Low-Tech Finish for Wood Turnings

      Shellac and a spar varnish dip are two suggestions for a shop with minimal capabilities. January 4, 2014

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I am making small, circular, complex pieces where the most critical finish quality is on Honduran mahogany end grain. I have a small shop that cannot handle solvent based sprays. My only ventilation is in the form of a 240 cfm bilge pump that evacuates a tiny vented hood with three closed sides out the window. The shop is in a very cold climate. I can heat the space to about 55-60 in the winter, and that is usually my finishing temps unless it's summer, when it's closer to 70. Since this is actual production finishing, typical needs apply - fast, fast, fast, and beautiful.

I'm not expecting some kind of magic bullet. I'm great at the technical aspects of running the business and making the wooden doodads, it's the finishing that is killing me right now. I don't care if it's dip finishing, spray finishing, wipe on finishing, brush on finishing - as long as it's quick and effective. I don't mind doing some kind of assembly line rotation (several batches in various states of finishing). I'm not even sure where to start. Right now I use Minwax poly and it's horrible. I just started using Deft lacquer. I'm trying to get away from this ridiculousness.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
Based on what I see of your shop situation and what you are producing I would suggest you look into shellac. It shows off exotic woods like no other finish. It is very fast drying. Best wiped or brushed. Alcohol is the solvent so odors and toxicity are low if you're not spraying. Shellac is a giant topic but if you want to try it out look for Zinsser Sealcoat which is shellac. You'll want to read up on it.



From the original questioner:
I do have a minor love affair with shellac. I recently tried spraying it via HVLP and quite enjoyed it. It was my understanding, however, that this type of finish doesn't hold up well to human handling. I'm really interested in the notion of dip finishing a product. Are there any good resources for learning about dip finishing?


From Contributor N:
When I read your post, dipping seemed to me as your best option. There is a whitewater oar and paddle maker in my neck of the woods and that's how they finish their wooden goods. They have a steel trough 8' long filled with spar varnish, they dip them in then hang them over a metal race that feeds the drippings back into the trough. I thought it nothing less than barbaric but they come out with a good looking and durable product.

For you; you might try dipping your product into shellac to seal it, then give it a sand and then either a dip into some polyurethane or polyurethane modified tung oil and ragging off the excess or maybe just a wipe on poly and then hang to dry (I like these last options better, faster drying, less mess and all three are not terribly temperature sensitive). You should be able to come out with a fairly smooth and attractive finish in a day. Please note - the soiled rags are an extreme fire danger.


From Contributor J

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How about spin finishing while you have it on the mandrel? A rag or Scotch-Brite dipped in wipe-on poly. Use the lathe to burnish it in.



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