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Share your finishing disasters for a chance to win a finishing DVD

comments (24) December 14th, 2010 in blogs

MKenney Matthew Kenney, special projects editor

Tell us you about your worst finishing job for a chance to win Hendrik Varjus latest instructional DVD. - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Tell us you about your worst finishing job for a chance to win Hendrik Varju's latest instructional DVD.

Photo: Courtesy of Hendrik Varju

Here's the winner: It was hard to pick a winner. In the ends, there was one that really stuck out. The story of pre-conditioner gone bad. I really feel for ddisch0957. So many attempts, and he is still have a rough go of it! I gave that stuff a try a few times. It is just plain bad. If you every consider, don't use it. Use a seal-coat of shellac instead. You'll get much better results.


For many woodworkers, applying a finish is their least favorite part of furniture making. And I know why. Like them, I've seen beautiful work become less than satisfying because I'm not so good at finishing.  Back when I thought all wood was supposed to be stained, I made a garden tote for my wife from some nice clear pine and then stained it some unholy color. If only I'd left it unstained, it would be a beautiful color after all these years. My finishing has improved vastly since I've been at Fine Woodworking, primarily because I've learned the joy and beauty of shellac. And that's pretty much all I use now. No stains, no oils, no poly. Wood is beautiful, so why hide it? At any rate, I'm sure some of you have finishing horror stories. Share them in the comments below. I'll pick the most dreadful one and reward the poor soul with a DVD by Fine Woodworking contributor Hendrik Varju: "Hand Finishing and Rubbing Out." It's contains almost 10 hours of instruction on everything from methods for applying a finish, the different types of finish available, and how to apply a wide variety of them. There also is a bonus DVD (8 hours) that shows you second by second just how a finish dries! (I'm kidding about the bonus DVD. Not even the most fantatical woodworker wants to watch finish dry in real time.)

A few rules: Keep it civil. I'll pick and post the winner on See update below.

UPDATE: I've decided to extend the contest into the new year to give more folks a chance to enter. New deadline: January 7, 2011. Also, I'll contact the winner to discuss delivery of the DVD.

posted in: blogs, Finishing nightmares, Hendrik Varju, finishing dvd

Comments (24)

LenW LenW writes: While planning a renovation of our master bathroom, my wife and I decided we wanted a vanity with more of a “furniture look” to it then the usual cabinet style. After looking around at what was available, we could not find what we had in mind. So I drew up some plans for a shaker style double vanity. It was made of cherry and had frame and panel doors and drawer fronts. The panels were covered with a nice cathedral grain veneer that I cut myself. It sat on turned feet to add to the “furniture look”.

The build went well and I was pleased with the results. It even looked like what I had drawn on the plans. That does not always happen.

Since this piece would live in a bathroom, I decided that a polyurethane finish would be best. First I applied one coat of dewaxed shellac to bring out the beauty of the wood. Brushing on three coats of poly seemed like a solid finish to protect this vanity from any moisture it might be exposed to. Since brushing on the poly in my shop results in lots of dust on the finish, I went with a wipe on poly. I doubled the number of coats to six as the wipe on results in a thinner coat. A very light sanding (320 grit) between coats and buffed the final coat with 0000 steel wool for a satin finish.

It looked great. Even my wife was impressed. (That does not always happen either.)
I installed it in the bathroom, added the granite counter top, and all seemed well.
One night, a short time later, my four year old son was very congested and coughing non-stop. My wife turned on a hot shower and brought him into the bathroom to let the steamy air relieve his coughing. It worked like a charm. He slept through the rest of the night and so did we.

The next morning the vanity was covered in a white haze. The steam had condensed causing the vanity’s surface to become wet. The shellac reacted to the water resulting in the haze.

Three wipe downs with denatured alcohol removed the haze. Four coats of poly by brush and three coats of gel varnish buffed off (Mark Schofield’s “Foolproof Finish for the Kitchen”) and it is back to its original look.

Lesson learned; wipe on poly leaves a much thinner coat than I thought. The light coating coupled with light sanding and buffing with steel wool apparently removed a great deal of the original poly leaving the shellac open to the moisture.

The new finish seems to be holding up well. We will see.

Posted: 11:13 pm on January 5th

polarwood polarwood writes: I had just finished a small project for Christmas for my mother-in-law and it was Christmas eve. The present had to be under the tree the next day, so I sprayed a light coat of finish on it. The room was in the basement and heated only by an electric ceramic heater. To be certain the finish was dry by morning, I moved the heater as close as I could, without risking fire.

