Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cabinet Finishing Process on Quarter-sawn Oak

     In traditional Craftsman style, we're going with quarter-sawn white oak for the cabinet faces. Using his 3D model, Steven came up with an estimation of needed board feet, and we purchased the oak from a local sawyer. Visiting the saw mill and seeing all the beautiful wood species that you can't find at the chain home centers was really neat. We'd be glad to put you in touch with our supplier if you're in North Alabama and need some hickory, sassafras, walnut, etc. for your project!

This 13-inch Dewalt planer was a thrifty Craiglist find!

     The sawyer had already planed the oak to about an inch in thickness, but we had to further plane it down to 3/4 of an inch. After all the boards were planed to the right thickness, we began jointing them. Because of its strength, the heartwood (darker side of the board coming through the planer) is considered the desirable part when it comes to building furniture. For that reason, we ran the boards through the jointer with the heartwood side down. The jointer gave us a nice, straight edge to put up against the table saw's fence, then we ripped as many strips as we could get from the heartwood to construct the face frames. Using the Kreg K5 Pocket-Hole Jig again, we drilled holes in the face frame components, then assembled them with Kreg's 1 1/4-inch fine pocket-hole screws. Let's get to finishing this face frame!

Can you guess which is the chosen one? ;)
     As you can see, Steven went through many, MANY samples to get the color just right. We wanted something that contrasted well with our flooring and not too orange or too brown. The final look turned out just a smidge darker than the sample above after the protective clear coats, but we are extremely happy with the outcome. (Also, this is the first time I've ever finished furniture!) Here's the step-by-step process we used:

1. Using an orbital sander with a 150-grit pad, sand the face as well as the inside and outside edges (above left). Make sure to thoroughly smooth all the joints so the face is totally flush. You'll probably need to grab a piece of sandpaper and take care of the inside corners by hand. Next, use a 220-grit sanding pad to run over the sharp edges JUST enough to soften them a bit (above right). Don't go overboard and round them over too much! Wipe down your face frame with a tack cloth to remove all dust.

2. Apply General Finishes' Brown Mahogany Gel Stain liberally with a cotton cloth (above). Strips of old t-shirts work well. After getting the gel stain slathered on, I let the piece sit for about eight minutes, then I wiped up the excess and buffed the stain in with a cotton cloth. Whenever the cloth became saturated with the stain, I grabbed a new one. You can't easily buff with a soaked rag, and a soaked rag leaves stain residue behind which has to be buffed over again, as I learned... The piece pretty much felt dry to the touch after the stain was rubbed in, but allow at least six hours to dry before proceeding.

I found it helpful to lay the ends of the face frame (in this case, the sides of the sink cabinet) directly on top of two saw horses. This seemed to provide easier access for the inside edges and corners.

3. Apply Zinsser's Bulls Eye Amber Shellac with a cotton cloth. This is a fairly thin liquid compared to the pudding-like gel stain. Wipe it on with long, smooth strokes, making sure that it's evenly applied with no excess product pooling anywhere. I used this pre-mixed shellac straight from the can without thinning. The shellac serves as a barrier between the stains, preventing the antique walnut gel stain from overtaking the brown mahogany gel stain. Your piece will feel dry within 30 minutes, but allow at least an hour before moving on to the next step. (Be aware that the pre-mixed shellac has a shelf life. If the drying time takes much more than half an hour, the shellac may be past it's prime.)

4. Apply General Finishes' Antique Walnut Gel Stain with the same method described in step two. When comparing a piece of oak with the antique walnut stain to one without it, the difference is subtle, but we thought it was worth the extra step. The antique walnut stain appears to absorb in places where the brown mahogany did not, adding another level of depth and richness to the finish.

5. Apply General Finishes' Arm-R-Seal (satin finish) with a cotton cloth. The Arm-R-Seal's consistency is very similar to the shellac, so again, apply a thin coat in long, smooth strokes, keeping in line with the wood grain. Allow six to eight hours for the piece to dry, or longer if conditions are humid. Buff the piece with 0000-grade steel wool, and thoroughly wipe the piece down with tack cloth. Steel wool left behind way more dust than I expected! Apply a second coat of Arm-R-Seal, follow with the steel wool and tack cloth. Lastly, apply a third coat but skip the steel wool - you're done!

Detailed view of the final finish.

Steven attached the finished face frame by adding screws through the pre-drilled pocket holes. We laid a cotton cloth between the clamp and the frame to protect the finish during this process.

Finished face frame!

Helpful tips:
- When applying all products, start with inside edges, then cover the rails, stiles, and outside edges (in that order!) to keep the finish in line with the wood grain. On a piece like the above face frame, I did the inside edges, followed by the vertical drawer divider, then the rails and stiles. I got into a groove with doing each step in that order, even the sanding and the tack cloth rub-downs. It felt like following that pattern for everything would ensure more consistent results and decrease my chances of missing a spot.
- A great reference book on the subject: Understanding Wood Finishing by Bob Flexner (2005)
- Before tapping the lid of your can of gel stain (or paint, sealer, whatever) shut with a hammer, lay a rag over the lid. There was some residue in the can's rim that splattered all over me yesterday when I tapped the lid with a mallet... glad it came off with some soap and a pumice stone so I won't have a splotchy mahogany brown faux tan for Easter!


  1. I too have splattered myself when closing a paint lid! I always put a dish towel on top now before hitting it with a mallet. I think the worst mistake I've ever made was trying to clean a shellac primer off my hands and brushes with soap and water. I had white gummy hands for a week. It was pretty funny though. Your cabinets are coming along beautifully!

    1. Thanks, Lindsey! Are you supposed to use mineral spirits or something more heavy-duty for a shellac primer? Sounds like a sticky mess, haha!

  2. The cabinets are beautiful. You guys are so talented!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! And thanks for checking out our little blog :)