18 Handy Hints for Wood Finishing
From finishing standoffs to paint booths, these 18 tips and tricks will guarantee better finishes on your next woodworking projects.
Brown Paper Bag Finishing Trick
You can always make a finish smooth by rubbing with fine sandpaper and rubbing compounds, but that is a lot of work. And there’s almost always a little dust that settles onto the last coat of finish before it dries, even when you spray fast-drying lacquer. And with slow-drying varnish, there’s always dust stuck to the finish.
Unless you’re aiming for the ultimate in smoothness, rubbing the surface with a folded brown paper bag is usually sufficient. A brown paper bag is abrasive enough to flatten the dust nibs but not so abrasive that it scratches the finish—as long as the finish is fully dry. As long as the dust isn’t excessive and as long as the particles aren’t large, you can make the surface feel smooth with this paper bag trick. You’ll be amazed at how well it works!
Check out these other 45 hugely helpful handy hints!
Hang it High
Dave Munkittrick is a furniture builder who’s my go-to guy whenever I need finishing advice. When he finishes flat workpieces like frames, plywood panels or doors, he hangs them from pieces of light chain hooked to screws stuck in a board along the ceiling. He drives screw hooks into the project where the holes won’t be noticed. That way he can finish both sides at the same time, and no dust settles on the vertical surfaces during drying. — Travis Larson
Renew Wood with Mineral Spirits
If the finish on your furniture or woodwork is dull and murky, it may need refinishing. But before you take on that project, take a tip from furniture restorers and clean it with mineral spirits. Mineral spirits—sometimes labeled “paint thinner”—is a gentle solvent that dissolves years of grime and residue from cleaners or polishes without harming wood finishes. Get it at a home center or paint store. Just soak a soft cloth and keep rubbing until the cloth no longer picks up grime. Work in a well-ventilated area and remember that the fumes are flammable. Hang the cloth outdoors to dry before throwing it in the trash.
Ready-Made Standoff Strips
When I’m painting or finishing items and need to keep them off the table’s surface, I use carpet tack strips. They’re cheap, reusable, and I can cut them to whatever length I need. — Jim Feldner
Simple Sample Board
The type of stain used on trim can completely transform the look of a room. But it can be hard for some people to picture how certain kinds of stain will look once a remodel has been completed.
One way to make it easier to visualize the way stain will look in a room is to create a sample board with (approximately) 2 ft. sections covered in various shades of stain. By setting up the sample board, you’ll have a reference point and be able to decide what stain you want to go with based on how it actually looks in real life. This is much easier than trying use your imagination to make a decision that could make or break the look of a room.
Next, read this story for some flawless trim finishing techniques.
A vinyl tablecloth—any size—comes in handy for all kinds of woodworking jobs. (We bought our 4-ft.-square one at a discount store for $5.) Put it under boards you’re gluing together. Any glue drips will easily peel off the plastic surface after they dry. Or place the tablecloth as a thin cushion under workpieces you’re sanding and finishing, and use it as a protective barrier between the workbench and project parts when you’re tapping that next masterpiece together. Many thanks to reader Kate Gallivan for serving us this tip.
Chisel Off Varnish Drips
Sanding off a drip, run or sag in varnish is a pain. It takes forever and you’ll always see evidence of the mistake after the piece is finished. A better fix is to scrape off the drip with a super-sharp wide chisel. Hold the chisel at a low angle and don’t try to take it all off at once. Come at it from different angles. With a little practice, you’ll be able to remove the drip without damaging the previous coat of finish. When it’s gone, lightly sand the area and recoat.
No-Fuss Finish Rolling
Little rollers are perfect for spreading nice, even coats of contact cement or finish over large areas. To roll without any cleanup, dip the roller into the can instead of pouring the liquid into a paint tray. Get some on the end of the sleeve, lift straight up and carefully flip the roller over the can. The liquid will seep down and drip into the can. Then move over the workpiece for the roll-out. When you’re done, toss the sleeve and seal the can.
