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How Do You Finish your Wood?

The two questions I am most often asked when I am at a show and people look at my items are, “How do you finish your wood?” or “What do you use to finish your wood?” They usually ask about my pens.

Over time I have used several types of finish and experimented with a few others, but I have settled on a specific type.

Before any finishing product hits the wood…

The finishing process begins way before any drop of liquid comes into contact with the wood. I don’t remember where I heard this but the words ring true in my head anytime I am working with a piece of wood.

Your finish only looks as good as your sanding

This makes a huge impact on how your finished piece turns out visually. If your wood is roughly sanded, and there are sand lines through the wood, no amount of finish is going to make that look good.

I sand at a slow speed with the lathe running around 500 rpm’s. This allows no heat to build up and to not have the sandpaper load. Generally I start out with a 220 grit paper and work my way up to 1200 grit sandpaper. This gives the wood a soft silky feel. Also between grits I reverse the lathe and sand with the grain to remove and sanding lines.

Once I am done sanding, I use a soft cloth I to wipe the wood down with Denatured Alcohol (DA) to remove any dust prior to applying the finish. DA cleans the woods and dries quickly without penetrating the wood like water can.

My homemade sandpaper dispenser
My homemade sandpaper dispenser

What about wood stains?

Wood stain is something I don’t use right now. As I tend to work with either exotic or reclaimed/recycled wood I want the natural grain and beauty of the wood to come through. Wood stains can mask that.

Exotic woods like Bocote, Cocobolo, Olivewood, etc. have their own beauty which would be a shame to hide behind a wood stain. My personal opinion is not to hide what nature created.

As for the reclaimed and recycled wood, when I begin turning it, it’s like unwrapping a present. You never know what you are going to find inside until you start peeling back the layers. I have begun turning what looked to be a bland piece of wood but once I began I uncovered hidden inclusions, wood knots, and some gorgeous grain patterns.

When working with wood, it’s like uncovering hidden treasure.

When it’s time to finish the wood…

As I said before I have played around with several types of finishes especially with my pens. From Friction polish, which is commonly a combination of Shellac, Denatured Alcohol, and Boiled Linseed oil, to various paste wax finishes and even Walnut Oil finish. While they are nice, they weren’t quite what I wanted as a finish especially with the pens.

The finish I ended up using and sticking with for my pens is Cyanoacrylate glue which is more commonly known as Super Glue. It creates a hard and durable coating that allows the beauty of the wood to come through while giving it a high gloss shine.

Even with this I have tried several different types and my CA of choice is Titebond. This brand has a good working time, dries fairly quickly, and holds up well.

There are two types of CA finish that can go onto the pens. I start out with five coats of thin CA. This soaks into the wood, and as the name implies, it is very thin and has incredible wicking properties. This comes in handy with woods like Zebrawood or Paduak which are naturally open grained and can have small natural voids in the wood that need to be filled.

Once the thin CA is applied, then I move on to Medium CA, which I apply about ten coats of. It builds a hard shell around the pen barrel which not only looks good but creates a protective barrier. Once this is fully dried and hardened, no matter how much you handle your pen, take it in or out of a purse the shine will always be there.

Titebond CA glue for finish or as it is more commonly known as Super Glue
Titebond CA glue for finish or as it is more commonly known as Super Glue

Hands off!

For a while I had a love/hate relationship with CA finish and it frustrated me to no end.

On occasion I would get a what looked to be smoky spots appearing on the blank when I would start polishing them. In order to figure out what was going on I did several things.

  • I bought fresh CA thinking it had gone bad.
  • I tried it with and without accelerator (which cures the CA faster).
  • Thinking it had something to do with the Florida heat and humidity, I tried playing around with applying it at different times of the day.

In the end I was fingered as the culprit.

Between each coat of CA you have to let it dry completely before going on to the next. I touched it with my finger to test the dryness. If it hadn’t dried enough, I would feel the tackiness on my finger.

What I didn’t realize was that when I did this it was also transferring oils from my skin to the finish which would then appear as a smoky spot when I started wet polishing.

