, which are slight steps across the width of the board. To eliminate this problem, we sharpen the blade with a very slight curve (camber). This actually makes imperceptible waves that pretty much cancel each other with successive passes of the plane as the peaks of the waves are shaved away. Note that the depth of the blade camber is coordinated with the anticipated shaving thickness. The result is a surface that is, for all practical purposes, nice and flat.

Similarly, imagine a hard block of steel used as a sanding block, especially with substantial pressure. Of course, no one would use that. It would create tiny gutters or steps, and the process of erasing them would just produce new ones. 

Preppin' Weapon pad

The cushion, or resilience, of the bottom surface of a sanding block – cork, rubber, or foam – solves this. With variable hand pressure, we must be producing miniscule waves (probably variably oriented) that get evened out with successive strokes, leaving an essentially flat surface. We never see steps. We intuitively use a little more pressure with coarser paper, inducing more flex in the sanding pad, analogous to coarser plane shavings. Finer sandpaper and less pressure give more shallow waves and ultimately we end up with a nice flat surface.

Coordinated with the area of the contact surface, the flex of the 5/32″ foam pad on the base of the Preppin’ Weapon is just right for producing a smooth and true surface.

This tool gets everything right.

Category: Tools and Shop  | 4 Comments
• Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022
workbench from h.s.

In fact, the first and only. It has sat, at least until now, for more than 50 years right in the spot in my late parents’ house where I completed it as a high school kid. 

It is nothing special, really, and certainly not nearly as functional as the good old Ulmia, a “real” workbench, that I have been using for about 40 years. Its construction mostly follows a design by John Capotosto that was published in the now defunct Mechanix Illustrated magazine in the May 1971 issue. [Old guys, you may recall that magazine, then a competitor of Popular Mechanics, and if you do, you surely remember “Mimi,” who, in various persons, graced every issue among the ads for cigarettes and automobile gear.] 

At the time, my only power tool was a Sears jigsaw, though I longed for a tablesaw, which is another story. The mostly hand-me-down hand tools that I had were marginally serviceable. It is also, hmm . . . possible, that some local construction sites were relieved of some, perhaps excess, 2-by lumber lying around. 


So, why does it matter? I liked then, and now, and for as long as I can remember, to build things – to make stuff. I can still recall the strong feeling then of wanting to build that bench after seeing the article in the magazine. I knew I could do it. Moreover, after all the lumps and bumps of the ensuing years of life, I am still glad that I made it. 

So, I suppose that is my message to you, fellow woodworkers and especially to nascent woodworkers. If you have that deep urge calling to you to Build It – I think you know what I mean – and you possibly can, then Go Build It. Sure, things get in the way, I know, but remember too, that “it’s always something.” So, do the best you can and build it. 

You will very likely be glad for a long time.

workbench from then
old workbench
Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments