Enhanced and Blended Finishes…
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Blended Finishes: Overview

Many years ago when I first opened my studio, I followed a predictable course when finishing my woodturnings. I used manufactured finishes right out of the can with all of my projects (an old habit from my flat woodworking days on the dark side). It was not long before I found out that none of the off-the-shelf finishes would work for every project.

This black cherry bowl was enhanced
with reddish-brown oil pigments in the finish.

Some of the finishes were fast at building a multi-coat finish, others offered a more provocative tactile response but were thinner and required more coats to achieve a proper build. Some were nearly water clear, others looked like molasses. Several were easy to apply; a few seemed to be designed by a bloody mad scientist that reveled in knowing you were jumping through hoops to use their product.

Blended Finishes: Rolling Up My Sleeves

This brown oak burr bowl was finished
using a custom-made blended oil finish.

I soon realized that to fulfill all of my finishing needs, I would have to roll up my sleeves and put on my laboratory coat if I wanted to get a better finish. Manufactured finishes for all of their benefits, are somewhat limited… You can take them, or leave them. If you have a particular oil finish that you love that's too dark for a certain project, you have to find another product, or perhaps blend a few products together to get your desired finish.

I love to tinker with blended finishes, mixing a little of this oil with a little of that oil to get something entirely different. I also love to fiddle with manufactured finishes to see if I can get a better result, or to fill a specific need for a project. There are times when you cannot purchase exactly what you need, so you have to cobble up a batch yourself. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention!

Blended Finishes: Blending and Enhanced Finish Concerns

Of course, you have to observe ordinary finishing rules when adding things to your blended finishes. Oils go with oils, water based with water based, etc. When adding enhancements to finishes, you are allowed more freedom. For example, powdered pigments and stone dusts can be added to many blended finishes. You have to use some common sense here, but you have a wide latitude when adding enhancements to most finishing products.

Blended Finishes: Mixing and Enhancing Finishes

Lacquer finishes are one of the easiest
finishing products to enhance.

For example, I use a lot of lacquer in my studio and I frequently add a bit of colour to enhance the underlying natural colour of the timber. Although a few tinted lacquers are available from better stockists (we call these tone sprays on this side of the big pond), the colours are very limited and it is so much easier to just make your own up as needed. Supplementing your blended finishes with enhancements is not as hard as it sounds, in fact it can be child’s play at times.

Another finish that I frequently batch up is pigment infused lacquer. I have never seen these for sale, so I make my own. It’s not hard and it can add an extra level of sophistication to an otherwise run-of-the-mill timber, or ordinary finish. We all run across the bland or boring project blanks from time to time and this is a great opportunity to experiment and learn new finishing protocols. Throw in a bit of colour, add some pigment, or perhaps pitch in a wee bit of stone dust for texture and see what happens.

I also love to use various oil blended finishes to create a multi-layered finish that meets my specific needs. Blended oils were one of the first finishes I started cobbling up and it has become a routine practice in my studio to this day. From this side of the keyboard, blended finishes allow me to obtain a finish that is superior in many respects to the original finish. It can also help to reduce your costs when finishing larger projects, since you can optimize each finishing product for the specific project at hand.

Sometimes I mix various oils into one new batch, at other times I apply the different oils in layers, over the course of several days. I find this approach superior in many cases to applying multi-coats of the same finish. Some oils just produce a better tactile response than others do. Some are better a sealing raw timber; others are optimized to pop the grain better, etc… By using various oils in separate layers, I can get just the effect I want and in most cases keep a few pence more in my grubby little hands at the same time.

Blended Finishes: Banging Your Head

You may be thinking why bother with cobbling up a finish? Well to me it’s not a bother, it’s a passion. You see, it is hard wired into me to tinker and question what I am doing and how I do it. The relentless pursuit of a better way to do things has served me well though the years and has allowed me to solve numerous turning and finishing challenges. It has also made me a better woodturner, by allowing me to customize some of my blended finishes when necessary to achieve a better result. Besides, it feeds my internal citizen scientist nature and keeps me thinking outside the box – which is a good thing!

