This is 23 Common Wood Finishing Mistakes for Beginners. If you are a beginning wood finisher, then this is your guide to making less mistakes, and having a much easier time finishing your wood creations. After reading this list, you will be a better wood finisher. Enjoy.
Wood Finishing Problems and How to Avoid Them
With any new skill, there is a little learning curve. Wood finishing is no different. As you learn, and as you apply more and more finishes, your opportunities for making mistakes will get you some experience, and teach you lessons.
Even though mistakes are all part of the learning process, there is a way to skip a lot of the fuss, and learn without making as many mistakes. That’s the goal of this post, and by the end you will be equipped to avoid 23 of the biggest and most common finishing mistakes.
This is great news, because it means you will not fall into the same traps, make the same mistakes, and ruin as many woodworking projects. The knowledge will always be with you, and it will make you a better woodworker and wood finisher right away.
Here are all 23 finishing mistakes, and we will go into each one in far more detail further down in the post.
- Using the Wrong Finish
- Making it too Complicated
- Combining the Wrong Products
- Coating Again too Soon
- Not Waiting Long Enough to Handle
- Thinking that Dry is the same as Cured
- Applying Really Thick Coats
- Scuffing Between Coats
- Setting the Piece Down on the Finish
- Run in the Finish
- Blotchy Look
- Uneven Sheen
- Dry Spots on the Surface
- Soft Areas in the Finish
- Sticky Spots in the Finish
- Orange Peel Texture
- Lint or Debris Trapped in the Finish
- Fingerprint on the Surface
- Visible Scratches in the Finish
- Drying a Piece in Poor Conditions
- Drying the Piece in the Sun
- Stopping the Process Too Soon
- Worrying Too Much
Using the Wrong Finish
While most finishes are pretty good at finishing most projects, there are times when you need to select the right finish for the job. In the beginning, you can even use selection to prevent yourself from using a product that is too involved for a beginner.
When you first start learning about wood finishing, it’s best to pick an easy finish that applies well, and without a lot of fuss. Examples are oil finishes, wiping varnishes, and just about any basic hand applied finish.
All of these are the right finish for a beginner in most cases, and they leave an excellent look when applied. They are great for indoor projects, and those that will not be in the sun for a long time.
If you are making something for the great outdoors, then you need to think a little differently about the product you choose. Look for a good exterior finish, and you won’t have to worry about nature ruining your look.
Finally, picking a finish for the surface is another way to make sure you are using the right product. For example, a table top can benefit from a little more protection than a simple wipe on finish. Though you can absolutely use a simple wipe on, you might want to use a tougher product to protect the wood against dishes, spills, and glassware.
Making it too Complicated
In the beginning, you don’t want to have anything to do with a complicated finish. Don’t make the process any harder than it already is. Instead, focus on the easier to apply finishes and don’t make the steps more than they should be.
There are complicated finishing formulas on the internet and in books that read like War and Peace, and it can make you think that finishing is out of your reach. Don’t fall for those. If you make the process complicated, it can get there fast.
Instead, focus on the one product you have, and focus on applying it in the easiest manner possible according to the instructions. This means applying thin coats, allowing it time to dry, and not rushing the process.
Allow the finish to work, and trust in the application process. Don’t deviate from the directions, and don’t hurry it to the end. Simply do what the directions ask, and then allow the piece to cure for the recommended amount of time. Don’t make it complicated.
Combining the Wrong Products
In general, nearly any finish can be applied over nearly any other, as long as the first finish layer is cured. There are some exceptions of course, and some finishes that are much more chemical resistant, but in general dried finishes can take another layer.
Where mixing things starts to get you in trouble is when you mix wet things. This is either in the form of actual liquid chemicals or layers of semi-dried finish. If you mix the wrong things in cases like these, you can end up with a poor finish, or worse a bad reaction.
Don’t make a habit of mixing things. The finishing manufacturers know how to make their product, and it’s foolish to think with the millions they spend on research and development that mixing two random cans together is going to give you the perfect finish.
