Finishing Cherry at the Lohr Woodworking School

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This article is from Issue 55 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Discover a multilayered approach for a feel-good surface.

By Rob Spiece

Cherry is my favorite wood to finish. The closed grain nature of the wood allows me to polish it to a silky smooth surface. Beyond that, it develops a richness of color as it reacts to light. But because cherry is a photo-reactive wood, you must be careful while working with it. If one piece is left on another in even moderate sunlight, the exposed area will darken while the covered area remains light. (See the photo at right.) When I’m done working for the day at the Lohr Woodworking School in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, I drape all of my workpieces so they aren’t exposed to light. While this can be bothersome, it makes the finished cherry piece reach an even, beautiful depth of color. Of course, the piece will continue to change for about three to five years until it reaches its final tone.

After just one day in direct sunlight, the coins on this piece of milled cherry–once moved–left shadows on the wood.

The storyboard finishing steps

To best tell how I finish cherry at the school, I’ve created the storyboard below to show the finishing steps at a glance. My process always begins by sanding the wood to 220 grit and then wiping it clean. Before using any finishing products, be sure to slip on protective gloves.

Next, apply boiled linseed oil to pop the color and grain. First, flood the surface and let the oil soak in, as shown in Photo A. After 10 minutes, wipe the piece dry and use compressed air to blow any excess out of nooks and crannies.

Flood the surface with boiled linseed oil. Let it soak in. Wipe up any excess. Let it sit for five days.
Rub out the dry wiping varnish surface with fine steel wool. Repeat to build up the finish layers.

Start with the bottom rag, the grittiest one, and rub. Switch to the less gritty rags in order.

After the boiled linseed oil has thoroughly dried, apply a film finish. Use a sealer/finish, such as Waterlox Original, to build a nice satin finish. Allow 24 hours of drying time between coats. After a coat cures, rub it out to a dull sheen with #0000 steel wool, as shown in Photo B. 

This smooths the previous coat, preparing it for the next one. Repeat the process to build the finish to the desired thickness–around four to five coats. Let them cure. Once you’re satisfied with the final coat, begin rubbing out the surfaces with the steel wool for the final finish.

To achieve a silky smooth feel and an even sheen, use rottenstone as a rubbing compound. It works well on closed grain woods, like cherry or maple. I don't use it (as some do) on open-grained woods, like oak, where the fine black particles become lodged in the wood’s deep grain and serve as filler. 

Applying rottenstone is a laborious process, so focus on using it on the most tactile parts of a furniture project. For instance, with the Morris chair on page 42, I used rottenstone on the top surfaces of the arms, where fingers and hands will be in regular contact. I used #0000 steel wool and mineral oil on the rest of the chair.

Start by mixing a batch of rottenstone and mineral oil in a lidded jar. The consistency should be that of a thick salad dressing. Stack three clean, lint-free rags in the jar and shake it up to saturate the rags. Make square, hand-wide pads from the rags, and rub the arms in the direction of the grain, as shown in Photo C. Disperse even pressure using the wide pads.

Finally, use compressed air to blow any remaining rottenstone from the nooks and crannies, and then wash the piece down with a dampened rag and dish detergent to remove the oily residue. You’re done.

Disposal Of Oily Rags

Take serious care of your oily rags. Those saturated with any oily finishing product, such as linseed oil, can and will spontaneously combust. I overcome this problem by hanging the rags out on a wash line or over the rungs of a ladder. Opening the rag up so that air can touch all surfaces allows the heat reaction of the curing oil to dissipate in a nonviolent manner.

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