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Choosing The Proper Finish For Your Woodworking Project

By: Megan Cherry

If you've finished your woodworking project, congratulations. Now, what type of finish do you want to put on it so that not only will you protect your hard work for years to come, but also enhance its innate beauty? No matter what you choose, you have to choose the right finish so that your hard work will be as beautiful finished as it was unfinished. Choosing the wrong finish can make your project look less beautiful than it should.

Well, here are some things to consider. You'll need to choose a finishing product such as a varnish, lacquer, shellac, or polyurethane; you might also need putty, wood filler, wax or polish. In addition, you'll need to choose from water or solvent bases for the finishing products. Which to choose?

It might be confusing, but once you know what you're doing, you can group these rather simply so that it's much easier to choose. Once you know what each group's properties are, you can make a better and more informed choice about what you'll need for your woodworking project.

Let's begin with stains. When you apply a stain to wood, you add color to the wood without covering up the grain. This is a basic difference between staining or painting something.

Stains that are pigmented are made when a pigment is combined with a liquid. Usually, the pigment itself is in a dry colored powder before it is mixed with the liquid. The liquid itself includes a binder that helps the pigment stick to the wood surface. There's also a carrier that works with the binder. The pigment does not dissolve in the binder, but are suspended in the liquid. In earlier times, you could purchase the colored powders to make pigments up; these were usually available in such colors as yellow, red, or burned charcoal, and were made from different types of clay and crushed rock.

If a stain is a "dye stain," it's physically and chemically different than a pigment stain is. Dye stains coat just like pigment stains do, but dye stains dissolve in the carrier instead of being suspended in it. Because a dye stain dissolves, it can deeply and easily penetrate the wood surface, unlike a pigment stain. However, the dye stain particles are very small and somewhat translucent. This, in turn, allows the wood grain to show through the dye stain.

One problem with stains of either kind, either pigments or dye, is that oftentimes, their color does not apply evenly, especially on softer woods like cherry, pine or birch. With these softer woods, you'll want to stain a piece of scrap wood first to see if uneven coloring or blotchiness will be a problem. If the stain appears to blotch or otherwise not appear uniform on your test piece, you have other options you can try. For example, you can switch to a gel stain or a water-based stain instead. Both of these types of stains only penetrate the wood ever so slightly and can give you a much more even stain color.

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