Make Yourself a Nice Polissoir

Reader Greg Merritt of Parkersburg, W. Va., drew up plans for making a nice-looking polissoir using broom corn and tarred nylon. The polissoir features two knots – a constrictor knot and a decorative Turk’s head knot, which are both easy to make. Merritt drew up complete instructions for making the polissoir and provided a nice pdf that you can download and print out: Polissoir_Polisher2 So if you cannot afford one […]

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& a Long-term Test">Polissoirs: New Models & a Long-term Test

Polissoirs: New Models & a Long-term Test

Last weekend during the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event in Charleston, S.C., I completed three try squares and even applied the finish right at the bench using a polissoir (French for “polisher”). For the attendees who had never seen a polissoir or the surface it leaves behind, it was an eye-opener. Photographs don’t do the surface justice. It’s an experience that is both tactile and visual. Most people assume that the […]

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The Redneck Polissoir

The Redneck Polissoir

Whenever I teach a class that involves turning, I like to show them how well the French “polissoir” can finish off your work on the lathe. A polissoir (say it poly-swaar) is a bundle of broom corn that is used to burnish a wooden surface to produce a tactile, low-lustre finish. While the polissoir has been around for centuries, Don Williams recently rediscovered the tool for modern woodworkers while he […]

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Outdoor Finishes

Outdoor Finishes

Simple to Super Durable

by Brad Holden

Outdoor finishes have one thing in common; they all require maintenance. Of course, paint is unequaled at protecting the wood from its two biggest enemies: moisture and ultraviolet (UV) light. Moisture causes the wood to rot, and sunlight bleaches out its natural color. Still, who wants to cover-up beautiful wood with paint? If you want the wood to show through on your outdoor projects, you need a clear finish.

There are three basic clear finishes for outdoor furniture: exterior oil, exterior varnish, and an epoxy sealer with an exterior varnish topcoat. Application ease and service life are the two major differences between these finishes.

Of the three clear exterior finishes, exterior oil is by far the simplest finish to apply. Just flow it on, let it soak in and wipe off the excess. Unfortunately, oil offers the least amount of protection and it must be reapplied every season. Exterior varnish, on the other hand, is more difficult to apply: up to 8 coats have to be carefully brushed on. While exterior varnish offers excellent protection from moisture and UV light, it has to be recoated every few years to maintain that protection. An epoxy sealer with an exterior varnish topcoat is the most durable outdoor finish and can last for many, many years. However, the initial application does take longer then exterior varnish. 


Exterior Oil

An exterior oil finish is definitely the simplest, quickest way to treat an outdoor project. On the downside, it will only give you about a year of protection from the ravages of outdoor life. Oil finishes don’t provide a protective film  that sits on top of the wood like varnish does. Instead oil soaks into the wood fibers and dries. Exterior oils have added trans-oxide pigments for UV protection and mildewcides to protect against mold and mildew. You’ll find colors ranging from dark brown to light amber.

Application is simple: a garden sprayer and a rag are all you need. First, flood the surface of your project with oil. I use an inexpensive hand pump garden sprayer. Its fast, easy and only costs about $8.00.  Let the oil soak in according to the manufacturer’s directions, then wipe it off. That’s it. Done! Depending on local conditions, you’ll have to reapply about once per year. The built-in UV protection should keep your wood looking natural for many years (as long as you keep up with the applications).

Click on any image to see a larger version.


Exterior Varnish or Urethane

Exterior varnish or urethane (both finishes are technically “varnishes”) builds a protective layer over the wood. It offers superior protection and durability over an oil finish. Often, the term “Spar” is found in the name, but this does not indicate any additional or special ingredient. The term “Spar” originates with its use as a coating for the spars on sailing ships. All exterior varnishes are formulated to protect against moisture and UV radiation.

Exterior varnish is applied with a natural bristle brush in multiple coats. Manufacturers recommend eight thin coats for maximum protection and a deep lustrous finish. Sand the hardened varnish lightly between each coat.

Exterior varnishes cure to a more flexible film than ordinary varnish. The flexible coat is not as likely to crack from seasonal wood movement caused by humidity extremes in an outdoor environment.

Exterior varnish will usually last  2-3 years before it starts to look chalky. As soon as you see a chalky film start to develop, it’s time to freshen the finish. Simply sand the topcoat smooth, and apply a new coat of varnish. Don’t put this important maintenance step off too long or cracks will develop in the finish allowing moisture to penetrate and degrade the wood. That will necessitate a complete strip and refinish to restore the furniture. You don’t want to go there.



