Finishing Oak: Tips for a Beginner

Advice on finishing a Red Oak gun cabinet, for a newcomer to finishing. October 26, 2011

I am making gun cabinets and have started using red oak. Can someone give me the down and dirty, simplified version on how I get the oak to a smooth finish without all the technical abbreviations so a newbie can get solid results without ruining some very expensive lumber? Specifically, how do I fill the small pin holes in the oak so I can proceed to the finish that I want to look professional? I have the cabinet skills, mostly in maple and walnut, but this oak thing has me stumped. What do I use as a filler, or do I need that, and what products (polyurethane or lacquer) do I use as my topcoat finish?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor K:
First off, oak is not expensive.

Grain filler is what you are looking for if you want to fill the pores. If you want that grainy look without dealing with the pores, try some ash next time.

From the original questioner:
Oak may not be expensive in some circles, but in my pocketbook it is. Four hundred dollars for lumber to build a gun cabinet is not peanuts. Secondly, the client wants red oak, not ash. I just want the finished product to be one the client likes, which includes the finish I see on nicely finished oak tables, etc. The sealing and topcoat finish is the first impression the client will get before he looks at the cabinet detail work. Does a filler (and which type) work well, or do I just sand, and then come in with the topcoat?

From contributor K:
If they didn't ask you to fill the grain, I wouldn't worry about it. You really need to talk to your finish supply house to make sure the grain filler you use will be compatible with the rest of the products you are using. Telling you the brand I use under post cat lacquer won't help if you are using something else.

Mine would be stain, sealer, sand, grain filler, sand, topcoat. Or skip the grain filler, if they don't mind.

I wasn't trying to pick on you about the price of oak. Just that it's one of the cheapest woods I use. I paid $1.60 a bft on the last order.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I sorta feel the same as you about skipping the filler. I just didn't want to get to the end and have doubts about what I did. The client is leaving it up to me so I didn't want to start out on the wrong path.

From contributor D:
Interestingly many of the tables in furniture stores that look like oak actually are ash. If you have stained anything made of ash you will do exactly the same thing with oak and it will look the same. Basically ash has smaller pores and a different grain pattern but when stained probably 90% of the population is not going to know the difference.

As to finishing it - the most important detail is in your finish sanding. Get that right and it will show in the end.

From the original questioner:
If using ash, does one use a red oak stain? Haven't worked with ash, but after what you guys say I'm interested in trying it in place of the red oak. Any staining and finishes I need to know about the color in finished ash? Since my experience is in maple and walnut I want to branch out in other species for the gun cabinets.

From contributor P:
Even without grain fillers you can achieve a high quality finish. One of the main mistakes I made as a rookie finisher was using folded sandpaper to sand between coats and spraying my topcoats too heavy. Use light coats. Allow them to dry well before sanding. Apply enough finish previous to your first sand, so that you don't sand into your color. The most important step is to use a rigid sanding block to cut back your finish with. A block will give a good, flat sand and reduce the rolled plastic look that you get from a poorly prepped piece.

From contributor O:
If your customer wants oak, give him oak. I would use white oak. Make a sample without filling the grain. Explain that filled oak is used mainly on table tops. Get the customer to sign a sample.