Fun with Chemistry

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This article is from Issue 2 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Jo McIntyre

When it comes to wood finishing, Michael Dresdner knows that little things count – little things like elements and molecules. This “lazy perfectionist” became an expert by spending time in the shop and in the classroom.

F    or a man who claims to be unemployed, Michael Dresdner is awfully busy; and at 54, he’s too young to be retired. 

“I’m at my giving-back stage,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “Also known as the over-the-hill stage.”

Dresdner is a recognized expert on wood finishing, with four books, countless columns and magazine articles, and four videos (along with a “best-of” DVD) to his credit.

He still works as a consultant for a variety of industrial clients and custom woodworkers on finishing and production manufacturing, but spends most of his time at the computer, rather than on the shop floor or at the lectern.

Dresdner is the answer man at WoodAnswers.com, which was launched by the makers of Varathane and Watco finishing products in January of 2004. It’s not the first time he has participated in Web discussion groups, but this is his favorite so far.

 “They first approached me at the beginning of the year and wanted me to write a blog,” he says. “‘All you need to do is answer questions that come in,’ they said.” 

The site owners estimated he would only need to make about two entries per week, but Dresdner knew better. He told them the site would be way more popular than they thought, and he was right. 

“By June we had passed 400 total questions,” he says. “We have had more than a million visitors. The average visit time is 20 minutes. People are sitting there reading. There is already more than a book on that Web site.”

Dresdner is also a denizen of the online community through his work as the editor of Woodworker’s Journal eZine; he has authored a finishing column for the print edition of the magazine for four years.

AS ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S foremost finishing experts, Dresdner has published numerous magazine articles, books and videos.

Perhaps most importantly, Dresdner spends huge amounts of time with his wife and two kids and on volunteer work in his hometown of Puyallup, Wash.

“I actually don’t do any woodworking anymore, except for making samples and props for photo shoots for my articles,” he says. But his stress levels are way down. His wife, Jane, uses his cigar consumption as a stress indicator and right now, he’s not smoking much.

In tune with the arts

Dresdner started his woodworking career in furniture and antique restoration. He never dreamed he would one day become a finishing expert.

“I originally apprenticed as a finisher around 1972 in Miami, and then moved [in 1976] to New York City, which was where the top finishers were,” he says. “There’s a traditional, Old World attitude toward crafts and trades in New York. You work in one trade, and you do it completely. Crossover is not looked upon with favor. To know wood finishing in this world means you can look at any finish, anywhere, know what it is, and reproduce it.”

But Dresdner is the king of the crossover, with many less-well-known skills. He’s an avid participant in community theater, for one. He’s also known for guitar design and manufacture – a completely different field. 

Guitars have been very good to Dresdner. While he was making and playing guitars in New York, he also took part in a lively folk music scene. He met Jane there when he was in “survival mode,” earning money by playing music on the street and at a Greenwich Village venue. 

USING A VARIETY OF PIGMENTS  and the skills of a fine artist, Dresdner deftly repairs damage to a raised panel door.


Today, the walls of his comfortable home are adorned with some of the warm acoustic guitars, graceful mandolins and elegant violins he has worked on. 

“My actual deep love of life was guitar making. I always envisioned myself as a Geppetto,” he says, likening himself to the toymaker in “Pinocchio,” but building guitars in a dusty little woodshop in lieu of puppets.

Instead, he found himself running the repair department for a guitar maker in New Jersey, where something happened that still tickles him.

“What fascinated us most was a customer who was in a band,” he said. That customer had a crummy old guitar, but the band’s growing fame made the value of similar guitars soar. Dresdner and a colleague decided to make a perfect counterfeit, or replica, and sold it as an “original reproduction.”

Years later, however, when a guitar magazine ran a photo of their creation, they learned it had been resold as authentic, and even recognized as authentic by an expert.

WHEN IT COMES TO GUITAR DESIGN, Dresdner always pays attention to details. Here he shows off the intricate bracing of an original top from a Martin D-1 guitar.

Chemical logic

Finishing is an entirely different trade from woodworking – if woodworking is about physics, then finishing is about chemistry. Woodworking shows results immediately, while a wood finish matures slowly, undergoing complex chemical changes as it ages. You can’t apply human, saw-meets-board logic to finishing; it has to follow rules of chemical logic. 

“Most of us do not have an intuitive understanding of chemistry,” Dresdner says. At first he resisted taking science courses in college. “If you had told me at the time that I would be enamored with chemistry, I would have told you you were nuts.”

As he worked on guitar finishes, he became frustrated with his level of knowledge. 

“I needed to know more about what goes on at the molecular level. Most of the time you don’t need to know that, but at the troubleshooting stage, you need to learn about it.” So For the next several years, Dresdner took chemistry courses near his home in New Jersey and later, Pennsylvania.

His interest in, and experience with, wood finishing coupled well with his bookish approach to the chemistry of finishing, and he began to write. 

“For every article on cutting dovetails or making kitchen cabinets, you will have 50 people who can write the article. In finishing, you’ll be lucky to find two. Writing about finishing was and is a very rarefied field. I’m a big fish in a very, very small pond,” Dresdner says.

He was already a columnist for a guitar magazine when an editor from Fine Woodworking asked him to write a column, which he did for almost nine years. 