Seriously Simple Standoffs
When I’m in a pinch and in need of a finishing standoff, I grab a few aerosol can caps. They keep the project off of the workbench, touching only a small part of the underside. — Travis Larson
Plus: Did you know you can stain wood with coffee grounds and vinegar? Yep, it’s possible!
Homemade Bench Pucks
Rockler sells ingenious little things called Bench Cookies. They’re very useful when you need to space projects above the workbench for clamping, finishing or routing. But if you need lots of them, or you love saving a few bucks, you can buy hockey pucks for about $1.25 each and stick shelf liner on both sides with spray adhesive. Rob Rowe suggested this tip. I’m guessing he’s a bored NHL player/woodworker with a mountain of old pucks. — Travis Larson
Dental Work on Furniture
After your next appointment, ask your dentist for a used tooth scaler or two. Dentists usually toss these tools just when they’re perfect for picky jobs like prying dried glue and paint stripper from project crevices. They’re also great for inserting glue and wood filler. Use them once and you’ll never completely dread your next checkup. Thanks to furnituremaker Graham McCulloch for this sharp tip!
Easy (and Roomy!) DIY Paint Booth
I needed a quick booth to paint some projects in my shop, a sun canopy with painter’s plastic taped around it worked great! There’s no exhaust fan, so it’s just for quick finishing, and I always wear a respirator. — George Doddington
Click here for some game-changing painting products.
Shop-made Finishing Standoffs
Tired of waiting for finish to dry on one side before finishing the other side? You can purchase standoffs, but it’s also really easy to make them yourself. Simply drive 2-in. drywall screws through 2-in. x 2-in. squares of 3/4-in. thick stock. The screw points will leave a divot in the finish that can be touched up later, but I always let the back side of my project rest on the screws while the finish dries. — Matt Boley
Plus: Check out these 32 other handy hints for frugal shop rats.
Renew Woodwork Without Refinishing
If your stained and varnished woodwork is looking a little shabby, you can save time and money with this quick fix. You don’t have to strip the finish from your dingy woodwork. Just head to the store and pick up wood stain that’s a close match. We like gel stain for this fix, but any wood stain will work.
Start your renewal project by washing the woodwork with soapy water. Rinse with clear water, then gently scrape off any paint spatters with a plastic putty knife. When the wood is dry, dip a rag into the stain and wipe it over the wood. Bare spots and scratches will pick up the stain. Finish by wiping the woodwork with a clean cloth to remove the excess stain. After the stain dries for a few days, you can add a coat of furniture wax or wipe-on poly to really liven up the old wood.
Mask Glue Joints Before Prefinishing
Finishing the parts of your project before you assemble them can be a great time-saver and allow you to get a better-quality finish. But for a strong glue joint, you have to keep the joints free of finish (glue doesn’t stick to varnish or stains very well). The solution is to apply masking tape to the surfaces that will be glued. Then remove it to expose raw wood when you glue up the project. Any good-quality masking tape will work. If you’ll be using a water-based finish, you’ll get the best results with a “no-bleed” tape such as green Frog Tape and ScotchBlue painter’s tape.
Natural or stained woodwork is beautiful, but scratches can really stand out—especially with darker stains. You can make these scratches disappear by touching them up with a stain marker. It’s simple to use, and much cheaper than buying whole cans of stain. Start with a lighter color, and if the scratch still shows, go over it with a darker shade. Unless the varnish is in bad shape and needs to be recoated, that’s usually all you have to do to make older woodwork look almost new again. If you need to replace whole pieces, learn how to finish and match the stain.
No More Pencil Marks, No More Books…
Most woodworkers write notes all over their projects, but at some point, those pencil notes and marks have gotta go. Pro woodworker Stephen Evans doesn’t use erasers, though; he uses denatured alcohol. He just dampens a rag and wipes away the graphite. The wood is easier to clean up before finishing, and pencil erasers will last longer.
Flawless Wood Finish with Rub-on Oil
Learn how to rub on wood oil and achieve a flawless finish on your woodworking projects. Wood oil penetrates the wood, unlike varnish, shellac or lacquer, resulting in a finish that beautifully showcases your projects. Our wood-finishing pro shows you prep, application and sanding techniques, plus tips for an ultra-smooth final coat.