Low-Cost Clear Coat for Pine

An unfinished-furniture manufacturer wants to set up a finishing line. Here, pros discuss his low-end finishing choices, and give advice on minimizing sanding labor. October 28, 2005

We manufacture unfinished furniture and we have a small showroom in our factory for retail sales. All of our products are unfinished pine. We have been considering selling our products prefinished to expand our customer base. We're only going to offer one or two colors. If that doesn't meet the customers’ needs then they can get it unfinished to match whatever they are looking for.

We build a quality product, but I believe we would be considered low end in the furniture industry. We use primarily Northeastern White Pine. We have wall shelves that retail for $9 to $35, occasional tables for $25 to $50, bookcases starting at $29, larger pieces such as jelly cabinets, and a 30” x 72” x 12” deep pantry cabinet with raised panel doors that we retail for $149.00.

I have decided that we will be using waterbased finishes as I don't want the health and physical risks and the smell of solvent based finishes. I have found a supplier of dyes that I like to make the stain, but. I haven't been able to find a good clear coat. With the few samples I have been playing with, the clear coat is really rough to the touch after it dries. I have been brushing it on with a brush. Will it be as rough if I spray it on?

Are there any clear coats out there that don't have to be sanded between coats? We don't need to have the absolute best finish out there, but I think the piece should feel smooth to the touch. It is our company philosophy to build a very nice product at a fantastic price for the customer. Hand sanding each piece would probably be contradictory to our philosophy.

For example, I would like to retail the 30” x 72” pantry for $199 to $225 finished and $149 unfinished. My labor costs are less than $10/hr on average. I would like to have less than 2 hours in that piece so that we can actually make money on it. I realize a flat line system would be the way to go, but right now we don't have the finances or room for one. So we have to try to make do the best we can. Thank you in advance for any suggestions -

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
No sanding? That's not conducive to getting a good finish. The wood needs to be finish sanded properly (150 grit for pine) for the sealer to go on well, and then all dust needs to be cleaned off. It will still feel rough and then will need to be sanded or scuffed and cleaned again prior to topcoating. The seal coat suspends wood fibers and a quick scuffing with a scotchbrite pad will probably remove enough to get the quality of smoothness you're looking for. A waterborne finish doesn't necessarily mean there will be no health related issues. Proper spray booth ventilation, filtration and respirators will still need to be used. Flatline finishing is quicker than finishing assembled cabinets but you don't need an automated system to do that. Just prefinish the pieces prior to assembly and instruct your cabinetmakers on how to build them without scratching the finish.

From the original questioner:We finish sand the wood itself to 220 grit. The pine is so soft that 220 is really necessary to avoid a really muddy look when the stain dries. My question should have stated is there a clear coat out there that doesn't require much sanding if applied properly?

From contributor B:
I've been pleased with Enduro Poly WB finishes from Compliant Spray Systems. You have to spray the finish if you want to minimize sanding. Pine will be especially difficult because of its natural tendency to fuzz. I spray a light quick coat of sealer. This sets up the wood fibers and helps prevent further coats from soaking into the wood. Dry for ten minutes, and then come back with a heavier coat. Next, sand the sealer coat, and spray the topcoats in two even coats. My sense is that you will need to sand at least the first topcoat to achieve a moderately smooth surface. If you have roughness after the final topcoat, try rubbing down the finished wood with cardboard from corrugated boxes.

From contributor C:
In order to avoid excessive sanding I would suggest using an oil or solvent based staining system followed by a waterbased finishing process. This will keep the fuzz factor low in the coloring process. Once the stain has dried, you can use whatever finish you like.

From contributor D:
I do a lot of pine work. If you are using a stain versus a dye, be sure to lay down a conditioner of some sort to minimize blotching. It makes a big difference. I use a gel stain that goes on fairly quickly and minimizes the fuzz. I sand to 180, condition, wait 10 minutes, stain, let dry about 6 hours, scuff sand with 320, then spray 3 coats of WB Poly. I scuff sand the second coat and only allow the finish to build up a little. Then the third coat lays down pretty smooth after that. Switching from brushing to spraying made a big difference and speeded things up quite a bit. A small HVLP system works the best.

From contributor E:
Sanding should not take any longer than a quick dusting would. Use fine grit sanding sponges, then blow off with the booth running to exhaust dust. W.B. dries in 10-15 minutes. Sand for 30 seconds per piece, and blow off for 10 seconds. For a nice feel use a WB urethane, like Fuhr's 255. It feels like waxed wood....slippery. Spraying will save you 75% of your finishing time. Spray everything, including stains. Don't wipe any more - build up by spraying more light coats. You will save 75% on your stains! Waterbased is the way to go – it is fast drying, safe, quick to clean up and cheaper (no thinners, solvents). You should definitely try prefinishing your parts before assembly.

From contributor F:
Are these suggestions compatible with his limit of less that $10/hr for labor?

From the original questioner:
I never realized that finishing was such a complicated process with so many variables. A nice finish will make our market much larger, so it is worth the investment. It will take months of tinkering to get everything down pat before we're able to start offering our products finished. Thankfully I have a ready supply of labor who like tedious tasks such as hand sanding, so hopefully it won't be that detrimental to our operations.

From contributor G:
Don't fall into the trap of underfunding your finish process. Finishing can make or break a product, even if it is low end furniture. You can pay a guy $8 an hour, but that is exactly what you will get. My advice is to find someone who knows what they are doing, then after some time, hire a guy who has a good work ethic and attention to detail, and let the experienced man train him. If you rely on a guy who has no experience, and pay him $8/hr or whatever, then you will have twice the mistakes and it will take him twice as long. Start with a guy who knows what he's doing and your business will prosper from there.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:
I have been building and reverse engineering country furniture wood for over 25 years. Pine is my choice since it has a charm of its own and the wood used most during the era I build to. It is nice to know that there are more of us out there looking to improve our processes.

When it comes to finishes, I cannot say that mine is the best but my customers are happy with a very smooth finish that doesn't take a lot of labor. I plane most surfaces clean and then hit them with an orbital sander with 120 then 150 grit. I stain to color and wait about 1.5 hours the spray a semi-gloss lacquer 3 coats going continuously around a decent size bedroom group. I let dry for 1 hour, then hit very lightly by hand with 150 grit, then a quick rub down of #0000 S.W.

That tends to whiten but I come back with a buff of almond oil. It is fast and gives a very good finish. I'm not sure it is the best for high volume production though. I primarily build custom country furniture to fit every nook and cranny of the home. There is no doubt that the little extra makes the difference of high volume production.