For shop rags, we mostly use old T-shirts that have been washed and washed and are almost falling apart. But when I have a finishing operation where I want almost zero chance of lint or threads coming loose, I break into our stash of Huck towels.
I was turned on to Huck towels by Ty Black, who used to work in my shop. His then-wife worked at a local hospital and there were always surplus Huck towels around. One common use for them is to clean surgical instruments after they have been sterilized.
Huck towels are 16” x 22”, cotton, very absorbent and a tiny tiny bit rough in texture, which makes them ideal for buffing off wax, especially when it has flashed. We use them to buff out the wax finish on our lump hammers. And when I buff out black wax on furniture, I really like the Huck towels.
Note that their threads remain intact until you cut them, then they fray and you will get stray threads everywhere.
Advisory: I am not a rag expert. Bob Flexner spent an evening telling me all about the world of rags, which has a long history. So if you are one of those people, I’m sure we’ll hear from you in the comments.
Prices vary greatly. When I buy them in bulk, I usually pay about 50 cents per. Our last bag of 50 lasted about 10 years. We washed and rewashed them until they just about disappeared.
This week I’m finishing up a set of Roorkhee-style ottomans for a customer, and today I applied Liberon Black Bison Wax (dark oak shade) over the two coats of garnet shellac.
This is one of my favorite finishes for campaign furniture. The garnet shellac warms up the mahogany; the dark wax fills in the pores and tints any pink left in the wood.
My youngest daughter, Katherine Schwarz, is working for Lost Art Press this summer, doing a lot of photography and website maintenance. So I asked her to shoot this quick phone video to show the before and the after.
Katherine and I will make a few professional videos this summer, including the long-promised video on sharpening scrapers and a video on our Crucible Pinch Rods. The phone video above is not indicative of the quality she can produce (she’s in art school).
Fresh-mixed shellac is an excellent film finish, and we go through a lot of it in our shop. Here is how I mix it up for general use as a furniture finish (i.e. not as a barrier for urine, smoke or sap).
We use Tiger Flakes from Tools for Working Wood. There are lots of good shellac suppliers out there. But once I settled on Tiger Flakes, I stuck with Tiger Flakes. I like consistency and predictability with my finishes.
I use pure-grain alcohol: Everclear from the liquor store. Hardware store alcohols (which have water, methanol and/or other chemicals) don’t dissolve shellac as well. And they can be poisonous. If you can’t buy Everclear, I recommend you visit Kentucky! (Other woodworkers I know buy ethanol through medical supply catalogs and report that it’s not too much of a pain.)
I mix up shellac in a “one-pound cut” or even a little weaker. That is one pound of shellac per 1 gallon of Everclear. There’s a handy chart here that helps you through the math for smaller portions. While many prefer a “two-pound cut,” I prefer to apply more thin coats than a few thick coats. You can, of course, easily thin down a thick shellac.
I use a magnetic stirring gizmo. This $30 gadget allows me to pour the ingredients in a plastic beaker, drop in a magnetic stirbar and walk away. In about an hour it mixes the shellac completely. Some people prefer to pulverize their shellac with a grinder used for coffee beans. That works, too. I prefer the magnetic stirrer because I can pour an entire pound of shellac into an entire gallon of alcohol and walk away. No pulverizing small batches of shellac. But that’s just personal preference.
Then I filter the shellac through a paint filter or cheesecloth. Amazingly, the Tiger Flakes never contain any bug parts, so there’s nothing really to filter out. But I do it anyway just to be sure.
Then I label and date each glass jar of shellac. We use it so quickly, however, I’ve never had any expire.
We use a lot of finishes in our workshop, from soap to shellac, but the one we recommend for beginning finishers is one we mix up ourselves.
It’s what Bob Flexner would label an oil/varnish blend. We just call it our shop finish.
During the last 20 years, I have developed some preferences as to the raw materials I use, but feel free to ignore those. Almost any brand of raw material will work. Here we go:
1 part Minwax Helmsman spar urethane, satin sheen
1 part boiled linseed oil
1 part odorless mineral spirits
Mix up the three liquids in a mason jar and you are ready to go. Apply it in thin coats with a clean cotton rag. Wipe it on and continue to wipe until the coat is as thin as possible. There should not be a visible puddling or pooling of liquid anywhere. You are wiping it almost dry.
Let the finish dry (it usually takes a couple hours). Use an extra-fine sanding sponge (usually #330 grit or so) to remove any finishing nibs. Apply another coat and repeat the process until you achieve the look you want. Two coats is the minimum for me and is what I use for workbenches and shop appliances. Furniture usually gets three or four. I have used as many as 10 for a customer who wanted a more plastic look.
Why This Finish?
The varnish offers a bit of protection against spills and stains. It’s not a thick film such as lacquer or a built-up shellac finish. But it does offer enough protection for a chair, bookcase or cabinet. Tabletops, which live a hard life, usually need more protection.
The boiled linseed oil offers a little color and will continue to add color as the piece is exposed to oxygen and sunlight. I like this yellowing. It’s what old furniture looks like.
The mineral spirits thins the varnish and oil, making it easy to spread the shop finish out to a thin and even coat with great ease.
Why These Raw Materials?
I prefer the Minwax Helmsman spar varnish (satin sheen) for a couple reasons. It’s easy to get at most home centers and neighborhood hardware stores. Its major competitor (here in the U.S.) is Varathane Spar Urethane. The Varathane works fine, but it smells a little stronger and takes longer to dry (usually an extra hour or more in my experience). It also gives a milky appearance to the mixture, though that doesn’t seem to change the look of the finished object.
I don’t have a preference for which boiled linseed oil I use.
As to the mineral spirits, I always strive to use odorless mineral spirits. It costs more but has fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and almost no smell.
Aside from the protection that this finish offers, I like the low-sheen, hardly there aspect of the finish. It looks like wood does when it has been freshly planed. To your fingers, it doesn’t feel like the wood is wrapped in plastic. And it’s difficult to mess up when applying it. I’m sure it’s possible to mess it up, but I haven’t seen it happen yet.