Blended Finishes: Going With the Flow

Having said that, you could turn for the rest of your life with “off-the-shelf” finishes and be happy as a clam. Not this bloke though… It’s one thing to try and replicate a manufactured finish (no small task for sure in a home studio setting), it’s quite another to add supplements to a finish to enhance its overall visual appeal. It’s also quite fun at times, since you can obtain something that would not have been possible with off-the-shelf products.

Finishes do not have to remain inviolate… Step out of your comfort zone and play around with blended finishes. You just might find that your cobbling efforts produce spectacular results. If you are new to this type of work, always experiment on a test piece or a blank that does not cost an arm and a leg. That way, your significant other will not think you’re daft for ruining your prized project blank that you had been dreaming about getting on the lathe.

Once you have the protocol down pat, then give it a go on your next major project. I like to experiment on small projects like weed pots, bottle stoppers and small bowls. They make great blank canvasses that will not keep me awake at night if my experimentation efforts go sideways and produce a blank for the rubbish bin.

Blended Finishes: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

When I first opened my studio, I experimented on my regular project blanks, whether expensive or not. This worked out most of the time, but not always. I vividly recall one Big Leaf Maple burr platter that to this day sits in my studio half finished, more than 12 years later. I had been doing a lot of inlay with genuine crushed semi-precious and precious stones at the time and I ran across a man-made product that was touted as producing the same look as real stone inlays.

Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids… I bought the sales pitch hook, line and sinker and inlaid it into part of my prized Maple burr platter. Let’s just say it was not one of my better adventures. It was in a word – terrible! Looking nothing like the real stone, it had a cheesy and visually unattractive quality to it. Although my platter was ruined, it served as a lesson for me to always practice on unimportant pieces until my experimental protocol is satisfactory. My goal is to help you learn from my frequent misadventures in the studio, so you don’t have to tread the experimental turning and finishing pathways uninformed.

Blended Finishes: My Favorite Blended Finishes

Artist oil sets can be purchased
at any craft store.

1. Coloured Lacquer – Adding a wee bit of colour to lacquer is easy. I typically use artist’s oils, the expensive kind that is used by professional artists. You can also use so called student oils, which all manufacturers offer in one way or another. They work very well indeed, so try these first. If you want to give this a go, get a sample kit of the oil colours. This will give you a small tube of each oil colour (you only use a wee bit of the oil each time) and it will not break the bank. Then, if you like a particular colour you can purchase a larger size tube.

Most turners will never need the standard sized tubes of oils unless you are doing production work. To find artist’s oils, check out local artist supply shops or craft stores. Oil colours blend into lacquer quite readily and can be stored for long periods without degrade. To make a coloured lacquer, or tone spray simply decant a small amount of lacquer into a clean metal tin, ramekin, or glass container and add a tiny bit of the desired colour to the lacquer. Stir well (I like to use disposable bamboo chopsticks from a local Chinese restaurant) and apply in the desired fashion. Less is more here…

To achieve the proper colour, I apply multiple coats of the lacquer. Each successive coat of lacquer deepens the colour effect. If the colour is too light, add some more of the oil colour and give it a go again. I always spray coloured lacquers, but they can be brushed on as well if you prefer. There is no real recipe, as I tailor the colour for the project at hand. Using coloured lacquers can really help some projects that lack the kind of vivid eye catching natural colour we all crave. The effects can range from an almost imperceptible colour enhancement, to a full-on colour block out of the surface. The results are easy to control, so there is no fear that you will fall into a finishing abyss.

Lacquer is usually applied in multiple coats anyway, so there is no difference in applying your enhanced lacquer, except for the gradual colour enhancement that you get by using multiple coats. When the effect looks right to you, stop and let the lacquer fully cure before deluxing the surface with a buffing wheel charged with the appropriate compound. If you prefer, you can also use a cutting wax to finish the finish in lieu of the buffing wheel.

Minwax 209 finish produces a sensuous
tactile surface when buffed.

2. Layered Oil and Blended Finishes – Two of my favorite finishes are layered oil and blended finishes. Depending on the project, I may mix various oils to achieve the proper colour and viscosity I need (blended oil finish), or I may apply each oil finish individually, over the course of several days (layered oil finish).

