Finishing textured wood – a forum member’s question
Our online woodworking and home improvement forum gets a lot of action. We have new posts daily, and and a recent one was about how to finish textured wood. As you might know, texturing wood is one of my very favourite things to do. Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes when it comes to finishing textured wood, but I’ve thankfully learned from those mistakes.
As any woodworker knows, finishing nicely sanded, flat wood can be a serious challenge at times. Finishing wood that’s textured offers up several new challenges, in addition to including most of the challenges of finishing smooth wood. Here’s the question our forum member posed, as well as my answer below.
I was thinking of making a small trinket bowl to keep in my room for my keys, some change and other small stuff I grab on my way out of the house. I wanted to experiment with texturing wood. I’ve included some examples of textured wood I pulled from Google.
My question relates to finishing the bowl. I want to protect it enough for when I drop my keys or change in there. How would I go about applying a finish without having the finish sink to the “low points” and just accumulate there? If I were to apply polyurethane, for example, it would sink to the bottom of each divot and build a larger film there, while the high points would get little to no finish.
My guess would be to thin it enough for it to dry quicker. Would that be the right way to go about it? What do you think? I have oil-based polyurethane, shellac and Danish oil on hand, and I’m open to using any of those.
—From forum member “paulsz”
I’m glad to hear you’re going down the textured wood road. It’s a lot of fun and allows you to create a wide range of unique, stunning looks. There’s a surprising amount to cover here, so I hope I don’t overwhelm you with details.
Wood finishing has many intricacies that can be frustrating for woodworkers, and adding texture to the mix often adds to the challenge of finishing a project. Having said that, it’s certainly not impossible to add a beautiful and protective finish to wood that has been textured.
Some finish basics
You mentioned tossing some keys or other objects into the bowl, and the desire for the finish to not get damaged. Honestly, that’s a tall task for any finish. A super hard finish like epoxy might be able to help with this, but it has a very thick and glossy look to it. It’s also a finish some woodworkers don’t want to deal with. On top of that, it will likely go a long way to evening out the texture you’ve worked so hard to create.
Some other film finishes, like polyurethane and lacquer, will offer a fair bit of protection, though they aren’t bomb-proof. It also depends on the wood species the finish is applied over. If it’s a soft wood, the likelihood of it getting damaged with day-to-day use is higher. But if we just focus on the finish, no finish is perfect.
A penetrating oil-finish, like a Danish oil or many other wiping oils (as the name implies), is going to mostly end up penetrating into the wood, rather than stay on top of the wood. It will bring the wood’s colour and grain out, and likely do a decent job at protecting the wood from stains, but it won’t be overly scratch-proof.
A film finish is a finish that leaves a layer (or film) on top of the wood when it’s dry. Polyurethane and lacquer are two common types of film finishes. The finish penetrates into the wood’s surface slightly, but it mostly stays on top of the wood. It acts like a hard layer of plastic on top of the surface. Penetrating finishes, like the Danish oil you mentioned, and other finishes will mostly soak into the wood, and leave only a bit of finish at or near the surface.
Add texture into this conversation
You mention your desire to not have the finish sink into the lower points of the texture. I’m assuming you don’t want this to happen as it will cause the texture to be reduced; sort of like filling up small cups (vaguely what the texture in the wood could be described like) with a solid until there are no more small depressions in the surface of the wood. Unless the texture you add is so incredibly shallow, I think the only way you would even remotely fill any texture in the wood is if you added many, many coats of a film finish, like polyurethane or lacquer. Sure, a few coats of a film finish might cause a slightly plastic-like look or feel, as it does get into the depressions and cavities, but most film finishes build up a lot more slowly than people think. A film finish will also adhere to the high points of the textured wood, as at a microscopic level the wood fibres will have enough texture to hold onto some of a film finish. In short, the low point of the textured surface will likely accumulate a bit more of a film than the high points, but it won’t be as noticeable as you might think.
Dry times of certain finishes
You mention the idea that applying a fast-drying finish may prevent a finish from pooling in the low areas. While this sounds good, I think very few finishes dry fast enough that they wouldn’t pool in the low areas. One option is to apply more thin coats, as opposed to fewer thick coats, although this approach won’t change the final look that much.
