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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 9/26/00

Starting Over With Finishing:
A Seminar and Interview with Jeff Jewitt
by Rob Carr

I don't believe I am alone when I state the excitement of completing the construction phase of a project is dampened only by the anticipation of the finishing phase. Let me rephrase that. I don't look forward to finishing cause I'm afraid I'll screw it up. Okay, I feel better. Anybody else feel that way?

About two months ago, I decided to do something about it. I remember having this same feeling when I decided to tackle the elusive perfect miter a few years back. It was time to dissect all the aspects of making a miter and figure out where I was going awry. For those of us who have mastered miter making (say that fast 10 times), it really isn't that difficult as long as you follow a few basic, but important rules; properly prepare your stock, use the right tools and pay attention to the details. Through a little bit of trial and error and a lot of paying attention, I finally mastered an almost-perfect miter. And, by understanding all the steps involved, I can more easily identify what went wrong should a miter come out "not so perfect".

So, I decided to use this new found sagacity to understand why I was allowing finishing to cause me such misery. I decided to start over with finishing. I purchased Bob Flexner's book "Understanding Wood Finishing" about 5 years ago. It has been on the bench every time it was time to start a finish. I would read what I needed to know about a particular finish on a particular species of wood and go at it. With all but Danish Oil finishes for that "hand rubbed" look, I can honestly say my results were less than perfect and far less than what the pictures in the book portrayed.

I knew early on that Danish Oil was just the ticket for bookends and small picture frames, but it wasn't cuttin' it for bookcases and tables. My attempts at shellac were grim; varnish was a catastrophe and I didn't have the right equipment for lacquer. I have narrowed down my pretty pitiful finishing attempts to two culprits: Aversion and impatience. Aversion affects anything we attempt to do. If we don't want to do it, it will show. Impatience has the same unsavory effects. I have been guilty of both when it came to finishing.

I find it interesting about myself that where patience is concerned, I will take all the time needed to build a jig, properly set the saw or do whatever possible to get the best results. But I just refused to allow a finish to properly cure before rubbing out or applying the next coat or, worse yet, to place my favorite finger ever so lightly upon the flattest, most evident portion of a "not so dry" panel. I knew good and well it isn't dry enough to touch but there is a force within me I cannot control that just has to touch it to make sure. I have lost count of the many finishes that have surrendered to sandpaper because of my favorite finger fingerprint.

This combination of aversion and impatience allows all sorts of ugly things to happen concerning applying a finish. If I don't properly prepare the wood with the right tool or use that tool correctly; poor results will follow. Learning how to sand or use a scraper is as important as preparing stock for cutting a miter. If the wood isn't properly cleaned of dust and dirt before the finish is applied, I can expect that same dust and dirt to haunt me after it is too late. If the right tool isn't used to apply a finish, the finish may bubble. The list is almost endless. The bottom line is something we have all heard a thousand times; use the right tool to do the job right.

Tools in this case extend from the proper kind of rag to the best suited brush to the right kind of abrasive. I read a post on one of the woodworking forums recently that mirrored what I was feeling. This person had become entirely confused with all the information over chemicals, additives, sandpaper, rubbing out and so on. The process of obtaining a great finish can be daunting, but I have decided it is time to stop, regroup and go forward again. Hopefully this time it will be with a new outlook. I don't want to become a chemist. I don't particularly want to know every ingredient in a pigmented stain. I do want to know and understand the importance of how and why finishes act the way they do.

Armed with this information, I feel pretty good about getting better results. At the time I was starting to re-think all this finishing stuff, I began to see a name start popping up all over the Net; Jeff Jewitt. I have a friend in California who had nothing but praise for his first book "Hand Applied Finishes" and was getting great results with some of the techniques used in the book. Pretty soon, another of his books was getting great reviews - "Great Wood Finishes" Some of the folks I admired because of their finishing abilities and knowledge were telling everyone with questions to "get the book". I figured it was time for me to see what all the excitement was about, so I got the book. I was not disappointed. The advice, technique, photography and method of writing were all a welcome treat. Not only did the publication cover all the stuff we really don't care about, i.e.; chemical composition of long and short varnishes; it takes you through step by step procedures of preparing the stock, the right brush to use, how to spray and how to finish the finish....all in living color.