The next morning, every glue line had split open! The heat source had dried and shrunk the wood un-evenly, fracturing all the glue joints. I had to re-cut, re-glue and then re-finish the piece. She was happy to receive it a day late, but I learned a new lesson the hard way (again).
Posted: 12:38 am on December 31st

ddisch0957 ddisch0957 writes: My story is still ongoing....
My skill set is somewhere between beginner and intermediate and I probably bit off more than I could handle with this project. I built a coffee table out of maple but my wife wanted a dark stain on it. The design of the table had every piece except the top curved into covex and concave shapes that were intended to flow together. The sides were made of 12 interlocking convex pieces that fit together. The legs were 16 separate curved pieces, 4 per corner. The point I'm making is that sanding for this project took months.

Attempt #1: I used Minwax pre-stain conditioner and as per instructions applied the conditioner and then the stain a couple of hours later. A blotchy mess! So, back to the sanding process to remove the stain.

Attempt #2: After consulting an employee at a woodworking store I next applied 3 coats of the pre-stain conditioner with plenty of drying time between. The result was a mirror finish that wouldn't take stain worth a darn. So, back to the sanding process to remove the stain.

Attempt #3: This time I applied the pre-stain conditioner and let it dry completely. The results were at least acceptable, even though not great. However, after applying the topcoats it became apparent that I didn't get the top of the table smooth at all. Lots of mark left from my belt sander.

Attempt #4: This is where I am at now. I removed the top and am getting ready to resand the surface. I am totally nervous that I won't be able to match the stain on the sides of the coffee table but I just don't think I can take another failure. If it doesn't match I'm probably going to burn it!

Posted: 9:34 am on December 29th

ChipsnSawDust ChipsnSawDust writes: I built a fireplace mantel for our new gas fireplace. It was basically a torsion box wrapped with knotty alder to be finished in nutmeg. I always use a mixture of shellac and naptha as a prefinish to prevent blotching. It works beautifully. Before assembling, I applied two coats of wipe on gel stain and let it dry. I then had a brain fart, got "creative" and decided that I would assemble the mantel (using glue and a pin nailer), then fill the pin holes with a soft wipe off putty, and then apply one more coat of stain. Boy did it look nice. The grain was popping and you absolutely could not even see the pin holes from the nailer.

Now for the finish. I busted out my trusty general finishes wipe on gel poly which I generally apply with a sponge brush. It looked great until it dried when I noticed an obvious lighter circular area around every nail hole. Apparently the putty I used bled through the stain, reacted with the poly and litterally ate the stain where I had wiped the excess putty from the pin holes (using a nice tight circular motion). I decided maybe I could live with it until my wife saw it, so of course I got to start over from scratch.
Posted: 12:57 pm on December 28th

intothelens intothelens writes: I had graduated to finishing for a cabinetry shop. This time, I was handed several large commercial display cases.
I started the project in a bad frame of mind -- I had always approached finishing my own work with the belief that you don't fight the wood. If you want dark finish, start with a dark wood, like walnut. Light appearance, use the whiter, lighter woods from the beginning, such as maple or fir. My experience had taught me that fighting the wood's natural tones created trouble and time, and did not benefit the final look anyhow.
However, here the emphasis is on money, and in the interest of profit, I had before me a project constructed of maple that was to be finished in the dark espresso color that is so popular today. 'Walnut is just too expensive,' I was told, 'so deal with it.'
It also was built with large recessed panels, with 1/2" edges.
Small sample in hand, I sprayed the set w/ the darkest lacquer-based tinting I could create. I took several coats, and was very uneven, blotchy. Plus, my attempts to fill the recessed edges were very flawed; I oversprayed, creating shadows around every panel. The amount of coloring needed also created adhesion problems.
Absolutely unacceptable. I wiped everything off. Took two very long days.
With the help of the shop's former finisher, I learned to use aniline dye as the initial darkening agent. It has smaller molecules, fills the wood with more color with one coat. We used a walnut colored dye, then toned from there with the tints. I also perfected my recessed edges technique on smaller pieces provided by the shop.
Finally, the project was rescued.
On a side note, I helped deliver this set. The dye was fantastic on the grain, and I hated covering it up with so much tint, just goes against my natural instincts, so I deliberately left the door backs and cabinet interiors un-tinted (with the shop's permission) just to let some beauty show through. As I tried to explain this to the customer, she interrupted, "Oh, great, all the grain's on the inside!"
As if anyone who orders a deep espresso finish like this is truly concerned about seeing grain!
Another lesson learned about keeping your mouth shut and saving your relationship with your client....

