Workshop Mishaps: The Finish That Really Bugged Me

The Story

"The Finish That Really Bugged Me"

One balmy evening last June I stood in my garage workshop brushing polyurethane on a pair of cabinet doors. The two-car open doorway of my workshop gave way to a view of the setting sun and canopy of purple and pale orange clouds. It also provided ample ventilation for the task at hand. Birds chirped. Bugs hummed and swarmed. Life was good.

   My wife came in to let me know dinner was ready. With my appetite now in control, I wrapped and laid down the brush, washed up, and followed the cooking aromas into the house. I left on the lightbulb I worked beneath and the garage door open with plans to return to check on the finish, which, at this point, was flawless.

   A mere 30 minutes later when I returned, I found my “perfect world” crumbled like a stack of beer cans in an earthquake. Those humming bugs invited themselves in, swarmed around the light and then dropped from the sky, singed by the bulb. And where did they land? You got it—on my drying finish. Tiny wings, feet, and bug bodies lay strewn across my cabinet doors creating a Lilliputian battlefield. It recalled another time I had applied a finish during a gusty day only to have swirls of gritty shop dust settle on a fresh finish. Oh, well, I concluded, time to get out the sandpaper and start over.

The Victim

Jim’s woodworking roots go back 30 years. Aside from working in a cabinet shop, he built furniture and gift projects for family and friends and tackled several do-it-yourself projects around his home in Iowa City, Iowa. Mastering the perfect finish, he admits, remains one of his ongoing challenges.

Case Analysis

While ventilation trumps all other concerns when finishing, it’s also important to set up safeguards that keep foreign materials from settling on and ruining a good result. Jim’s problems began when he left the lights on in his garage. Spring and summer months bring a lot of critters into play—particularly flying ones—when applying a finish. Leaving the garage door open also created a large avenue for a bug invasion, a problem which could have been avoided by choosing better conditions to apply a finish. 

Shop-Smart Strategies

Though you can’t fight Mother Nature, you can work around her. Try these strategies to improve your chances at achieving the desired look:

  • Choose a bugless time of year or day. Avoid working around dawn and dusk when flying critters become active. By elevating projects you eliminate trespass by crawling insects.
  • Check out the weather before finishing in open air conditions. Storms could mean wind gusts and moisture. Windy conditions should be avoided. Finish containers typically tell what temperatures work best for that product. Follow them closely.
  • During colder months when finishing inside, again, allow for ventilation. Clean the shop floor and other surfaces to control the movement of foreign material the day before so any airborne dust has a chance to settle. Lay down newspapers to cover the floor in the finishing area so as to not raise dust when moving around.
  • Build a cheap finishing room or cave out of 2x2s and thin-mil plastic sheeting. Leave one side open so as not to create a concentration of toxic fumes or volatile materials when working inside. Doing this will keep dust and bugs at bay during the critical drying time. When applying later coats,  sand between finishes elsewhere to avoid contaminating the space. 
  • If you have the time and money, build a dedicated dust- and bug-free finishing room with an explosion-proof ventilation fan and a plentiful supply of filtered pass-through air.
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