Wood Grain Profiling: By Eye

Written by on June 23, 2011 in Topcoat Finishes, Wood Snobbery with 8 Comments

sapeleWood finishing is misunderstood.

Rightly so.

Every species has its own traits that affect product and process to be used on it. The best way to learn about wood is to work with it, on as large a scale as possible. The wood will teach you.

Pattern Recognition

I remember finishing an antique heart pine floor in 2006 – in the shop. Hancock oak rubbing stain and two coats of gloss tung oil prior to installation. Oh, with edge breaking. 10,000 square feet of floor, one piece at a time, three times. It got to the point where I had the entire batch narrowed down to basically 3 grain patterns, each with its way of taking stain. So, when I pulled a piece off the pile, the grain pattern would dictate the application. By that I mean, when you are rubbing dark stain into 16′ lengths of wood, rags become saturated. And of course you have to change rags. Well, a rag on the front end of a cycle is a very different application than a saturated rag on the backend of its service. It turned out that of my 3 grain patterns, each required a different stage of rag, and a different pace of application. One could suck in a haze, while another would spit it out.

grain patterningPart of the art of working with wood is to develop an “eye” for grain, and to figure out how the species prefers to receive finish. This concept applies to all wood finishing that is outside the realm of paint. It applies to stains, penetrating oils, clear films, etc. That pine floor taught me alot about surrender. It was 10,000 sf, but it was also 30,000 sf (3 coats, 3 rounds of handling). Its very humbling. You have to look at the pile and quickly form a relationship with it. I now get as much pleasure out of helping my employees, customers and colleagues become wood snobs too. Especially customers. I love it when customers ask questions about wood. Simple questions like: “hey, you just put finish on that yesterday, why are you sanding it off today?”

Explaining the art of building a finish, or of leaving it a click on the light side so the sun can dial it in…or helping someone to understand how and why their wood gets better with age, just like their wine. I love cutting lines on sheetrock, but I love getting lost in wood grain just a little bit more.

How about you? Does it hold any meaning for you?

Scott Burt

Scott Burt is a contractor and freelance writer whose column "From the Field" has appeared in American Painting Contractor magazine (www.paintmag.com) since 2008. His writing and projects also appear in other print and digital venues. This site is an extension of Scott's publication work, and he encourages readers to leave comments and questions about articles published here. Hope to hear from you!

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  1. Alec says:

    Great post Scott – nice to read from someone who appreciates the fine art of wood finishing as much as I do. Looking around your site for your airmix review, where is it? 😉

  2. There is something about working with wood that man identifies with on a subconscious level. Its as if we are tapping into some ancient gene that some of us have. It really feels natural, and can be very relaxing and rewarding.

    I think there is nothing more beautiful than what a craftsman can do with a great species of wood. We as finishers can take the beauty only nature can create and bring even more of it to the surface.

    • Funny you should say that, Tommy. Some of my favorite colleagues are local woodworkers/cabinet makers. I am fascinated by listening to them talk about their craft, which is wood. I sometimes hope that they are nearly as interested in my thoughts on finishing wood. I have learned more about wood from woodworkers than from painters.

  3. The Blogging Painters says:

    A “wood snob” love it! You do know your wood, nice post!

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