The Editors Mailbox

The Editors Mailbox

Going to a professional finisher

comments (9) February 14th, 2011 in blogs

moscowfield Mark Schofield, managing editor
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Not set up to spray? Get it professionally finished! - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Not set up to spray? Get it professionally finished!

As the editor for most of the finishing articles in Fine Woodworking over the last decade, I've often had to come up with pieces of furniture for our finishing authors to demonstrate their skills on. For the last month or so Peter Gedrys has been working on a Federal-sytle desk that I made and working closely with him made me wonder if many of our readers have had their furniture finished by a pro. Finishing is probably the step that woodworkers feel most nervous about. Its skills are totally different from the design and construction of a piece, so why not contract out that step in the process?

What has been your experience working with a finisher? How did you find this person and how did you evaluate their skills? Did you have difficulty describing how you wanted the finished piece to look? What kind of piece did you have finished and how involved was the finish? What did you think of the price?

From a professional's view point, how easy is it to work with amateur woodworkers? How could they make the process go better? More samples to work on? Better surface prep etc?

Share your stories with me and your fellow readers. Feel free to send me photos of pieces finished by a pro:

Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.



posted in: blogs, finishing, finish, professional finisher

Comments (9)

pintodeluxe pintodeluxe writes: I learned a lot about finishing from a local cabinet maker. Spray, Spray, Spray. You just can't achieve the glass smooth finish with a wipe on product.
I always make sure my stain and topcoat are compatable. For me it is still oil based stain with lacquer as a topcoat. If the stain doesn't wipe off easily on your sample boards, thin the stain with 2oz. mineral spirits per quart of stain. The biggest thing I learned is to let the stain dry completely. Usually this means overnight, however it occasionally takes 2-3 days in colder weather. I wanted to contribute to a FWW article about finishing disasters, but honestly I have never had any problems finishing.
With a $100 gravity feed HVLP gun you can produce professional quality results. That would only hire my finisher for about an hour.
Posted: 8:26 pm on February 8th

AutumnWoods AutumnWoods writes: Usually I would charge an agreed upon price for finishing rather than an hourly rate. The cost would be based on the type of finish used, ease of application, and time spent in my shop. For example, a premium conversion varnish can be quite costly but I can finish a piece and move it out in as little as 1-2 days. A classic linseed oil & wax finish like Tried&True with Liberon wax is relatively inexpensive for the materials, but the application is slow and cure time is nearly eternal. It could be taking up space in the shop for weeks. Any time I have to level and hand polish something like a table top there is an upcharge as well. As you can tell, prices can vary widely for different jobs.

I have always been pretty flexible with transportation, bids, and pre-inspection. For small jobs I usually request that the client deliver the piece, where I will give an on the spot quote. For larger pieces I will often drop by while I'm out an about to give a quote and usually pick up the piece. I've done everything from large case pieces to simply tinting pre-finished shadow boxes a redder color for the military base here in town.

Also, on occasion when the client didn't have the budget for finishing work, but seemed to have a little finishing savvy, I have done custom color matches and sold the stain to them along with instructions for application. In those cases, I usually try to stay simple and recommend a wiping varnish or polyurethane type finish.
Posted: 4:32 pm on February 23rd

moscowfield moscowfield writes: AutumnWoods,
I'm curious how you charge for a finishing job: A per-hour fee with an upfront estimate or a pre-agreed price? Do you insist on having the piece in your shop so you can look over it thoroughly for poor surface prep before quoting a price?
Good tip on how to test out a finisher before handing over your masterpiece!
Posted: 1:11 pm on February 23rd

AutumnWoods AutumnWoods writes: Although I primarily build furniture, I've taken jobs from time to time refinishing or restoring furniture and finishing new furniture from local woodworkers. My biggest complaint from the side of the finisher is that its often not appreciated the level of work that goes into a quality finish, thus they don't want to pay much for the work. I tried to offer a wide variety of finishing options to work with every budget, but I can't color match and finish an entertainment center for $50. The other complaint is that many times the pieces were not even close to being adequately sanded and some even had planer, snipe, and chatter marks all over them. They probably didn't realize how bad those defects would look once stain was applied, and they were difficult to sand and scrape out now that the piece was assembled. Take pride in your piece and your finisher will be more likely to as well.

