Making Time in Production Finishing

Finishers talk about how to organize an efficient, high-volume cabinet finishing operation. May 15, 2008

I know that many of the posts on the Cabinetmaking Forum are geared toward improving production. I don't see a lot of that here, but the finishing room is usually the choke point in most shops. Is the lack of attention because most of us are cabinetmakers first and only finish because we have to? If any of you have ideas on equipment or process that will help us be more efficient, please post them.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor J:
I asked when I first found this site if people here were professionals or homeowners, and I was torn a new one, sort of speaking. A lot of people were very offended. The way people were finishing shocked me. One post I am thinking of was about spraying a sealer, waiting a day for it to dry, spraying a couple coats of lacquer, waiting a day for that to dry, then flipping it over and doing the same to the faces the next couple of days. If I finished like that, I would be out of business.

I am a full fledged finishing shop. The requests and timelines I get sometimes are so ridiculous that the people here would just laugh and say it was impossible. For example, I had to finish a 60 door kitchen, painted, from scratch including the cabinets, masking everything off and sanding them, in one day. And believe it or not, it was ready to be picked up at 9 a.m. the next morning, and the customer was floored at how beautiful it was.

I did about 30-40 lft of wainscot including all moldings, the base and top rail closed grain mahogany everyday for about two weeks to get a showroom completed by the deadline. With only one snafu - I tinted a few panels too dark one day and they had to be replaced.

My chemical supplier told me the other day that I was the most critical of his products. I found this offensive, but nonetheless, I need the products I buy to perform at the levels I expect them to.

I should, with no problems, be able to finish a kitchen full of doors in either a painted or stained finish in a single day. That is just the doors I am talking about, and some of the kitchens have 120-150 doors painted and glazed. This is just finishing of course - prep takes some time as well, and I see it as the most important part of any job.

But to answer your question, I have tried to offer help here, but most simply regard me as someone who must do sub par work (with the amount of time it takes me to do things, it most certainly cannot be of any great quality). But if you drive down Fifth Ave. in Manhattan starting at Central Park, heading west to 50th Street, my work is or was in more than half of those stores. Million dollar homes on Long Island, and companies have flown me all over America to remedy the problems their finishers have caused.

The reason the finishing shop is the choking point in most finishing shops is the chemicals they are using - crap from Sherwin Williams or Home Depot, Lowes, ML Campbell. I can understand that people use what they are used to and comfortable with - it is easy that way and if you try something new and it fails, it becomes a lot of work to fix it. And a lot of people just don't know how to fix it. In the finishing shop there is no measure twice, cut once. It's more like you better know what you're doing from the beginning or you'll be doing it over.

From contributor W:
Now that you have gotten all that off your chest, how about sharing some tips? I am curious as to the products you are using and the finish schedule for a painted/glazed set of doors. We have a dedicated 1200sf finishing building and do many painted and glazed as well as faux and of course multi-step stained finishes. I am looking to improve my operation by process or product improvement, so any advice here is appreciated.

From contributor E:
A curing room and the ability to quickly sand a lot of parts is about the only way I know to move a large project in 1 day. Guess it goes without saying, you need a very good room and a solution to handle all the parts. I'd love to hear about the chemicals as well.

From contributor R:
"Professional finisher" covers a lot of territory. I have worked in custom shops where quality was #1 and you took however long it took to get it right. T&M top quality all the way. I have also worked in high production shops. Quality does vary greatly here. Some are quite good and take pride in their quality. I see a trend these days to focus on production more than quality and I think that is a mistake. A top finisher can do a high quality finish very fast but he had to learn how to do it right first and then increase production methods without sacrificing quality. There are way too many shops today who want the miracle 2-step or even 1-step finish to duplicate a hand-done, multiple step finish.

The nice thing about high end work is that rich people always have money and there are quite a few who still know quality and are willing to pay for it. No matter how fast I complete a job, I am always more interested in the quality. The shop I'm at now is geared to high production flat line finishing for hotel and commercial clients. Quality should still be the primary focus. The last thing I want to hear from my bosses or owner is "It should make it for 1 year." That is not why I became a finisher and I expect things I do to last a long time.

There are finishes that cannot be done production. Try doing a production Trompe L'Oeil, for example. It just isn't going to look very good if you don't spend the proper amount of time and have the talent to do it.

From contributor D:
The finishing room is usually the choke point because of the lack of attention, because those who are cabinetmakers first tend to only finish because they have to. Until cabinetmakers stop thinking of the finish as being merely a necessary evil and realize the importance of it, the finishing will continue to choke your production. "Realize" means make it happen. Hiring a professional career finisher would be your first step in fixing any finishing production problem. A career finisher knows how to get it done right.

