Finishing for the Small G.C.

Pros offer a residential general contractor advice on learning to apply his own finishes. September 26, 2006

I'm a carpenter for a commercial general contractor but I do a lot of residential carpentry work on the side, I have a lot of experience with pigment stains and polyurethane finishes from Home Depot and Sherwin Williams on my projects but I am sometimes disappointed. I've started reading a few books on finishing and am starting to look into the world of aniline dyes and lacquer finishing on the higher end projects I work on. I have some experience spraying, and a nice setup for it. I guess my question is where do I find these professional products? What brands are considered good and is there anything I should stay away from? I have about a million other questions but have a feeling even if I ask I won't fully understand the answer until I'm in the shop making a mess already so I'm interested in some hands on experience. I just don't know where to spend my money to get started.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
There is more information in this forum and in the archives than you could shake a stick at. It is good stuff by experienced hands that know the ins and outs of certain products better than the manufacturer's reps do. I think this forum serves best as an area in which to post a specific question, and as far as the archives go, I would put on a pot of coffee and start reading.

Professional products are usually not very easy to use for someone just starting in on their own stuff. Off the shelf products at Home Depot or Lowes are sometimes better as they are more forgiving. They let you learn the some of the other aspects of finishing like how to set up your gun for spray, how to thin and mix finishes, and how to compensate for things such as humidity and temperature. To me, professional finishes are speed, dash, and accuracy. But the learning curve is sometimes hard. And some of the professional finishes are just downright expensive. The lacquer I am shooting now has a strict timing regimen on it, but the results so far are great. However, before using it on a paid project, I shot about 4 gallons of it up, shooting it plain, and then mixing in thinners, and retarders in different percentages. My mornings start at about 76 degrees or so, and then by 2:00 it is about 85 degrees, and then around 5:00 it is usually under 100. So it took a lot of practice mixes to get it where I wanted it to work all day, and a lot of time on weekends to work out the formulas.

On the other hand, I used to shoot Defthane pro poly with great results. Thinned about 5 - 10%, it shoots well out of just about any kind of equipment you have, and it can be brushed easily as well. The learning curve was conquered in the first quart; it was so easy to use. The downside was minimum 8 hours before recoat, so on a small job that meant another trip out, pull out all the equipment and set up. But still, when I was starting out that stuff was so forgiving it was a blessing. There is a lot to learn about stains and dyes -too much to go into here for a general overview as much of this is still done by eye or by feel of the technician applying it. Certain things work better than others depending on the application, and that is where the specific questions would come in here. I would go to the library or bookstore and find Michael Dresdner's books as well as Jeff Jewitt's. Both are great in the finishing fields and both have at least two books apiece (not to mention a million articles) out on finishing that cover a lot of techniques and materials. Neither are production finishers, but they cover a lot of material in those books.

Since you are a General Contractor, as am I, I would strongly suggest that you take out the weapon of your choice (spray gun or paint brush) and practice on some old job scrap. I have pieces of plywood that are probably more finish than wood since they have so much practice material on them. For a while, when I would replace a wood door, I would take the door back to the shop and strip it and sand it to practice refinishing techniques and test products. Then I would take masking tape and make a grid on the door (which gave me a perfect stripped medium) and shoot different finishes and mixes in the grid, marking which finishing and mix was in the square. Time consuming to be sure, but it was sure worth the effort.

Some of your smaller local paint stores (our Benjamin Moore dealer here is great) can probably help you get going with some of the finishes you should try, but I would try to find the easiest finish to apply with a strong eye towards price so you can try out a lot of it practicing before you go to a finished piece of woodwork or cabinet group to apply your coating. I would put my hard earned dough in a couple of good books, and the rest in as many quarts/gallons of different finishes as I would like to try and to use for practice. As far as that goes, if you go straight to the manufacturer, some of them will actually send you a quart for nothing to try out their favorite recommendation for your purpose.

From contributor B:
I've spent most of the last 6 months just practicing and honing my knowledge of finishing. I don't think professional products are harder to use, per se, just different. What you need to do however, is stay within the system of the manufacturer you choose until you have enough knowledge to understand what happens when you venture outside their world.

For example, I have centered my finishing around water-based products and use the Target Coatings almost exclusively. I use the same steps I used when I did solvent based finishing with the Behlen line (Mohawk) but found drop in replacements for all the solvent coatings. You will find the books by Jeff Jewitt and Bob Flexner to be of great use to you and hanging out in this forum and talking to guys like Mac Simmons and Daniel Shafner has helped me tremendously as well. I also have a nice stack of finely finished and glazed plywood in my shop with schedules written on the back so I can reproduce them. Never think for a minute you will be done learning and have fun.

From contributor C:
I'm a cabinetmaker and I finish all my own work. I have to say I have found water based finishes exceptionally easy to use. I have used M.L. Campbell's for about five years and am now switching to Target's line of finishes. If I can spray these and get a good finish I believe anybody can. All it takes is practice! In addition to the advice above I would go to Target's website and download the article about finishing on the homepage. There is a lot of good information which will help you. And if you decide to give their products a try you can order online. I would not go out and buy a bunch of different finishes. It is too expensive and too confusing. Pick out one or two manufacturers you see repeatedly in these forums and start with that. Everyone has their favorite finishes for their own reasons, but in reality all the top name products will give you a great finish. And as contributor B said, once you pick a brand, try to stick within that line for compatibility reasons. The only thing I use a different brand for is stain. I still use solvent base pigmented stains for now, but am hoping to start trying some water based in the near future. I think once you try the professional products you will be happily surprised how much better your results can be. Also, not to be too pushy about water based, but switching makes spraying and cleanup a much more pleasant experience. Lastly, I think you should pick a specific project, come up with a finishing schedule for it, and make some test pieces. This will narrow down how much information you need and allow you to focus.