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Top 5 Ways to Avoid Fouling Up a Wood Finishing Project

Top 5 Ways to Avoid Fouling Up a Wood Finishing Project

Here’s a famous line often heard on the site of a wood refinishing or cabinetry project: “Hey, what could go wrong?” Short answer: lots, long answer: more than you can imagine! We’ve been refinishing wood and cabinetry for 20 years, and in that time, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to myself, or the crew: “Hey, add this to the list of 101 ways to screw up a wood project.”

Because it’s true – there are countless ways to go sideways while finishing or restoring wood surfaces – if you’ve discovered a handful, you’ve only just begun.

There is a magic elixir if you’re willing to swallow it; by fixing it you learn how to NOT do it. It’s the only way; you’ve just learned another way that it won’t work, or another thing to not do, and you can set about correcting it…whatever it may be. The cover charge for getting into this club is the willingness to learn and correct mistakes. It’s not like making a bad paint color choice, there’s much more of a commitment involved. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve learned from because they didn’t go so well and today I’m sharing the top 5 basic tips to help you avoid trouble on a wood finishing project:

Sample Your Stain Color

It’s highly advised to sample your stain color and get an approval of the stained sample from your spouse, a client, designer, GC, or whoever will be helping to complete the painting project. It just needs to get done!

Even if you (or your client) know 100% for sure, absolutely without a single question; It’s still a good idea to test the stain somewhere, like a piece of scrap or the backside of something. It helps you to be sure that you avoid problems such as:

  • Crossing a Ben Moore® color over to a Sherwin Williams® stain. Many companies have their own proprietary version of the same color. For example: “Fruitwood” is a color found in many different paint lines and generally the same color with very little differences.
  • You’re sampling stain on a piece of wood that is equal in every way to your showcase – preferably from the same lot, or equal in species, age, previous coating, surface prep, etc.


Yes, this includes sanding. There is absolutely no way around it. Wood surfaces should be sanded to at least 180 grit before stain, 220 is better. If you skip sanding, or you’re inconsistent, you’ll have blotchiness after using the stain.

If you want to remove the blotchiness, you will need to sand again (after stain). Although you will probably have to sand a rough spot you missed, try to stain the spot, and then it looks terrible because you’re staining is beginning to overlap causing more intense colors in certain areas. You can avoid all this hassle by sanding evenly and thoroughly the first time.


Using a vacuum is okay but it isn’t the best way to get the sanding dust of the grain. The best method of cleaning is to use compressed air.


To condition, or not to condition? That ‘tis the question. Wood conditioner helps stain set evenly, preventing blotchiness and ugly irregularities in the stain color.

The general rule is soft species equals conditioning, hard species equals no conditioning. This isn’t always true. It’s a good idea to practice on a piece of scrap, or the backside of something, before going on the main stage.

Let the stain dry, this means more than dry to the touch.  It means overnight, usually. Check the instructions on the can and make sure you’re vented properly. If you don’t let it dry and cure thoroughly, you’ll risk having to strip your clear coat because it isn’t drying, or it dries cloudy, or it’s alligatoring.  If the product is designed to be ready for topcoat in 4-6 hours, great! Just follow the guidelines and ask questions when you’re not sure.

Putty and Fillers

In almost any wood project, there are imperfections in the completed work that need to be addressed somewhere in the finishing process. These range from nail/staple holes to little dings, gaps between pieces resulting from wood warp or just ill-fit, reveals, rough spots.

Keep in mind when filling nails holes: not all putties are compatible with all stains and finishes. Pay close attention to this; it can cause problems to appear even after your top coat or clear coats are applied.

Before Sealing and Topcoats

If you don’t like what you’re seeing, STOP! Applying sealer or topcoats will not change or alter some irregularity that you are noticing. Furthermore, applying sealer or topcoat over something you don’t like will not only change it but then more sanding and stripping will need to be done to remove with every coat that was applied.This rule is very simple: as soon as you see something you don’t like, stop and consult, address the issue and start again.

That was my top 5 tips that will save you time, money, and a headache. If you make a mistake, don’t fret. Almost any mistake can be corrected. You just need a bit of patience and a positive attitude!