This book was actually interesting to read and look at. Getting this book really started to change my concept of finishing. It was at this point I started to see Jeff Jewitt appear in some different discussion forums offering advice. This was really exciting! Not only has he written a book, but he is willing to take the time to answer a bunch of questions! I tried to keep track of all he had to say and found myself surfing all over looking for his input. I remember thinking how great it would be if he had his own site where all these questions and answers could be in one place. Little did I know this was the very thing he was working on.

It wasn't long before Jeff had his website up and running. Pretty basic; no frills site. Easy to get around and with some great information. This is where I found that he sells more than just his Trans Tint dyes. He has an on-line catalog filled with all kinds of finishing supplies. Along with that there are sections devoted to articles and technical notes about using the products he sells. Also, his schedule of speaking engagements. Hmmmm, I thought. How better to start all over with this "finishing stuff" than to get back to basics and take a seminar. So that's what I did. This particular seminar was titled "Introduction To Finishing". I e-mailed the owners of the Woodcraft Store in Hilliard, Ohio for some more information and got a prompt reply. After looking over the information, I decided I knew a little about some of the topics and nothing about some others like, glazes, paste wood fillers and various methods of coloring wood. It also said that I could bring a problem project to discuss. I just happened to have one of those.

The tuition was $60 and I would have to drive ten hours to Columbus. No problem. I arrived without incident (incident for me is getting very lost) and was able to find the Woodcraft Store right away. If you've never been to one of these stores, make it a point to find one and go. I'm sure most of the readers get their catalog. Now picture everything in the catalog nicely displayed for you to see, touch and drool over. I was very impressed. The staff was right there to greet me but stayed out of my way and let me browse. I introduced myself and was immediately offered coffee and donuts which looked like they were always available for anyone coming in the store. A nice touch. Ruth and Jim Baumgargner are the owners of this particular franchised store. It has been in operation since October 12, 1998 and is one of five Woodcrafts open in Ohio. I can't say enough good things about the way the store looked, the inventory and the helpfulness of the staff.

This is a picture of Ruth and Jeff in the seminar room. The seminar started promptly at 10 AM and was scheduled to go until 5 PM with a break for lunch. There were 11 attendees and it was a pretty informal atmosphere. It was difficult to know the skill level of those attending, but from the questions being asked it seemed like some were brand new to finishing and some, like me had been doing it for a while. It may have proven interesting if Jeff would have asked at the start just why everyone was there. Or, given a short questionnaire to fill out to see what the skill levels were.

Anyway, Jeff started speaking, demonstrating and answering questions for the next seven hours; even during lunch. The topics covered the fundamentals of applying stains, paste wood fillers, oils and oil based varnishes, shellac and solvent and water-based lacquers. Physical and protective differences between the various finishes was discussed. Surface preparation; including some time spent sharpening and using cabinet and hand scrapers, coloring wood, paste wood fillers and the basics of brushing and wiping finishes. Lots of questions were asked that, even if you think you know the subject, cause you to stop and think what the answer may be.

When it was all over, I stopped to ask myself if it was worth the ten hour drive, motel bill, $60 tuition and a few other minor expenses. The answer for me was "yes" for a couple of reasons. It gave me the chance to formulate some questions I had about not only finishing, but about finishing as it relates to business. Jeff was eager to answer all my questions. I had the chance to meet someone I met and admired via the Internet. I have made some good friends and acquaintances in the last five years with this new medium and it was nice to actually shake hands with one of them. And, I got the chance to see a true candy store for woodworkers. Something we don't have around here. I'm right on the verge of being a tool junkie and this was a real treat.

I was also able to get a pro's opinion on a table top that needed some severe attention. That alone was worth the price of admission. Finally, it gave me a solid base to begin this new attitude about finishing from a starting point. I know there are lots of woodworkers reading this who may be thinking...what's the big deal; finishing is easy! I know there are others who are suffering from the same frustration I was. For those, I would offer this piece of advice. Slow down and think about what you expect from the finish. Find out as much as you can about it. If you have questions...ask them. And, take your time with the application process. It may take you longer to apply the finish correctly than it did to build the project. Good luck!

The Interview:

RC - I guess the first question would be; how does it feel to have celebrity status? Your name pops up all over the place with your two books, seminars and book signings. How are you handling all this?

JJ - Actually I don't think of myself as a celebrity, more like a teacher. And it's a lot of work promoting books and such. To tell you the truth, sometimes I'd rather just stay in the shop and just build furniture or go back to building guitars. But teaching is fun and I meet a lot of great people. So to answer your question honestly --- I really don't think about status and such.

