Preparing for Finishing

by Lora S. Irish


Adding your finishing layer

Basswood is the most popular carving wood because of it’s clean white coloring, fine and even grain, and softness in cutting qualities. Unfortunately, these three assets to cutting become the bane to finishing your project. The very whiteness of the wood makes it easy to transfer pattern lines but can be very uninteresting in the finished stage. So some type of coloring agent is often used to add interest. After the coloring you will wish to add a protective layer to your project as urethane, varnish, shellac, wax, or oil finish.

Because of it’s porous nature, Basswood absorbs any stain or finish that you apply very quickly, often making it nearly impossible to apply smooth, even, and thin coatings.

So in completing your project consideration must be given to how to apply any color coating, varnish, wax, or oils to compensate for the porous nature of Basswood. There probably are as many ‘techniques’ and ‘tricks of the trade’ to finishing basswood as there are basswood carvers. The ones listed here are those that I have found to give good, consistent results.

Preparation for Finishing

Let’s begin by making sure the project is ready to have the finish applied. Check carefully over your work for any pencil or transfer lines that may not have been carved away. These can be removed with a white vinyl eraser. I personally never used the pink eraser on the end of a pencil for this clean up step. Often they contain a red dye that can stain your carving. Some very stubborn transfer lines may need a light sanding.

Next, remove all the dust and excess chips from the piece. An old toothbrush is excellent for this step since it is soft enough not to damage the delicate details of the work, but has long enough bristles to reach into those very deep areas. A tack cloth lightly rubbed over the carving will catch the final dust.

Double check your carving before going on to staining the project. Once the stain is applied it is extremely difficult to make new cuts in the carving, stain them, and have them match the rest of the work.

Supply List for Finishing

Before you begin the finishing steps of any project you will need to gather those items that you will be using before hand. You can find yourself in a mild mess if just as you are suppose to wipe down the oil stain you realize you don’t have any clean dry cloths in reach. By the time you have rushed off to the house to find an old rag and returned to the work shop, it can easily be too late!

You will need the following:

  1. A clean covering for your work bench. The stains and dyes will spot any wooden surface and can puddle under a larger project, ruining your table top. Be prepared with either brown paper bags that have been cut open into large sheets or freezer wrap that can be bought at the grocery store. I do not use newspaper! The turpentine and mineral spirits base in many stains can loosen the ink in your daily paper and, of course, the most logical place that ink is going to go is right on the bottom of your carving. Also, I avoid plastic garbage bags. Since plastic is non-absorbent any excess stain will lay in puddles, just where your hand, brush, or dry cloth will be laid down next.
  2. Dry, clean, lint free cloths will be needed. Now, this does not include old towels, terry cloth will leave dozens of fine strings across the detail of your work. So set those aside for cleaning your hands after the work is done. I must admit that around our house old t-shirts. underwear, and sheets are still favorites. Once they reach the dust rag stage they go directly to the washing machine to be bleached, dried, then stored away for later staining use.
  3. Good quality brushes for the stain, dye, and finish application. I can not stress enough the meaning of the word GOOD here! You have spent hours and hours carving. You have sweated and cussed over very fine detail and difficult cuts. Don’t ruin the work now by using some fifty cent throw away dime store brush or cheapie foam disposable brush to apply your colorings. Yes, they make for easy clean up after the work is done, you won’t be able to wait to throw that thing away. But they are also guaranteed to leave brush strokes and brush hairs all across your work. Now you will be spending hours and hours picking out the hairs. Go to your local art store and purchase several nice brushes just for your finishing. I use a synthetic fiber, 3/4 glazing brush for my smaller projects. Set them aside for your finishing work only.
  4. Assorted plastic pans and small glass jars. These will be needed for the mixing of your dyes and for temporary holding of turpenine, mineral spirits and water. Make sure that all these containers can be disposed of immediately after use.
  5. An area to work. This must have excellent ventilation, be dust free, and be bug proof. The closed off tiny room in the corner of the basement on a very cold winter day is not a good place to apply varnish or urethane nor is out on the picnic table during the summer heat. All finishes contain solvents that can be dangerous to inhale. You must have moving air through your work space. These very solvents also smell good and attract bugs. There is nothing more heart breaking than to have applied a fantastic coat of finish, set it outside to dry, and come back an hour later to check it, to find six thousand gnats have permanently glued themselves right to your project. Do it indoors with lots of open windows.
  6. A large coffee can, 3 pound size, 3/4 full of water. All those rags that you will be using with stains, oils, turpentine, and mineral spirits are extremely flammable. Once you are completed the days work you will want to plunge those oil/solvent soaked rags into the can of water and store it outside until you can properly throw it away. All soiled papers or rags need this type of attention. Get them out of your shop and wet them down immediately.
  7. Assorted stirring sticks. I know, you probably have a thousand of those laying around your work area. Tiny trimmings from other projects. But I will guarantee there will not be a single one in sight that very moment that you need it during staining. Find them in advance.
  8. For us around the studio, we also require during the finishing process is a telephone that has a ringer that can be turned off. It never fails that just as you are carefully applying that coat of oil stain to the prepared surface that the phone rings. In other words, prepare to start your finishing when you know you will have a nice long uninterrupted session.

Preparing the Work for Finishing
Coloring Agents and Stains
Oil, Wax, and Urethane Top Coats

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