One final tip for a good experience - when you take your piece to the finisher, take along a few offcuts from the build, especially if you're having it color matched. Have a sample block made to verify that the finish and color are to your liking before the whole piece is done. Know exactly what you want and do your homework - come prepared with your color sample and desired finish type. It only makes the process difficult when a client doesn't know what he/she wants. "A medium brown, not too warm and not to chocolate" could mean a hundred different shades. "A nice vintage finish" could have dozens of different implementations as well. If you aren't willing to be specific, please be prepared to accept the artist's interpretation of what you said. You may not have the desire or talent to finish a piece yourself, but you should at least understand enough about the process to communicate intelligently with the finisher. Follow these tips, find a good finisher you can trust, and both of you will have a good experience and a good result.
Posted: 10:06 am on February 23rd

AutumnWoods AutumnWoods writes: As a professional furniture builder, finisher, cabinetmaker, and antique restorer I've run across a wide variety of work. The biggest problem I see is there's just not a lot of versatility among woodworkers and finishers alike. A lot of furniture finishers either started off in their garage doing pieces for themselves and neighbors, or worked in cabinet shops. For the former, their skills are often overstated and limited to products off the shelf at a local hardware store. For the latter, their skills are generally superior as long as they stay within the realm of sprayed modern finishes. I don't mean to say this covers everybody, but you have to ask a lot of questions to find out what you've really got before they get to work. It's not enough to say "do you french polish," ask them to describe their technique for french polishing. Also, don't entrust your freshly sanded latest creation to a new finisher - buy an old piece at a garage sale and pay them to refinish it first or give them a small shop stool and have them color match it. This will ensure you have a quality person.
Posted: 9:42 am on February 23rd

Beesweet Beesweet writes: I restored pianos and once had an exceptional grand piano to refinish and match with the original bench. I showed the bench as it was pristine and ask to match as close as possible. The piano was over 97years old and I wanted to preserve the time line as much as possible. The result was nothing less than a disappointment. He used a finish lacquer and this had nothing to do with the varnish finish I was looking for.

Now how can I describe things better than showing the matching bench that was with the piano?

Posted: 9:08 am on February 23rd

BStev BStev writes: Mark,
I will occasionally do an oil job if it fits my schedule but that's pretty much the extent of my finishing work nowadays. Not much notice is needed to drop off a piece but lead times can vary quite a bit depending upon how busy my finisher happens to be. Certain finishes also take longer, a full fill finish or a polished finish could be 3-4 weeks, part of which is waiting for the fill coats to shrink back. Sometimes lacquer jobs can be ready the same week, just depends and whether delivery time is important, if so they'll work with me.

Posted: 7:30 pm on February 15th

moscowfield moscowfield writes: Bob,
Many thanks for your input. You say that your finisher only sprays conversion varnish and lacquer and does all your finishing. Does this mean that you don't accept a commission if the buyer wants say a rubbed oil finish? What kind of notice do you need to give that you'll bring a piece in and how long do you need to wait until it is done?
Posted: 1:49 pm on February 15th

BStev BStev writes: I use a pro for all my finishing and have for years. Fantastic quality, no rubbing out, no brush marks, etc. The choices are limited when it comes to finish though. Typically mine only sprays conversion varnish and lacquer, no oil finishes or french polish as they are too labor intensive. The cost is high but the quality is the tradeoff and it's the best thing I have done for my business since deciding to get profession pictures of everything. But then again I do this for a living and not as a hobby, the cost might be seen as quite high for a hobbyist. I found mine through a referral from another business that had been using them for years. They have finished everything from built-ins to small pieces of furniture.

The best way to find out what the finisher wants in terms of surface prep etc would be to ask them, schedule a visit and talk about the project you have and they should be willing to go over what they can do and what is expected when the piece is dropped off. They should also have a bunch of finish samples for you to look through to select sheen and fill, these are also a good way to check the finishers quality, if the samples don't look very good start looking for another finisher.

Posted: 10:27 am on February 15th

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