Next, Dresdner moved to American Woodworker, writing a column called “Just Finishing” for more than seven years. He’s now been with Woodworker’s Journal for four years. 

As both a writer specializing in finishes and guitar maker, Dresdner found himself in a unique position. “I was the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind,” he says. “Finishes are critical in guitars. Guitar makers’ understanding of finishes was abysmal – they hardly knew anything.” 

At one guitar makers’ conference, he corrected a speaker and was invited to return and speak himself, thus launching the lecturing portion of his career.

Dresdner’s travels have taken him from Philadelphia, where he was born, to Pittsburgh, where he studied at the University of Pittsburgh, to more study at a college in northern New Hampshire, then Miami. He spent several years in New York City, where he opened his first guitar making shop, and then moved on to New Jersey, the site of his second.

Needing a larger shop space, he returned to eastern Pennsylvania, where he ran his third and fourth shops before taking a job with Martin Guitar Company.

DRESDNER SHARES A MOMENT with the family cat, standing atop a kitchen table bearing a collection of the carved names of visiting woodworkers.
THE DRESDNER FAMILY was turned upside down when daughter Kaitlin was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. Now in remission, Kaitlin is a student at the University of Washington.

Westward, Ho

The next big step, across the country to the Pacific Northwest, came simply because his family was ready to move. He resigned from Martin and sifted through job offers from all over the United States. Jane flew out and looked each place over as they tried to decide where to live. 

Eventually, he was able to put all his experience and knowledge to work for a large multinational company based in Korea. They probably had learned that he is a perfectionist, although one who claims to be incredibly lazy. He always finds a way to do things more easily and perfectly. 

That was a perfect fit for an Asian company desiring to enter the musical instrument business. They hired him to start a new guitar company in Tacoma, Wash., in a bare-bones structure they had already bought. He set up a cell manufacturing process and installed insulation, bathrooms, ceiling fans – the works. 

“It was a shell on 50 acres,” Dresdner says. “I designed everything in the building. All the electricity is in four huge buss lines with voltages ranging from 110 to 440. You can unplug and move any machine in a couple of minutes.”

Naturally, the wood finishing line was state-of-the art for the industry, and so safe and sound that the Environmental Protection Agency gave it a number-one rating. The result, the Tacoma Guitar Company, earned a reputation as a high-quality guitar maker with reasonable pricing. It was purchased in October by Fender. 

Dresdner is no longer with the company – stress was doing him in. 

“In 18 months, we went from no building to being in our first show,” Dresdner recalls. “I was putting in hideous amounts of time and not seeing my family. After leaving there, it was like setting down a very heavy load that you hadn’t noticed. I went from that to pretty much not working.”

The calm induced by leaving that job didn’t last long. His daughter Kaitlin had just turned 16 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. 

“That turned our lives around,” he says, in an obvious understatement. “I was glad I wasn’t working. It’s strange to say that, but I had time to pay attention to it. Now Kate is leaving home. I wouldn’t trade these last years.”

Kaitlin is in remission now and attending the University of Washington, near the hospital where she was treated for her illness just a couple of years ago. 

It will be just two more years before his son, Drew, heads off to college, too.

Dresdner’s wife has had a career almost as checkered as his own. When he met her in Manhattan, she was a nurse in the pediatric cancer ward at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“She took over the whole organization of Kaitlin’s medical care,” Dresdner says. “She knew the language and could translate it. She knew the medications.” 

Jane gave up professional nursing a long time ago and now works at the Tacoma Little Theatre as the development coordinator. Founded in 1918, TLT is the oldest community theater west of the Mississippi.

Theater is what Dresdner calls the family passion. “We all sing and act. Our son got us into this.” At 16, Drew is an actor and trained opera singer. “Our entire family volunteers or acts in most of the shows. Drew has been in many musicals in other theatres also.”

Dresdner had to stop actively working with wood in 1988 when he was diagnosed with a congenital wrist ailment known as Kienbock’s disease. But he still helps with sets and props, in addition to performing. 

At the time, Dresdner went through nine months of trying to figure out why he couldn’t use his hands. An operation helped, but restricted the use of his right hand. “I very much miss working on things,” he says. “The drive is still there.”

The other theatrical event the family participates in is an annual seasonal holiday performance called Revels, founded 33 years ago in Cambridge, Mass. Tacoma is one of 11 cities that puts on a Revels performance.

Each year, founders and managers of the dramatic musical pick a particular place and time as the setting for the event, such as 14th-century France, or 19th-century Ireland.

“All four of us auditioned two years ago, and all got in,” Dresdner says. “Last year three of us did it. I couldn’t because I had a part in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’” This year Jane, Drew and Michael auditioned and got in.

So, what does this expert in wood finishing, guitar making, acting and business management want to do next? He’s still fascinated with words and word origins, so he will probably always write. But then, his characteristic smile lights up his face again as he says, “My other dream job is to be a barista.”

Jo McIntyre

Jo McIntyre is a full-time freelance writer who has attended many woodworkers’ conventions in the Pacific Northwest. She has written articles for Woodshop News, and also covers woodworking for general-interest newspapers. She lives in McMinnville, Ore., with her husband, an amateur woodworker himself. 

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