All oil-based finishes are going to dry slowly, no matter how much they are thinned. Water-based finishes will dry faster, though still not fast enough to not pool in the low spots. A finish like shellac could possibly dry fast enough, but you’d have to spray or brush it on fairly heavily in order to apply it thick enough to have a few seconds to pool anywhere.
It’s (almost) all about application
How you apply a finish is going to matter quite a bit, especially when dealing with textured wood. How you apply it will determine how thick a coat gets left on the wood’s surface, whether the application will be spread evenly across the surface and whether or not there will be any residue (think lint from a cloth) left on the textured wood. All these factors will have to be considered when choosing a method of application, and obviously the type of finish you choose will affect the finished look and feel of the project, too.
And to be clear, there’s not always one correct answer for all of these situations. Every project, wood species, finish and woodworker are different, not to mention how the finished project will be used.
If you don’t want any of the finish to pool in the lower areas, it’s best to apply a thin coat of whatever finish you use. Having said that, and as I mentioned before, I think the whole thickness question will become less of an issue after you make a few sample panels, and get a few textured projects under your belt. As you apply the finish ensure it’s spread across the wood’s surface evenly.
Lint, as you can imagine, is about the only thing I’m always looking to avoid. I often wipe a finish on a project with an old T-shirt of other type of quality finish application wipe or rag. This works wonders on a smooth piece of wood, but texture has a way of grabbing many little fibres of the cloth and keeping them behind, stuck to the wood, almost like lint on Velcro. Having to solve that problem isn’t one I wish on my worst enemy. I once had to sand about a million tiny gouge depressions to remove what seemed like a million tiny white cloth fibres on a textured walnut door I made. It was awful. In short, stay away from wiping a finish onto textured wood, at least as a starting point. Again, nothing is to be excluded 100% of the time, but don’t start down this road with your first textured project without knowing the risks or you may never come back to texture again.
What does all this mean?
So far, this is a lot of theoretical info, so I’ll give you some real-world pointers regarding how I apply a finish to textured wood.
The one most important thing
As you may have guessed, making a sample panel will be a massive help, especially if you’re new to texturing wood and applying a finish to it. Sure, it takes up valuable time, but just think of it as insurance. You spent all that time making the project. The last thing you want to do is make a mess of it with the very last step.
Please let me know how it all turns out. Send a few photos of the overall finished piece, as well as some detailed shots of the texture.
Lots of Ways to Texture Wood
This is a close-up section of a project I’m finishing up right now. The scallops were made with a carving gouge, while the tiny divots were made with a 3/16" diameter burr in a rotary tool. The long grooves were made with a V-gouge.
How Should You Finish Textured Wood?
Forum member “paulsz” included this photo in their post about how textured wood should be finished. They are considering this type of texture for an upcoming project, but are wondering about the finishing process. The textured outer surface of this bowl was likely made with a sharp carving gouge or possibly a rotary tool.
I made all of these sample boards for specific projects, as I wanted to make sure the approach I was going to take, and the materials and finishes I was going use, would leave me with an effect I liked.
While many tools can be used to create texture in wood, I often reach for carving gouges. This is most of my collection, but even if you only have one carving gouge you can start making some pretty cool textured surfaces.
Types of Finishes
While it’s not impossible to use wiping oils on a textured surface, this approach has its challenges. Applying a film finish by either brushing or spraying is a sound approach, as the finish gets into the texture more easily and evenly, and no cloth fibres are left sticking to the textured wood from the wiping application stage.
This maple panel was veneered with wenge, then I used a V-gouge to carve through the dark wenge veneer. The effect is very strong. I then sprayed a glossy film finish over the texture.
Wipe It On
Though there can be challenges with wiping a finish over texture, some woods (like this maple) and some textured surfaces lend themselves to this approach quite nicely. Here, I applied a green milk paint over the entire surface, then used a small carving gouge to add texture. The final step was to wipe on a low-gloss wiping oil.