Making an Existing Finish Smooth to Touch ó In Place

What's a practical way to modify a finish on site that isn't smooth enough for the customer's taste? May 17, 2010

We recently installed some cabinetry and the client is unhappy with the finish - specifically it follows the texture of the wood grain. He wants it to be smooth. We are planning on uninstalling much of it and refinishing it, but some of it needs to stay. My questions are these - do we have any options other than coat after coat of lacquer until it is smooth? How about the items that we need to deal with on site, what are our options? Finally, is there a step we can add to our finish schedule that fills grain so this doesn't happen again? I am not the finisher, so the only thing I can tell you is that we use a post-catalyzed lacquer. I can get more specifics if you guys need it to help come up with an answer. The egg is firmly on our face on this one. Any help is appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
You will get plenty of suggestions for re-doing this job I'm sure. My suggestion is for preventing this from happening again. You could have saved all of the egg on face by submitting a finish sample and getting the client to sign it before starting work. Sometimes clients will even change their minds in the middle of a job and without a signed sample you are out of luck. Samples are the least expensive CYA insurance you can buy and it allows you to figure out how you are going to match the color and do the finish before you start the project.

From the original questioner:
I couldn't agree with you more contributor R. We did in fact generate samples, but then the client went on holidays and their designer made all the final decisions. At this point we haven't determined who is going to foot the bill for what, but our priority is the client being happy with what they get. This could be bad for us on this one job, but the reason that we stayed busy when our competitors started downsizing and disappearing was our pretty much no limit service policy.

From contributor S:
A post cat lacquer should not be built beyond 4 dry mils thick - .004. If you do you will have future problems for sure. Is this an open grain wood - mahogany/oak/walnut/ash/ or close grained maple/birch/etc? If you have already applied three or more coats of post-cat you have little room to build more coats unless you sand most of whatís on their off (tricky) and then apply more - even then it's hard to keep the film under 4 mil. You don't state if you have a particular deadline to do this - that will also be needed to determine if and what you can do before then if it's critical. You also don't state the type of finish affect on the job - stain and clear/ stain and glaze -tone and clear/ pigmented/natural?

From contributor G:
It sounds like you gave the client a standard finish when they were expecting a filled finish - substantially different in pricing. Show the signed sample and tell them this is what you did. If they want it refinished it will be a substantial up charge.

From contributor Z:
The client went on holiday and the designer made the final decision. Now the client is not happy or the designer? I think the designer needs to be put on the block too. You want to keep somebody happy but you did what you were told to why accept all the blame. I agree with others - refinish will be tough due to mil thickness. It may be less costly to remake pieces than to refinish them.

From the original questioner:
Ok thanks all for the responses. The wood type is a Sapele/Sapele - Pomele combination with a few QC Walnut accent pieces - so open grain. The deadline is ASAP - we want to get this (properly) sorted out in the timeliest manner possible. The finish is clear, with a standard sheen (does 35 degree sound right?) It is not high gloss but neither is it dull.

Unless things have changed in the back (I moved into the office a year ago), the process on a clear finish is:
Finish sand to 180G orbital
Sealer coat
Scuff sand
Finish coat
Finish coat

So yeah, I guess we are already pushing the limits on finish thickness. I don't know the dry time being left between coats, if that is a significant factor. I checked the sample piece the client had initially seen and I found the problem. Originally they wanted a high gloss finish, which we did a sample of and is of course nice and smooth. Before the client went away, they decided against the high gloss. No new sample was generated, nor was it explained to the client the difference in texture that would result - the reason is that the client was going away and there wasn't time to do a new sample. So I'm thinking that we are just going to have to take the hit on this one - isn't it always the way that the one time you skip a step in a policy or practice that protects you get burned?

Remaking the pieces? Well, you guys are the finishing experts so you would have the better idea on costs, but this was a custom veneered job with inlaid borders and such. It took five people three weeks to produce it. I'm thinking fixing what is there (if possible) is the way to go. As well, some of the things we have installed is now wrapped in stone - no practical way to remove/re-install it that won't have us paying for a bunch of rocks too.