I really like Minwax 209 oil finish, but it is a thin finish that it can take a boatload of coats to build a finish. Back in the day, it was not uncommon for me to apply 25 – 50 coats of Minwax 209 to get the sufficient build I wanted on some projects. (Pre-sealing the surface with lacquer or shellac helps to reduce the number of coats needed, if used as the sole finish.)

I like the sensuous tactile feel of a buffed 209 finish, but I want to get there faster. To achieve this goal, I use a heavy-bodied oil like Liberon Finishing oil as a mid-coat oil over a sealed surface. Liberon Finishing oil builds up fast and is easy to apply. Once I get enough of a build on the surface with the Liberon oil, I switch to Minwax 209 for the topcoat and apply the 209 for the remaining coats. When the oil is buffed, all you feel if the silky, provocative surface of the Minwax 209.

Liberon finishing oil is a superb,
quick-building oil finish.

Another favorite technique of mine is mixing various oils to achieve a specific viscosity. Let’s face it, every timber is different. Some can drink a finish like a sponge; others make you work harder to get enough of your chosen finish absorbed. If I have a soft timber that I know will drink the finish like a fish, I will usually blend a few light bodied oils together with a heavy one or a medium weight oil and apply them that way, instead of individually.

Heavy bodied oils build faster, but some are too heavy for some timbers. You could thin them using odorless mineral spirits, but I prefer not to do this if possible. In my studio, Minwax 209 is what I consider a lightweight oil; at the opposite end of the spectrum is Liberon Finishing oil, a heavy bodied oil. In between, I usually have another 45 – 50 different oil finishes in stock that I can mix as necessary.

Blending various compatible oil finishes together is also a good way to use up small bits of finish left in the can. It’s better to get it onto a project and let it cure, than it is to have it go off in the can and waste some of your hard earned money. I’m thrifty that way… The money saved can go towards more tools or finishes.

Pearlex pigments can be added to many different finishes
to enhance the visual look of your project.

3. Pigment Infused Lacquer – Another finish that I love is a pigment infused lacquer. Pigments can be purchased in various colours at any craft store. Since lacquers are usually clear, pigments can be added without concern for the base colour of the finish. Although you could add a lot of pigment to lacquer to make a pronounced effect, I prefer using pigments sparingly thus creating a subtle effect.

On some of my projects, you have to really look hard to see the pigment, as it is almost imperceptible. This type of effect adds a slight sparkle in the finish, picking up ambient light and bouncing it differently than a “pure” buffed finish. Depending on the timber and the effect I want to produce, I may add more pigment coming closer to metallic type finishes you see on modern cars. Since the pigment is suspended in the lacquer, it can be applied the same as a tone spray to achieve a stunning effect.

Another way to add versatility to this technique is to vary the application of the pigment infused lacquer with regular lacquer (no pigment added). Perhaps you want to add some interest to a wormy project, or one with numerous bark inclusions. You could limit your application of the pigment infused lacquer to only these areas (worm holes or bark inclusions) and use the standard clear lacquer for the rest of the project. Once you are done, several coats of clear can be used to overcoat the surface. I call this targeted area finishing, because I target specific areas on the surface to draw the interest of the person viewing the project into certain areas.

Airbrushes are a great tool to have in your studio
when finishing small to medium size projects.

I normally apply pigment infused lacquers with an airbrush, as it allows for precise control of the amount of finish applied and can be easily limited to tiny and hard to reach areas. If you do not have an airbrush, you can get relatively inexpensive starter models at any craft store. For most woodturning projects, they will work just fine. They will not give you the versatility of the more expensive professional models, but you can always step up to one of the high-end models if you fancy the technique.

Try one of these and play around with some of your finishes. As long as you limit your finishing experiments to compatible finishes, you don’t have much to fret about. As I mentioned, always perfect your protocols on smaller, inexpensive projects first. Better yet, turn some projects specifically for testing various finishes.

All of us have some scrap timber that can work for such exercises. You will gain additional finishing skills when experimenting and you will enjoy your time at the lathe more, since you have a broader range of skills to draw upon when you encounter a special project. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.