Is Enameling Your Kitchen Cabinets the Right Decision?

People think of enamel as a type of paint – which it may once have been – but recently it is more of a descriptive term used in a general manner by many manufacturers to describe a paint that dries hard with a higher degree of gloss. This is the type of paint generally used in cabinet painting, and for the purposes of this post I will use the term is it is commonly understood – paying less attention to tradition and technical properties.

Enamel paint is installed on cabinets, doors, windows, trims, and cases. Enameling is ideal for high use areas like kitchen cabinets. One of the most important reasons why enamel is popular is because of its durability. Enamel has a smooth surface that does not collect dirt as easily so it is easy to clean, and also resists marring and scratching, and looks beautiful. If you use good quality enamel instead of wall paint on your kitchen cabinets, it will provide you with a durable and long lasting finish.

You can buy enamel of any color and any sheen. When you are thinking to apply enamel on your cabinets, you have a few choices, there are trade-offs with each option, there is no perfect enamel, you have to select from what is available based on what is important to you.

Water Based Enamel:

Latex and acrylic enamels are water based products and are popular due to their low VOC content (VOC: Volatile Organic Compounds). However, they are difficult to apply smooth, and have the lowest durability and finish quality. Water based enamel are generally when the homeowner wants to keep the project green- and is less concerned with finish or durability.

Oil Based Enamel:

Oil based enamels have higher VOC content than the water based enamels. However, this type of enamel is more durable and offers a better finished appearance. When applied on your cabinet surface, oil typically takes 12-24 hours to dry. Also you need to have a dust free environment when you are working with oil based enamel. Oil based enamel is idea in the situation when the homeowner may not be occupying the home. Oil based enamel also offer a durable and good looking finish that can be cleaned easily. Another consideration on the drawback side; oil products “yellow” with the passage of time.

Lacquer Based Enamels:

Lacquer based enamel is seldom used by homeowners because they are typically not sold in home improvement stores, are very smelly, thin and difficult to control, and have the highest VOC level of the 3. However, lacquer based enamel dries very quickly, allowing multiple coats to be applied in a relatively short period – an advantage over both water and oil based products. There are several types of cabinet lacquer, check with your professional paint store for availability.

These products are volatile, extreme caution must be used – I do not recommend this material for DIY projects. This is the same material used by cabinet shops so it is the best choice of finish beauty and durability. However, lacquer based enamels must be sprayed and should not be applied by hand. If you want the very best finish, contact a professional with experience using these products.

If you need professional support to finish your cabinets, you can contact the professional contractors offering affordable cabinet enameling in Congress Park.

Wood Toning 101

Wood Toning 101

Can I change the color of my trim & cabinets? Toning, shading, wood makeover, colored lacquer, re-staining; whatever it’s called, it’s a great way to get where you want to go in your renovation without spending lots of coin to get there. Here in Denver, homes have a lot of architectural millwork, and in the homes we work, much of it dates back to the frontier days. Because Denver is semi-arid, this wood is often in excellent condition despite its age. Wood finish colors however, are trendy and change like paint colors, sometimes even loop back like classics, and so refinishing wood is preferred to replacing it – especially given the quality of the old-growth wood, milled and finished by craftsmen – it is well worth the effort to restore it.

Adjusting the color of architectural millwork is pretty simple once you understand the basics. The process is simple: in a nutshell what you’re doing is cleaning the surface of the existing finish, then lightly sanding it, then cleaning it again, and finally applying very thin, uniform coats of lightly tinted clear finish base. Viola! New looking cabinets, doors, windows and trim! And BONUS: you’re practicing sustainable renovation too! A tree gave life and was transformed into something beautiful and lasting – you chose to restore it and in so doing you honor and sustain that life cycle. Good on you!

Details – how it’s done in steps:

First: cleaning. If you want to change the color of new or lightly used millwork, often just a simple cleaning will be sufficient, something like denatured alcohol will work . A note of caution- cleaning with solvents may soften or even melt existing finish, so test in an obscure location and not the most-used cabinet next to the refrigerator! For cabinets or trim that has been in use for some time, use xylene to clean, it’s smelly and you’ll need to wear safety equipment (solvent gloves, eye protection, and a good respirator with vapor cartridges, or the cheap but effective 3M model N95) but xylene is effective at removing oils, residue from cleaners and most other foreign matter on the finish. For really soiled surfaces, begin with a cleanser such as tsp substitute, then after overnight dry, use xylene or other appropriate solvent.