So now between coats my new mantra is, “Hands off!”

An example of the smoky spots I would find in the finish from time to time.
An example of the smoky spots I would find in the finish from time to time.

Time to polish and buff…

Once the coats of CA are finished, and it has dried, there are still two more steps before I’m done.

First there is the wet sanding/polishing. For this I use pads called Micro Mesh. They run from 1500 grit up to 12,000 grit.

When the CA dries, it is not always smooth or even. The Micro Mesh pads takes care of that. I soak the pads in water as they have a sponge-like quality. With the lathe running at 500-600 rpm’s I wet-sand the blanks. The trick with these is to keep them wet and not to let the pads dry out.

As you polish with them, a slurry forms. Between each grit, wipe off the slurry with a soft paper towel.

Once I have gone through all the grits with the Micro Mesh, then the blanks come off the lathe and are ready for the buffing wheel. The wheels I use are cotton, and one is coated with Tripoli powder. With the lathe running at about 2700 rpm’s, I buff out the blank on the wheel with the Tripoli powder. Once that’s done, then I move on to the clean cotton wheel.

When it’s done, the blank pops and shines, and it’s then ready to assemble.


While this process may seem time consuming, it’s well worth the end results. It produces a pen with a luxurious finish that will last a lifetime.

Here are a few examples of my pens done with a CA finish.

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Turning on a Dime

So here I was bitten by the wood turning bug but I was missing something very important, the tools to turn with. First I turned to Craigs List to see if I could find a lathe there. Oh there were plenty of lathe’s out there for sale to be sure, but they were either really old and weary looking or fairly new and still pretty pricey for my budget. My thought was that as much as I had fallen in love with the Nova Comet it’s price was a bit out of my reach at the time and did I really want to spend that much money upfront for something that in the long run I may find I don’t like or take to as much as I thought I would.

From there I began looking at other options from local tool shops to countless searches online. For the most part all the price points for lathes are pretty much in the same category. Starting at $300.00 and going up from there with all the bells and whistles that you could think of.

After a number of searches and reading tons of reviews I came across a 10 x 18 mini lathe at Harbor Freight. The cost was minimal and I admit to being one who lives by the motto of you get what you pay for as the price was considerably less expensive then most other lathes in this size. This had me looking into it even more.

I began searching and reading reviews on the lathe and was pleasantly surprised to find that the reviews for the Central Machinery 10 x 18 min lathe were very favorable. The construction was solid, the motor was powerful, the lather has five speeds: 750, 1100, 1600, 2200, and 3200 RPM’s, and the headstock spindle is a standard size of 1″ x 8tpi which make sit nice for adding a chuck down the road. The headstock and tailstock are a MT2 taper which again is standard for most parts.

The price of the lathe is $219.99 but being a patient person paid off for me as I waited for them to put it on sale and then with a 20% off coupon the cost pre-tax was $169.00. Now I will say that with the savings I purchased a two year replacement plan which if I remember correctly was an additional $20.00 just to be on the safe side.

Out of the box the lathe was ready to go with minimal setup, it comes with Allen keys for adjusting the belt. Changing the speeds on the lathe is fairly simple, using one of the supplied Allen keys you loosen the motor, move the belt onto the proper pulleys, tighten it back down and you’re ready to go. After one and a half years of turning I did have to replace the belt which did take some figuring out but in the end not to bad. (Will write a post on changing the belt in the future)

The one thing I did notice that when turning a project the chisels did tend to hang up on the tool rest a bit. That was fixed easily enough by sanding off the paint on it and then applying some wax to the top of the tool rest which then allowed the chisels to just slide across it.

In the year and a half that I have been using the lathe it has performed quite well for me and I’ve been extremely happy with it. I’ve now turned everything from pens, shaving brushes, bottle stoppers, and some small bowls with it. A couple of different chucks have been purchased along with a drill chuck and pen drilling chuck. A few people have mentioned that the motor does tend to run a bit warm and it does but that has not seemed to make any difference in how it performs.

All in all I have been very happy with this lathe and would not hesitate to recommend it as good way to get into turning on a dime.