Truth of the Day: Plastic Finishes

sawbench_finish.jpgI don’t write much about finishing because Bob Flexner has done that for us. “Understanding Wood Finishing” is one of the core books that should be in every woodworker’s library. Read it once through and then refer back to it when you wander into uncharted territory.

Bob has a reputation as an iconoclast, a rebel or a curmudgeon, depending on who you talk to. As someone who edited his column in Popular Woodworking Magazine for many years I can say this: He has no tolerance for BS, marketing, marketing BS or romantic naming conventions for finishing products. And unlike other authors who write about finishing, Bob does not sell his own finishing products.

We are constantly bamboozled by finish manufacturers who push “tung oil,” “Danish oil” or whatever on us without telling us what actually is in the can. Finishing is not complex. There are only a few ways that finishes cure. And once you understand the differences, then finishing becomes as straightforward a skill as flattening a board.

During the weekend I had to look something up about fixing orange peel in a film finish and stumbled on a remarkable fact in his book. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

“Myth: You often hear polyurethane disparaged as a ‘plastic’ finish.

“Fact: All film finishes, except possibly shellac, are plastic! Solid lacquer, called celluloid, was the first plastic. It was used as early as the 1870s to make collars, combs, knife handles, spectacle frames, toothbrushes, and later, movie film. Phenolic resin, called Bakelite, was used to make the first plastic radio cases. Amino resins (catalyzed finishes) are used to make plastic laminate. Acrylic resin (water base) is used to make Plexiglas.”

Flexner then goes into detail about how modern varnishes were developed.

Sweet mother of mystery, this book is only $15 at ShopWoodworking. Buy it and read it.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to Truth of the Day: Plastic Finishes

  1. I think you linked to the 1st edition, a 2nd edition seems to be available.
    Argh, no digital version? 😦
    Shipping & handling to Europe is not fun, that’s why I often prefer the digital version.

    • wadeholloway says:

      There is “Flexner on Finishing” that is available as a digital download. I have it and think it is pretty good. Have not compared it to the other book yet, but for me it was worth the money. Oh it is available through Popular Woodworking to.

  2. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Drying oils do polymerize…but I just can’t bring my tongue around to calling them “plastics” and feel much differently about them than I do urethanes of any ilk on my work…

  3. jonathanszczepanski says:

    When it comes to the magic of finishing, Bob is the Gandalf to my Sam Gamgee.

  4. karlfife says:

    With regard to finishing books:
    The Last Word On Sharpening was THE best sharpening video because it didn’t just tell me how to sharpen, it told me how sharpening WORKS. Finally I had and a little batch of concepts, which serves as a far better toolkit than memorizing yet another pundit’s ritualistic sharpening behavior.

    Question: Does the “Understanding” in _Understanding_Wood_Finishing_ refer to understanding HOW it works, or does it refer more to understanding WHAT to do to create that prettier-than-usual finish you’ve been missing all these years?

    I’d like to read a book that’s primarily founded in the concepts rather than yet another resource which aims to help you get the right kind of finish properly applied onto a project . Some chemistry fundamentals would be welcome. Oil vs. curing oil? Polymerization? Laquer, urethane, shellac and varnish? Maybe even a contrast them to to enamels? Why is shellac on shellac fundamentally different than urethane on urethane? Is it curing some kind of one-time chemical reaction like rubber vulcanization?

    If THIS is that book, then please send it overnight. If not, please write it. I hear that you have *nothing* else going on right now. (tee hee). -Shellacked in Shicago [sic].

    • Bob’s book is the structure behind everything in the finishing world. It’s not about one person’s rituals. It’s about understanding the world and harnessing it for yourself.

      • karlfife says:

        The book was delivered yesterday. I can confidently say, “Yep. This is that book”!
        It is *exactly* what I have been looking for.

    • tsstahl says:

      Get the book. You won’t be disappointed.

      At 15 bux plus shipping? I know I’ve pissed away more than that on stuff that really ticked me off.

    • jenohdit says:

      If you don’t have that book and you intend to put finishes on wood you should jump at that deal.

  5. Deniseg says:

    It’s on my shelf – guess I should dust it off and read it again. This time it will make more sense because I have more experience with finishes. RE-read it.

  6. Alex A. says:

    It’s the first woodworking book I purchased and the first one I recommend. I still remember reading that passage 10 years ago when I first read through it.

  7. karlfife says:

    Presently, the link above ( takes the reader to what *appears* to be the older 2005 edition of the book (ISBN 13 9780762106806 (paperback)). The book was revised in 2010. The 2nd edition (2010) is also available at the for $24.99 (paperback). There is also a hardcover edition available for the same price.

    * Shopwoodworking doesn’t make these facts particularly clear, so feel free to correct me if you are able to determine otherwise.

    • fitz says:

      We seem to have the same book in the store twice — the less expensive one ships from the publisher (fox chapel). No idea why the prices don’t match, but they are both the second edition. So, er, I’d go with this one (the same one to which Chris links):

      I’m going to ask marketing about it…but I’m going to wait until Monday, just in case they raise the one instead of lowering the other…

      (I have no control over these things)

  8. domanicoj says:

    Thanks for the reminder Chris!! Digging my copy out right now. Flexner is the Wizard of the Bristles!!

  9. chucknickerson says:

    Completely unrelated question: which wordpress theme are you using?
    None of them seem this clean.

  10. I own “Flexner on Finishing.” Would getting “Understanding Wood Finishing” be redundant?

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