Next you’ll want to scuff the finish. This step is necessary to provide a “profile”, or “tooth” to the surface – it may help to think of the goal of this step in more common circumstances; for example, imaging dripping paint on the windshield of your car vs. dripping the same paint on your driveway – which will be easier to remove? The glass of course, you could probably do it with your thumbnail, whereas the driveway may never come completely clean – no matter how much elbow grease and implement you employ. Anyway, scuff the finish so the new material has something to bond to. But be careful here – you do not want to rub through the stain layer under the finish, just scuff the finish. If you do rub through the stain you will need to touch up any such areas to bring them back to the base color of the adjacent areas. At this stage you will also want to check the putty and fill areas for soundness, remove and replace any deteriorated or missing fill with wood putty that is sand-able, stain-able and of high quality without suspended solvents that can release and “halo” around nail holes after you apply finish coats.

After scuffing, clean again with a clean cloth moistened with thinner, xylene or use tack cloth- available at your local paint store. Once cleaned, scuffed, and wiped clean again, you’re ready to start toning. A note on toning products: a good pedestrian (beginner) product is Minwax Polyshades: this product comes in both water-based and solvent-based (both polyurethanes) colors, and is easy to use – especially on standing & running trim like baseboards, chair rail, picture rail, crown, trim & casing. It’s a little more difficult to use on broad surfaces like doors and cabinetry for the simple reason of uniform coats – easy to achieve by brush on 4 ¼ inch trim, but you’ll probably want to spray broad surfaces to achieve a uniform color & sheen. Test your color choice in an obscure location or on a piece of scrap – remember the test area must first be the same color and finish as the areas you intend to treat. With practice, great results can be achieved, but remember – it’s sometimes better to get there in steps, not a single application but several in succession – thin to win – as the old timers say.

Toning products on a more professional level are urethanes, lacquers and conversion varnish finishes. You won’t find these products in your big box home improvement warehouse; and if you do, you certainly will not find anyone who can advise you on mixing ratios and limits, catalyzing, etc. Find a real, old-school paint store, go in there and look for gray hair in an apron- that’s your man. Depending on what you use, you will tint/shade them with different materials. These products are best sprayed, and have a somewhat steeper learning curve. Not recommended for beginners or even intermediate skilled applicators – these finishes dry fast, hard and resist removal (should you make an application error, or a color mixing error), but are as easy as cleaning pudding if you catalyze incorrectly (move along, no fun here either).

With spraying comes additional site preparation: covering floors, walls, ceilings, pets, spouse and offspring – and anything else you do not want to tone, with plastic, rosin paper, masking film, etc. And, you’ll need a plan for vapor management: moving overspray and vapors from the room. Fans work, but remember to allow fresh supply and sufficient output for the most effective and fastest results. On a professional level air-movers are used, these machines come in various sizes and cfm capacities – but essentially they suck in air and push it out a flexible duct that is routed outside and open door or window – and they are safe to use in suspended solvent-vapor environments. You’ll still need to supply makeup air with these.

Finally, and most importantly, you must cover return air vents so the vapors and overspray do not enter your HVAC system and ignite to blow up your house. Shutting the system off is smart too. Safety measures for handling solvents and rags are also important – they will combust, and you’ll have a really bad day or a lousy night’s sleep if that happens.

Carry on then – some things cannot be undone; like ringing a bell, restoring architectural millwork has risks, foremost among them is that you cannot go back to the way it was. Be certain, be inquisitive and be informed. Hire a professional if there’s much at stake. And practice. On anything about the house you can practice: old stereo cabinet, chairs or kitschy plaques from the thrift store, scrap lumber, the dash board of your ’84 Fleetwood Brougham D’Elegant, but check with your spouse first though, make certain the item which is of little value to you is of similar worth to him or her.


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