A properly set up finishing operation, as in dust free, air makeup, formulating, etc., is also required in addition to enough room to move. If I can't lay out rows of doors on nail boards to spray in one session and flip them and spray the other side while the first side is just flashed, but instead were to spray one at a time and place in a rack till the next day as I see so many places do, then you won't get anything at the speed of production.

Then, chemistry is of utmost importance.

Now, let's talk just plain common sense. I recently talked to a guy, a well versed finisher as far as I can tell, who keeps hiring inexperienced or cheap labor, because "lots of people are unemployed right now, and they are a dime a dozen." Yet he is frustrated that in the last 10 months he has run through 15 people, he fires or they quit, and they just don't understand or follow his instructions. So he gets them cheap, then spends his time trying to train, only to have to do it over and over again. He has to work long hours and most weekends to keep up and/or make up for it. Now I have to ask, "Just how much has that cost?" Keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of what?!

There are so many tips and tricks to good finishing in addition to having a solid knowledge of woods, materials, chemistry, that it might be impossible to relay in an email forum in a way that would bring to you anything. Short of suggesting you crack the books, hire a consultant, or ask only specific questions which can be answered effectively, my suggestion would have to be: the shortest distance between point A and point B is to hire a professional finisher. You can always let them get you all set up, learn from them what you can, and then let them go, as many before you have done. Or run the numbers and take an honest look at just what it costs you when you try to do for yourself vs. recognizing finishing as a profession in and of itself.

From contributor P:
There is a wide range of experience among the folks on this forum. Some are using products that are geared to hobbyists and some are using products strictly for professional use. Some know how to do pretty much any type of finish and the most efficient way to do it consistently, while others are just learning. Some understand enough of the chemistry of the finishes and finishing products to make changes as needed to avoid or fix problems. Some claim a lot more knowledge and skill than they actually demonstrate in their posts. The participants are a very diverse group of people that can pretty much answer any question relating to the subject of finishing. Some of the answers are better than others, and not always by the most persuasive responder(s). And people come and go on an ongoing basis, so the range of questions and responses is always fluctuating.

"Techniques to improve production" isn't a common topic on the forum and there's a whole lot of issues that all play a role. The best place to start making recommendations to improve your production rates is to understand how you're doing things now. If you provide details of the finishes and finishing products you're using, how they are applied, dry times, recoat windows, how pieces flow through the process, how much room you have to allow pieces to dry between steps of the finish, what steps are used for different finishes, what types of spray equipment you're using, what sort of carts and racks you're using to move pieces between the sanding, spraying, and drying areas, what types of sanding equipment you're using, what's the floor plan for these areas and how do the pieces flow through them, are there any structural/building issues that impede work flow, how many people in the finishing department and what are their duties, are there any skill issues in the finishing department that slow work down, etc.

By understanding how your operation currently works, how it's laid out, the products and equipment you use, and skill levels of finishing personnel, it'll make it easier to identify improvements that can be made. Simple changes in some of the processes can speed things up or it may take investments in equipment, personnel and training, or even floor space.

From contributor J:
Okay, for example, if we have to finish a 60 door and drawer painted and glazed kitchen and cabinets, with all the interiors being pre-finished, the usual side panels, kicks, scribes crown and all other misc. pieces included have to be finished as well. And the island being a separate stained unit in itself... (Just so you know, most of my customers' kitchens are never used and just for show. Maybe they cook and entertain once or twice a week and they have either live-in maids or maids that work there daily, so I know the furniture is going to be well taken care of.) Unless otherwise requested, I would use a pre-cat lacquer either from Antoni or Becker Acroma, or if I have to use a urethane, Milesi Spa products.

First I ask all doors, drawers, and everything two sided be dropped off. My helper and I sand all this and I get a setup going in the booth. I can fit about 40-50 pieces in my booth at once. I set up horses and put a 2X6 across them that are 12 feet long. And I put the doors face down on these. I prime all the backs with a white primer. I hear white vinyl primer is popular. But the build isn't good enough for this, it doesn't dry fast enough, the paper clumps up way too easily, and the few times I have reluctantly tried it I had fisheye issues. So I would use Beckers Mazza white or similar from another company. All the companies I deal with seem to have one comparable to the Mazza.

I prime the backs 2 or 3 coats, wait about 5-10 minutes, flip over, then prime the fronts. All the time the rest of the cabinets either have been or are being delivered, my assistant is masking sanding and getting it all ready for me.

After I finish priming the fronts, my assistant and I scuff the doors both sides with 220 and make any necessary repairs we may have missed in the preparation.

I then make the paint using the lacquer. They usually call for an off white color. I use 844 colorants titanium white for the base, a quart to five gallons, and then whatever other colors I need to get to where I am going.

