Archive for the Category ◊ Techniques ◊

• 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

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• 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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• 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. 

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• 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
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• 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.

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• Thursday, March 31st, 2022
glue squeeze-out

The real problem with glue squeeze-out is not taking the matter seriously. If you pretend that when it appears, squeeze-out is really a surprise, you are likely to waste time and get poor results. It is more efficient to anticipate and manage it as a legitimate part of your joinery and glue up plan.

In many cases, such as edge-to-edge joinery (above), squeeze-out is functional. Consider that too little glue and just the right amount of glue look about the same when the joint is assembled. A modest squeeze-out ensures that you have not used too little glue. (It’s that one-sided tolerance thing again.)

Edge joints are easy to manage. I wait until the squeeze-out is rubbery, and then gently scrape away most of it. The remainder is removed when surfacing the panel after the glue is cured. I never use a wet cloth to wipe away excess glue in careful work. That spreads the glue and helps it soak into the wood. Unless the glue is very diluted by this process, it can interfere with finishing.

It is important to think through how and where the glue will be pushed as the joint goes together, and then how you will deal with the excess. Each situation is different. Where there is good access on the outside surfaces of a joint, such as carcase dovetails, I let the glue go where it wants, knowing that I will later scrape away the glue and create a wood surface that is unadulterated by the glue.  

The inside surfaces are a different matter. Removing glue from the inside corners could be a pain, or a big pain if there is excessive glue that has soaked down into the wood fibers, and maybe even a royal pain if the wood is cherry, for example, and will be getting an oil finish. 

My favorite solution is to simply line the inside surfaces adjacent to the joint with 3M #2080EL blue tape. This takes little time. I set the tape very close to the joint line but make sure to avoid putting the tape where it would prevent the joint from fully closing – it only takes a bit to mess up the glue up. 

What about the outside of a dovetailed drawer joint? If you plan to plane or scrape away a substantial amount of excess glue, especially if it has seeped into the end grain or the side grain of a coarsely textured wood, that may change the fit of the drawer, depending on your drawer fitting technique. Consider that clamps may thwart access to the squeeze-out when it is in its rubbery stage and easy to remove. 

I do not have a universal approach to this, but it usually is fine to gauge the glue to minimize squeeze-out, plane down the sides, and just barely touch the end-grain of the pins. I find Lee Valley 2002GF glue to be a big help here because it does not seep into the grain if it is not pressed upon. And, all of this depends on the wood species and finish. 

For mortise-and-tenon work, I try to avoid external squeeze-out all together. I am generous with the glue in the mortise. I do think the best practice is to put glue on the tenons, just enough to ensure the glue wets the surface. I use a very thin coat, but because this can quickly skin over, I work fast and it is the last step before bringing the joints together. I usually leave about 1/8 inch extra at the bottom of the mortise for the excess glue inside the joint. 

In frame and panel work, I pay attention to the corners to anticipate where the glue might squeeze out. This is part of planning the joinery. I don’t want to make a mess there and inadvertently seize the panel at the corners in its groove. Sometimes I wax the corners of the panel if there is little room for error.

Another approach to squeeze-out in general is described in detail by Michael Fortune in Fine Woodworking, issue #232, April 2013. He uses a non-silicone wax applied sparingly around the joint where squeeze-out is anticipated. Glue will not stick to it and so is easily removed. Later, the wax is removed with alcohol. This works for sure but it does take work. I think it is best for awkward areas and especially with shellac or oil finishes for which a little remaining wax will not interfere with adhesion. 

The point is to think it through – squeeze-out is part of woodworking. 

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• Wednesday, January 05th, 2022
glue flexibility

Wood, and thus wooden joints, moves with moisture changes, and since we put pieces of wood together with glue, it is worthwhile to consider if the glue itself flexes. In other words, how elastic, or stiff and brittle, is the glue itself? 

Here, I want to look at differences among PVA glues, which in almost all discussions get lumped together without attention to significant differences among them in the property of flexibility. Here is a nice simple demonstration.

As background, we know that at one extreme, urea formaldehyde glue such as Unibond 800 forms a rock-hard, extremely strong, rigid glue line making it the best choice for bent laminations. Hide glue also forms a quite hard, rigid glue line. PVAs are, in general, more flexible.