Posted: 11:42 am on December 28th

lorafa lorafa writes: One of my very first woodworking projects was a mahogany coffee table with storage cabinets on each end. It took me weeks to build. I built it in the wood hobby shop on the Air Force base that I was assigned to at the time. Unfortunately, the shop did not have a dust free area to apply finishes. I decided to take the table home to our apartment and finish it there. The apartment had a detached storage room so I figured that would be a good place to apply the finish. Well, the storage room turned out to be way too small, so I ended up applying the finish just outside of the storage room. It was a nice sunny calm day in California with no breeze at all. I was using Deft, a brush on lacquer, and everything was going great. That is, until the sun had moved through the sky enough so that now the table was sitting in the direct sunlight. All of a sudden I notice that the finish was starting to bubble up. Boil, might be a more appropriate way of describing it. My head starts feeling light, questions are going through my mind, I'm panic stricken. I just couldn't believe that this was happening, what a disaster. Well, I ended up having to scrape all of the finish off after it dried and sand the table again to prepare it for finishing again. When I applied the finish the second time I was careful to do it in an area where the sunlight would not come in contact with the table while the finish was still wet. In the end the table came out nicely and a valuable lesson was learned.
Posted: 11:38 am on December 28th

NewGuyInMass NewGuyInMass writes: My story is a baptism-by-fire story. First non-painted project was a secretary style desk w/ hutch. It was my first mortise and tenon project, too. Sanded all the pine to 220 to ensure no marks on the soft wood. A small test piece with dewaxed shellac sealer and amber shellac on top. Loved it. However, turn that 3"x7" test piece into a 4'x7' desk and it was horrible. (hadn't learned to CUT the shellac, just used it from the can!!! holy orange, batman) Needed to remove it w/ alcohol, but it was now cold in the garage and the shellac became jelly. Moved it to the basement and alcohol-ed and sanded for ~2 weeks to get it back to bare wood. More than a month had now passed since final assembly. Found a stain the wife liked and got to work. Now the sand paper marks show up. grrr... and did I mention trying to match the pine desk and the poplar molding I purchased? With 400-grit sanding, the molding turned out okay at a glance, but every time I walk into the kitchen, my eyes go right to the poplar that isn't the same color. If we don't mess up, how do we learn, right?
Posted: 9:54 am on December 28th

vrmike vrmike writes: It was my first "major" project - a murphy bed for the basement. It was a pretty simple kit from Lee Valley that included both step by step instructions and a video - almost fool-proof. I didn't even have a decent table saw to cut the plywood so I enlisted the help from others. Anyway, the build went awesome - I was so proud. I even decided to dress up the front with a mission/shaker type grid made from 1/2" x 1 1/2" stock glued and nailed to the face of the project. I filled the holes and was ready to finish...

I had decided to use a water-based aniline dye for this project as I'd heard awesome things about it. One thing I did hear, was to pre-0finish as much as you can...I ignored that advice. I started flowing on the dye and moving it around and wiping it off and all was looking I left it to dry.

What I didn't realize is that the dye had seeped under the strips of wood that were on the face of the project. As I let the project dry unattended, the dye then seeped out from under the strips causing a horrible, dark, uneven blotch under each strip.

As much as I tried with clean water to even it out, it was too late. My wife gives me the standard, "No one notices it but you" comment, but that's the problem - I NOTICE IT!!!

Since then, I've learned more about dyes and tend to spray them for a much more even distribution - but, I still have that bed...
Posted: 9:46 am on December 28th

SenecaBud SenecaBud writes: On the disaster scale, this wasn't a "10" but it was a mess. One of the challenging pieces I made as a newly minted woodworker retiree was a round table made from white oak. The legs came out fine, the aprons [bent by a friend who has a steam set-up] were nice and circular and the glue-up top ~45" came out beautifully. After final edge treatments, I glued it up and fastened the top. {"I'm pretty dang good" said my boastful angel.} I decided to finish it with no stain and an oil-based Minwax satin poly. I figured that three light coats applied with old tee shirt segments with some hand sanding between would be just about perfect. Coat #1 applied, then hand sanding after a seemingly long time for coat #1 to dry, coat #2...then a terrible ice storm hit our area. My heated shop became a refridgerator. For four days we were without power [though the woodstove kept us warm and a portable generator kept the freezer, fridge and a few appliances going]. But the table, especially the top was a congealed mess. To shorten my tale of woe, I had to hand sand all the finish off and let it dry and start over. It was months before it was finally finished. BTW, now I now heat my shop to 72 before doing any finishing; oil-based finishes take forever to dry when it's in the mid 60's or lower.
Posted: 9:31 am on December 28th