RC - I know you do refinishing work. How much actual woodworking do you do?

JJ - Actually quite a bit. Most of the woodworking I do is fabrication of parts, so I have a fully equipped cabinet making shop. I also manage at least one or two major pieces for me and my wife a year.

RC - How long have you been involved in wood and finishing?

JJ - Professionally - around 16 years. Before that I was involved in building acoustic guitars and refinishing since I was a around 16.

RC - How did you learn "the ropes" of finishing properly? Did you have a mentor?

JJ - I'm entirely self taught - but there were several influences on me. Eli Rios from New York City got me hooked on shellac. Ernie Conover taught me a lot about being a teacher and writing. He also gave me my "start" in teaching and writing. I also learned a lot about finishing from Dan Erlewine and Don MaCrostie from Stewart MacDonald Guitar Shop Supply in Athens, Ohio. Both Dresdner and Flexner have been influences as well.

RC - Do you still do finish/refinish work or is most of your time spent with your books, products and seminars?

JJ - I easily put in a 40 hour week with finishing, restoration and repair. We do work for every major van line and a lot of insurance companies. The rest of the time is for Homestead and writing. I like to keep busy with different things, it's the way I'm wired I suppose.

RC - Did you always enjoy finishing or at some time (maybe even now) did you find yourself thinking..."Darn, now I've got to put a finish on this"?

JJ - No, I enjoy finishing but not any more than other aspects. Can't say I like sanding. I love working with old finishes and matching the finish on new parts to old finishes. It's where I can cut loose.

RC - Why do you think so many woodworkers panic when it comes to finishing?

JJ - It's simple - they just don't have the confidence. Finishing and any craft becomes enjoyable when you have the confidence in your materials and predicting the outcome. Also - practice. Were your first dovetails any good??? Fortunately, most problems (with the exception of blotching) can be fixed by starting over.

RC - It seems like more and more products are available for finishing. Is this making it easier or more difficult for the hobbyist or novice to become more proficient at getting a good finish?

JJ - Actually - there's little that's really new - at least at the consumer and novice level. That's why its so important to understand how finishes work and why finishes are more alike than different. Flexner's book started this whole way of thinking about finishes at least in trying to sort through the marketing mumbo-jumbo. Getting good finishes just means understanding the products and how to use them.

RC - What is your favorite finish to use for hand application...for spray application?

JJ - For hand application I prefer shellac overall, because it dries so fast and looks really good. A very close second would be varnish, with a wet-sanded linseed oil underneath it. Behlen's Rockhard is one of my favorites. For spray application --- nothing beats a solvent lacquer for good-looks and ease of use. I'd second the solvent lacquer with some of the water-bases coming out, though you still need to put shellac under them to get the depth and luster to pop.

RC - I noticed your second book came out only a few years after the first one. Does the second provide more information on different subjects than the first?

JJ - The first book was written expressly for the purpose of showing people how to apply traditional finishes by hand. Brushing shellac is different than brushing varnish, so I wanted to show the nuances between the two. In the second book - what I wanted to try and do was to put the reader over my shoulder while I finished. I hate books that show flat samples or plywood being finished - that's not reality. To give the book an aspect of reality - I bought 14 unfinished pieces of furniture and my photographer photographed me while I did 14 finishes over a two week period. No trick photography or posed studio shots. The second book has much better photography and problem solving sections, also spray finishing is covered in detail.

RC - What motivated you to write a book on finishing?

JJ - It's a natural step from writing articles and teaching - the first was motivated by students and friends like Ernie and Susan Conover. It also gives you better credibility as teacher than wearing a plaid shirt. The second was to do things that you wish you had done in the first - it can be a vicious cycle actually. You can't stop.

RC - If you had to give some advice to a newbie on finishing; what would it be?

JJ - "Keep your wits and your tools sharp, and put alcohol in the finish - not the finisher." Seriously though, I'd advise them to buy or borrow every book they can get on finishing. Go to the library so you can get out of print ones. You'd be surprised ---- the materials change, but the basics don't.
I. Learn to sand properly, efficiently and logically.
II. Practice on samples first - or you'll be practicing on your project.
III. Keep an open mind and don't be afraid to experiment.

Rob Carr

You can visit Jeff's website by clicking here.

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