Epoxy with Exterior Varnish

An epoxy sealer with exterior varnish topcoats is the most durable, but also the most labor-intensive finish you can apply to outdoor furniture. This is the finish favored by boat builders so you know it's going to last a long time. Epoxy and exterior varnish enjoy a symbiotic relationship: The epoxy forms an impenetrable moisture barrier that prevents seasonal swelling and shrinking of the wood. This dimensional stability in turn gives longer life to the exterior varnish because it no longer has to stretch and shrink with the wood The exterior varnish returns the favor by providing UV protection, without which the epoxy would rapidly deteriorate.

Apply three thin coats of epoxy. The best way to get thin, even coats is to use a foam roller cut in half. It works kind of like a squeegee. Epoxy cure times vary depending on their formulation and the ambient temperature. Be sure to use an epoxy with a long enough open time (approximately 30 minutes), so it doesn’t set up before you’re done putting it on. For large projects, mix the epoxy in small batches so you can finish an area before the epoxy sets. Also, for optimal flow out and penetration into the wood fibers, make sure the epoxy you use doesn’t contain any thickeners. Always read and follow the instructions that come with your epoxy. If possible, apply the epoxy undercoat prior to assembling the parts. You can recoat without sanding while the previous coat is still soft but not sticky. If the epoxy seems uneven or bumpy, allow it to harden. Then, sand it smooth and apply the next coat.

Before applying the varnish topcoats, I use a card scraper or sanding block with100 - 120 grit sandpaper to level the cured epoxy (see photo below left). The sanded surface also provides some tooth for the spar varnish to adhere to.

Rinse the sanded epoxy with clean water and dry with paper towels. The rinse water should not bead on the surface. Beading indicates that contaminants from the epoxy curing process are still on the surface and could interfere with the varnish bond. To remove the contaminants, wipe down with mineral spirits and dry with paper towels or a rag. Follow this with eight coats of exterior varnish, sanding lightly between coats.



Source information may have changed since the original publication date.

Epoxyheads,, 866-376-9948, epoxy resin #7710 $33.00/qt; epoxy hardener #7720 $17/ 1/2 pt.; metered pump set #7801 $11.

Penofin,, 800-penofin, Original Blue Label Oil Wood Finish, $15/qt.

Home Depot,, 48 oz. Chapin multi-purpose hand sprayer model 1002 $8.

Home center/hardware stores, exterior oil varnish or urethane.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April/May 2007, issue #128.


April/May 2007, issue #128

Purchase this back issue.

1. Sand out any unevenness and defects in the cured epoxy before applying the exterior varnish topcoats.


Dyed by My Own Hand

Dyed by My Own Hand

When I finish my pieces, I use restraint when adding stains or dyes. Most woods look best (to my eye) with some shellac, lacquer and maybe a little colored wax in the pores. But when I do color wood, I’m a fan of the W.D. Lockwood dyes, which are usually found packaged as J.E. Moser dyes from Woodworker’s Supply. I have to thank Glen D. Huey for introducing me to […]

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The Fear-Love Spectrum of Finishing

The Fear-Love Spectrum of Finishing

Every time I purchase lacquer at a professional paint store, I have the following conversation. Me: “Could you put that gallon in the paint-mixing machine for a couple minutes? That will save me some time.” Employee: “I’ll do it, but you won’t like it. You’ll create bubbles in the finish.” Me: “I’ll risk it.” I’ve been taking this risk for more than 15 years, and I have yet to have […]

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The Simple ‘Dirty Mahogany’ Finish

The Simple ‘Dirty Mahogany’ Finish

Here is one of my favorite finishes for any wood that is ring-porous or diffuse-porous. I call it “dirty mahogany” or “creepy janitor.” First a warning: I think this finish looks like crap on woods that have a closed pore structure, such as maple or cherry, and on softwoods. It looks great on anything with … Read more »

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Brush-On Finish the Easy Way

Brush-On Finish the Easy Way

Thinning the poly is the secret.

By S. Lloyd Natof

Finishing is a challenge—right? It’s one thing to get a nice finish on a small, flat sample board, but good luck with those inside corners, vertical surfaces, curved areas, thin edges, and framed panels. I don’t care for spraying, which comes with its own set of problems, so I’ve developed a technique to apply a finish by hand, using only a brush and some rags.

