This is the second part in a two part series about how to design, build, and finish a simple woodworking project. Please read Part 1 for more info and background on the project. This section will mainly focus on finishing the bookshelf.
Staining wood projects is a hassle and you can quickly get in over your head. When I first started looking for methods to stain my projects, I was bombarded with choices:
All of these variables left me confused on what I should do. With a good bit of research, I found the answers to my questions. My solution may not be best for everyone, but I do have justification for my choice.
The Big Question: Oil or Water Based?
This isn’t the first time I’ve finished something, and in my experience oil based stain is nasty stuff. While it does provide the best color in many cases, the cons of using them far outweigh their pros for me. Oil based stains let off a lot of hazardous fumes. These stains take longer between coats and also require paint thinner or mineral spirits for clean up. This in itself is hazardous. There are tons of stories of people improperly disposing of old rags with paint thinner on them, which simply combust and start large fires.
Water based stains, on the other hand, offer fairly rich colors with short drying times. They also release fewer fumes than oil based stains. Clean up is a breeze as you can usually just wash everything up in the kitchen sink.
The stain we chose was a Vintage Cherry Water Based Stain Dye from General Finishes. To seal it all in we chose to use a Satin Finish Water Based Poly/Acrylic. General Finishes actually has a youtube account with videos about how to apply their stains.
The previous projects I finished still didn’t have the lustre and look of a professionally finished piece of furniture. A big hint I learned was that everyone uses wood filler and wood putty to fill in the pores of the wood and give it an even look. Armed with this information, I went to my local Woodcraft store. The sales associates there are incredibly helpful and have lots of practical experience with woodworking. They pointed me straight to the Timbermate WB Wood Fill. This goo can be cut with water to create a good wood filler, or could be used in its thicker form as wood putty. Since the bookcase is made of Red Oak, I chose the appropriate colored wood putty. In the end, this really didn’t matter as the stain we chose was so dark it would overpower the color of the filler, but I chose this color putty for use in future projects as well.
Make sure that you will be in the appropriate temperature range to stain your project (basically anything over 65° is fine.) Since we built the bookcase in December, we had to wait until about April before it was warm enough outside to stain. The first thing you want to do is sand the entire bookshelf with increasingly fine sand paper. We started with some 220 grit and last used 320 grit. This will smooth down a lot of the surface and allow the wood filler to even everything out. With Red Oak, this takes a very long time if done by hand as it is a very hard wood and is resistant to sanding. You may end up going through a lot of sand paper, but if you leave the piece rough, the stain will not look good.
With so many different sanding blocks, it is easy to get confused about which is which, especially if they have been used a lot. We found a simple solution to this problem was to write the grit of the sanding block on the foam of the block with a Sharpie before using it. This way they are always identifiable, even when the grit is wearing low in some areas.
To apply the wood filler you will need some type of squeegee. We used old gift cards, supermarket points cards, and junk mail credit cards. Each of these has a different rigidity, and therefore each is all better suited for certain areas of project. The more rigid ones work best when trying to get into hard to reach spots while the least rigid ones work best on large open surfaces.
Get a clump of wood filler and mix it with just a bit of water to achieve a smoother consistency. Then use one of the cards to smear and squeegee the filler along the grain of the wood. It’s okay if it’s a bit nasty-looking. You will sand it down a couple more times. Just make sure it isn’t too thick. If it dries too thick, simply wet your finger, and rub the spot until it evens out. Use it in its thicker form as wood putty to fill in any holes or cracks you might have from sloppy cutting, or sloppy workmanship. When stained, this will go a long way in making your project looking more professional.
Once it is dry, sand it with it 220 grit paper, and then hit it with 320 grit sand paper and wipe it down with a clean dust cloth in preparation for the stain. Never use tack cloth to clean the piece. Tack cloth has waxes and oils in it that can make your stain look nasty in the finished piece. The best thing we found to use for this purpose is a cheap microfiber dusting cloth.
Staining was an interesting exercise in finding what works best. Everyone says to use little foam brushes to brush on the stain, and then wipe it off a short time later with a rag. While this may be good for large sections, such as the top and shelves, we found we got a more even finish by brushing on the stain and simply rubbing it with the rag. As the day went on, we eventually neglected the brushes all together. At all times, though, you should apply the stain in the same direction as the grain of the wood.
The only thing to worry about when applying the stain is to make sure that you do not spill or drip any excess stain or any water on the wood. If you do, it will either lighten or darken that area in the shape of the spill. This can be very hard to fix, but gently rubbing with a stain-soaked cloth worked best. Do one coat at a time if you can. We found it practically impossible to do the entire piece coat by coat, and ended up doing different sections one by one because the stain dries so quickly.
When you are finished staining, allow it a few hours to dry. It is best to read the instructions printed on the stain can for optimal results as different formulations require different times. When it is completely dry, it will look rather dull. This is because you have to put on the Poly/Acrylic Finish.
While staining, it wasn’t a big concern when tree leaves or a little pollen fell onto the piece. Stain isn’t thick and won’t seal in impurities in the wood, but the Poly/Acrylic will. We opted to do this step in the kitchen (with the windows opened for ventilation.) We wanted to be sure nothing would disturb it while it dried. The Poly/Acrylic topcoat takes 2 hours to dry between coats, and the more coats you use the better the finish looks. Apply the topcoat with a foam brush with the grain, making sure there are no bubbles or drips in the finish. The grain really starts coming through at this point.
After the first coat is dry, lightly sand the whole piece with 320 grit sand paper, wipe with a clean dust rag and apply another coat. You will notice the lustre improving with each coat.
Once you get the look you want, you are finished! We let the top coat dry for a few hours then moved it into position under the window in the living room to dry for the next few days. It actually takes about two weeks for the Poly/Acrylic to harden completely. Once it was completely dry, we filled it with books.
This project was a big learning experience. I really enjoyed the whole process, from designing the bookcase to be built with the tools I had on hand, to finishing it. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably try to find a local cabinetry place or woodworking shop and see if I could use their planar and joiner to flatten and straighten the wood planks. This would have made it easier to fit together since a couple of the pieces are bowed a bit. I would also like to learn to use a router to make a nice smooth decorative edge on the top and the footing of the bookcase. This would make it look and feel more like a bought piece. I‘d likely also stain it more of a mahogany color, as the cherry can be a bit too red for my taste.