Nick_P Nick_P writes:
Posted: 9:21 am on December 28th

contemporaryrose contemporaryrose writes: So I found a pair of 1950's Teak Selig Easy Chairs in the trash that had water stains on the legs and tattered old cushions. I took them home, painstakingly took them completely apart piece by piece and sanded them down with a 220 grit. I was ready to stain! My first time working with Teak wood I didn't know the grain was so tight. Little did I know, the chairs had been oiled and not stained. The original color of the chair just would not come out and it was ugly! After trying many coats of stains and nothing taking, I decided to approach it a little differently....tinted water based polyurethane. I reached for the Coronado Aqua Plastic and some latex tint base colors. Three HVLP coats and a couple days later I had beautiful new chairs. A few weeks later after some research online I found out the chairs; with the oil finish in usable condition, were worth $1800!!
Posted: 8:36 am on December 28th

CraigE CraigE writes: A common thread here is that our "disasters" all stem from one of two sources: either we did not fully understand how our choice of finish works OR we hurried a bit with shortcuts and skipping steps. MY lesson came after many hours designing and constructing an intricate rocker. The stain process yielded exactly the coloring I wanted. Next, I applied a polymerized tung oil and marveled at "just the right sheen" as it went on. Oh boy! This was going to look great. The brush coat was ultra thin...the brush barely broke the surface of the liquid so no excess and it covered so far. Then the drying/curing started and whoa! A blush and haze began to obliterate that perfect sheen. Putting a second coat on even more sparsely looked like it would rectify the condition. Nope. Bad to worse. Rest of the story includes several calls to manufacturers and retail outlets for advice and the inevitable "let it cure, sand it back, be careful with the stain and do over" with a different finish. While the polymerized tung oil can provide an excellent finish, one MUST apply sparingly and then wipe back thoroughly so that virtually none appears to be left. If not, the curing will trap sinister moisture and display a haze. I've read that the finish process constitutes about 20-30% of project time. Don't attempt to cut it short! This is what people see and feel.

Posted: 8:03 am on December 28th

tom012947 tom012947 writes: Be sure to use fresh and dewaxed shellac... what a mess in the humidity. It was tacky forever, would never dry. Sanding just added grit to the tacky finish. I had to strip it with mineral spirits and then sand it again.

Now I use dewaxed shellac flakes, so it is mixed fresh. And use a portable air conditioner in the finishing area to have these coats dry correctly.
Posted: 3:19 am on December 28th

yasuragi yasuragi writes: I don't know if this counts, since I'm not the one who screwed up this job. Also, I refinish professionally, which maybe lets me out of the deal. In any case, I was working in a massive house in a summer vacation spot off season. The rooms were humongous, and the heat was forced hot air.

I'll spare you the story of stripping the stuff -- things went so bizarrely wrong that when I called in a friend who's a master woodworker to tell me what the heck was going on, he suggested I sacrifice a chicken.

The first part of the job was three enormous sets of bookcases that ringed the equally enormous couches that framed the fireplace. Eleven feet long, three shelves on each.

When I started to apply the finish -- great stuff that flows on beautifully and has a nice long open time -- I got to the far end of the shelf I was working on, went back to the beginning to give it a light, gentle sweep with the brush to smooth out where I'd had to reload (I don't know the brush that would have held enough for that length of shelf)... and the finish was dry. I mean so dry that it'd pull off when I tried going over it with the same brush to smooth it out.

Next was a 10x4' dining table. Same problem. No way to do the whole thing at once -- and no adequate way to do it in sections.

Finally called the manufacturer, who asked how dry the house was. Very, I said. What kind of heat? Forced hot air, I said. Can you run a humidifier? No, I said, each room was as big as stadium (what, me exaggerate?) and there weren't enough humidifiers in the world. The manufacturer (they're normally a terrific help with any issue) was at a total loss. After months of on-and-off trial and error, I finally got a friend to lay on the finish (good and thick with lambswool) while I trailed him and leveled it out. Not the way I'd ever recommend anyone do a job.
Posted: 9:06 pm on December 27th