Spray the back twice with the paint, wait until it is dry, adjust the color if needed (this is why I do the backs of the two sided stuff first). It is never noticeable if the backs of the doors are slightly off, and of course if it is noticeable, I then need to re-spray them, but I can almost always get the color close enough. I then wait about 15-20 minutes, flip them and spray the fronts twice. Wait for this to thoroughly dry; depending on temperature, it is usually from 10 to 30 or 40 minutes.

When they are dry enough, my assistant goes around with the glaze (made using mineral spirits and japan colors to match what the sample calls for, which usually consists of some variation of burnt umber, raw umber, drop black, or French yellow). He has a 2 inch chip brush and the thick glaze in his hand and brushes the glaze into every corner. I then come from behind with a rag soaked in mineral spirits to wipe the whole door front down and a dry rag to clean the whole thing off. He gets way ahead of me and it is better that way, as the glaze has time to dry before I come and soak it all down again. It stays in the corners better when it has time to dry.

When he is done wiping it on, he goes behind me and wipes off all the edges and any possible streaks I may have left on the surface. When I am done I go behind him to make sure he didn't miss anything.

When we are done, I spray a coat of clear on the face and wait for it to dry. Flip over the doors, and since they are usually covered with glaze fingerprints, I just have to wipe them down using a wet, then dry rag. And in most cases this is good enough glaze for the back. I spray one coat of lacquer on the back. Let this dry for a few minutes.

We both then go around scuffing the fronts and backs of the doors, leaving the backs facing up. I topcoat the backs, wait until they are dry, about 15 minutes flip, spray the fronts, then immediately stand them up along the wall so they can dry and are out of the way.

I then move on to finish the rest of the two sided items before I go on to the cabinets, and finally the crown, base, panels, range hood, and all other miscellaneous parts. After all the painted parts of the kitchen are finished, the cabinetmaker then drops off the stained island and I finish that in the same method, two sided parts, then cabinets, then everything leftover.

And just a side note. I almost always make the samples for these kitchens so I write down what I have done to make it easier when I have to duplicate it on the real thing. As for staining something, I try as much as I can to always start with a pre-mixed stain from Mohawk, a wiping stain. The popular ones I use are medium walnut for all the browns and medium red or dark mahogany for all the reds. I stain the wood with these, seal with a high build sanding sealer twice, scuff. Then to get the color and consistency required, I mix in a cup gun, lacquer thinner and a small amount of the necessary japan color. This is where experience comes in. You need to know what you're doing for this part to get to the right place that you want to go. I tint the wood with this, make everything even and consistent and spray a coat of lacquer on top. If need be I tint a little more or change the color to adapt, then tint a little more, then another coat of lacquer, scuff and a last top coat.

From contributor B:
I have no negative remarks to make about contributor J's system. What I would like to ask is, am I the only one who feels that an overnight drying/curing of backs would give me a better/harder surface to work with when I turn to the other side to work the glaze? Also I've found some glazes bite more into uncured/not dried enough finish, which means it turns the color a different shade from the original. This usually means that mineral spirit-soaked rag won't pull it out to the original color. Contributor J didn't mention which specific glazes he used. Just made a stain from solvent (MS or naphtha) and japan colors. So I guess this is the glaze he uses, which to me is not a glaze, but a colorant which can be manipulated to the desired look. But in my work, I need different looks from the glaze used. For one look I can use MS and japan colors, but for another look it has to have a heavier bodied content. So one process will not work for my complete finishing needs. Depends on what the customer wants. Whatever schedule, I still like to have overnight drying of working surfaces with glazes. Am I wrong in thinking this?

From contributor J:
The stain I make using mineral spirits and japan colors is somewhere near 1 gallon MS to up to 1 qt of japan. The glaze I make using MS and japan colors is about 5-10% mineral spirits and 90-95% japan. If I am worried about the glaze soaking into the topcoat and leaving residue and changing the color, I put a clear coat on top before I glaze. I used store bought glaze once... once.

From contributor N:
The gun cabinet you see has been glazed with something similar to what contributor J uses, exception being, I add xylene at a ratio of 50/50 to MS, depending on what I want in terms of flash off. My schedule is simple. One coat tinted (single pass) CV as per customer's color request. Scuff and apply second coat to cover and create a smooth surface to work on. Apply glaze and create the affect the customer requested, clear coat, assemble and deliver. When using a commercial glaze, it is always best to follow directions, but may at the same time compromise speed and therefore create a bottleneck... I think (and contributor J, you may correct me on this) what contributor J has done is create a system that works for him and not the other way around. I'm the same way - I refuse to work around a system, as doing so makes for crazy making and I can't see that it's possible to be more nuts than I already am...

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Form contributor B:
Very nice. What color red is that? It looks good under the black... not too bright.

What's the difference between Japan colors and Mohawk's concentrated pigmented colors or even SW concentrates?