It’s not, and you are risking a lot of trouble. In the worse case, you can end up with a really dangerous reaction that can hurt you. In the best case of a failed mixing attempt, you can end up with a finish that never really dries.
This goopy layer will live on your project forever, and all the work you did will not amount to anything. Nobody enjoys a woodworking project with a sticky, gummy finish. It’s just not worth the hassle to mess it.
Coating Again too Soon
Patience is a virtue. As a beginning wood finisher, you need to ensure that you are giving it the time it deserves. This comes in several forms, but one of them is coating the project again too quickly after the last coat.
When you apply several coats of finish, you need to allow the proper amount of time for the previous coats of finish to dry. There a number of reasons for this, but the most important is the final curing of the finish.
If you don’t wait enough time between coats, you can end up applying a fresh coat over a layer that isn’t quite dry yet. When you do that, and the top layer dries first, it can end up trapping solvents under the new layer.
When this happens, they have an extraordinarily difficult time evaporating and making it out of the finish. This means you can end up with a soft spot on your finish that never really goes away. This will pick up fingerprints very easily, and scratch very easily.
Instead of making that mistake, just make sure that you give enough time between coats for them to dry. This way, you never have to worry about any soft spots, or finish layers that would fully cure.
See Also: How to Choose the Best Wood Finish Spray
Not Waiting Long Enough to Handle
Another big mistake that comes from rushing is handling the peace to quickly. This is because it’s very hard to wait to touch your new toy after applying a finish. I understand this myself, and I have to fight the same desire.
Just remember that even if you have to leave the project an extra couple days to fully cure, it means a lifetime of a perfect finish. The last thing you want to do is pull your project to early and create a problem that you have to address.
Not only will this completely ruin any time that you thought you might’ve saved by picking the product up too quickly, it will also add time. You’re gonna have to go back and fix the defect, and you still have to wait the full time in order for the finish to cure.
This means you lose twice, and all due to lack of patience. No matter what you do, give that finish as much time as it needs to fully cure. You can find out the curing time either on the product itself, or from their website.
A good rule to go by is the finish should not smell like any solvents when its cured. The process of curing is literally the process of all the solvents guessing out of the finish layer. If you can still smell them, then that typically means it’s not done yet.
Thinking That Dry is the Same as Cured
Dry just means that it’s dry to the touch. It means you can apply another coat over the top, and that dust won’t stick to the surface because it is no longer liquid. There is actually still quite a bit of solvent in the finish layer at this point, it’s just hard to tell.
Cured means that every last bit of solvent has evaporated away from the finish layer. This is when you are only left with solids on the surface. This is the definition of cured, and is a much tougher later than simply a dry layer.
Applying Really Thick Coats
One of the most common blunders in wood finishing is hosing your project with finish. There is no time saved by drenching the surface, and you’ll actually spend a lot more time waiting for that layer to dry in order to apply the next one.
Not only that, you might end up applying something so thick that it never actually dries. In a case like this you could wind up having to strip all of that finish, and start over from scratch. Of course you won’t find out for several weeks, but it can happen.
Now that few minutes that you saved by applying a thick layer is long gone. It will take hours to strip the finish, and then even more time to apply it correctly. On top of that, you’ll still have to wait for it to cure in order to handle your project.
I promise you are not saving any time at all by applying a thick layer of finish. When you apply wood finish, the thinner the better. This is the only way to apply an excellent finish by hand, and it will make you look like a professional.
See Also: The Secret to Wood Finishing
Scuffing Between Coats
Some finishes need to have a scuffing done between coats, while others do not. This is something that you kind of learn along the way, but in general most finishes can benefit from a light scuffing in between layers.
The finishes that do not, for example lacquer, are the ones that melt into one another after each layer is applied. The solvents in lacquer actually re-activate the upper layer of the previous coat, and they fuse into one.