TheBuilder520 TheBuilder520 writes: My first real wood working project I built a dresser for my son. I built it out of maple and wanted to get the look of cherry. I bought the sap wood as I knew it was going to be darker. When I finally finished the piece I sanded everything to 220. Boy was it smooth! The only problem was it wouldn't take a stain when I tried on my test piece. After a few coats I started to get the look I wanted on the test piece so I started on the real deal. It took a mere 10 coats to get it to the look I wanted. The lesson I learned is that it is possible to sand it too smooth to take a finish.
Posted: 7:15 pm on December 23rd

steevo75 steevo75 writes: My first woodworking project for my wife was a hallway table. I used an oil based stain and left it to dry in my garage (so i wouldn't stink up the house) at 10 degrees Celsius for a couple of days. I then applied a waterborne poly, the finish glazed over once dry. I guess the stain never fully cured...aghaah what a disaster. I ended up sanding the whole thing over again and got a buddy of mine to finish it for me at his workshop. I guess I still have a lot to learn.

Posted: 10:05 am on December 23rd

JLYoung JLYoung writes: I have a second story about a nice curly maple picture frame that I decided to finish using a minwax pigment based stain. Yuck, the blotching is horrible, the stain is horribly uneven and it really didn't do anything to enhance the figure of the wood. Yet, strangely enough I still get compliments on that frame. I guess ignorance is bliss.
Posted: 3:28 pm on December 15th

JLYoung JLYoung writes: I finished a cherry sofa table/cabinet and was so anxious to show my wife how it looked in the space that I took a shortcut on the top. I put on a sealcoat of shellac and about 3 coats of danish oil and told myself that I'd take the top off and put a couple coats of poly on the week after when my life was a little less hectic. Well now it's a few months later and the top is pretty much ruined with water spots, wax from candles, lights spots from who knows what. Anyway, looks like of got some refinishing to do after Christmas.
Posted: 3:25 pm on December 15th

STOC951 STOC951 writes: My wife tasked me with creating a freestanding "broom closet" to store all her cleaning supplies. I began the task in the spring, spending a couple of hours here and there working on it. Of course, during the build I discovered that there were all sorts of new tools and router bits I needed to construct it. After only two short months I finally got the cabinet put together and was ready to apply the finish. By this time, it was summer in south Texas and my shop is not yet air conditioned. Sweating profusely while applying the stain, I prided myself that I was doing a good job of not dripping all over the cabinet. After I finally applied the poly and unveiled my creation to my wife (who had almost given up on me because it was now just three short months after I started it), she noticed that the cabinet was covered with splotches where I had dripped sweat everywhere. I tried to convince her that the effect was intentional but was unsuccessful.
Posted: 11:46 am on December 15th

dpm dpm writes: My first try at using Boiled Linseed Oil did not go well. I gave in to the adage that more must be better. So I piled it on. Took 5 weeks before it all dried.
Posted: 9:37 pm on December 14th

dpm dpm writes: My first try at using Boiled Linseed Oil did not go well. I gave in to the adage that more must be better. So I piled it on. Took 5 weeks before it all dried.
Posted: 9:37 pm on December 14th

GimpyBrad GimpyBrad writes: My first woodworking project was nearing completion. All that was left was to varnish. I grabbed a can of varnish and shook the %#(@ out of it before reading the label that said to stir. Needless to say my project looked like a soap bubble factory when it dried.
Posted: 7:30 pm on December 14th

ffsimmer ffsimmer writes: My finishing disaster, I had just finished a large wall unit 94"H by 18' long my regular finisher was booked weeks in advance so I purchased a HVLP sprayer and went at it. I was really doing well until I had left the project for a week and when I came back to work on it, it was covered in layer of dust. I used pledge, dusted it all up began final assemby and fitting before moving it to its new home. I noticed a few marks on a couple of the drawer fronts so I thought I would give them all one last coat, didn't plan on the reaction between the lacquer and the pledge, fisheyes on every drawer front. Long story short I ended up paying my finisher for the repair job.
Posted: 6:43 pm on December 14th

tlpmap tlpmap writes: I'm a real novice at woodworking, having just started a year ago. After finishing my second cedar lined hope chest, I decided to use a wipe-on poly finish on the stained red-oak. I had never used a wipe-on finish, but, I thought, what could go wrong! I carefully wiped on the first coat, waited until it dried, sanded it all and then went for the second coat. Since I was working on some other projects, I wanted to keep the dust off of the finish, so I closed the lid and put a plastic sheet over it. After several days, I opened the lid only to find all of the oak on the inside of the lid and the rim of the chest was a gummy mess. It took a lot of scraping and sanding to get rid of the "goo". Fortunately, the outside of the chest was fine.
Posted: 4:26 pm on December 14th

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