The general sequence of steps goes like this: First, I apply a coat or two of thinned-out polyurethane. Then I scuff sand the finish. Finally, I apply a coat of gel varnish to remove the sanding haze. The goal is a finish that appears level and clear, shows the pores and texture of the wood, and feels very smooth.

Applying a finish by hand has many attributes in common with using hand tools. The process is quiet, meditative, and benefits from a methodical approach.



• Brush. I use a 3" foam brush with a wood handle. I cut about 1" off the end of the handle so the brush can be stored in a quart can of finish. This eliminates the use of solvents to clean the brush.

• Polyurethane. I use semi-gloss Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane for the interior of a cabinet and gloss for the outside.

• Thinner. I use naphtha rather than paint thinner because it evaporates faster. The goal is to thin the poly so that it will stay wet and flow out better without extending the drying period too much.

• Gel varnish. I like Bartley Gel Varnish.

• Sandpaper. I use 3M 216U Fre-Cut Gold stearated sandpaper in P400, P600 and P800 grits.

• Felt block. This is for backing the sandpaper.

• Cotton rags or paper wipes. I use Brawny medium weight Taskmate Wipers, avaliable at the grocery store.

• Japan drier. This helps speed the drying process. It’s available at most paint stores.



I completely pre-finish all the interior surfaces and partially finish the exterior surfaces of a cabinet before assembly. Pre-finishing lets you work on surfaces without having to brush into an inside corner. Pre-finishing also allows you to place all your parts in a horizontal position to prevent drips and runs (Photo 1). You’ll finish one surface at a time, letting it dry completely before turning it over to finish the opposite side. Before finishing, tape off mortises, tenons and all glue surfaces with standard masking tape. Trim the tape after it is applied using a utility knife.

Start by sanding everything to 180 grit. Wet the sanded surfaces with a damp rag or sponge. After the wood dries, scuff sand the raised grain using a felt block and 220-grit paper. Wipe off or vacuum the dust. The surface doesn’t have to be absolutely dust-free because scuff sanding between coats will smooth out any vagrant dust in the finish. You won’t have to bother with a tack rag.

Next, prepare the finish. Stir 1/3 capful of Japan drier into one quart of poly. Thin the poly with naphtha until it is more like water than syrup (usually about 40% naphtha by volume). The exact amount of thinner is not that important. What you want is a coat that flows out and stays wet while you brush.

Apply the poly using a disposable foam brush. After you’re done with each coat, store the brush in a partial can of varnish. One brush will last for all the coats you’ll apply.

Working with a foam brush requires some getting used to. The main issues are that it unloads quickly and pushes a small puddle of finish in front of itself. With practice, you will get a sense for the right amount of finish to load into the brush. As for the puddle, let me show you how I finish a large panel.

Start by applying a perimeter of finish roughly 1" from the edge (Photo 2). Then, work the finish back and forth to fill in the middle (Photo 3). To avoid pushing the puddle over the edge of a panel, be sure to keep shy of the edges. Next, work the dry border with a brush that’s loaded just enough to wet the wood but not enough to drip over the edge (Photo 4). Go back over the entire surface, in any direction, to move the finish around and create a thin even film with no puddles or dry patches. Finally, brush with the grain using very light strokes at a low angle, like a plane landing (Photo 5). Start the strokes just in from the edge and continue all the way off the opposite end. The only downward pressure should be from the weight of the brush; you are just lightly smoothing the finish in the direction of the grain and don’t want to push finish over the edge.

When you’re done, examine the panel in a raking light. You should see a wet and even coat of finish. The brush marks should start to flow out and disappear, while the perimeter begins to look drier. If you see puddles or dry spots, move the finish around with the brush. Follow this up with light strokes that go with the grain. Check for drips on the edges and wipe them off.

Next, tackle the edges. Brush on the poly and wipe it off right away with a cloth (Photo 6). This leaves a thin film of varnish that won’t sag or drip. It’s enough protection for edges that won’t be handled very often. Use a raking light to check for a ridge of finish that may have been pushed onto the top. If you see one, smooth it out with a light brush stroke following the grain.

If you want to have more finish on an edge, wait until the faces are dry, then stand the part up on edge for brushing. Don’t forget to wipe off any drips after brushing the edges.

If you’re finishing a curved part, use a much drier brush (Photo 7). Dip the brush’s tip in the finish and stroke lightly with the brush held in a vertical position. Limit your working area to one face and brush out a thin, even coat. Wipe off the adjacent faces to remove any drips.

