Advice for a Beginning Finisher

Pros counsel a cabinetmaker on how to get started applying spray finishes to his own work. April 19, 2006

I've been building cabinets long enough to feel pretty confident about what I can and can't do. When it comes to finishing I'm really in the dark. I would like to start finishing my own cabinets instead of outsourcing it, one, to save a lot of drive time back and forth and two, just because I would like to know how to do it. Where do I start?

I don't mind spending a little extra money to get some descent equipment instead of buying a cheap one and then having to replace it later. I also like the general idea of the waterborne topcoats. My shop is in the country and I don't want to kill any of the local farmers' cows.
I have plenty of scraps to practice on I just need some guidance on getting started.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor M:
I started just where you are about over a year ago. Now I spray stuff all the time and it looks pretty good. The most helpful thing I've done, other than working for a very patient shop owner is taking training classes by a reputable paint manufacturer. It cost about $100 a day and they show you their products, how to use them, and you get some nice sample doors that you sprayed to show customers. Its a great deal. I took three days and I skipped day one which was intro-to-spraying which I had already figured out on my own.

Just a little trivia I've picked up that I wish I knew before hand.
1) A good, minimum 8X8X8 spray booth with a 2-5 hp exhaust fan is paramount. Costly, but it should be the first thing you buy in my opinion.
2) Standard cup guns are terrible at wasting product. Most get 20-30% transfer rates, which means 80% of what you buy turns into filter-clogger.
3) HVLP guns (they look nearly identical to a cup gun) use a lot less paint to get the job done. But most need a horse of an air compressor.
4) If you are able to use them, start out with pre-cat lacquers. Some will disagree with me here, but avoid nitrocellulose lacquers and CAB lacquers. You have to be very ginger with handling your stuff after using them, they are very brittle and they will also stick to each other (like shelves in a stack) and ruin. They are not user friendly, nor self sealing, nor as sandable. Pre-cat and post-cat is what we use and all we'll ever use unless something better comes along that's reasonably priced.

5) Allocate yourself a lot of time for finishing, particularly in the beginning. 20 doors and 20 shelves may well take you three to four days alone to finish until you get the hang of it. I can do them in a day now, but toss in 10-15 boxes and now its a minimum of two days.

From contributor C:
I suggest you start by reading some books by Bob Flexner, Michael Dresdner, and Jeff Jewitt. There is a lot of great information right here on the WOODWEB.

From contributor B:
Bob Flexner's book "Understanding Wood Finishing" is also a good place to start. You should also contact manufacturers and ask for product data and recommendations. There are plenty of us around and all are good at what they do.

From contributor J:
I was in your boat recently too, so consider my path, though understand that these other contributors are likely vastly more experienced than me. Frequently reading this forum is definitely a wise starting point.

Everyone's advice has been great so far, but do consider starting off with water-based materials. It's safer for the novice (still cover up and wear a respirator and ventilate) and it may be easier to start with it than change over from solvent finishes (they are trickier, at times), as you may have to do as regulations develop.

If you were on a tight budget, get a Astro Pneumatic HVLP gun from with a complete tip set. Try Target finishes Ultima Spray Lacquer and EmTech 8000 PreCat Conversion Varnish over their 8800 sealer or waterbased shellac

I suggest Target because a lot of people love their products and they have excellent customer service, regardless of your experience, plus a user forum and online sales. Another brand to try, because it is so forgiving to a beginner, is General Finishes HiPerformance Waterbased Poly. Just understand that water-based finishes tend to finish lighter than solvent finishes, so woods like cherry may look a little off if you don't put a first coat of something like shellac first. Experiment on your own stuff before you sell your services.

From contributor D:
I am exactly where you are. I bought a brand new 3 stage turbine with apollo gun ready to paint with and then bought the set of extra tips for another $100. I read this site constantly and have learned a lot from it. Another book I thought was very good was "Spray Finishing" by Andy Charron. I used the gun a little and it seems very user friendly and forgiving.

From contributor A:
I agree with Contributor J's recommendation to use Target Coating's products. They're great and so is their customer service. I bought a Fuji Q4 turbine and its a great gun.

From the original questioner:
I saw a Campbell Hausfeld 3 stage turbine with gun and nozzle kit and I was wondering if its a descent setup? Who carries the target products, and should I learn to spray topcoats first or get familiar with stains first? And finally, do you spray on the stains or wipe them on?

From Paul Snyder, forum technical advisor:
I would not recommend the CH turbine unit. There are units that cost a few hundred more, but are worlds apart in value and performance. Look at Accuspray, Turbinaire, Graco, Fuji, Capspray, and Apollo among others.

When it comes to learning finishing, you can't beat the hands-on experience of a good class (or on-the-job training). The American Wood Finishing Institute advertises on this forum and they have some excellent classes. There are also 1-5 day seminars in various places around the country that you can attend (Marc Adams School of Woodworking, Dakota County Technical College, Woodworking Shows and etc.). Also, some finishing suppliers offer 1-day training courses. Books and videos are the next best choice. You can learn the concepts from the books and see the techniques in action in the videos. Together, the two media can give you a strong start.