In contrast, polyurethane is so resistant to solvent that it doesn’t even stick to itself very well. With a finish like this it’s good practice to sand or scuff the layers before you had another coat. This helps the two layers for mechanical bond between each other.
Before you start applying your finish, take a look at what the manufacturer recommends. If they recommend that light scuffing in between coats, then go ahead and do that. If they do not, rest assured that your finish will turn out just fine.
See Also: Woodworking Tips Cards – Steel Wool
Setting the Piece Down on the Finish
Another big mistake that I actually made myself early in my woodworking career is laying the piece down on the finish. This was a funny mistake now that I look back on it, but it just shows you that everyone is a beginner at some point.
When you apply finish, and you have a project in your hand, don’t set it down so that the layer of finish touches the table. This sounds super obvious when you read it, but that’s why they call it a mistake.
Either leave one section of wood unfinished that allows you to set the piece down after applying a coat, or figure out a way to hang the project. For guitars, a wire hook through one of the tuning post holes is perfect.
On other projects you may have to come up with a different way of hanging the item. Either way, make sure that you don’t set the project down with a layer of wet finish contacting your table. When you pick it up, it might just take the whole table with it.
A Run in the Finish
Runs in the finish typically come from applying too much finish, which is the result of rushing. Instead of taking the time to practice applying the layers, if you go to fast and go directly to your project, you could accidentally apply to much finish.
Make sure you know how your project takes the finish, and how the product itself works. This way, you’ll know exactly how much to apply without having to worry about causing a run on the surface.
Runs are actually kind of difficult to deal with, not necessarily that they are hard to remove, but that they take a long time. You are going to have to let that layer dry for several days possibly in order for that run to fully cure.
After it cures, the next step is sanding the surface in that area back down level. After that, you get to apply more coats of finish to even out the project. It’s not fun, and it’s a complete waste of time.
A blotchy look on your finish comes from applying inconsistent thicknesses of product to your piece of wood. The root cause of this issue is not applying thin coat, because it’s impossible to have a blotchy layer with thin coats.
Instead of applying the finish roughly, work in sections and apply very thin layers. This will help ensure that you have an even look in the end.
If you do end up with an uneven look, the best practice is to sand back the finish, and try again. Make sure that you are applying excruciatingly thin coats, and giving them the full amount of time they need to dry between layers.
Another mistake is ending up with an uneven sheen. This can be due to applying uneven layers, or it can be from not getting enough product on the surface in general. Either way, it’s not a good look for your piece.
When you’re applying you’re finish, pay very close attention to the way that your layers are building. Work carefully to make sure that everything is even and consistent. Don’t mix product, and have patience.
If you finish your project carefully, you shouldn’t have an uneven sheen in the end. If you do, scuff the surface to even out the look, and then apply another thin layer of finish. That should solve the problem, and make your project look good.
Dry Spots on the Surface
Dry spots a result of not applying even coats as well. I hope you’re catching the trend here, because if you just apply really thin coats and pay attention to what you’re doing to make them even, you really won’t have to worry about several big finishing mistakes.
It’s funny that 20% of the methods can solve 80% of the problems. If you really focus on the 20% that counts, which applying thin coats is part of that, you will solve the majority of your finishing mistakes that can turn into problems.
If you end up with a dry spot, lightly scuff the entire surface and then apply another couple thin coats. This should even everything out, and fill in the spot that was missing. Apply as many coats as you need to even out the surface.
See Also: Wood Finishing Tips Cards – Oil Finishes
Soft Areas in the Finish
Soft areas are a result of the top layer of finish drying before the area underneath. This essentially traps solvent, and makes it difficult for the layer to dry. The number one way this shows itself is by creating a soft spot.
You could also end up with a soft spot by using expired or damaged product. If you leave your finish out in the garage, and it gets very hot or very cold, it can interfere with the way the finish cures. When this happens, you can also get soft spots.
