Workshop Finishes

Add life (and good looks) to your shop with our four-can plan.

Many woodworkers dream of a shop lined with flawlessly finished cabinets like the kitchen of some celebrity chef. If you have the time and inclination, go for it; just don’t let perfection prevent you from making real sawdust. Cabinets and countertops deserve protection, but a workshop doesn’t need a showroom-grade finish to do the job.

Selecting a finish for your shop involves slightly different criteria than a piece you're planning to display in your home. Much like choosing wood for a jig or fixture, the goal is as much about protecting surfaces from everyday wear as it is about looking good. The trick is accomplishing both—as quickly and cleanly as possible.

Following is a rundown of the materials and methods we used to finish our MDF, and maple and birch plywood workshops, plus tips for finishing with a minimum of fuss. Whether you’re building a brand-new shop or want to give your old shop a new look, here are three fast finishes that should let you get right back to furnituremaking.

Painting—tough to beat a roller and brush

Paint is not only easy to apply and durable, but it also serves as an effective way to unify sheet goods and solid stock. It doesn’t matter if you use poplar, pine, maple or MDF—they all look the same after two coats. It’s also an easy way to unify cabinets built over time or from miscellaneous materials. And for basement and garage shops, whitewashing the interiors is almost as effective as in-cabinet lighting.

Spraying may be speedier for large jobs, but when you add in prep and clean up, a roller/brush combo is faster for smaller jobs and on-site work. Mini rollers cover interior and exterior surfaces quickly, leave no brush marks, and are reusable but also cheap enough to toss after use. With a good sash brush and a steady hand, you can paint next to finished walls and cabinets without painter’s tape. 

Painting is simple, but these steps can ensure success. After the assembly of a cabinet or other shop project, touch-up sand with 180 grit and fix cracks and holes with wood filler or caulk. Do a quick inspection after the first coat to catch anything you missed.

Choose your paint wisely. Wall paints lack abrasion and stain-fighting resistance. On the other extreme, exterior paints remain elastic and may stick to tools. Latex enamels and epoxy paints provide the best stain and abrasion resistance, but an acrylic polyurethane topcoat offers the same effect.

Polyurethane—best done with a gun

If you stepped up to hardwood ply then you’ll want a finish to match. Water-based acrylic polyurethane is a natural-looking choice. Acrylic polyurethane dries quickly and crystal clear, but what makes it ideal for small-shop finishing is the absence of fumes or the flammability associated with other solvent finishes.

An HVLP (high volume, low pressure) sprayer is a perfect partner to this fast-drying finish. Sprayers lay less finish than rollers, but once the cabinets and room are prepared, several cabinets can be sprayed in the time it would take to roll just one. Our shop took less than a day.

Spraying in a small shop involves a bit of a battle between dust and overspray (fine mist that bounces off or misses your project). Protect your work and surroundings with plastic sheeting on the walls and a canvas tarp on the floor. Apply two light coats and then scuff-sand the surface with 220 grit to level raised grain. Remove dust and loose grit with a vacuum or damp rag (tack cloths may leave a residue) and apply two more coats of poly.

Unlike a roller or brush, cleanup can’t be dismissed. Forget to clean your gun at the end of the day, and you'll be sorry the next morning. Always spray warm soapy water through the gun until the passages run clear, then disassemble and lubricate your gun as directed in your user’s manual.  

Counters and benchtops: wipe-on polyurethane and wax

Scratches and stains will happen, but you can postpone the inevitable. The polyurethane and wax two-step is easy to apply, effective at repelling glue and other staining agents, and a cinch to touch up when you wear through the surface.

Don’t be stingy with the poly. Apply the wipe-on as shown in Photo A; wait 10 minutes and wipe off the excess. Depending on the top (MDF will soak up more than maple), two or three coats should do the trick. Don't go overboard. Shiny surfaces look nice, but skating rink-slickness is not useful in a workshop. 

Paste wax isn’t much of a finish, but the molecularly-thin film does provide cheap insurance. After giving poly a day or two to cure, wipe on a thin coat with a rag or 0000 steel wool (Photo B), wait for it to haze, then wipe off the excess. (Don’t worry, the wax swirls will wear off.)

If you rub on a fresh coat of wax whenever the top looks worn or glue doesn’t pop off like it should, the poly undercoat should last for years of hard wear.

Pour the poly onto counter and bench tops to seal the surfaces in the least amount of coats.
Use a rag to apply the wax, wait, then buff. Apply a fresh coat when glue drips start to stick.
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