Stephen Mann Furniture Co.
667 So. State College Blvd., #77
Fullerton, CA 92831
Tel./Fax (714) 870-4480
Furniture Restoration & Repair
I developed this technique mainly to survive doing what excited me most in this world. Its plain, simple and easily accomplished using off the shelf materials from any good hardware or building materials store anywhere in the country. Ive worked my way from Philadelphia to Fullerton, CA using the same materials now that I used 25 years ago. No esoteric chemical formulae, no experimentation with my bread and butter jobs. The artistic side gets exercised on my own stuff.
In order to make sense of my procedure its necessary to understand the direction I come from when I approach a refinishing project. I approach it from a number of different ways actually, but each and every direction is either a tangent from the basic premises of chemical engineering and physics or meets the needs of my artistic side. I want both integrated if I can get it..
Each and every product we use, as refinishers, is the product of someone sitting down and saying "I want to achieve this result , with these properties and to do that I need to take this molecular structure and add it to this molecular structure etc. etc. until I achieve this result. I have to do the same thing, except I substitute products with molecular structures I want, rather than molecules. Thats the chemistry. The physics is I know wood is going to absorb and expand. The art is I satisfy that need to create something beautiful.
Now, I will be the first to admit that Ive had no formal training in either chemistry, physics or art but when look at the results of my work with a 2x eye loupe and my magnifying glasses I find everything I think is happening is, in fact, happening as far as the physics goes. If the folks at Watco and Guardian are to be believed as far as the chemistry goes, then Im okay there, too. When I look at, touch and feel the wood that itch to create is scratched satisfying the artistic side of me because I know something that has done to it what Ive done to this piece of wood cannot help but glow
What I want is the piece beautiful when I get finished. As important, I want it as well protected from destructive forces of any kind as possible. Third, I want not only that there can be no customer complaint, I want to stop that customer dead in their tracks when they see what Ive done. I want to reach into their heads and MAKE them take notice of that piece. Fourth, I want to be able to say, when asked about a warranty on my work, "You pick it. Theres nothing that can go wrong." Plus I dont want to spend a lot of time on the job. I want maximum results with minimum time invested. Only science can give me all that.
At first glance, I ask a lot of my procedure, but its far easier than it appears. Its easy because I acknowledge those parameters over which I have no control and turn them to my favor rather than trying to rebel against them. For instance, as I said before, wood is an absorbent material. I cannot control the fact that if I put something wet on wood, no matter how finely sanded it is, the wood fibers are going to absorb that "stuff" and expand. Thats physics, the Laws of the Universe and irrefutable. I am not going to fight Mother Nature. But since I know about the physics I can turn that liability into an asset. I simply fill those wood cells with a material that I know is going to cure and harden into something that pleases me in general and my eye in particular.
Chemistry comes from identifying those materials that behave in a manner that I can utilize in as many ways as possible. For instance, Watco Oil, the chemical, makes the wood look beautiful, protects it both by chemical action and penetration, stays wet long enough for me to work the wood, heats up and penetrates further as I generate friction by sanding and is coatable with anything I want or have to cover it with such as lacquer or waterborne. Thats far too many benefits gained to worry about the only liability I can find and that is drying time.
I also dont like to waste my time. I need to be as efficient as possible, since Im "it" as far as the business goes, plus I just dont like doing things over.
Lastly, Im well aware that what I do best is refinishing furniture. I figure lets let the guys who love to manipulate molecules do what they do-as long as they do it well. After 25 years I can safely say the folks who make Watco Danish Oil know what theyre doing and as long as they chemically engineer Watco Oil so it gives me the results I get, Im happy. Same way with the Guardsman bar-top lacquer and Norton Wet or Dry sandpaper. I dont need anything else.
When the piece comes to me it is unvariably in need of stripping. I strip it in a flow-over system I had a sheet metal shop build for me and an air driven pump from Grainger, using a 4 to 1 mixture of lacquer thinner to MEK (methyl ethyl ketone) and set the piece to air dry.
After stripping I simply apply Watco Oil per the instructions on the can. "Wait, wait" youre saying "You didnt sand it!" Thats my procedure or the heart of it anyhow. Why should I dry sand the piece to feather smoothness and then add a liquid that the wood fibers are going to absorb and expand to the point where some or a lot of my dry sanding time is going to be wasted because the wood isnt glass smooth anymore.
The wood has to become and stay glass smooth because I want to spray numerous coats of a product that is chemically engineered to stay wet long enough to level itself and then dry. I cant lay a glass smooth surface over a rough one. The laws of physics will prevent it. Better to realize it and eliminate the problem to begin with, then try and fight.
At this point I seem to be going around in circles. Make it glass smooth but dont sand it. Whats up? The key is dont DRY sand it. Wet sand it. I prefer Watco Oil because it stays wet long enough for me to work the wood, number one and, two it pleases my eye best. Other products, such as Minwax stains, will work, I just prefer Watco.
Apply the Watco and really slop it on, just like the can says. Keep the piece wet until the wood is clearly becoming saturated. Then, I cut a piece of 320 or 400 grit Wet or Dry sandpaper about 1.5 inches off the short side the sandpaper and fold it into a size that fits my hand, dunk the sandpaper in Watco and proceed to sand the piece just as if you were dry sanding.
Several things are happening at the same time. The oil is being heated by the friction generated by the sanding and penetrating further into the wood, those pesky fibers that expanded when the oil was applied are being abraded off and forced into the grain of the wood if its an open grained wood such as walnut or mahogany, acting as a filler and the surface of the wood is, very quickly, becoming glass smooth. Round stuff ( legs, rungs etc.) can simply be wrapped with wet or dry sandpaper and abraded or abraded with a Sand-o-Flex.