The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to always use fresh product. When you are using the product, apply thin coats, and also don’t re-coat the project before that first layer is totally dry. This will help you avoid soft areas, and finishing mistakes.
Sticky Spots in the Finish
A finish that has sticky areas is typically a sign of not drying very well. If several hours have passed after applying the finish, and according to the manufacturer that should be enough time to dry, you may have an issue of bad product.
Again, this either comes from using product that was beyond its expiration date, or damaging the product by leaving it in a very hot or very cold place. In general, I recommend that you store your finish carefully and safely indoors, in a fireproof cabinet if possible, and away from children or pets.
It’s completely up to you with how much you’re comfortable with, especially when it comes to storing chemicals indoors. Obviously I want you to be safe above anything else, because a new can of finish is only a few dollars compared to an accident.
As a point of reference, I store my finishes in clean original containers, on a very high spot in my master bedroom. This keeps them away from the kids, and it also keeps the finish at room temperature at all times.
I very carefully wipe down all the cans after I use them, to make sure that there’s no finish on the outside. I don’t want to deal with any smells, and I don’t want anything mixing that could cause a problem.
See Also: 13 Myths About Getting Into Woodworking
Orange Peel Texture
A common finishing mistake that shows itself more with spray finishes is called orange peel. It’s named such because of the way the surface looks and feels after it dries. The layer will have the look of the skin of an orange.
This bumpy look and feel will not be your intention. That’s why they call it a mistake, and thankfully there are products that you use to prevent yourself from having an orange peel effect after spraying a finish.
Another thing to do is to make sure that you’re not finishing in a very high humidity area. Orange peel typically comes from water being stuck under the surface, but it can also come from issues of compatibility between product that you use.
Make sure that when you’re spraying, you’re working carefully. Follow the recommendations, and mix your product correctly. Don’t spray in very high humidity, and also check to make sure the product you are spraying is compatible with the product that may already be on the piece.
Lint or Debris Trapped in the Finish
When this one happens, it’s definitely your fault. Don’t finish your projects in places that have a lot of floating debris in the air, otherwise it can get stuck in the finish. This is where lint and debris come from.
This happens to everyone, and one day you will go out in the shop to inspect that finish that you would expect to be perfect, and you find out that it has a bunch of little sharp nibs under the surface.
These are tiny fibers, and little flakes floating around in the air that landed on your project before the finish layer dried. Once the layer dried, those pieces become stuck, and the only way to get them out is by sanding.
After the surface has cured, carefully sand until the tiny dust and debris flakes are gone. After that, coat with another layer of finish, and store the piece in a better location so it doesn’t happen again.
Fingerprint on the Surface
A fingerprint is pretty common, and it happens from inspecting the finish a little earlier than you probably should. It’s a case of rushing, but it’s also a case of excitement to see if the finish layer is dry enough for you to apply the next.
Instead of touching the piece with the pads of your fingers, lightly brush the back of your fingers against the project next time. If you feel any type of resistance, give the layer more time to dry before trying the same technique again.
The less you touch the finish, the less chance you have of creating a fingerprint. Make sure to be light even as you are picking up the project to add another layer. Again, until it finish is fully cured, the top layer is still fairly soft.
If you do get a fingerprint, all you need to do to remove it is to allow the piece to cure, and then sand the area until the fingerprint is gone. Add more coats of finish afterward, and then let the piece fully cure without handling it too hard the next time.
See Also: How to Calculate Board Feet the Easy Way
Visible Scratches in the Finish
Assuming you didn’t scratch the piece after the fact, visible scratches on the surface typically mean they were under the layer before you applied the finish. This goes back to prep work, which is where the finishing battle is won.
If you prepare the surface for a finish poorly, expect a poor looking finish in the end. Scratches, dents, and defects well all show through a finish. Finish is actually going to magnify them more than anything else.
If you have scratches on the surface, remove the finish and also sand the project again to remove all scratches. Apply a few more coats of finish when you’re done, and then it should fix the problem.