From contributor G:
Since it is a natural finish, no stain. You should be able to grind down the clear to get it back to about 1-2 mil. Then apply a filler paste. Then another two coats, the first one thinned the second one full. Itís going to be a smelly operation if done in the home. But like you said, it is installed and surrounded by stone.

From contributor F:
Wash each piece with Wash Wax or some other prepping/degreaser just on the chance that cleaning agents have been used on the surfaces. Block sand without going through any color coats. Lay down a fresh coat of vinyl sealer. Wetsand - lubricate your sandpaper with paint thinner/mineral spirits without going through any color coats. If you have qualms about skin contact and paint thinner, use odorless mineral spirits. 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper ought to be rough enough. Any rougher and you will sand through your color coats. Any finer and you aren't doing any leveling of the finish, just burnishing.

You want to level. Use a sanding block from an autosupply store. 3M makes a hard rubber block - it's blue and solid on the sanding side and it has holes on the top. The block isn't critical, you could use folded up sandpaper. Keep dipping the sandpaper into a tray filled with your paint thinner to keep the paper free from accumulated finish. You can repeat the application of vinyl sealer and sanding routine. When your grain is adequately filled and sanded back to level you can spray on your final coat of catalyzed lacquer and your done.

In the future, for a full-filed easy finish schedule, use ML Campbell's AC Sealer in your finish schedule. Your supplier can give you recommended procedures for using this great filling material. If not, write back to this message board or use the search engine here to look up this info (search term: "AC sealer"). Yes, there's extra re-work but it's not difficult or rocket science. It's only time consuming.

From contributor R:
Except for the wood filler, I agree with contributor L. Wet sanding sounds like overkill. Sand heavily and spray topcoat until the grain is filled.

From contributor B:
To contributor G: can you safely put filler paste over the 1-2 mils of lacquer? Anytime I ever tried that I couldn't get it to stay in the pores, or even on the smooth parts when I rubbed it off. I only tried that one or two times over the years. Sanding down and re-coating several times seems to be the only thing that ever helped me.

From contributor G:
Sapelle has deep pores - much deeper than 5 mil. You can't keep sanding it down flat and filling it up. You will go over the mil limit. Vinyl sealer (at least MLC) says to only do one coat.

If you do filler you need to let it dry completely before sanding it down. Hit everything with a ScotchBrite pad to scuff it up including in the pore areas - it should stick. Make a test piece and do an adhesion test to make sure before you coat the project. What I want to know is what was done differently with the high gloss than the lower sheen. The high gloss, unless filled, should have laid down just like the lower sheen material did.

From contributor J:
Apart from the technicalities of the fix - the designer acted as the client's agent, while expressing willingness to not profit from a mistake. Your stance needs to be that the designer has to stand up and own the solution and broker the money part. Why should you pay for someone else's decision?

From contributor S:
Before you break out the spray gear make sure that you and the client fully understand now what is wanted. Make a sample and get it signed before you start trying to fix the existing. You may find that the client is not after a full filled finish but they just want it to have a real flat silky feeling to the hand/touch. If the word smooth is all that has been communicated then you probably need to verify what smooth means to them. If by chance you could just sand the finish flat and then polish it up for sheen and a silky feel you might save a lot of time and effort.

From the original questioner:
I just wanted to thank you all for your responses, they were extremely helpful. Even the questions some of you asked me gave our finisher the right track to follow. Working closely with our supplier's rep they've managed to come up with a solution. We sort of used a little bit of everything that was suggested for the different elements (which are all in different rooms so if there is a slight variation in the sheen it won't be noticeable), including, unfortunately, some remakes when the veneer got sanded through, but hey that's life right? Although it doesn't really pertain to the finishing, the designer in question sells us quite aggressively and is worth a lot of money every year. She gets a commission from us on everything she sells and has agreed to drop it on this one. That won't cover everything, but it eases the pain. We'll likely end up breaking even or at worst taking a small loss, but the client is satisfied. Thank you all again, you guys have been fantastic!