I spread four different glues into approximately one-inch discs on a birch plywood scrap, and then let them dry thoroughly for several days (photo above). From left to right:

Titebond Liquid Hide Glue

Titebond Original PVA

Titebond III PVA

Lee Valley 2002 GF PVA

The Lee Valley glue is a PVA that is claimed to have gap filling properties. I have had good results over many years with this product. Titebond III is touted for its water resistance and as a good all-round wood glue. 

Working on the discs on the plywood, I could not dig my thumbnail into the surface of the hide glue. Even pushing as hard as I could, I could not make a mark. The surface also cracked as it dried. 

The Titebond Original was the second hardest, taking a lot of pressure to make just a trace of marks. Titebond III was clearly the softest of the four; it was easy to dent with my thumbnail. The Lee Valley 2002 GF was intermediate between the other two PVAs.

I also spread discs on a piece of silicone “tape” (non-adhesive wrapping). After they dried for several days, I gently lifted the discs away, which had almost no adhesion to the silicone. I then curled and snapped them (photo below).

glue flexibility

The results were consistent with the thumbnail test. The hide glue was the most brittle but Titebond Original was a pretty close second place. 2002 GF was intermediate; it could snap or curl depending on how I deformed it. Most interesting, Titebond III did not snap at all. No matter how I deformed it, it was quite flexible and only curled.

The simple point here is to show that there are distinct differences in flexibility among PVA glues. How you use that information is another matter. Depending on the type of joint, its dimensions, the wood properties, and the intended use of the piece, you may want more or less glue flexibility. 

Also, this is a separate issue from the strength of the glue bond. There are also several other properties of glue to take into account when choosing among them. 

Now this is obviously not a scientific test. However, I trust my observations in the shop and watching how pieces fare over the years as much as I trust some of the elaborate tests in woodworking magazines. My personal take away is this confirms what I noticed about Titebond III, which is that it is quite flexible, and so I’ve learned to avoid it in certain situations. Titebond Original is a better choice when you want a more rigid glue line and water resistance is not important. 

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• Tuesday, August 31st, 2021
carcase doweling jigs

For designing this joint, I suggest 3/8″ diameter dowels for most work with boards about 3/4″ thick. For components 5/8″ thick, 5/16″ dowels are a better choice. The larger diameter dowels create more glue surface area but you do want to have some minimum meat around the dowel in the long grain workpiece. 

I usually space 3/8″ or 5/16″ dowels about 3/4″ to 1″ apart, on center, as you can see from the jigs, above. Generally, the dowels are closer toward the outer parts of the joint, and spaced wider at the middle of the joint. This is what Krenov taught though I think I am a bit more generous with the number of dowels. You can think of the dowels as individual dovetails. 

I suggest the longest dowel penetration into the side grain workpiece that is possible without getting too close to the outside surface. The hole should not go closer than 1/8″ from the outside surface, and actually more clearance is better. Don’t forget the penetration of the brad point of the drill bit, and the soaking of glue, especially in less dense woods. Many of the dowel joints in my pieces take advantage of an increase in thickness of the side grain piece at the joint as part of the design, which works with the structural needs. 

The penetration into the long grain piece is less critical because it is long grain-to-long grain gluing. It is not going to fail. 3/4″ is probably sufficient in all cases. 


The best dowels ever were Laurier dowels (above). They were made with great precision and consistency. The compressed flutes expand when water-based glue is used in the joint, making for a tight, strong fit. The spiral configuration of the flutes serves to work the glue up and fully around the dowel as it descends into its hole. 

Unfortunately, these are no longer available. My stash is getting depleted. Here are some options, though I cannot vouch for any because I have not used these brands yet. None of these have spiral flutes, and the available dowels with spiral flutes are not compressed flutes, as far as I can tell.



Bear Woods

Lee Valley

When it’s time to for glue up, it’s worth rechecking the hole depths with a go/no-go setting on a calipers or just a stick. You really do not want to be caught in the middle of a glue up with a surprise dowel projection longer than all the others that prevents the joint from closing. If that happens anyway, grab a coping saw quickly.  

depth setting gauge

As for glue (PVA), avoid being too generous. Don’t ask me how I know this, but it is very easy to overload the holes and make a squeezed-out mess all over your carefully prepared components as you draw the joint together. A simple depth gauge with a hole helps to seat the dowels reliably.

I clamp the joint strongly, having prepared whatever pads and cauls are necessary for a true carcase. 

You can trust a well-planned and executed carcase dowel joint used in appropriate situations. It is not a difficult or complicated joint to make but precision and care are needed. And no, doweling is not cheating. The key is that it opens up design possibilities with practical construction. 

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