You might also get away with applying several more coats of finish to build up a clear layer. Then, after the layer cures, sand the scratched area completely flat and you might just be able to remove the defects from the clear coat.
If that works, apply a couple more layers of clear finish, and then it should look good. Sometimes this can work a little faster than removing the finish and starting over. Either way, don’t let surface scratches remain on your project without doing something about it.
See Also: The Last 10% Principle for Woodworking
Drying a Piece in Poor Conditions
When your finish manufacturer lists the time that their product takes to dry, they are doing so under optimal conditions. This is a warm room, with low humidity, and good circulation. As much as you can, you want to mimic those conditions at home.
A mistake that wood finishers often make in the beginning is that they don’t think temperature humidity and circulation have anything to do with the process. They do, and by manipulating those conditions you can make a difference in how well your finish dries.
Make a habit of finishing in a place that’s warm, with low humidity, and with good circulation. All of these factors will help you’re finish layer dry faster, and can also help you avoid things getting stuck to the surface. If the finish isn’t wet, nothing can stick to it.
See Also: How to Speed Up Wood Stain Dry Time
Drying the Piece in the Sun
Yes, warm conditions are good, but finishing the project in the sun is not. Like all good things, you can go overboard, and it’s important to stay within the realm of reason while you are creating optimal finishing conditions.
The problem with finishing a project and leaving it out in the sun is that the finished layer can dry too fast. This can cause over heating problems, and it can also cause the top layer of the finish to dry faster than the under layer, which we covered earlier, and can cause problems.
The sun is good for a lot of things, but curing a finish is not one of them. Find a warm dry area to finish, and keep your project out of direct sunlight. It’ll still dry quickly, and with less potential for mistakes than being in the sun.
Stopping the Process Too Soon
When you are applying finish coats, it does take a little while to do. It can also be tempting to just blow off the last few coats and call it quits too early. Resist this urge, and apply as many coat as needed to make your project shine.
You’re not really saving very much by cutting off a few hours worth of work in order to doom your project for the rest of its existence. It’s a small thing to ask yourself to follow through on the last 10%, but it would make a big difference in your project.
No you don’t need to apply 100 layers of finish, but you do need to make sure you have enough to form a good looking and protective layer. Whether that’s three coats, five coats, or seven coats, do what it takes to make the right kind of finish layer.
Worrying Too Much
This is the biggest mistake of all. There are a lot of things that I told you to avoid is article, but the last thing I want to do is worry a lot. Pay attention to what needs to be monitored, but don’t worry too much.
Finishing is actually a lot easier than it looks, and with a little practice you can become very good quickly. All you need is find some finishes you like and make it a point to practice with them until you are comfortable.
Pay attention, and don’t rush. Apply thin layers, and let them dry really well before you apply the next ones. If you do those things, then you don’t have to worry about your finish. It will work out, and in the end you can always do it over if you make a mistake.
Your Action Assignment
Now that you know a lot of common mistakes that beginners make in wood finishing, go out into the shop and do some practice. Arm yourself with all of this good information, and don’t make the same mistakes.
Remember, you are going to make some mistakes as a beginner. Experience is a wonderful teacher, but so is academic learning. At least by reading and understanding these finishing mistakes, you can essentially learn from them without it costing you any time or money.
While experience is a very good teacher, experiences also an indifferent teacher. It doesn’t care whether the lesson causes you harm or not. That’s just the way experience works, and in order to have it, you have to put in the time.
That being said, get out into your shop and start finishing some scraps. Practice your skills, and enjoy the learning process. Remember that nothing is on the line at this point, because you’re only working on scraps.
Keep finishing your scraps until you become comfortable with one type of finishing product. Comfortable means you can apply a finish that you’re proud of repeatedly. Once you can do that, it will be much easier for you to finish your first several woodworking projects.
If you have any questions about the post, please post a question and I’ll be glad to help.
- More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
- 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
- Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
- Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post. Join My Woodworking Facebook Group