When you’re done brushing, clean the can’s rim, drop in the brush, hold a deep breath for a minute, and exhale into the can. Quickly put on the lid. This helps to replace the oxygen in the can with carbon dioxide, which minimizes the skin that may develop on the finish’s surface.

Lightly scuff sand every surface after it has dried for one day (Photo 8). Be careful near the edges, where the finish can be extra-thin. The edges that you wiped off should already be smooth, but if you need to sand out a little fuzz, use a very light touch with 800-grit paper.

Once you’re done sanding, use a new foam brush to apply 2-3 coats of gel varnish to the interior surfaces only (Photo 9). Working one part at a time, brush the gel on most of the surface, then smear it around and begin to remove it with a wipe in each hand. Switch to a new set of wipes to remove all the excess gel varnish (Photo 10). Any remaining gel will dry to a sticky mess, so get it off now. Use a clean, folded wipe on the edges. Remove any vagrant gel from the underside of the part and clean off smudges from your hands on the top.

Now you can remove the tape and glue your project together. Apply two coats of thin gloss poly on the outside surfaces (Photo 11). Sand with 400 grit in between coats. If you’re finishing a cabinet, brush one side at a time, rotating the case to bring a new side horizontal after the previous side has dried. You should be able to finish two or three sides in one day. Blankets and padding are important to protect the sides from damage as you rotate the cabinet. Wipe off any drips that may form on the edges (Photo 12).

Note: The used wipes should be spread out to dry when you are done.

Wait at least two days for the second coat to dry. Then lightly scuff sand with 600-grit paper to dull the glossy surface by about one-third (Photo 13). Repeat with 800-grit paper wrapped around the felt block. This time, push down harder to level the surface (Photo 14). Look for a 90% sanded surface with an even pattern of small, shiny pores after you wipe off the dust.

Finally, use a gel varnish to reduce the sanding haze, just as you did with the interior surfaces (Photo 15). I usually apply two to five coats of gel on top of the poly to get the finish I am looking for. For my really special pieces and on dark finishes, I polish with 3M’s Imperial Hand Glaze #5990 between the last coats of gel. I rarely use wax except on thin or satin finishes.

This finishing process can be used over dyes and stains, but you must be very careful near the edges, especially with dyes. Dark colors require more coats of gel and Hand Glaze polishing to remove the sanding haze.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Brushing a finish is much easier before assembly. For the best results, thin the finish, tape the joints, and lay all the pieces flat on your bench.

2. Brushing technique really matters. On a panel, start by brushing a perimeter. Leave a dry border to prevent drips.

3. Fill in the perimeter. Lay out an even, wet coat of polyurethane over the whole surface, except the border.

4. Brush the dry border, moving parallel to the edge. Hold the brush lightly, barely overhanging the edge.

5. Make the final strokes with an unloaded brush, following the grain.

6. Finish the edges next. Brush on the finish, then wipe it off immediately.

7. Curved surfaces test your skills. Use a less saturated brush with a light touch and check repeatedly for drips or sags.

8. Scuff sand with 400-grit sandpaper after the first coat has dried overnight. Wrap the paper around a felt block.

9. Apply gel varnish to all the interior parts with a foam brush. Gel varnish helps remove the sanding haze.

10. Wipe off all the gel with two rags and two hands. Remove the tape from the joints, then glue and assemble your project.

11. Apply a second coat of poly to the outside of the project.

12. Wipe up any drips that form on the edges with a folded towel.

13. Sand the exterior surfaces with 600-grit paper. Sand to within 1/8" of an edge, then make very light passes in this zone.

14. Repeat the process using 800-grit paper to level the surface. Again, sand much less near the edges.

15. Apply gel varnish until you get the look you’re after.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2009, issue #139.

December/January 2009, issue #139

Purchase this back issue.



My Introduction to the ‘Polissoir’ – Roubo’s Wax Polisher

My Introduction to the ‘Polissoir’ – Roubo’s Wax Polisher

For most modern woodworkers, wax is not a finish. It goes on top of the finish and creates a barrier to scratches. But after reading the forthcoming translation of A.J. Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier,” it’s clear that wax was once a fast and beautiful finish for furniture. That is, when assisted with a tool that’s Continue reading»

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Shellac Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood

Shellac Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood

For me, shellac is a lot like grits. When prepared correctly from quality materials, the results are stunning. But if you buy your grits or shellac already made up, or they are old, or they aren’t top quality, you are going to wonder why people rave about the stuff. I’ve never had satisfactory results from Continue reading»

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