Form contributor N:
Fire engine red. Mixed at the store from a sample. I tend to let the guys there do the mixing because it keeps me from having to formulate, as I suck or buck when it comes to making samples that require formulations. I keep them (formulations) in my head. It's a gift I have, although if pushed, I'll formulate for money. Still hate it though.

I see no difference in using Japans, UTC or derivatives, but not concentrates as a way of coloring glazes. Concentrates just do not work well, but cannot remember why. I think it was because they dry like lacquer stain and were unworkable.

The reason I like making glaze this way is for the simple fact that it is ready to coat within minutes of application and leaves no gooey mess that attracts debris, hence I needn't have to apply a scuff coat to smooth things out.

I will caution that until you grasp the concept you may believe that glazing this way is for crap. As there are different ways I employ removal and application, either way you simply cannot screw up, as it's simply a matter of wiping off with MS and starting over. There are times I work with a prep guy who has no concept whatsoever how to apply a base coat from which I can manipulate a glaze smoothly. In this case I remove my glaze with a 3m pad in the direction I want my glaze to ultimately go by using enough pressure to effectively scuff and create a layer on which I can work. And no, the base color does not change and there are no scuff marks to radiate through. Staying with the pad I will feather/refine the effect intended for that particular piece. You can regulate your tack time simply by adding more or less xylene.

Form contributor J:
This picture is in regard to a post a few weeks back on how to spray multiple cubes without overspray.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor E:
Nice work. I assume you had the material set up to dry slow and you were moving fast. The underside of the horizontal framing at each cross looks like fun ;)

From the original questioner:
Very nice work. Thanks for all of the well written posts and detailed info. That is exactly what I was looking for.

I know some guys like to use pedestals and Hafele racks and some like to use nail boards. We do a combination depending on the size of the job.

As far as our finishing schedule, we use mainly conversion varnish, so a typical painted/glazed job would get 2 coats of pigmented CV, then glaze, then water white CV topcoat. With my lead finisher and a helper we can normally do a set of cabinet doors in a day, not including prep and sanding. As far as products go, we are pretty much stuck with Sherwin Williams due to a lack of availability of better products in our area. We buy the best products that they offer. Their local chemical coatings store does a good job for us doing all of the color matching of stains, pigmented, and glazes. We use different types of spray equipment depending on the job, including a Graco AAA, Asturo and Iwata HVLP guns on pressure pots as well as gravity guns for little one-offs. We have a 36" Supermax brush sander and an 8" fladder head mounted on a pedestal sander.

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

Comment from contributor S:
Finishing room velocity is developed through efficiency, organization and precision.

The customer has appearance and quality expectations. Additionally, the professional finisher should study the efficacy of a coatings potential to meet environmental and usage demands of the product.

My involvement for thirty years in production finishing has taught me that seldom does a coatings manufacturer make a finish that doesn’t perform to the standards for which it was designed. Much too often I find that lack of knowledge undermines the finishing departments performance, then training, oversight, schedule design and adherence, and equipment.

There is a distinct difference between Professional Finisher and Applicator. You should know the difference. The Professional Wood Finisher owns a Gram scale (and a back-up) and measures colorants to the decagram and can adjust for wood color and texture variation in seconds. For this, multi-step color applications are the mainstay for anything but the lightest dye stains. The terms step samples, wash coat, basecoat, ground coat, pore fillers, dye stain, pigment stain, gel stain, wet glazing, dry glazing, brush glazing, scratch-glazing, dry brushing, emulsifiers, Toners, Gilding, Primers, Surfacers, Sealers, distressing techniques and independent distressing schedules, Top Coats, Polishing Schedules, and Finish Standard Schedules and Formulas are not just words but meaningful choices with a preparation middle and outcome consequence. We haven’t touched upon the myriad of coatings choices either.

One schedule may have ten steps but move rapidly and accurately from application-drying-application-drying, etc. while another may have only four steps but which may require many corrective steps and leaves one unsure of the final product until the final product is completed.

I know for a fact that there are dozens of colorant and coatings professionals available at almost any time of the day that are willing to offer advice on schedule design, performance and application strategies but unless your finishing department has an underlying philosophy of precision and efficiency you won’t be talking the same language and their advice may be of little help.

In my company, the finishing department’s mantra is “perfection”. We run twenty-four distinct standard finishing schedules and can operate six different schedules simultaneously. 95% of our finishes are multi-step and we have five finishing booths and ten spray guns. We use HVLP and Air-assisted airless, and use manifolds to change from 6 degree flat on up to 75 degree semi gloss. We routinely have gilded projects alongside of 95 degree acrylic polyurethane polishing schedules. We accomplish this with five co-workers, one manager and one color and finish designer. 80% of our finishes are custom with 50% of our finishes having custom schedules. We manufacture 10 mil of product each year and our total finishing costs are about 5%.