After the wet sanding, I put the piece aside for a short time and then wipe off the sanding residue. My piece is glass smooth and as well protected as I can get it at this point. Now I need to let chemistry and Nature do their thing. Just remember, if you use Watco dispose of those wipe-off rags properly because they may spontaneously combust if you dont.
This is also the time I do any touch up on color inconsistences. I use NGR stains from Earl Campbell Manufacturing Co. in Kansas City, MO. And apply them sparingly with my airbrush. I am simply trying to lessen the effect of "jump up and scream at you" light spots because I dont want to cover up the natural beauty of the wood grain. Rather, I want to blend the coloring so that the original focus becomes the beauty of the chair as a whole, not a series of attached separate pieces. Chairs, for instance, will often develop sand-through streaks on the edges of the back uprights and the leg turnings. These sand-through streaks are very hard to stain with a brush or rag, yet must be corrected. The fastest and most efficient way to eliminate the problem is to spray on a coat of stain to the sanded-through area. Thats precisely what the airbrush does. It puts the color exactly where I want it and in an amount that wont create a problem for me. Better I should have to spray two light coats than deal with a dark streak from putting the color on with a brush or rag. Brushes and rags are just too hard to control. I use a Paasche brand airbrush I paid $60.00 for years ago. It has done a yeomans service over the years, as long as I clean it after Im done. Earl Campbell Manufacturings colors are the truest Ive ever worked with. When they say Red Mahogany, you can rest assured it will match red mahogany dead on, although I have used Minwax colors in a pinch. Minwax just doesnt dry as quickly, so I prefer Earl Campbells for everyday use.
After a wait of several days ( the only bottle neck in the procedure) I can return to my piece. By now the Watco has dried and mostly cured and I need to put a final and as indestructible as possible protective coat on the piece. I chose bar-top lacquer. Seems to me something chemically engineered to withstand the rigors of a bartop is the kind of protection I want. I know its hard as nails because Ive had to strip my mistakes and its like iron to get off.
I prefer a touch-up gun for spraying the lacquer. I like the smaller size and the control I get with being able to get closer and tighter with a smaller gun. I find I can cover one entire chair with one canister of lacquer with the smaller gun, so for larger projects Im forced to use my 1 quart gun.
I dont use sanding sealer for the most part. I find its just not necessary and I dont want to sand again. Plus, I dont want to introduce anything between the bonds of the lacquer or pay for something I dont need.
Each successive coat of lacquer I spray on the piece chemically melts the previous coat and thus becomes chemically attached. I like chemical bonds. I dont like mechanical bonds such as polyurethane. Norm Abrams, as close to a hero as Im likely to have, seems to love polyurethane. I dont know why. Why introduce the smallest chance for something to go wrong? If that mechanical bond between successive coats of polyurethane fails for any reason Ive got a major problem on my hands because Ive got a hole in the finish Ive got to fix and the entire clear coat becomes suspect. I just dont know whats going to happen and I get very nervous when I lose confidence in something. Chemical bonds, on the other hand, make for as close to one solid layer of lacquer as I can get. I like that because there is no chance for a failure because, if the first coat went on well, the rest have to. The lacquer molecules are bonded to each other chemically, not just mechanically.
True, the bond between the wood/Watco is mechanical, but the first coat of lacquer becomes so integral a part of the wood when sprayed on, that I cannot imagine a tighter bond. Although Ive not looked at the bond between the wood and the lacquer under a microscope, I imagine the lacquer flows around the exposed wood fibers and simply encases the fibers in a coat of lacquer. Each successive coat both chemically attaches itself to the previous coat plus further re-encases the physical shape of the wood fiber as it levels itself and drys. At least thats the way I think it works, but Id sure like to hear from some of those with access to microscopes and the desire to know.
As far as the number of coats I spray on, I have to say I work more for appearance at this point, since Im now assured the wood is as well protected as I can make it. I can say that my usual is 5 or 6 coats. I may polish down the sheen with 000 steel wool between coats, but the surface Im polishing is so smooth Im simply adding more life to an already "stop you dead in your tracks" finish.
I said previously that I didnt want to spend a lot of time on the piece. Thats probably not completely true because what I really want is to concentrate on maximizing the beauty of the piece. For the most part, I have no control over the form of the piece because its already built, so the only thing I can be concerned with is the beauty of the wood. I can modify the form somewhat by adding or removing pieces but the basic lines of the piece I cant change. With that in mind, Im free to imbue my spirit and energy into the piece, which is precisely where I want to spend my time.
Spiritual energy is important to me. I need a positive interchange with the Cosmos. Something that embraces my entire being. I have to be totally involved with both the physical and emotional sides. For me, the "business" of finishing wood is a necessary evil I have to put up with in order to finish wood. I think I have more of an artists soul than a businessmans so I tend toward fulfillment of my soul rather than a filling of my bank account. I need to touch the wood and feel the smoothness. I need to step back on a rather frequent basis and just look. So maybe what I should have said was I want to spend my time more on the Zen of the piece than in the physical energy of working it. Its been a struggle to allow myself to take the business in that direction. Everything in America is run on the theory of "bigger is better" and in many circumstances thats true. But in just as many circumstances its not. For me smaller is better because I dont care to be a supervisor or manager. I like finishing wood and taking the time to simply "be" with whatever it is Im working on. Unfortunately, that way of working drives bosses crazy and I completely understand. I just cant work any other way. Integration of the physical and emotional sides of me into a positive energy focused on making something beautiful is such a high for me I cant give it up. Ive tried and it doesnt work for me.